Thursday, August 8, 2019

Smithsonian Project: "When Americans Feared an Invasion From Their Northern Border"

I was asked to write an article for a Smithsonian project called "What It Means to Be American," based on my book A Distinct Alien Race.

The article recounts “a lost chapter in U.S. immigration history that has startling relevance today—a story of immigrants crossing a land border into the U.S. and the fears they aroused."

"Inheriting an ideology of cultural survival from Québec, the French Canadians in the U.S. resisted assimilation. This led a segment of the American elite to regard these culturally isolated French speakers as a potential threat to the territorial integrity of the United States—pawns, conspiracy theorists said, in a Catholic plot to subvert the U.S. Northeast.”

Click here for the article.

Please share the link.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

In Search of a Community’s First Franco-American School

I was travelling around New England – in a cold rain mostly – talking about my book A Distinct Alien Race. It was the final day of April 2019 and I woke up at 5:45 A.M. sharp and drove an hour to Brunswick, Maine to do an interview with WCME radio. I was through with the interview before 9 A.M. and found myself with a day to kill before a book signing at Brunswick’s Gulf of Maine Books at 7:00 P.M. But it’s easy to bide my time in Brunswick, since I always have research to do on the Franco-American community there.

Former Convent on Oak St. Brunswick, Maine
For years I’ve been curious about a Brunswick house, 12 Oak Street, once a small convent. On that same property was the first St. John’s School, the Franco-American parochial school my grandfather and his siblings attended. I have seen a fading photo or two of a clapboard building known locally as “the Little School,” located behind the brick convent. Per the U.S. Census, in 1900 my grandfather, then 6 years old, lived with his family at 24 Oak Street, just down the street from the school. That year, his two older brothers Geoffrey and Ludger attended the Little School.  

A 1927 book commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brunswick’s St. John’s parish asserts that the school was a project of Father J.-B. Sekenger, the community’s third pastor who arrived in town in September 1892. The priest’s first concern was to establish a proper parochial school and he contacted an order of nuns known as la Congrégation des Dames de Sion which had directed parish schools in Lewiston and Auburn, Maine. On September 11, 1894, eight nuns of this order arrived at the train station in Brunswick, taking up residence at the small brick convent. A hangar located in the back of the convent was transformed into a schoolroom. 

There had been talk of a "French school" as far back as 1883 ("French School," Brunswick Telegraph, June 29, 1883), and lay teachers were employed before the nuns' arrival. But the Little School was the town's first, dedicated parochial school, with resident nuns as teachers.  

The convent and the hangar-turned-schoolhouse still exist. During my recent visit to the town, I managed to find and photograph the former school, now dilapidated. The photos below show the school, with the pupils arranged in front of it, circa 1890-1900 (photo courtesy of the Pejepscot Historical Society) and then the building's current state.

The 1927 commemorative book claims that the former Little School became a garage after the parish built a new school, in use by 1913. The former convent, says the 1927 book, became the residence of A. Tondreau, one of the most prosperous Franco-Americans of Brunswick.

Using publicly available county real estate records, now digitized and online, I was able to trace the history of the property at 12 Oak Street that contained the convent and the school, as well as the history of this street where my grandfather grew up.

The property that became Oak Street was once owned by Hon. Charles J. Gilman (1824-1901) and his wife Alice McKeen Dunlap Gilman, a granddaughter of Joseph McKeen the first President of Bowdoin College. Charles Gilman was a lawyer and politician. In the 1850s, he served in the Maine legislature and in the U.S. Congress. He was a delegate to the 1860 Republican convention that nominated Abraham Lincoln for President. It appears that the property owned by the Gilmans had come through Alice Gilman’s Dunlap family. 

An 1871 map of Brunswick shows that Oak Street did not yet exist. The map marks clearly the Gilman property. In 1889, Alice Gilman sold a large plot of land to Albert S. Rines of Portland, Maine. The red rectangle I placed on the 1871 map marks the property Rines purchased, as far as I can tell from its description in the deed.

