French America

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.

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Born in Seattle, USA. Generation Xer. Lived on 3 continents (North America, Asia and Europe). Country agnostic. Mother of two Frenchlings. MA in International Migration

6 thoughts on “French America”

  1. In Canada at least there was a long tradition of intermarriage between English speaking Irish Catholics and French speaking Franco Catholics who often had children who were fluent in both languages. Many prominent Canadian politicians in recent years have come from families like this. For example Justin Trudeau, his father Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, Jean Charest, and Dalton McGuinty all had one parent who was English speaking Irish Catholic and another who was French speaking Franco Catholic. All are and were completely fluent in both French and English Some have even called Franco and Irish Catholics the founding people of modern Canada.

    Another thing to keep in mind is that French influence in North America was almost completely cutoff after the 1700s until the second half of the 20th Century. Canada still did most of it’s foreign affairs through England and the French Embassy in Ottawa only opened just before World War II(BTW, this Embassy is considered one of the grandest FR embassies in the world and one of the grandest if not the grandest in Ottawa). I personally think the start airline flights between Montreal and Paris in 1950 was only when economic and culturally connections were restored between French communities in North America and France.

    FR embassy in Ottawa

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  2. One thing I would be curious if your cousins in BC who are presume don’t speak French but whose ancestors immigrated from Canada to the US and now back to Canada have any views on French English Quebec relations such as bilingualism in the Canadian civil service that would tend to be opposed to what is majority opinion in Quebec.


  3. First of all, what do you think of this LA Times op-ed?

    The author of the op-ed states in her final paragraph:

    “The idea that without tough border security, we will be flooded by poor people who would gladly trade their homes for our standard of living is rooted in the assumption that people in other countries value material things more than their own communities. That assumption says more about us than it does about them.”

    My paternal grandfather’s family, the Gallants, were Acadians from Prince Edward Island (descended from the first French settlers of PEI in the early 18th century): they migrated to St-Alexis-de-Matapédia in the Gaspé Peninsula of Quebec in the 1880s, and then to Lawrence, Massachusetts some 20 years later. My paternal grandmother’s family, the Merciers, were Québécois from Gentilly, on the opposite side of the St. Lawrence from Trois-Rivières: they migrated first to Ishpeming, Michigan in the 1870s and then to Lawrence, Massachusetts some years later. I never knew my paternal grandparents: my paternal grandfather died at the age of 48 in 1951, when my late father was 11 years old. My paternal grandmother died when I was 13 years old, but in her old age, she lived near one of her sons who lived near Detroit: she came to California to visit my parents only once, when I was a toddler, and I did not travel “back East” (anywhere east of the Rockies) till I was 19 years old. I wish that I could have asked my grandparents much the same questions that you wish you had asked your great-grandmother.

    I remember looking at the 1940 census and seeing that my father (an infant at the time) was listed as having French as his first language. Since he was too young to speak any language, I suppose that that meant that my grandparents spoke French at home. Dad told me once that he remembered that his parents used French only to argue in. As an adult, my father had a good accent in French, although he spoke almost no French. If his first language had been French, he had forgotten almost all of it.

    I also think of my maternal grandfather’s family, the Garcias, who had been New Mexico Hispanos who moved to St. Johns, Arizona in the early 1900s. They did not cross a border: the border had crossed their family after the Mexican-American War. However, as Spanish-speaking Catholics, they must have reacted to my maternal grandfather marrying an Oklahoma-born Protestant of Scots-Irish descent (presumably outside the Catholic Church, since my mother was raised Methodist).

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  4. Tim, Makes sense that there would be intermarriage between the Irish and the French. this was also true of the German Catholics of which there were quite a few. The policy of the Church was very clear – marriages with Protestants were frowned upon (highly discouraged) and the non-Catholic spouse had to agree to raise the children in the Catholic faith before the couple could have a church wedding. I’ve wondered if the Church still does that in some places. It’s interesting to me that my brother and I both married Catholics. Would we have married non-Catholics? I suspect not. In my brother’s case his wife is the product of Irish/Portuguese migration to the US. No cousins in BC, just my aunt who has no children.

