As I have written in other posts my American family has a French connection. On my mother’s side our ancestors left France in the 17th century for Québec where they lived for a couple hundred years. Then sometime in the 19th century they went west to Wisconsin.
I’ve always wondered why they left Canada. Why did my Québécois ancestors pack up and go 1500 km away from everything they had ever known? They were French speakers, Roman Catholics, farmers. Crossing the border didn’t change any of that.
Every once in a while when the spirit moves me I do some research and try to understand the context in which they emigrated. I can’t ever know their personal reasons but I can try to understand the forces in Québec and in Wisconsin that might have made the move attractive.
One possibility is that they didn’t think of it as moving into a new country and culture. The border between Canada and the US may have been very much an “imaginary line.”
For the area that became the state of Wisconsin was French territory once upon a time. Here is a map that shows the scope of French claims around 1750.
So they didn’t land just anywhere. They went to a place that had historically been French territory. Not unlike Mexicans moving to southwest America which had been Spanish territory. This video When Wisconsin was New France explains more.
The name of this US state in fact was a Native American name for the one of the rivers which the French called Ouisconsin and the Anglophones later changed that to Wisconsin. The area didn’t become an US territory until 1836 and it finally became a state in 1848.
It must have been a very culturally interesting place. The legacy of the French trappers and other French settlers mixing with Native American tribes, settlers from the US and immigrants from all over the world.
Twenty-two years after Wisconsin became a US state the Amans arrived from Quebec, (the area around Trois-Rivières). They were not alone. About 900,000 Québecois moved to the US between 1840 and 1930 says Damien-Claude Bélanger (Département d’histoire,
Université de Montréal – where the younger Frenchling is studying by the way).
He says that it was rather surprising that so many Québecois left for the US. Yes, many moved into former French territories but:
“While the economical costs of French Canadians to leave for the United States might have been relatively small, the emotional and, especially, the cultural costs were quite high. They left behind a traditional rural society with strong family ties. They entered an industrial world, alien to them by virtue of its way of life, language and religion. Given these high emotional and cultural costs, it is surprising that so many French Canadians engaged in the migration process between 1840 and 1930. In fact, it would be normal to consider that French Canadians, who only find their language and religion dominant in a part of the continent, would be the least likely to engage in the migration process.”
So what happened? Bélanger uses a push/pull analysis to find answers. The push was demographic and economic. Too many farmers chasing too little “affordable, accessible and fertile land.” Poverty and debt were serious problems for many. And this was the era of the railroad which made it cheaper and easier to travel.
And the attraction? Jobs and good land in the US.
And as I suspected, what could make it less costly and painful was finding or creating French-Canadian communities in a place that wasn’t so far from home.
“Essentially, it could be argued, these emigrants did not really leave Quebec not only because they often thought of their emigration as temporary, as will be discussed below, or because they established themselves in “petits Canadas” that resembled very closely the geographical and social patterns of Quebec, but, as well, because, in a sense, all they were doing was to slightly enlarge the borders of French Canada.”
From all that I know from my research and from family stories the Amans ended up in (in fact probably sought out) a rural “Little Canada” where there were French-speaking doctors, priests and shopkeepers; bi-lingual schools; and a community of people like them. People who were francophone, Roman Catholic with large families who were still farming in the New World.
Did they have any intention of integrating when they arrived in the US? I don’t think so. They didn’t seem to have made any effort to join anglophone Protestant America and I strongly suspect they didn’t want to. It was only when my great-grandmother married and moved to Eastern Washington that English became the dominant language in her life.
I so wish she were still alive or that I had thought to ask her questions like these before she died: When her family moved to Wisconsin was it considered a temporary or permanent move? Did they think about returning to Quebec? (About half of the French-Canadian migrants to the US did return.) Did her parents think of themselves as Americans or Québecois? Was she brought up to think of herself as an American? When she married and moved to Naches, Washington did she suffer from culture shock? Why did she raise her daughter in English and not French? And so on.
And I wonder what she would think of my own migration story. Would she be happy that her great-granddaughter speaks French and lives in France? And what would she make of her great-great-granddaughter living in Québec? It’s an odd story of circular migration over hundreds of years and many generations.
Today I can’t open a newspaper without reading something about those awful immigrants coming into our country, taking our jobs, and refusing to integrate. I get this message in stereo from both French and US media. How lovely.
So take a moment, please, and apply that characterization to your immigrant ancestors. I did and as I reread what I wrote above, I’d say the shoe fits the Amans family. They committed all those sins and yet today it’s a non-issue. Someday the same thing will undoubtedly happen to all the more recent products of immigration in France and the US. Everyone will forget how strange and unloved they were when they arrived. One day all that will remain are family stories and perhaps a nostalgic clinging to an Old Country connection.
That day will come if we are patient and know enough about migrant history to get some perspective on how past migrations were not all that different from what we see today.
Alas, these are two qualities that are in short supply these days on both sides of the Atlantic.