Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Franco-Americans Need To Tell their Own Stories

I was sitting in a bar chewing the fat with a friend. He noted that my book connected the story of the descendants of French-Canadians in the U.S. with the broader themes of the country’s history. He considered this a good approach because, said he, “no offense, but no one gives a sh*t about these French-Americans.”

No offense taken. He is right. I’m well aware that not only do few people care, but few people know anything about the Franco-Americans. And when I say Franco-Americans, I mean chiefly the descendants of the industrial workers and other manual laborers who came from Québec and the former Acadia to the industrial areas of New England between 1840 and 1930.

Their story has been largely forgotten even among the narratives where it should appear, e.g., in the story of the Cotton Kingdom; in the histories of industrialization; or in the annals of the Catholic Church in the U.S. Franco-Americans should have a chapter in each of these stories, but they are frequently overlooked or their contribution is minimized.

But the story was not forgotten because it’s unimportant; it’s considered unimportant because it’s been forgotten.

Why was it largely forgotten even by many of the descendants themselves? When I wrote an article to address that question called “Why Are Franco-Americans So Invisible?” a gentlemen responded online in the lovely, charitable manner characteristic of social media: “BECAUSE THEY NEVER WANTED THE SPOTLIGHT, YOU MORON !!” There’s some truth there. 

The Franco-Americans tend to dislike standing out or calling attention to themselves. As one of our number said to me, “we were taught that you don’t speak well of yourself, you let others speak well of you.” Since we didn’t speak of ourselves, few others spoke about us. Thus, the story was never woven into the national fabric.

But in its day, especially from 1880 through the early 20th c., French-Canadian immigration was a medium-sized deal. It was never the biggest issue facing the U.S., but it was in the national consciousness. Newspapers around the country, including the New York Times, covered it; national news magazines like Harper’s and The Nation published pieces; authors penned books in French and English; our ancestors were discussed in U.S. Senate hearings on labor; H.P. Lovecraft
vilified them, while writers like Jack Kerouac and Grace Metalious gave them literary life from an insider perspective. 

The French-Canadian textile operative was a known stereotype like the Chinese railroad laborer, the Slavic coal miner, the Jewish toiler in the garment industry, or the Mexican farm worker. But unlike these latter figures, the French-Canadian of the Northeast faded from the collective memory.

It seems to me that the Franco-Americans themselves, in their humility, never appreciated how important they were. Not wanting to call attention to themselves, they allowed the story to lapse. They shared few details with their children or grandchildren, who increasingly began to speak English and blend in with the majority, identifying with its values and history.

Since I’m not willing to let the story of my ancestors fade into obscurity, I think it's high time to reverse this process. And that means that it is up to Franco-Americans to tell their own stories. And where there are blogs, books of essays, conferences, presentations, plays, etc. about us, we should be leading the charge. We should at least be consulted and represented. 

When I’ve said this – and I have done so publicly and not without passion – some people leap to the conclusion that I mean that no one who is not Franco-American can or should tell the Franco-American stories. I mean nothing of the kind. 

We have been blessed to have a few non-Franco-Americans take an interest in us and tell our stories. But I do insist that these “outsiders” tell the story in an informed, responsible, and respectful way and I plan to hold them accountable. I ask that they at least talk to us, question us, and test their assumptions before telling us about our own historical experience. And, without mentioning names, I’ve seen this outsider perspective done both well and poorly.

People who come to the story from an outside perspective may offer a fresh and critical view. They are valuable. But the insider view is equally necessary. This insider view is important because it’s possible for an outsider to marshal all the facts but miss the truth. What one can make out of a set of facts does not always amount to the truth. Those who have the lived experience of growing up with Franco-Americans who worked in those mills hold this deeper truth, what I would call the emotional truth, of what it is to be Franco-American.

I grew up outside of the Franco-American enclaves and knew few facts about the history. But I knew all four of my grandparents, three of whom grew up in the mill towns and worked in those factories (the fourth grandparent grew up in Canada). They went to the bilingual schools, attended the French language church, and had French as a first language. 

When I researched and started marshalling facts about their history, I put ample flesh on the bones. But the structure, the spine of my narrative was there, literally in my DNA. And when I learned about the history, I could see how very Franco-American my family was, even while living in a suburb.  

