Friday, November 29, 2019

Must French-Canadians Be Made to Sing Yankee Doodle? A Dialog from Vermont

In its October 10, 1889 edition, The Caledonian, a newspaper out of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, reprinted a piece from the Boston Advertiser under the heading An Immigration Problem.

This editorial from the Advertiser began by citing the views of a French (of France) writer who wrote in English under the nom de plume Max O’Rell. O’Rell gave his impression of the French émigré in Victorian England. “You will meet there," wrote O’Rell, “a type of Frenchman who, after residing 10, 15, 20 years in England, cannot speak English. He is proud of it, and sometimes wonders that, with so many Frenchmen in England, the English do not speak French by this time.”

O’Rell’s characterization, writes the Advertiser, “has a meaning for Americans which, perhaps, they little suspect.” But the Advertiser had a different type of “Frenchman” in mind:

It was not long since that we called attention…to a warning sent up by a writer in the Forum against the French-Canadians, who are flocking into this country in unsuspected numbers. The French-Canadian is the same man as that drawn by Max O'Rell, only, be it remarked, completely lacking in his education and his intelligence. Consequently his refusal to be anything but a Frenchman, to take any interest whatever in his adopted country is even if possible, still more complete. His attitude is one of sullen and dogged opposition to anything that tends to change him from what he is.
The Forum referenced here was a respected national magazine of its day, a competitor with the likes of The Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s. The magazine took a lively interest in the French-Canadian influx in this period, and I plan to explore its contents in future posts.

The Advertiser goes on to cite St. Johnsbury’s local paper – no doubt the reason The Caledonian reprinted the piece. Continues the Advertiser,

The following quotation from the St. Johnsbury (Vt.) Caledonian will prove interesting…"The French Canadians," [The Caledonian] says, "are coming into Vermont in great numbers. They already own a good share of the farms in the northern tier of counties and are filling the manufacturing towns with operatives of both sexes, and laborers in all departments of industry and trade. When it is known that in a place no larger than St. Johnsbury (which had but 5800 inhabitants in 1880), the parish priest numbers his parish at between 1900 and 2000 souls, the increase of the Canadian element into Vermont begins to be appreciated."

Now, what is said of Vermont is true also of Massachusetts and other New England states. It is believed to be true, also, that the Roman church is encouraging the emigration, and encouraging also the French determination to remain French. There is danger in this. We do not want a nation within a nation. We want no man here who is not, potentially at least an American. If immigrants won't sing Yankee Doodle, they must be made to sing it. With mature French-Canadians probably nothing can be done ; with the children something is possible. If we wish not to have an alien and connected body among us, armed with great power by a ballot which they will use, if at all, to further their own interests and not those of their adopted country, we must have a stringent school law, and moreover enforce it well.
The “school law” in question would either ban any language but English in schools, or it would abolish private schools, obliging all children to attend a public school where English would be the language of instruction. Several states passed legislation of this ilk in the wake of the First World War. The most "stringent" of these state laws were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.1

Letter From A Priest


In the following week’s edition of The Caledonian (October 17, 1889), Fr. J. A. Boissonnault, the parish priest at Notre Dame des Victoires church of St. Johnsbury, responded to the paper’s coverage of the French-Canadian element in New England.2  Having his parish census cited in the Boston Advertiser and The Caledonian as evincing a sinister French-Canadian invasion of New England, the priest replied to the local paper point by point in a letter to the editor. 

“I find in your issue of last week,” writes Fr. Boissonnault, “…a reference to some writings of Max O'Rell and the Boston Advertiser, in regard to the French Canadian element in the New England states. As both writers seem to have been inspired to speak thus on account of the census of my parish, please let me state the facts as I gave them to you and at the same time, I will answer in a few words the uncharitable remark [sic] of those gentlemen.”

First, the priest corrects the numbers. Although he found 2,080 “souls” in his parish, not all were French-Canadian. Some 400 consisted of Irish families with an admixture of German Catholics. Father Boissonnault claims that the Catholics of these nationalities were “just the same to me as my own [Canadien] compatriots.”