Detail from 1871 Map of Brunswick
Red rectangle marks approximate range of Rines property
including future Oak St. 
Over the next several years, Rines sold bits of this property, lot by lot, much of it to Franco-Americans, who were expanding out of the company-owned tenements in this period. Those who could afford to buy property had started to occupy the northwest corner of downtown Brunswick, per an 1885 article in the local newspaper, the Brunswick Telegraph. The Rines lots were in this part of the town. Circa 1890, a new road, called Oak Street, was cut through property Rines had purchased from the Gilman family. By 1900, Oak Street was 100% Franco-American.

In 1890, a prominent Franco-American known as Alexis Sainte-Marie purchased one of the lots belonging to Rines on Oak Street. Per the 1880 U.S. Census, Sainte-Marie was a baker, apparently working on his own account, a rarity in a time when the bulk of the Franco-American workers toiled in the nearby Cabot textile mill. Sainte-Marie also operated a small boarding house in town, one of the few that the local paper writing in 1886 found to be in good shape, in a neighborhood that was in very poor condition at that time. Sadly, the Sainte-Marie family lost two children in the 1886 diphtheria outbreak caused by the poor conditions in the Franco-American neighborhood.

In 1893, Sainte-Marie sold the property on Oak Street to the Roman Catholic Bishop of Portland, under an 1887 Maine law known as the Corporation Sole. That law made all Catholic Church property in the state the sole possession of Maine’s ranking Bishop. Around the same time, a woman named Alphonsine Drapeau sold a property adjacent to Sainte-Marie’s to the Catholic bishop. I believe that these two properties, those sold by Sainte-Marie and Drapeau to the Church, are the property now demarcated as 12 Oak Street.

Real estate websites claim that the brick building at this address dates to 1889, but that is probably a year or two too early. Quite often, Maine's 19th c. deeds convey the "buildings thereon" when property is transferred, if there are buildings on the property in question. Since there are no buildings mentioned in the deed rendering the property from Rines to Sainte-Marie, I think it likely that Franco-American labor built both the brick convent and the wooden “hangar” that became the Little School. I believe that the brick convent was probably built for the purpose it first served, and was constructed right after Sainte-Marie purchased the property in 1890. It dates from the early 1890s, when another large brick structure in the town was built: the “new” Cabot Mill that still stands today as Fort Andross.

A local newspaper report of 1885 mentions that the Franco-Americans were building structures cooperatively in this part of the town. I surmise that Sainte-Marie bought this property on behalf of the Franco-American residents with the intention of building the convent and school there.  

After the nuns took possession of the convent, the Little School operated there for nearly 20 years. A 1901 map of Brunswick has the convent and school clearly labelled, ensconced at 12 Oak Street. The 1910 U.S. census lists the nuns who lived at 12 Oak Street and notes that nine of the eleven nuns residing there were teachers.

Detail from 1901 Map of Brunswick
Oak Street with convent and school indicated
When a new parochial school was built by 1913, Adjutor Tondreau purchased the property at 12 Oak Street from the Catholic Church. Tondreau, with his brother Omer, made a good living as proprietors of a local grocery store. They eventually purchased a block on Brunswick’s Maine Street that still bears their name. The block has a plaque commemorating the Tondreau brothers, born in Québec, who had made good in les États.
Tondreau Block, Maine Street, Brunswick
(Photo by Robby Virus)
With the 1913 sale, the former convent became a comfortable residence for a family, the former school serving as their garage. Per the historical plaque on the Tondreau Block, the brothers were famous for being among the first in the region to deliver groceries by truck, and I think it likely that, when not in use, the truck was parked in what had been the Little School.

The Tondreau family owned 12 Oak Street until 1995. The property, with the former convent divided into apartments, has had three owners since. Do the current owners or tenants know that the house was once the residence of pious nuns? Do they know that a generation or two of French-speaking students once filed into the school in their backyard, today a rundown outbuilding, resembling a barn, barely visible from Oak Street? There is no plaque or other recognition of the importance of these structures, most likely built by Franco-American hands. It was here, at this little school that my grandfather learned to read and write, and to speak English, since my grandfathers spoke French at home in Maine and learned their English in school.