When I’ve insisted that Franco-Americans should represent themselves, I’ve received a heated, negative reaction. There’s something threatening about this idea. Some people think I’m being divisive and exclusive. I’ve been de-platformed from speaking at a university because of this; I’ve been bawled out in the parking lot coming out of an event; I’ve been called “rude,” “hateful,” and “pathetic.”

I’m not complaining. I can take it. But I wonder about the heat of this rejection. And I also think that, were it any other ethnic, racial, or religious group in this country my notion that the insiders should lead and represent themselves in telling their own story would be entirely uncontroversial. Elsewhere, the principle “nothing about us, without us” is commonplace, as ordinary as a morning cup of coffee.

We must also acknowledge that there’s more than one Franco-American story. They are legion. There are the stories of men and of women. The stories of the workers and that of the miniscule Franco-American elite. The story of the typical industrial worker and the stories that don’t fit that mold. And there are the New England stories, and the Franco-American stories in other regions from New York state to the upper Midwest, to the Pacific Northwest. 

There are many stories, and some of them are bound to be contrasting and even contradictory. But it’s up to us to tell them. It’s up to us to redefine and represent this story that has faded from the national consciousness.

The alternatives are that this tale is mistold or that it vanishes forever. And I’m not willing to let my ancestors disappear without a fight.

I discussed these issues in an episode of the French-Canadian Legacy Podcast. I invite you to listen here.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Where Did the Term “Franco-American” Come From?

We have a nomenclature problem. There is no unambiguous way to refer to ourselves. We have many origins as descendants of French colonists in Canada and Acadia, detached from France hundreds of years ago, and then relocated to the United States. Some call themselves Franco-Americans, others French-Canadians, or French-Canadian-Americans, or Acadians (as the case may be), or just French.

I’ve written about the nomenclature issue here and here. Eventually, I became bored with the semantics. Most any of those terms will do, depending on who is speaking and to whom. In the introduction to my book A Distinct Alien Race I parse these terms, but only to define how I am using them for clarity’s sake. I don’t insist that these terms have precise meanings or that my usage is prescriptive.

In my experience, the term “Franco-American” is and was used more frequently by elites and historians than by the descendants of French-Canadian industrial workers. I didn't hear it growing up. And it’s a term used almost exclusively in the Northeastern U.S. Elsewhere, it tends to get a puzzled look. Or it evokes images of canned pasta. 

Some observers believe that the term is of recent vintage. It’s not. It’s well over a century old. And, I believe, it was promoted right after 1900 for a purpose: to unite the French-Canadian (we’d say Québécois today) and Acadian elements in the Northeast U.S.

The General Conventions

The evidence for this assertion is in a book called Historique des Conventions Générales des Canadiens-Français aux Etats-Unis 1865-1901 (Woonsocket: L’Union Saint-Jean Baptiste d’Amerique, 1927) by historian and congressman Félix Gatineau (1851-1927), leading light of the Southbridge, Massachusetts Franco-Americans. As the title makes clear, Gatineau’s book is a compendium of the correspondence, minutes, speeches, and occasional press reports surrounding the nineteen General Conventions of the French-Canadians of the United States held between 1865 and 1901.

These conventions brought together the elites from among the French-Canadians of the United States, mainly journalists, professionals, and priests, to discuss matters of interest to their community. These conferences usually involved hundreds of delegates meeting over several days. They convened all over the northern states from Detroit (1869), to Chicago (1872), to New York City (1865, 1866, 1874), as well as in smaller industrial towns like Biddeford, Maine (1873), Cohoes, New York (1882), and Nashua, New Hamsphire (1888). Questions related to preserving the French language, to parochial schools, and to naturalization were perennials on the agendas of these conventions. 

Our story focuses on the materials in Gatineau’s book about the 19th such convention, held in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1901 (Gatineau, 354-498). Although Gatineau numbers this among the general conventions, the papers related to it make clear that this was a regional conference involving New England and New York.  

Before 1901, the organizers and delegates refer to these gatherings as the general conventions of the Canadiens-Français des Etats-Unis [The French-Canadians of the United States]. The people who are the subject of these conventions are invariably referred to as Canadiens-Français or Canadiens. These terms are used consistently. Unless some eagle-eyed reader corrects me, I see zero usage at these conventions of the term Franco-Américains (or its English equivalent) to describe any group of people prior to 1901.

Enter The Acadians

A new term came into use at the dawn of the 20th century because of an influx of Acadians. Over the twenty years or so before 1900 and into the early 20th century, there was a significant Acadian emigration from Canada’s maritime provinces, especially toward Maine and Massachusetts.