The priest denies any conspiracy on the part of the Catholic Church to take over New England:

They say that Rome is encouraging the French Canadians to emigrate into the New England states, to Catholicize them….On this point I give them a flat denial. I am a missionary among these people for more than twenty years, and I have not met one single family but which has left Canada against the will of its pastor. The Bishops of Canada do all in their power to encourage the settlement of the public lands of Quebec; they have agents of repatriment [sic] in each of the leading cities of New England. The duty of these agents is to try to have the Canadians return to their own country.
Father Boissonnault’s reply bears on the discussion of the conspiracy theory floated in the press and pulpits in the 1880-1900 period, claiming that there was a “tradition,” supposedly known to every French-Canadian, that they were eventually to occupy the Northeast portion of North America and create a new country to be called New France. The priest’s rejoinder is that his French-Canadian parishioners – all of them – left Québec “against the will” of their pastors rather than at their urging. If the priest’s witness is true, then it not only weighs against the conspiracy theory, it also suggests that the French-Canadians were not as controlled by their priests as the U.S. press made out. 

Responses to Emigration from Québec

Anyone familiar with the voluminous literature, from parliamentarians, to newspapers, to the writings deriving from the Church, will attest that the 19th c. Canadien leadership, clerical and secular alike, viewed the emigration to New England as a national disaster. The immigrants were often vilified as sell-outs, as lazy, as money-grubbers or as alcoholics. Father of the Confederation George-Étienne Cartier famously referred to them as the riff-raff (la racaillehe was happy to be rid of. They were not hailed by Québec elites as noble missionaries to Protestant New England, as so many modern Brébeuf’s, the vanguard of Nouvelle-France reborn. That’s what one would expect if the 19th c. Church were encouraging emigration for the purpose of Catholicizing the States. But that was not the dominant rhetoric around emigration in this period by any means. 
Notre Dame des Victoires
St. Johnsbury, VT

As Fr. Boissannault indicates, the Québec Church’s response to the challenge of emigration was to open new lands in Québec to settlement, and to encourage the repatriation of the New England French-Canadians in these hinterlands. If Rome were planning a demographic conquest of New England by French-Canadians, then encouraging them to return home hardly fit in with the plan.

Rather than having any settled “tradition” around the emigration movement, as the U.S. press claimed, there were different voices among the Québec elite, each responding to the challenge of emigration. Some did speak of the Franco-Americans’ “providential mission” to catholicize New England, and even of a greater French Catholic state in Northeastern N. America in some future century, these fever dreams giving rise to New England’s fears. Other voices in 
Québec condemned the emigrants, still others tried to woo them to return home, while others, like Cartier, dismissed them. There were different voices offering various interpretations and assorted solutions to what appeared at the time as an existential threat to the French-Canadian "race." 

Language and Schools

As far as the issue of the language taught in schools, Fr. Boissonnault's letter points out that the New England parochial schools were, in fact, bilingual, and that the 1886 council of U.S. Bishops at Baltimore decreed that English should “hold first place” in Catholic schools. The priest then addresses the more general question of the language rights of the French-Canadians: “It would be very unjust to try to destroy a people on account of its language. I see nothing wrong in adhering to their own language when the very same is taught in all the great schools of New England and throughout the rest of the United States.”

