Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The French Canadian Presence in Michigan: Two Waves of Immigration

French North Americans have dwelled in the Great Lakes region since the 17th century. For the 18th century French, this area was the Western part of Canada as this map indicates. The USA’s upper Midwest remains the home of a significant community of French descent on the continent. I have turned to Michigan native and guest blogger James LaForest owner/writer of the fine blog Red Cedar to provide an historical perspective on the French Canadian presence in his home state.

Two Waves of Immigration
by James LaForest, guest blogger

When Michigan became a state in 1837, it began the latest stage in the evolution of an area inhabited for thousands of years by indigenous tribes. It had been over 200 years since Étienne Brûlé explored the area in 1620 and French Canadians had inhabited the region since the late 17th century when missionary Father Jacques Marquette set up the first permanent settlement at Sault Ste-Marie. Detroit was founded in 1701 and the first wave of French Canadian immigration to this particular area of New France then began in earnest.

The second wave of French Canadian immigration was to the state of Michigan spanning the period from1840 to the early 20th century. This wave of immigration was largely in the mold of other great immigrations to the USA when people seeking a better life left their homes for other lands. Jobs in mining and lumber in Michigan were plentiful and the new arrivals went on to have a strong impact on the development of the Saginaw Bay area and the Keweenaw Peninsula. 

Like other immigrant groups, this second wave sought to maintain their ethnic identity. This was initially achieved through publishing French-language newspapers, new Catholic parishes, and building communal organizations. Unlike the first wave of immigrants, the 19th century arrivals were consciously moving to the USA. Many had some English-language skills, facilitating their assimilation. As the immigrant generations passed away, succeeding generations did not maintain the cultural organizations formed by their parents and grandparents.

The first wave of immigrants had moved to the Great Lakes area not so much as immigrants but as habitants, residents of New France. Subjects of the King of France, they were in Detroit as farmers, millers, traders, voyageurs, coureurs de bois, missionaries, outfitters, and soldiers. When the French lost the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759, the French-speaking population of what would become Michigan became subjects of a new king. The Treaty of Paris in 1763 formalized their new status. American control of the territory was largely consolidated by the late 18th century under treaties that ended the American War of Independence.
Hennepin's Map of the Great Lakes Region 1683

Habitants and voyageurs in the land they called the pays d'en haut were very much on the margins of empire, at the far reaches of society. They were in the process of discovering, pressing on the boundaries of civilization. Despite illiteracy, this French-speaking population created a new culture that was influenced highly by the experience of travel to and within the great interior of North America.  

Michigan's earliest French Canadians intermarried with many tribes that lived here already, and the Métis communities that formed in the 17th through 19th centuries were part of the fabric of the culture at that time. Descendants of the early Métis families largely integrated either into French or Indian families and subsequent generations did not see the flowering of Métis culture as occurred in Canada. Nevertheless, many French Canadians in Michigan today who descend from the first wave of French arrivals can also trace their families to the indigenous tribes of the greater Great Lakes area.

I'm generally of the mindset that most of my ancestors were not native to this land. However, there is also a sense of belonging that comes with longevity. It might be called a sense of place, in which after so many generations, the air you and your ancestors breathed, the water you drink, and the land upon which you walk all become intimately familiar. 

When you know the landscape so well, and you are inherently part of it, when a place is unveiled to that extent, the idea of immigration fades away. Where you are is in you and you are in it. This is simply to say that French Canadian identity in the Great Lakes area is a unique heritage, an identity that was shaped in ways that do not conform to the typical image of an American immigrant community. 

Les Cheneaux Islands, Lake Huron
Upper Peninsula of Michigan
The idea that the first wave of French Canadians in Michigan were immigrants at all is dispelled through this reading of history. First, they were explorers, traders, and missionaries. Then they were habitants, living in the Detroit River region and other areas. When Quebec fell, they became part of another nation, with allegiance demanded by another king, and when that king lost his colonies, they became Americans. For most French Canadians in Michigan today, their French ancestors did not immigrate to the territory; rather they were residents in a course of historical events that ultimately made them Americans by circumstance rather than design. 