The later 19th century was also the era of the Acadian Renaissance. In this period, Acadian nationality solidified. Acadians adopted a flag and a national holiday. They held regular conventions of their own to gather representatives from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, New England, and Louisiana (yes, there was a Louisiana delegate or two at these early Acadian conventions).

Since the era of the general conventions of French-Canadians of the United States began in 1865, a new national consciousness had taken hold of the Acadian community that then grew on both sides of the border. When it came time to call such a general convention for 1901, the committee appointed to this duty sent a communiqué around the Northeastern states. These organizers, led by President Dr. Omer Larue of Putnam, Connecticut, employed the familiar language of conventions past. The organizing committee called delegates to a “congrès générale des Canadiens-Français.” This message went out on June 22, 1901.

But Dr. Larue and his crew received complaints from the Acadians of the Northeast because the term Canadiens-Français did not include them. That Acadians lodged such complaints is evident from a second communiqué Larue and company sent dated August 3, 1901. This document is addressed to the “Acadiens-Français de la Nouvelle-Angleterre et de l’Etat de New-York” [French-Acadians of New England and the State of New York] specifically. The French text of this fascinating document [Gatineau, 356-57] follows with my translation below.


The attention of the organizing Committee of the Congress, that will take place in Springfield next October 1st and 2nd, was attracted to the fact that the text of the announcement published last June 22nd does not mention the Acadian-French in precise terms. Recognizing that this omission, if omission it is, could become a subject of misunderstanding for the valiant sons of those knights who survived one of the greatest crimes against humanity that history has recorded;

Recognizing also that, if, even in Canada, there could remain a line of demarcation, a semblance of division, between the French of the province of Québec and the French of the maritime provinces, it is not the case in the United States; everywhere French-Canadians and French-Acadians live as brothers, are part of the same parishes and societies, and share the same aspirations since they have identical interests;

The organizing Committee of the Congress of Springfield invites the French-Acadians who are part of distinct societies or who live in isolated groups in New England and the State of New York to kindly make themselves represented at the Springfield Congress, according to the conditions indicated in the announcement mentioned above.



DR. OMER LARUE, of Putnam, Connecticut.


J.-A. FAVREAU, of Worcester, Massachusetts

August 3, 1901.

A third communiqué from Larue’s committee dated August 17, 1901, providing more detailed information about the Springfield convention, takes cognizance of Acadian objections. It is addressed to the “Canadiens-Français et Acadiens-Français de la Nouvelle-Angleterre et de l’Etat de New-York” [French-Canadians and French-Acadians of New England and the State of New York]. 

This third communiqué ends with the following note: “N.-B.Il est entendu que pour les fins de ce Congrès les Acadiens-Français de la Nouvelle-Angleterre ne forment qu'un seul corps avec les Canadiens-Français.” [It is understood that, for the purposes of this Congress, the French-Acadians of New England form a single body with the French-Canadians].

But “Canadiens-Français et Acadiens-Français de la Nouvelle-Angleterre et de l’Etat de New-York” is a mouthful. Larue and his colleagues had a solution. They would use the term Franco-Américain to describe the delegates at the 1901 convention in Springfield and the people they represent. This term would apply equally to both French-Canadian and Acadian people living in the U.S. It would unite these two elements in a new U.S.-based, francophone identity.

A New Term Appears

In 1899, a Société Historique Franco-Américaine [Franco-American Historical Society] appeared in Boston. Its mission was to “bring to light…the share which the French race has played in the evolution of the American people.” [cf. Adair, E. R. Review of Les Quarante Ans de la Société Historique Franco-Américaine. The Canadian Historical Review 23, no. 4 (1942): 423-423.] Speakers at the Springfield Convention of 1901 refer to this historical society. But it's at the convention that I see the term Franco-American applied to people. 

In the third sentence of his speech opening the Springfield convention, Dr. Larue introduced this term. He speaks of a “réunion plénière des Franco-Américains de la Nouvelle-Angleterre” [plenary meeting of the Franco-Americans of New England]. Larue repeats the term “Franco-Américain” several times in his opening speech.

Other speakers at this convention follow suit. Charles-Edouard Boivin, a journalist of Fall River, Massachusetts, refers at the beginning of his speech to “les sociétés et les groupes Franco-Américains de la Nouvelle-Angleterre et de l’Etat de New-York” [Franco-American societies and groups from New England and New York]. As did Larue, Boivin uses the term more than once. 