To the town’s credit, there is some recognition there of the era of the Franco-Americans, who were quite visible and audible in Brunswick for about 100 years, from the mid-19th through the mid-20th century. There is a plaque near the pedestrian bridge that connects Brunswick with Topsham; there is the plaque on the Tondreau Block, and a photo in the former mill. But to the best of my knowledge and research, 12 Oak Street is one of the only remaining properties built by Franco-Americans to serve their community, when French was the language of this neighborhood – when it was the French Quarter where my grandparents lived and where my father was born.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Exams of Franco-American WWI Draftees Show the Poorest State of Public Health in the U.S.

On February 20, 1923, Charles B. Davenport of the Eugenics Record Office in Long Island, NY, wrote a letter to Henry F. Perkins, eugenics point man at the University of Vermont. “Did you know,” wrote Davenport to Perkins, “that in the study of defects found in drafted men, Vermont stood at or near the top of the list as having precisely or nearly the highest defect rate for quite a series of defects? This result I ascribe to the French Canadian constituents of the population which, I had other reasons for believing, to contain an undue proportion of defectives.”1

Davenport knew well the “study of defects found in drafted men” because he co-wrote the detailed statistical report on the subject for the Senate Committee on Military Affairs.2  This 1919 report of more than 350 pages compiles data from medical examinations of 2.7 million men, 18 to 30 years old, drafted during the First World War. Examiners reported cases of what they regarded as mental or physical “defects,” which included a wide range of diseases and conditions from heart disease, to asthma, to blindness, to flat feet, to obesity, to drug addiction.

The report cuts the data three ways. First, it reports the distribution of these “defects” among the states. It then divides most of the states into smaller regions that reflect different economies: agricultural, manufacturing, mining, or commuter regions. There is also a similar series with the data grouped by environment or terrain: mountain, desert, maritime regions, etc. In these analyses, the researchers attempt to group the various health issues according to the draftee's occupation or milieu.
1919 report by Albert G. Love
and eugenics supporter Charles B. Davenport

Then comes what the researchers term “the racial series.” These “races” include groupings like “mountain whites,” “Indians” (Native Americans) and “Mexicans.” There is also a number of breakout groups of “foreign born whites.” “Group 19” is the French Canadian “racial” group.

This group was created, like the other groups, by aggregating areas with high concentrations of French-Canadians, where the latter constituted more than 10 percent of the population. All such regions were in New England, in the states of Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The French-Canadian group had “the highest defect rate” of any of the “racial” groupings in the U.S. (266). Areas with high concentrations of French-Canadians led the lists in a range of health problems associated with low socioeconomic status including alcoholism, malnutrition, and obesity. 

Presenting their findings on “Group 19,” the researchers state:
The French Canadian group shows an extraordinary excess of defects in various important respects, such as tuberculosis, spinal curvature, deaf-mutism, mental deficiency and psychoses, refractive errors [myopia and other eyesight issues], otitis media [inflammatory diseases of the ear], defective hearing, asthma, bad teeth, hernia, deficient size of chest, and height and underweight. The sections of which the French Canadians form a predominant factor are among the poorest from the military standpoint (46).
The French-Canadian group led the U.S. in alcoholism. Alcoholism was high across New England in 1919 and not only in the areas with high concentrations of French-Canadians. Of the ten states with the highest numbers of alcoholics among drafted men, five of them were in New England (86, Table 12). However, in the parts of New England with large French-Canadian populations, rates of alcoholism were many times higher than elsewhere. The rate of alcoholism among young men in the French-Canadian parts of New England was 0.91 per 1000 persons. By contrast, populations such as the Germans/Austrians and Russians in the U.S., stereotypically thought to enjoy a drink, had rates of alcoholism of 0.38 and 0.21 per thousand respectively (269, Table 106).

The French-Canadian grouping also had the highest rates, by far, of men judged “underheight” and “underweight” (294, Tables 180, 181). They also had the highest incidence of diagnosed malnutrition except for “mountain whites” and “Indians” living in “sparsely settled” places (294, Table 182).  Anemia, a condition often caused by vitamin or mineral deficiency, was found to be “exceptionally high in the French Canadian section(s) (305).” At the same time, the highest rates of obesity in the U.S. were found in places with large French-Canadian populations (272, Table 114).