The priest used numbers to refute the view that a French-Canadian horde was coming across the border to overwhelm New England. Citing figures from Essex, Lamoille and Caledonia counties in Vermont, Fr. Boissonnault shows that only one in fifty farmers was French-Canadian. Concludes the priest: “I speak for my friends of Saint Johnsbury, establishing the facts just as they are and telling our American friends that they are not in danger of being eaten up by their French neighbors…” 

The Editor Responds

But the editor of The Caledonian permitted himself a reply to the local pastor, and a rather curt one.
The whole point of the Max O'Rell and Advertiser article is contained in one sentence: The danger to a nation of permitting other nationalities to colonize within its domains, not giving hearty allegiance to the laws and customs of the country they adopt….The danger is greater to this nation than it was in '61 when the Southern states demanded state [sic] rights, to settle which this country went through a long and bloody war. This nation is at last waking up to the danger of permitting emigrants to enter its domain who do not come here with the full purpose of obeying its laws, conforming to its customs, acquiring its language and making thorough-going American citizens with all that the term implies.
The editor thought that immigration was a greater threat to the country than the Civil War. Without evidence, the editor implies that immigrants resisted obeying the laws of the United States. He also indicates that they do not acquire the English language, ignoring Fr. Boissonnault’s testimony that younger Franco-Americans were learning English in school, as mandated by the U.S. Catholic bishops. Both of my grandfathers learned English in schools that were like the ones Fr. Boissonnault defends.

The Caledonian speaks of American citizens “with all that the term implies. What does the term imply? For journalist Ferdinand Gagnon, a Franco-American leader of this period, it implied obedience to the laws of the various governments of the U.S., a willingness to defend its flag and to contribute to its economy. If a citizen discharges these duties is that sufficient? Or does the term “American citizen” imply a cultural freight beyond the public responsibilities of citizenship Gagnon cites?

These questions linger 130 years after an exchange between a priest and a newspaper editor in a small Vermont town.

More about the conspiracy theory surrounding the French-Canadian immigrants in my book:
A Distinct Alien Race: The Untold Story of Franco-Americans.

1. See U.S. Supreme Court, Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923) and Pierce v. Society of Sisters268 U.S. 510 (1925).
2. For a little about Fr. Boissonnault and the founding of Notre Dame in St. Johnsbury see the parish centennial document scanned here and also a brief biography here. The latter source claims that the priest was born in 1841 in "St. Valentine, P. Q." 

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Non-stereotypical Occupations of Franco-American Women in 1900

Did you know that there were twelve Franco-American women listed as “clergymen” in the 1900 U.S. census? I discovered this in a 1913 scholarly article that reported the occupations of French-Canadian origin residents of the U.S., per the 1900 federal census. The article gave the exact number of Franco-Americans who had each of some 140 jobs.

I’m thankful to that article for informing me that such detailed information was available, but just eyeballing the author’s data tables I saw obvious arithmetic mistakes. When I looked harder, I found some more. (The editor back in 1913 didn't catch them.) Not able to trust any of this author’s numbers after finding these glaring errors, I girded myself for doing his research all over again.

At last I found the data in a 1904 report of the U.S. Bureau of the Census. My analysis based on this report discovered some occupations of Franco-American women and men that challenge stereotypes. It also revealed a general profile of French-Canadian origin workers across the U.S. at that time.

Top Occupations

The data below represents gainfully employed people in 1900, 10 years of age or older, who had at least one French-Canadian born parent.1 (It excludes the many eight- and nine-year-olds who were so employed at that time.) Of this group, nearly 343,000 workers, 77% were recorded as male and 23% as female. The 1900 data shows that instances of “mixed marriages” – i.e. a French-Canadian origin person marrying anyone else but another French-Canadian origin person – were rare. Almost all of those who had one French-Canadian born parent had two; some who had one French-Canadian born parent had a U.S. born parent of French-Canadian origin.

Table 1 shows the top ten occupations for this group. It includes only those jobs that claimed 3% or more of this population (why the percentages don't sum to 100%). 

These occupations taken together account for 63% of employed Franco-Americans in 1900. The remaining more than one-third of this population had about 130 other jobs. It's not surprising that "cotton mill operative" was the top job, followed not far down the list by "other textile mill operatives."2  Textile work of various kinds employed 28% of all French-Canadian origin people working outside the home, the largest industrial cohort by a mile.