This set of circumstances creates a picture of a much more complex French Canadian identity in the Great Lakes area than might have existed if the only wave of immigration had been the 19th century arrivals. This perspective should not undermine the sense of place and belonging of later immigrants, nor should it minimize the experience of the aboriginal peoples. Rather, it places first-wave French Canadians among them as family, partners in trade, and ultimately countrymen. And in the end, it ties us to the land in a way that is unique among Americans and which is a heritage that many descendants of those early habitants are keen to ensure is not forgotten.   

Thank you to David for the invitation to be a guest blogger. Also to Michelle and Anne, with whom I share many early Detroit ancestors, for their thoughts on the topic. For further reading, I recommend John P. Dulong's French Canadians in Michigan and Jean Lemarre's The French Canadians of Michigan: Their Contribution to the Development of the Saginaw Valley and the Keweenaw Peninsula, 1840-1914.

Next: My Book A Distinct Alien Race Now Available for Pre-Order


  1. I would like to thank James for his fine contribution to my blog as I try to gather the strands of the various francophone or franco-gene groups in North America. The situation of the first-wave Michigan French-Canadians is not unlike the Acadian presence in Northern Maine. Like these midwesterners, Maine’s Acadians in the St. John’s River Valley found themselves ‘stranded’ on the USA side of the border in their case by the Webster-Ashburton Treaty which settled the northeastern USA border in the 1840s. They, too, became Americans by accident and not by design. They maintain a strong sense of ethnic identity and the French language is spoken widely in their community.

  2. Excellente .. Well done .. There were many other Nouvelle Francaise trading posts, forts and Metis communities (circa 1600-1750) throughout the Northwest Territories that Michigan was eventually carved from as well as Illinois, Wisconsin and parts of Iowa, Indiana and Minnesota. Barbeau, Michigan is a town that is named in recognition of one of my ancestors Pierre Barbeau who migrated to Sault Saint Marie circa 1817 from Montreal. He was not the first of my Nouvelle Francaise ancestors to court the areas eventual to become Michigan as Barbeau and Baribeau voyageurs and craftsman had help build the first Fort Miami (Maumee) with Monsieur La Salle 1680 ish on the St. Joseph River, the first Fort Pontchartrain with Monsieur Cadillac 1701 and 1702 and was with Monsieur Duluth when he was at Sault Ste. Marie and Fort Michilimackinac. In 1747 one Sieur Baribeau (Barbeau) was resident trader at the Fort Michilimackinac trading post. In 1826 one "Chief Barribeau" Metis enjoyed the distinction of signing the Miami Indian Treaty with the USA as part of lands that would be later surveyed for Michigan Statehood. As an aside the "Hennepin" map presented enjoys or suffers great debate as to its authorship. It is generally recognized as being plagiarized from René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle own work. Vive la Michigan and Vive la Barbeau et Baribeau .. Great article really enjoyed .. divinite .. Baraboo et Barbeau et Baribeau ..

  3. Loved this article, so well written. My husband's ancestors, the Réaume's and Drouillard's were habitants on the south shore of the Detroit River and thereby, by accident, became first British, then Canadian citizens. The longevity of these lines in this area does make the connection to the land so much more powerful.

  4. Do we know whether many of the ancestors of French-Canadians in Michigan were originally from south-west France (e.g. Gascony) ?

    1. Thanks for your question. Most of the French emigrants to North America were from Northern and Western parts of France. Some came from other regions, perhaps including Gacony, but most would have come from more northern parts of 17th - 18th c. France.

  5. I am the grand daughter of Flora LaForest and Hector Dion.

    Wondering if James and I are related.

    Susan Dion Sheldon on FB.

  6. Hopefully someone can answer this question. If a man from this area in the early 1800's spoke only French and 2 different Indian dialects, would he be part Indian? Or was it common for the French Canadians to speak the native language of the Indians?

    1. Many French-Canadians involved in the fur trade could speak the languages of Native North American peoples. It was not uncommon. It was necessary for the trade. It does not necessarily indicate Native ancestry. It certainly doesn't rule it out either.

      You might be interested in blog post related to fur traders. The fur trader profiled there, François-Benjamin Pillet, could speak a number of Native North American languages.