The “French-Canadian immigrants” were also found to suffer from a high proportion of “defective physical development.” But exactly how this condition is defined and how it differs from “underweight” is unclear even to the researchers. However, the rate of “total defective development and nutrition” among the French-Canadian group was many times higher than that of any other group listed: 85.26 persons per 1000, as compared with the next highest numbers among Scottish-Americans and “mountain whites,” with about one-half the rate of the French-Canadian group. The researchers own that “defective development” “is due to a variety of causes (33-34). Since Davenport was a eugenics supporter, the report often wishes to find a “congenital” or “racial” cause for some alleged “defect.” But it admits that “defective physical development” has environmental components.
The group [showing ‘defective physical development’] has a great importance for social therapeutics, since it is largely due to unhygienic methods of living, although in considerable part due, also, to congenital defects…. A center for defective physical development is found in the States which center around Chattanooga, and it seems probable that this area is largely determined by the presence of hookworm infection. There is another center in New England, and this seems to be controlled very largely by the French-Canadian immigrants, who show a high rate of defective physical development (33-34).
“Unhygienic methods of living” are blamed for the undernourished conditions of young men in the mill towns, and not the socioeconomic conditions that had turned the rural poor of Québec into a neglected labor pool destined for U.S. mills and factories. Whether the causes were congenital or environmental, many of the young men who came from the mill town milieu were no longer physically fit even for the trenches.

Having found that the French-Canadian group scored highest in a wide range of alleged “defects,” the authors then attribute the poor showing of some New England states to high concentrations of French-Canadians. 

Rhode Island had the highest “defect rate” overall. Conditions in which Rhode Island stands first or second are: Alcoholism, obesity, neurosis, total for myopia and defective vision (cause not stated), hemorrhoids, bronchitis, deformities of appendages and trunk, atrophy of muscles of the appendages, underheight, and underweight (41). Why does Rhode Island stand at or near the top in many “defects,” per Love and Davenport?
It is largely because of the defective or nonresistant stock which has been drawn to this the most urban of all the States—that in which the population is most generally engaged in manufacturing. While one may not ascribe the defects to the occupation, it is probable that the occupation has attracted stock with defects or susceptible to them. Next to Rhode Island stands Vermont....It is surprising in what a number of defects the small State of Vermont leads. The reason for this is probably because of the presence in Vermont of a large number of French Canadians in whom the defect rate is particularly high (41).
Love and Davenport ascribe Rhode Island’s high “defect rate” to “defective stock” attracted by the state’s manufacturing, while Vermont’s is attributed to its “large number of French-Canadians.” However, elsewhere in the report, the authors find that these two states “have this in common that they contain a large proportion of Canadian French (149).” More than once, they claim that the reason for these states' poor showing is the French-Canadian presence. 

The authors discuss some problems with the hypothesis that New England’s health woes were due to “defective” French-Canadians. They observe that New Hampshire had a larger percentage of French-Canadians than either Rhode Island or Vermont, and yet it was in the middle of the pack as regards alleged “defects.” The authors conclude that the “high position of Rhode Island and Vermont” with respect to “defects” is “due to a combination of...three factors...the thoroughness of the examinations made by local boards, the intelligence and care exercised at Camp Devens [where New England draftees were examined] and the high percentage of French Canadians in the population (149).

Conditions that were environmental, a consequence of living in fetid mill towns, are ascribed to “congenital” causes. These conclusions were then used  by eugenics proponents, like Davenport and Vermont’s Henry Perkins, to class the French Canadians as an "inferior" breed in their racial hierarchies. Since French-Canadians in the mill towns were poor, they faced public health challenges; these challenges were then essentialized by eugenics proponents and made a part of the “racial” (their word) makeup of the French Canadian people.

Among the alleged “defects” that stemmed from life in the mill towns were problems with eyesight, hearing, and respiratory issues. And these health problems appear already in young men mostly in their twenties. High rates of obesity, malnutrition, and the off-the-chart rate of alcoholism show a community that’s been marginalized by the society of its day and relegated to an underclass status. Such a status, in all times and places, is hazardous to one’s health.

