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.