The discourse of Edouard Cadieux of Holyoke, Massachusetts, President of the Union Saint-Jean Baptiste d’Amérique refers to the “Franco-Américains de la Nouvelle-Angleterre.” Speaking on the subject of naturalization, Dr. Camille Coté of Marlboro, Massachusetts also uses the term “Franco-Américain.” And when the mayor of Springfield addresses the convention in English, he calls it “the Congress of French-Americans.”

There were also discussions in Springfield of “LA PRESSE FRANCO-AMERICAINE” [the Franco-American Press] and a “PROJET DE COLLEGE FRANCO-AMERICAIN” [the project of a Franco-American college], although the editor Gatineau may have supplied these headings. 

When the convention adopted its final resolutions they are offered by “les représentants des Franco-Américains de la Nouvelle-Angleterre et de l’Etat de New-York” [the representatives of the Franco-Americans of New England and the State of New York]. And when the convention called for a permanent commission to continue its work, Larue and company penned a circular letter on this subject in February 1902 addressed to the “Franco-Américains” of the region.

“Franco-Américain” is not the only term these speakers in 1901 use to describe themselves. They continue to use Canadiens and Canadiens-français. The eminent Major Edmond Mallet, friend of Louis Riel and a stalwart of the conventions, prefers the term Canado-Américain. But, in the recorded history of the conventions, the term “Franco-American” appears quite suddenly in Springfield in 1901 and it is used fairly consistently in the papers related to that convention, and that convention alone, of those recorded in Gatineau’s Historique.

This consistency, especially in the discourse of the leaders of the 1901 convention, suggests to me that not only did these organizers adopt this term, but they coached others to use it. In adopting this term, elites moved to unite the Québécois and Acadian elements in the Northeastern states, to persuade them that they formed “a single body.” And in doing so, “Franco-American” began to emerge as an identity in the region.

Why a Regional Identity?

This issue of accommodating both Acadians and French-Canadians was a concern for the Northeast U.S. because there was a self-consciously Acadian element there by 1901. This helps explain why the term “Franco-American” is reasonably well-established in New England and New York but almost unknown among our compatriots in the Midwest. Although I’m sure one could find some Acadian descendants there (they tended to be everywhere), to my knowledge, the Midwest did not have a self-identified Acadian element.

Further, the Springfield Convention was a regional, Northeastern conference and the nomenclature issue the convention’s organizers had to solve was a regional affair. There was no one lobbying in the Midwest for the term “Franco-American” because there was never any reason to. 

It is credible to me that the term Franco-American was intended to unite Acadian and Québécois groups in the region because a very similar thing happened much later. Politically-minded people in the State of Maine revived and promoted the term Franco-American in that state in the later 20th century to unite, as a voting block, descendants of Québec in the mill towns with the more rural, Acadian-identified people in the state’s North. This information comes from veteran activist Yvon Labbé and at least equally veteran Maine politico Severin Beliveau.  

I do not claim that the papers of the 1901 Convention contain the earliest attestations of the term “Franco-American.” Nor do I conclude that the Convention is the only reason some of us use the term. But I do contend that the Springfield Convention was a catalyst in promoting that term in the Northeast and in its eventual acceptance.   

Why I Prefer the Term Franco-American

The term “Franco-American” unites the French-Canadian and Acadian elements and that’s why it is my preferred term. My grandmother was an Acadienne, born and raised on Prince Edward Island, although my other grandparents had roots in Québec. 

My great-grandfather, Félix Doucette, had a small role in the Acadian Renaissance as a student at Fr. Georges-Antoine Belcourt’s school in Rustico, PEI; his father Joseph Doucette fought and suffered for Acadian rights in the Tenant League Riots on the island. It seems appropriate for me to honor them with a label that includes them. Since I unite in myself French-Canadian and Acadian elements, I call myself a Franco-American. 

That term also embraces the fact of our Americanness, after some generations on this side of the border. I was born and raised in one of the original 13 states. I’m from the U.S. and rather undeniably so. Nothing against Canadians, but I’m not any kind of Canadian. 

I won’t correct you if you get it wrong, because for me there’s more than one right answer. But, if you ask, I will tell you why I prefer “Franco-American.”

Monday, December 28, 2020

An Attempt at a French-Canadian "Colony" in South Carolina

Before the pandemic, I gave a presentation in a private residence to a small group in Maryland. I enjoy telling my Québec/New England-based stories outside of the region because audiences have fewer preconceptions and ask surprising questions. At this presentation in Maryland someone asked why the Franco-American textile workers in New England didn’t move to the Southeast when the industry began to relocate there in the early 20th century.   