The category of “Laborers (Not specified)” is vague. The 1904 report tried to clarify it: "In agricultural districts agricultural laborers and, similarly, in manufacturing districts unskilled workmen are often reported simply as ‘laborers’." The report qualifies them as "common, general, or day laborers" who toiled, for example, in the construction of "roads, sewers, drains, ditches, canals, water works, etc."3

I have seen in the U.S. censuses of this era many instances where people who are identified only as “laborers” are living in mill-owned housing and appear to be working in mills or in jobs dependent on them. The researchers knew this and tried to reduce the count of unspecified "laborers" by re-categorizing them as the evidence warranted. Despite their efforts, "laborers" constituted the second largest cohort among Franco-Americans in 1900.

After textile workers and unskilled laborers, the next largest category was farmers and farm workers, followed by some trades that claimed less than five percent of Franco-Americans. Surprisingly, lumbermen, a job often associated with that era’s French-Canadians, occupied only one percent of employed Franco-Americans.

Discussions about French-Canadian origin people in the U.S. tend to be regional, but this data encompasses the entire United States. The fact that cotton mill workers led the list of occupations, and by a substantial margin, argues for the importance of the New England cohort among French-Canadian origin people in the U.S. The French-Canadian ascendancy in the New England textile manufacturing labor force was the most significant and visible fact about this immigrant group on a national level at the beginning of the 20th century.

Women’s Occupations

But the numbers in Table 1 are skewed toward men, since the latter represent more than three-quarters of gainfully employed Franco-Americans in 1900. If we take women and men separately, differences become clear. Table 2 shows the analysis for Franco-American women, recording only those occupations that claimed greater than three percent of the total. 
Of the nearly 79,000 gainfully employed women and girls, a whopping 37% were cotton mill operatives. More than one-half worked in the textile industry, in either cotton mills or in some other type of textile factory. One-tenth were servants or waitstaff. Dressmakers and shoe makers account for a little less than another tenth.

Jobs accounting for less than three percent of gainfully employed females included more than 120 occupations from teachers (many more women than men were teachers), to packers and shippers, to bakers, to potters, to physicians and surgeons (42 Franco-American women were doctors). Of some 140 occupations listed in this report, Franco-American women serve in all but 18 of them. But the six occupations listed in Table 2 employ three-quarters of all women and girls working outside the home.

Many women have occupations that confound our expectations about the world of 1900 and engage the imagination. For example, what was the story of the twelve clergywomen among the Franco-Americans? They certainly weren’t Roman Catholic. 
In my research of 19th c. New England I have seen women ministers among the Universalists who later merged with the Unitarians. It’s possible that some enumerator got confused and listed Catholic nuns as "clergymen." But if that were the case, I’d expect to see more than twelve instances of it. The occupation listed for nuns is usually related to their function as teachers, nurses, etc. What path did these twelve Franco-Americans travel to arrive at the status of clergywomen? Researching their stories is a doctoral thesis waiting to happen. 

And what was the experience of the two Franco-American women who were “lumbermen and raftsmen” and the other two listed as “wood choppers” in 1900, living in the world of forests and chantiers? While 
three Franco-American women were “fishermen or oystermen,” no less than 102 were “iron and steel workers,” long before the Rosie the Riveter image appeared. Who were the six Franco-American women who were “officials of banks and companies” in 1900, the 32 who were government officials (before women could vote), the 33 photographers, or the one and only lawyer among them?

Men’s Occupations

Table 3 shows the top occupations for Franco-American men. Again, I have included only those jobs held by at least three percent of the nearly 264,000 employed Franco-American men in 1900. 
“Laborers (Not specified)” was the top job for men, representing 15% of employees, with 16% working in textile mills (cotton or other textile operations), and another 15% in agriculture, as farmers or farm laborers. It’s the preponderance of women working in cotton mills that made this occupation the top job of Franco-Americans. Almost as many Franco-American women as men worked in textile mills.