My maternal grandfather (right)
and his brother in their WWI uniforms
The data from drafted men paints a shocking portrait of the Franco-Americans in the mill towns in the early 20th century. They emerge as among the most disadvantaged groups in the U.S. from a public health perspective. When compared with groups recognized as poor or historically disadvantaged, such as mountain whites, rural Native Americans, and Mexican-Americans, the data shows the tragically poor condition of public health in the New England mill towns where the French-Canadians predominated.

Both of my grandfathers were in the military in the World War One era and they were both born and raised in the areas Love and Davenport have aggregated to create their French-Canadian “racial” group. Their data provides insight into the world of my grandparents, the places where they were born and raised. My father was born less than a decade after the report on drafted men was issued, in one of the heavily French-Canadian areas of Maine. The “defective” French-Canadian men described here were relatives, friends and neighbors of my parents and grandparents. This report captures the stark reality of the mill town milieu that formed previous generations of Franco-Americans, the forbears of most of the two million French-Canadian descendants who still live in New England. No surprise that little of what happened there was passed down to younger generations.

For more on eugenics and Franco-Americans see Chapter 13 of my book A Distinct Alien Race.
1. David Vermette, A Distinct Alien Race (Montreal: Baraka Books, 2018), 256.
2. U.S. Congress, Senate, Defects Found in Drafted Men: Statistical Information Compiled from the Draft Records, Prepared under the direction of the Surgeon General, M.W. Ireland, by Albert G. Love, M.D. and Charles B. Davenport, Printed for the use of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs, 66th Congress, 1st Session, 1919. Parenthetical page numbers and table numbers refer to this report.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Upcoming Presentations and Events

Friday, April 26, 2019, 1:00 P.M.
Moderating a Panel: “Franco Americans, Acadians, and the Great War”
University of Maine
Orono, ME
Crossland Hall
This panel of historians will examine the Franco-American experience of WWI. Panel includes Patrick Lacroix, Mark Paul Richard and Elisa Sance.
April 26-28, 2019
Annual Gathering of Franco-American Writers and Artists
University of Maine, Orono, ME
Crossland Hall
I will be speaking as part of a weekend of events, including readings and presentations by numerous creative Franco-Americans. Prior registration required.
Tuesday, April 30, 2019, 7:00 P.M.
Gulf of Maine Books
134 Maine Street, Brunswick, ME
I will discuss the case of Brunswick's Cabot Mill and what really happened during the tenure of the textile industry in the town: the influence of Boston capital, the importation of a large labor force from Quebec, and how it changed the town's demographics.
Friday, May 3, 2019, 6:00 P.M.
Franco-American Center
St. Anselm’s College, Dana Center
100 Saint Anselm Drive, Manchester, NH
“Fears of Conspiracy: How were French-Canadian Immigrants Received in New England?”
I will discuss the reception of Franco-Americans in New England, their concepts of citizenship, and the outlandish conspiracy theory that surrounded the newcomers from French Canada.
Sunday May 5, 2019, 1:30 P.M.
American-French Genealogical Society
78 Earle Street, Woonsocket, RI
“A Distinct Alien Race: The Untold Story of Franco-Americans”
I will discuss the reception of Franco-Americans in New England, including the conspiracy theory that surrounded the newcomers from French Canada.
Tuesday May 7, 2019, 4:00 P.M.
Boivin Center
University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth
Dartmouth, MA
285 Old Westport Road, North Dartmouth, MA 02747
“Couldn't Have Done It Without Us: How Franco-Americans Saved the U.S. Economy”
Textiles were the U.S.'s largest 19th c. industry. After the Civil War, French-Canadians became the largest cohort in this industry. This presentation will discuss the economic importance of the French-Canadian influx. It will focus not on famous names, but on the importance of the rank and file Franco-American workers who saved not just the region's but also the nation's economy.  
October 7, 2019, 6:30 P.M.
Jacob Edwards Library
236 Main Street, Southbridge, MA
"The Other Border: French-Canadian Immigration to New England"
This presentation discusses the historic opposition between New France and New England, and how this conflict continued, by various means, until the dawn of the 20th century. This presentation will discuss where the French-Canadians of New England came from, the circumstances of their coming across the border, and how they were received after they came to the U.S.
Saturday, October 12, 2019, 3:00 P.M.
"Bridging The Gaps"
Biddeford Cultural & Heritage Center

