Thursday, September 20, 2012

Naturalization and Leadership in the Franco-American Community at Brunswick, Maine

General histories of the Franco-American communities in New England have claimed that the immigrants resisted naturalization. The usual reasons cited include a desire to avoid paying taxes to two governments and to evade service in the American military. The Franco-American community at Brunswick, Maine, however, does not seem to have been troubled by such concerns. Consider this item from the August 22, 1884 edition of the local newspaper, the Brunswick Telegraph, page 3:


Meeting of the French-Canadians. A meeting of French-Canadians was held in the Court Room, Town Hall, Monday evening, Joseph Dufresne being elected temporary chairman, and Louis Trudeau, sect'y. Henry Ragot addressed the meeting in French, upon topics in which the people were interested, the result of which was the formation of a permanent organization. President, Noel Vandall; Secretary, Louis Trudeau; Vice Presidents, Exavier Payment, Ermenigle Coulombe, Telesphore LaPoint, Jos. Machaud, Frank Maturin, Jos. Dionne, and Henry Ragot, Marshall.

The subject of naturalization was discussed, the question being, shall the French take out naturalization papers or remain foreigners? It was unanimously decided to naturalize, and 53 were found to be ready for naturalization; others will be naturalized when they become eligible. It was also decided that all possible means of information should be resorted to, to gain political information. (Note: Names spelled as they appear in the original article.)

The article shows the communal, tight-knit character of the Franco-American group in Brunswick. Although some Brunswick Franco-Americans had attained U.S. citizenship prior to the meeting, the issue of naturalization was not decided on an individual basis. It was deemed a vital interest of the Franco-American community as a whole and the community met in a body to discuss it. A consensus was reached and a "permanent organization" formed.

Who were the leaders mentioned in the article? Since many of the Brunswick Franco-Americans were from the village and county of L'Islet on the south bank of the Saint Lawrence does it then follow that the majority of the leaders were from this location? Were these leaders already naturalized and therefore able to help others to achieve citizenship?

I researched these leaders using Naturalization Petitions and checked the information there against the Drouin Institute microfilm of the Québec parish registers. Where there is a discrepancy between the date of birth given on the naturalization petition and what I discovered in the parish registers I have placed the date found in the latter in parentheses with the parish name and the number of the baptismal record.
  • Noel Vandal, President: b. Sorel, 1845 (December 25, 1844, Saint-Pierre-de-Sorel, B. 323). Arrived in USA: April 1, 1860. His initial "port of arrival" in the USA was the state of Rhode Island. The 1880 census corroborates that Noel and his wife had at least one child born in the Union's smallest state. He was naturalized on April 4, 1876. No witnesses are listed with his naturalization petition.
  • Louis Trudeau, Secretary: b. Saint-Constant, County of Laprairie, October 1, 1849. Arrived in USA: November 16, 1866, Brunswick. Naturalized: September 10, 1886. Witnesses: Alexis St-Marie, Casimir Deshetre, and Henri Ragot of Brunswick. 
  • François-Xavier Paiement ("Exavier Payment"), Vice President, b. Roxton Falls, Shefford County, June 6, 1857. Arrived in USA: March 1, 1869, Brunswick. Naturalized: August 23, 1882. Witnesses: L. (Louis) Normand and P.F. Root (Philibert Racine, alias Philip F. Root). 
  • Herminigilde Coulombe ("Ermenigle Coulombe"), Vice President, b. L'Islet, September 4, 1858 (September 4, 1857, Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours (L'Islet), B. 143). Arrived in USA: June 15, 1871, provides no place of entry. Naturalized: August 28, 1880. Witnesses: Joseph Dionne and Thomas Gagné of Brunswick.
  • Telesphore Lapointe ("Lapoint"), Vice President, b. Kamouraska, March 25, 1857 (March 26, 1858, Saint-Louis-de-Kamouraska, B. 30). Arrived in USA: March 1, 1871, Brunswick. Naturalized: September 11, 1886. Witnesses: Philip F. Root and Andrew Libby (André L’Abbé).
  • Joseph Michaud ("Machaud"), Vice President, gave his place of birth as "Quebec." This could mean either a parish somewhere in the province or perhaps he means the city of Québec. Date of birth: November 19, 1851. Arrived in USA: April 16, 1869, Brunswick. Naturalized: August 28, 1880. Witnesses: Joseph Dionne and Andrew Libby.
  • François-Xavier Mathurin ("Frank Maturin"), Vice President, b. Sainte-Rosalie, Bagot County, December 27, 1864 (December 26, 1863, Sainte-Rosalie-de-Bagot, B. 55). Arrived in USA: July 10, 1868, Brunswick. Naturalized: September 5, 1888. Witnesses: Pierre Letarte and Joseph Dionne.
  • Joseph Dionne, Vice President, b. Saint-Alexandre, County of Kamouraska, July 14, 1862. Arrived in USA: 1870, Brunswick. Naturalized: March 1, 1884. In his naturalization petition, filed just a few months prior to the publication of the article transcribed above, Joseph gives his address as Lewiston, not Brunswick. His witnesses, P.X. Angus and John McGraw are Lewistonians. I’m persuaded that this is probably the man cited in the article above, but I can’t be sure. There was no shortage of Joseph Dionnes available in Québec and its New England extensions at this time. 
Although his name appears in at least two petitions as a witness, I have not been able to find a petition for Henri ("Henry") Ragot, the only leader who is mentioned as having addressed the 1884 meeting. Unlike almost all of the Brunswick Franco-Americans of the time, the census of 1880 indicates that Henri Ragot, born in 1850, did not work for the Cabot textile mill. He was employed as a glassmaker. Louis Trudeau, not surprisingly, given his role as Secretary was a clerk. He was not an operative in the mill although he may have clerked at the mill.

Although the naturalization petitions do not allow us to determine the last known Québec residence of our petitioners (which is not necessarily the same as their place of birth), it appears that the L'Islet Brunswickers were not especially prominent in the leadership group. The leaders of the "permanent organization" had their origins in many regions of Québec. I find only one representative from L'Islet among them.
Naturalization Petition for Theodore Vermette:
He must swear he is neither an anarchist nor a polygamist!

Five of the eight leaders identified above were United States citizens at the time of the 1884 meeting. Allowing for some inaccuracies with respect to the very precise dates the petitioners provide for their arrival in the States it is evident that the leaders had been acquainted with Brunswick for some time. Most of them arrived in the 1860s and all of them claim to have come to the States before 1872.

Among the leaders, the President, Noel Vandal, had been in the States the longest. He was south of the border nearly 25 years before the 1884 meeting. He was naturalized eight years prior his election as President.

The Brunswick Franco community at large decided that it was to its advantage to engage the American political process. This makes Brunswick an exception to what we read in some general histories and contradicts the messages about Franco-Americans in the mainstream media of the day.

This post was excerpted and edited from an article with the same title written in 2006.

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