That the largest cohort of men was unskilled, unspecified laborers is a statement about their status. Despite the Québécois myth of the rich uncle from the States, the largest numbers of French-Canadian origin men in the U.S. were either general laborers, mill workers, or toiling down on the farm – a relatively modest socioeconomic niche by anyone’s standards in 1900. These were much the same roles that men filled in 
Québec in that period.  


However, in any population there are outliers. A
s the 20th century dawned, small numbers of people of French-Canadian origin rose to positions that commanded wealth, honor or authority in the United States. Some of this class would certainly qualify as “rich uncles” on either side of the border. 

In this period, the Franco-American elite would've included the clergy, professionals (especially doctors and lawyers), business owners, and journalists.4  It might also include company officials, bankers and brokers, agents (mostly in insurance or real estate), and government officials, elected or appointed.

People of French-Canadian origin, in all of these vocations combined, made up 9668 individuals (377 women), 3% of employed Franco-Americans. There are more than six times as many Franco-American cotton mill workers. In the U.S. at large, the percentage of people having these elite positions was 6% of all employed people, double the percentage for Franco-Americans. The Franco-American elite, as defined by these occupations, made up a minuscule 0.6% of the U.S. elite.

The 1900 census data on occupations gives a rare snapshot of French-Canadian origin people across the U.S. at the end of a peak period of migration away from the St. Lawrence Valley. Franco-Americans, both men and women, served in more than 100 occupations, in every industry, and at every level of skill and education. However, most people of French-Canadian origin in the U.S. at the time were still concentrated in factory or farm work. In percentage terms, not many rose to positions of affluence or honor. But a few – including a small number of women – did.


1. U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor, Bureau of the Census, Special Reports Occupations at the Twelfth Census, prepared under the supervision of William C. Hunt, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1904. Cf. esp. General Tables, pp 68-75. My Tables 1-3 derive from this report.

2. I have included in my "other textile mill operatives" category those who worked in woolen, silk, hosiery and carpet mills, as well as those who were listed in the report above as unspecified “other textile mill operatives.”

3. Special Reports Occupations at the Twelfth Census, xxvi, 7n1.

4. In my count of medical professionals among these elites, I included those listed as "physicians and surgeons" and "dentists."

Monday, November 11, 2019

Were 19th Century Canadiens Bad Farmers?

Reading the usual literature about Franco-Americans one gets the impression that our Canadien forbears were bad farmers. The agricultural woes of the Saint Lawrence Valley in the 19th century are a ubiquitous theme, and bad farming is often mentioned in that context. Many such discussions describe a stock set of deficiencies said to have bedeviled the region’s agriculture.

For example, in his seminal book The French-Canadian Heritage in New England Gerard J. Brault writes,

The nineteenth-century Quebec farmer, like his New England counterpart, tilled the soil, planted, and harvested according to age-old custom and stubbornly resisted any change. He did not use manure or any other kind of fertilizer, kept turning over the same old top soil with a shallow plow, sowed unclean and unimproved seed, allowed weeds to grow everywhere, and knew nothing about crop rotation.1
A generation before Brault, agricultural historian Robert Leslie Jones gave a more detailed account of the alleged shortcomings of 19th c. French-Canadian farmers. Jones set these farmers against the background of the standard theory that Lower Canada (Québec) faced an agricultural crisis in the first half of the century. During this period, writes Jones,

Nothing the habitants could do, seemingly, promised economic salvation. By mid-century their situation had become one of chronic distress. Clergy, businessmen, newspaper editors, and politicians continually discussed it. They agreed in their analyses of the more obvious defects of agriculture in the St. Lawrence Valley – lack of fertilizing, lack of proper rotation, lack of approved stock-raising methods, lack of improved implements, too much concentration on wheat – but they showed much difference of opinion when they tried to account for these defects.2
The 19th c. French-Canadian farmer became a problem for “clergy, businessmen, newspaper editors, and politicians” to solve. It was not enough for them to make suggestions for improving the efficiency of farms. Elites also felt compelled to “account for these defects” in French-Canadian agriculture. The seigneurial system of land tenure was among the alleged causes of what Jones calls the bad farming of the French-Canadians” and the “backwardness of the seigneuries.” Others blamed overpopulation in the region, poor access to markets, and a lack of formal instruction in agriculture.