Biddeford Middle School, 25 Tiger Way, Biddeford, ME
"The Other Border: French-Canadian Immigration to New England"
This presentation discusses the historic opposition between New France and New England, and how this conflict continued, by various means, until the dawn of the 20th century. This presentation will discuss where the French-Canadians of New England came from, the circumstances of their coming across the border, and how they were received after they came to the U.S.
Wednesday, October 16, 2019, 4:30 P.M.
Salon of la Maison Français
Assumption College
500 Salisbury Street, Worcester, MAWorcester, MA
“Fears of Conspiracy: How were French-Canadian Immigrants Received in New England?”
I will discuss the reception of Franco-Americans in New England, their concepts of citizenship, and the outlandish conspiracy theory that surrounded the newcomers from French Canada.
Thursday, October 17, 2019, 6:30 P.M.
Mayflower Society
4 Winslow Street, Plymouth, MA
"The Other Border: French-Canadian Immigration to New England"
This presentation discusses the historic opposition between New France and New England, and how this conflict continued, by various means, until the dawn of the 20th century. This presentation will discuss where the French-Canadians of New England came from, the circumstances of their coming across the border, and how they were received after they came to the U.S.
April 27, 2020
Franco-American Collection of the USM/LA College, Lewiston, ME
“Fears of Conspiracy: How were French-Canadian Immigrants Received in New England?”
I will discuss the reception of Franco-Americans in New England, their concepts of citizenship, and the outlandish conspiracy theory that surrounded the newcomers from French Canada.

October 2, 3,4, 2020
Fédération québécoise des Sociétés de généalogie
Lévis, Québec
How did economic development shift the genealogical profile of the Chaudière-Appalaches region? How did the local demographic composition bring about changes in the society?

More about my book
A Distinct Alien Race: The Untold Story of Franco-Americans

Thursday, February 14, 2019

THE OTHER BORDER: Episode 3 -- Women: The U.S.'s First Industrial Workers

Women were the U.S.’s first industrial working class in the nation's leading 19th c. industry: textiles. In 1810, there was no class of industrial workers to speak of in the U.S. A permanent industrial working class existed in Britain and Europe but not in the U.S. before textile manufacturing in New England became the first bona fide, corporate-run manufacturing industry.

The first generation of workers, mainly young women from the farmsteads of rural New England, were offered a measure of financial and intellectual independence in the mill towns. Starting in the 1840s, an increasing number of immigrants began to displace the young women in the mills. Conditions in the mill towns declined markedly, as U.S.-born labor gave way to immigrants, mainly from Northwestern Europe, who became the second large labor pool for textile manufacturing. After the Civil War, a third wave will bring the Canadiens into the industry.   

Episode 2
Industrialization in New England

Episode 1
The Most Important, Forgotten U.S. Immigration Story

Thursday, February 7, 2019

THE OTHER BORDER: Episode 2 -- Industrialization in New England

I am continuing my series of videos on "the other border" with a brief presentation on the development of the textile industry in New England. Textiles employed the largest contingent of Franco-American workers. People with at least one French-Canadian-born parent comprised 44% of the region's numerous textile workers by 1900.

This six-minute video gives an overview of how textile manufacturing developed in New England. It discusses the sources of capital of the merchants who founded the industry, and how early success in Waltham and Lowell, Massachusetts led to the growth of the U.S.'s largest 19th century industry.

Monday, January 28, 2019

THE OTHER BORDER: The Most Important, Forgotten U.S. Immigration Story

When we say "the border" today we mean the southwestern border of the U.S. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was the northeastern border that generated headlines. Anxiety about the newcomers crossing this border gave rise to punditry, books, lecture tours, sermons from Protestant pulpits, and testimony in Congressional hearings and government reports. In this video, I introduce this tale of "the other border," the most important, forgotten episode in U.S. immigration history. Why the most important? Because it resembles current events like no other comparable episode.

Next Episode: Industrialization in New England