I’m sure there was no large-scale exodus of Franco-American labor from New England to the South in that period. But I have found evidence of at least one attempt to lure them southward.

A French-Canadian “Invasion” of the South in 1903

The New-York Daily Tribune, in its May 7, 1903 edition, reported on an attempt to establish a French-Canadian “colony” in Dixie.
A Project to Establish Colonies in the Cotton Belt.
Washington May 6 (Special).— A party of well to-do and influential French Canadians passed through Washington last night, bound for the South where they will make an extensive examination of the cotton belt with a view to selecting sites for one or more French Canadian colonies. It is expected that this will prove to be the beginning of an extensive immigration of French Canadians who have been attracted by the glowing accounts they have heard of the Southern States, and, impressed with the establishment of extensive cotton mills where the younger members of their families can find employment, are seriously contemplating the purchase of extensive tracts of land, which will be used by the older colonists for agricultural purposes.
Exactly who these “well to-do and influential" French Canadians were I haven’t yet ascertained, but their plan was clear. Many of their compatriots in the States had come from farms in Québec and planned a return to agriculture by heading south. The younger generation, many of them having worked in the mills of New England, would find employment in the South’s growing textile industry. 

The following piece from the Batesburg (South Carolina) Advocate of September 30, 1903 alludes to the Spring visit of the French-Canadians and gives further details about their plans. These Canadiens, it appears, were arriving via Massachusetts.
A Lot of French Canadians to Settle Near Summerville [South Carolina].

And Are Now Engaged In Building Homes at the New Settlement, Others Will Follow Soon.

The News and Courier, of Thursday, says that Mr. L. Scott Allen, who is connected with the land and industrial department of the Southern Railway, with headquarters in Washington, arrived in Charleston Wednesday morning and immediately afterwards went up to Summerville. Wednesday night he returned to the city and is located at the St. John Hotel. His visit to this section is in the interest of a colony of French Canadians which is to be established on the line of the Southern Railway near Summerville, and all of this is a direct result from a visit paid by a number of French Canadians last May.

It will be recalled that early in the spring a party right from the manufacturing districts of Massachusetts visited Charleston under the chaperonage of Mr. Allen, and inspected the lands here and at Summerville. They seemed much pleased with conditions and prospects and indicated that they would consider the advisability of bringing a large number of their countrymen, French Canadians, then working in the mills, to the Sunny South, where they could once more engage in agricultural pursuits as they desired.

The first of the colonists have arrived, the contingent numbering two families, 10 persons in all. The site of the colony is about a mile and a half out of town and Civil Engineer Hale of the Southern railway put its services at the disposal of the colonists in running the lines for the fences and houses. The contingent is just an advance corps of the many people who will arrive here next month and in November from Canada and New England.

The Southern railway land agents have arranged to bring large numbers of Canadians south, to settle at various points in South Carolina and the Summerville colony will be one of the largest and most encouraging. Land Agent Scott Allen of the Southern has the particular colony in charge, is accompanying the pioneers, and will be here for several days assisting them in their settlement. The Canadians are all a fine class of people and their arrival in Summerville means a big thing for the town and vicinity. The Canadians will engage extensively in farming and raising cattle. They will build their own schools and churches and the colony will be a settlement of some proportions and importance.
This account of the settlement, which was to include French-language schools and churches, suggests that the plan was for the "colonists" to form self-contained, French-speaking neighborhoods, like the enclaves they had established in New England’s industrial towns. The French-Canadian organizers were planning to move the “Little Canada” from Massachusetts to South Carolina, just as a previous generation had 
moved the Québec parish from Canada to New England. 

However, the Southerners regarded the Canadiens as “a fine class of people” a positive regard not often shared by their Northern compatriots. Or perhaps the promoters wanted both the French-Canadians and the locals to believe that there was positive regard. 

Promoting The South 

The Southern Railway promoted agriculture and industrial development in the Southeast with vigor. Railroads in the 19th century were often given land grants by governments and these lands were managed as potentially profitable assets. Railroad companies, especially in the West, had land management offices that promoted the development of towns and industry along their routes.