    GentillyLace, Thanks for the comment and sharing your family history. Fascinating. Sounds like your Québécois ancestors immigrated to the US about the time mine did. Have you done any tracing back to France? Do you know what French region your people came from? Yes, it sounds like your grandfather married outside the church since your mother was raised in her mother’s faith.

    About the article. Yes, I would agree with the author. Only about 3% of the world’s population migrates across international borders. Some of that surely has to do with the difficulty of immigrating these days to places like Europe and North America but it also has tto do with risk and not wanting to leave friends and family and communities. Americans greatly underestimate how hard it is to leave these things for an uncertain future in the US. A US which may have jobs for them (or may not) but also has a reputation for violence, mediocre K-12 education, and very little in the way of a social safety net. I have yet to meet anyone in France who wants to go to the US for anything other than a short term work assignment. Even the contractors we work with (Serbian and Portuguese) who have relatives in the US refuse to even contemplate joining them. Not to mention that in my advocacy for Americans abroad I meet quite a few people who are, in fact, Americans because they were born in the US or have a US parent. They could get passports very easily and yet none of them want to pack up and leave for the US. They are rooted here in France.

    I would say however that this idea that “everyone wants to come to our country” is not unique to the US. The French are convinced that everyone wants to come to France. The Brits seem to have the same idea. And I think that this has a lot do do with national pride and self-image. There is a kind of smug satisfaction that citizens get when they think of their country as a club that everyone wants to join. To admit that this is not true (that migrants would rather stay home or go to other destinations that are more favorable for them) would be quite a blow to the ego. That’s my take on it.


  5. Hi Victoria! The Gallants trace their family to Pierre Larché, who was born in Montdidier in Picardy (in what is now the Somme department, if I recall correctly) around 1620, and his son Michel Haché-Gallant, who was born in Beaubassin in Acadia (now Amherst, Nova Scotia) around 1663. It was Michel, his wife and children who were the first French settlers on Prince Edward Island (or Ile St-Jean as it was then) in 1720:

    I am not sure where in France the Merciers came from, but my paternal grandmother’s paternal grandmother, Louise Alice Grindler, was descended from a Hessian soldier stationed in Quebec City during the American Revolution who married a local mademoiselle. The soldier’s name was Georg-Friedrich Gründler and he came from a village near Hannover.


  6. Interesting, how Gentilly’s ancestors both passed through Lawrence, Massachusetts given I am a resident of Andover, Massachusetts which is the next town over. If you go way way back Lawrence(a mill town) was actually part of Andover at one time.

    As to Trois Riveries Quebec I still have a hard time imagining it as a “rural” place. It is not a huge city by any means but it is much bigger than Lawrence today and halfway between Montreal and Quebec City(hour and a half drive to both) whereas Lawrence is about a 40 minute drive to Boston(there is train service though).

    Montreal and Boston are both roughly the same size but have much different economies. Boston is a much richer city(although Montreal is catching up and MTL doesn’t have some of the “hard” poverty that Boston and every other US city has) and is bigger economically in the North American context. However, Montreal is much bigger center of Francophone cultural and trade links. In fact Montreal and New York are the two big centers of French influence in North America head and shoulders above everywhere else(New Orleans isn’t at all important in economic sense no matter it’s French history) from what I have learned. Boston again might be more economically significant but you can fly direct from Montreal(and New York) to Brussels, Geneva, and Lyon but from Boston you can’t. MTL-CDG and JFK-CDG are two of busiest transatlantic air routes and are the only two in the top 10 that are from France the rest are UK to different US cities.

    One interesting factoid I found out from a French banker is that most of the large Canadian and foreign banks left Montreal for Toronto back in the 1970s during the soveriegnty crisises but their is one group of banks that have their Canadian head offices in Montreal, the French Banks like BNP Paribas, Societe Generale, Natixis, Credit Agricole etc. BTW, These same French Banks have their Swiss head offices in Geneva not Zurich like the rest of the banking industry. Yet on the otherhand their US operations are all based in NYC so can see the Franco cultural and economic tandem of NYC and MTL.


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