19th c. Habitants: Bad Farmers?
Another reason Jones cites as “commonly given” for the supposed “backwardness” of Québec farming was the “ingrained conservatism of the habitants.” He invokes this alleged trait to impute the futility of government sponsored efforts toward agricultural education. Behind this conservative posture, says Jones, lurked “the spirit of French-Canadian nationalism.” “Dedicated as they were to the preservation of their laws, their language, and their religion,” Jones writes, “they resisted any change, however small, in their mode of life. It was this aversion to innovation which rendered the distress in the seigneuries so acute, and made it so difficult to ameliorate.”3

Thus the biggest problem with the 19th c. French-Canadian farmers, according to Jones, is that they were French-Canadian. For Jones, had they stopped being French-Canadian, i.e., had they ceased to remain a people distinct as to “their laws, their language, and their religion,” then they would have been more open to “innovation” and their agricultural deficiencies would not have been “so difficult to ameliorate.” Jones suggests that “French-Canadian nationalism,” i.e. the desire of the French-speaking person of Québec to remain such, was a major cause of their alleged “bad farming.”

The 1850 Report on Lower Canada’s Agriculture

One of the documents Jones relied upon was an 1850 report of a special committee on agriculture filed with the Legislative Assembly of Canada.4  This committee had the parliament's mandate to investigate the state of agriculture in Lower Canada, to make recommendations for its improvement, and to address the disposition of crown lands. The report includes many pages of expert testimony submitted in writing.

Report of the Special Committee on Agriculture
for the Legislative Assembly of Canada (1850)
The report identifies “three capital vices” in Lower Canadian agriculture: “One relates to manure, another to the rotation of crops, and the third to the raising of cattle.” Another defect is too much land sown with a single crop: wheat, the principle product for market. Poor drainage is also an often-cited problem.

But this report lacks hard data to compare Lower Canada’s agriculture with that of other regions of North America. The report assumes that Lower Canadian farming is in a bad state, and much worse off than the best European operations. However, what little data is cited shows that in 1831, when insects that had devastated other 19th c. harvests were not a factor, Lower Canada's wheat output per capita was marginally higher than Upper Canada’s (i.e. Ontario's) and much higher than that of the United States. Even if French-Canadian farmers could have markedly improved their yields by using better methods, in terms of production of the staple crop they held their own with other North Americans all things being equal.

U.S. Farmers – Equally As Bad?

If mid-19th century French-Canadian farmers were bad, then their U.S. counterparts were little better. U.S. farms were also beneath the bar set by European agriculture. And the very same defects that observers claimed impeded French-Canadian agriculture beset U.S. farmers as well.

Consider the 1864 report by Joseph C. G. Kennedy, produced under the auspices of the U.S. Secretary of the Interior based on data from the 1860 Federal Census.5  Although this document is mainly quantitative in character, as befits the author’s position as Superintendent of the census, it is the qualitative description of U.S. farming in Kennedy's introduction that is relevant to the present discussion.  

“It has been said that American agriculture is half a century behind that of Great Britain,” writes Kennedy. “Our land is not as thoroughly under-drained, manured, and cultivated as that of England, Scotland, or Belgium.” Kennedy cites an English journal’s prediction that the U.S. would become an importer rather than an exporter of grain due to the American's "scourging" system of agriculture that exhausted the land.

