Numerous Ohioans are descended from French ancestors. Today, French Ohioans continue to enhance Ohio's cultural and social landscape.
In all likelihood, the first Europeans to arrive in the area of what is now Ohio were Frenchmen. During the winter of 1668-1669, Rene Robert Cavelier Sieur La Salle learned from several Iroquois Indians that a great river supposedly could be found in the interior of North America. The water flowed westward in the direction of China. It is unclear if the natives meant the Ohio River or the Mississippi River. La Salle was intrigued. In the summer of 1669, he left Montreal on his quest to find China. His party canoed down the St. Lawrence River to Lake Ontario and then proceeded overland. La Salle later claimed that he had reached the Ohio River and that he had traveled along it as far as modern-day Louisville, Kentucky. He is credited with being the first European to see the Ohio River.
Until the 1740s, France controlled what is now modern-day Ohio. Starting in this decade, British traders began to cross the Appalachian Mountains to trade with the Ohio Country's Native Americans. From 1744 until 1748, Great Britain and France were engaged in King George's War. During the conflict, Great Britain managed to blockade France's colonies in North America. This greatly inhibited the French fur trade with the Indians of North America due to a lack of manufactured goods from Europe that could be exchanged for the natives' furs. British businessmen quickly stepped in to fill the void, becoming the major trading partners with the Native Americans in the Ohio Country.
At the war's conclusion, little changed in North America. The respective sides controlled the same territory as they had prior to the conflict. They also both claimed ownership of the Ohio Country. Great Britain had a somewhat greater presence in the region due to their improved ability to trade with the natives. In 1748, Comte de la Galissoniere, the highest-ranking French official in North America, ordered Celeron de Bienville (also spelled Celeron de Blainville) to take 250 French soldiers to the Ohio Country to renew old friendships with local Native Americans and to drive the British traders from the region.
De Bienville carried out the mission in the summer of 1749. He made his way from Montreal to the headwaters of the Ohio River (modern-day Pittsburgh) and proceeded down the river. De Bienville carried several lead plates with him. On these plates were pronouncements that laid claim to the Ohio Country for France. At the places where major rivers joined the Ohio River, the party stopped and buried one of the tablets. On a nearby tree, a metal plaque was placed, asserting the claims of France and stating that the tablet lay nearby. This practice of burying plates first began in Europe in the Middle Ages and was a common way to show landownership. In total, De Bienville is believed to have buried six plates. Only one has been found intact.
The French soldiers proceeded from Pittsburgh to the Great Miami River, planting the plates as they went. Along the route, the soldiers encountered large numbers of British traders, especially at Lower Shawnee Town at the Scioto River's mouth. De Bienville demanded that the British leave, but most simply refused. Five months after his expedition began, the French commander returned to Montreal. He had failed in driving the British from the Ohio Country and in reestablishing alliances with the natives. The French did not simply give up after De Bienville's expedition. French traders quickly moved into the region, hoping to recreate the favorable trading arrangements that they had enjoyed with the Ohio Country's Native Americans before King George's War. With both the French and English claiming the Ohio Country, future conflicts were inevitable. The French and Indian War (1756-1763) and the resulting Treaty of Paris (1763) would finally settle the issue. Due to its victory in the French and Indian War, Great Britain emerged from the conflict as the European owner of the Ohio Country. Many Native Americans in the region failed to recognize British control and conflicts continued in the region for a number of years.
Following the French and Indian War, French migration to the Ohio Country essentially ceased until the 1790s. To ease tensions with Native Americans, the British government issued the Proclamation of 1763, which required all of its colonists to settle east of the Appalachian Mountains and all Native Americans to live west of these mountains. With the Americans' victory in the American Revolution in 1783, the newly-independent white Americans could now legally move west of the Appalachian Mountains. Realizing that the government was in desperate need of money and that its citizens desired to move westward, first the Confederation Congress and, then, the United States of America sold land in what would become Ohio to people and real estate companies. French migrants eventually acquired some of this land.
In 1790, land speculators representing the Scioto Company persuaded several hundred French immigrants to come to the United States of America and to buy land in the Northwest Territory. Most of these migrants were seeking to escape political turmoil in France. When the French arrived in the Northwest Territory, they discovered that the company's representatives had misled them. The land that they had purchased actually belonged to the Ohio Company of Associates rather than to the Scioto Company. In 1795, the United States Congress established the French Grant near Gallipolis, Ohio to compensate the immigrants for their treatment by the Scioto Company. Some people chose to settle in the French Grant, but most either purchased land from the Ohio Company of Associates or returned to the East.
Following the arrival of the French settlers in the 1790s, French migration slowed dramatically. While French migration to Ohio never stopped during the nineteenth century, in most years, only a few hundred French migrants arrived in Ohio. French immigrants settled in most communities in the state. By 1880, just over five hundred French people resided in Cleveland, Ohio. During the twentieth century, a noticeable increase in French immigrants occurred following World War I and World War II. Most of these new migrants were French women who met and married United States soldiers during each of these conflicts. Similar to other Ohio cities during this period, Cleveland experienced a sizable increase in French residents. By 1950, almost nine hundred French-born people resided in the city. Despite this increase, French migrants constituted one of the smallest national groups in Ohio during the twentieth century.
Although French migrants were small in number, they actively sought to preserve ties to their native customs and beliefs. For example, in Cleveland, the Ursuline Sisters established schools, which were based on the French educational system. Cleveland's French population also formed numerous social organizations, including La Table Francaise, Cercle des Conferences Francaises, and La Gauloise. Many French organizations continue to flourish in Ohio today.