Replying to these criticisms, Kennedy unwittingly reveals the defects in U.S. farming. Conceding that poor farming methods had exhausted some lands, Kennedy writes,

That any of our so-called exhausted land can be speedily restored to its original fertility, we have abundant evidence. All that is necessary, is to cultivate the soil more thoroughly, under-drain where it is wet, sow less grain and more clover and grass, keep more stock, and make more and richer manure….
American agriculture is in a transition state. In the older-settled sections of the country there is much land that has been exhausted of its original fertility. Here the old system of farming, which was simply to raise all the grain that the land would produce, is no longer profitable. But yet some farmers, with that aversion to change for which they are everywhere proverbial, are slow to adopt an intelligent system of rotation and manuring, and cling to their old ways.6
Kennedy’s account shows that the alleged defects of at least "some" U.S. farmers were identical to those ascribed to their Lower Canadian counterparts. These defects, common to both countries, included poor fertilization, poor drainage, and inadequate rotation of crops; insufficient livestock; and sowing too much land with a single crop. The same “ingrained conservatism” Jones attributed to French-Canadian farmers Kennedy bestowed upon their U.S. colleagues. But where Jones made this conservatism a national trait of the French-Canadians, Kennedy attributes it to the occupation of the farmer. Clinging to old ways is, for him, an occupational hazard. He thought that farmers “everywhere” were averse to change.

Whereas the authors of the 1850 Canadian report, and latter-day scholars like Jones, fretted over the problem of the “ingrained" traits of the French-Canadian farmer, Kennedy pinned his hopes on a younger, can-do generation. “We must look to the intelligent young men of our country for any great improvement in its agriculture,” Kennedy writes. “Our young men are beginning to realize that agriculture is worthy [of] their highest ambition, and that in no other pursuit will intelligent labor meet with a surer reward.”

Same Facts – Different Frame

Nineteenth-century North American farming, in the U.S. and Canada alike, appears to have been less scientific than the cream of European agriculture. To explain the differences between the two continents, Kennedy observes that there was an abundance of cheap land on the western side of the Atlantic, but a shortage of farm labor. In much of Europe, every cultivable scrap had been cultivated long ago, and a dense population meant plenty of available farm workers. Geography and demography explain why North American farming was different from the European brand. North American farmers of the 19th c. had not yet thought to learn the best methods available in Europe because it hadn’t been in their interest to do so.
Kennedy's report on U.S. Agriculture (1864)

While official reports from the period suggest that the same deficiencies dogged both U.S. and French-Canadian farmers, the frame put around the former was optimistic, while observers depicted the outlook for the latter as decidedly glum. 

In contrast to the discourse around the habitants, the defects in U.S. farming were not personalized; modern farming was seen as a set of practices, more or less interchangeable from one farm to another, that a younger generation could learn as the need arose. Kennedy’s report sees U.S. farmers as rational actors who will respond effectively as prompted by self-interest. 

On the other hand, observers cast French-Canadian farmers as inertial, influenced to move, if at all, only from the outside. For Kennedy, solutions to the problems of U.S. farming were technical, while, for generations, discussions of French-Canadian agriculture tended to become sociological, for instance Jones's talk about "nationalism" and allegedly "ingrained" traits. Elites pondered not only a change in French-Canadian farming practices, but in the French-Canadians themselves. 

Were 19th century French-Canadians bad farmers? Perhaps by world-class standards but not by North American ones. Especially in the eastern parts of North America, Canadian and U.S. methods of farming, and the limitations of those methods, were not much different from one another. A similar set of facts prevailed in many rural regions of North America, but the frame elites and subsequent observers placed around those facts, depending on whether they were looking at U.S. or at Québec farmers, was markedly different.

Much more in my book:

A Distinct Alien Race: The Untold Story of Franco-Americans

1. Gerard J. Brault, The French-Canadian Heritage in New England (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1986), 52.

2. Robert Leslie Jones, "French-Canadian Agriculture in the St. Lawrence Valley, 1815-1850," Agricultural History 16, no. 3 (1942): 145-46.

3. Jones, 148.

4. Journals of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada, Volume 9, Issue 2, 1850, Appendix T.T.

5. Joseph C. G. Kennedy, Agriculture of the United States in 1860, Compiled from the Original Returns of The Eighth Census, Under The Direction of the Secretary of the Interior (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1864).

6. Kennedy, x.

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.