Burke Davis’s history of the Southern Railway [The Southern Railway: Road of the Innovators, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985] claims that the railroad’s president Sam Spencer tied the economic development of the South to the future of his business. He hired M. V. Richards, "a resourceful promoter," to lead his "land and immigration" department. The L. Scott Allen mentioned in the 1903 Batesburg Advocate piece was Richards’s 
Boston-based colleague.

Promising "cheap and contented labor."
Southern Railway ad 

in textile trade journal 
Fibre and Fabric
Jan. 22, 1898.
Davis recounts how Richards's office promoted the Southeast through a regular bulletin (printed in English, French, and German) with information about the rich opportunities available; through leading influential parties on Southern junkets; and through exhibits at fairs and expositions. Richards took his PR campaign to Canada and Europe, as well as to various parts of the U.S. 

Davis also notes that the Southern Railway encouraged the “migration of the New England textile industry to the South” through an “aggressive program.” The proceedings of the New England Association of Cotton Manufacturers confirm these promotional efforts.

In the Autumn of 1897, Richards wrote to the Association, then convening in Philadelphia, offering to sponsor them on a tour along the Southern Railway to survey the opportunities for the cotton textile industry in the South. Then President of the Association, Russell W. Eaton, Agent of the Cabot Manufacturing Company of Brunswick, Maine, took a group of twenty Northern 
cotton manufacturers, a few accompanied by their wives, on the week-long train ride. 

Embarking on Friday, October 29, 1897 from Washington, D.C., and returning there on November 4, the small party was feted throughout Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, with stops for site visits at mills and other attractions along the way.

The excursion of the “well-to-do” French-Canadians that L. Scott Allen led in 1903 was probably not dissimilar to the trip Eaton and his cotton manufacturers had taken six years earlier. Such promotions, claims Davis, did bring "colonists" to the area. He found that the railway's efforts led to “a substantial influx” to the region “including colonies of some size” consisting of European immigrants: Germans, Swedes, North Italians, Czechs, and Hungarians.

The Colony That Wasn’t

An influx of French-Canadians, however, the vaunted “big thing for the town” of Summerville, South Carolina, never occurred. Despite the detailed plans, there was no significant resettlement there of French-Canadian workers from “the manufacturing districts of Massachusetts.”  

The U.S. Census of 1910, seven years after the fervor of 1903, finds only three French-Canadian families, totaling nine people, in Summerville and neighboring Dorchester township. The family names are 
Bessette, Gaumont, and Quintal. 

All but one of these nine were born in Canada, the exception being 9-year-old Theodore Gaumont, born in Massachusetts. This detail suggests that these three families may be all that was left in 1910 of the 1903 attempt to resettle Massachusetts Franco-Americans in the South. 

These three families do not appear to be living in close proximity to one another which suggests that the dreams of 1903 for a tight-knit French-Canadian neighborhood never materialized. 

The three families are likely to have seemed quite foreign in the Summerville of 1910 where almost everyone was born in South Carolina, as were their parents. Per the abstract of the U.S. Census, 94.4% of the population of South Carolina in 1910 was born in that state (second only to North Carolina in that category). Only 0.4% of South Carolinians were foreign-born. This contrasts sharply with Massachusetts in 1910, where 55.3% of the population was born in that state, while 31.5% of the Bay State's residents were born outside of the U.S. 

The same abstract of the census records only 39 people born in French Canada in the entire state of South Carolina in 1910. The three families living in Summerville/Dorchester township make up nearly a quarter of the state's entire French-Canadian contingent.  

The French-Canadian families in 
Summerville/Dorchester township practiced agriculture. Two of them owned farms, while one family rented theirs. The couples that founded these families were in their 50s and 60s in 1910, except for the Gaumonts who were in their 30s. The census data would tend to confirm the detail in the 1903 Tribune piece that the proposed Summerville development was to include “older colonists” seeking a return to agriculture. 

Two of the heads of household of these French-Canadian families were naturalized U.S. citizens, while the third, “Moses” [Moises] Quintal, was neither naturalized, nor could he and his wife speak English. They had two adult daughters who could speak English and probably they enabled the family to function in Summerville.

But the French-Canadian families did not stay in the Summerville area. As far as I can tell, by 1920 they were gone. The fate of two of the three families after 1910 is uncertain, but I see no evidence for their continued presence in the vicinity by 1920. 

The Gaumonts appear to have given up on the farming life to return to the mills. The 1920 U.S. census finds the Gaumonts in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The male head of household worked as a loom fixer in a cotton mill, where his wife and their now 19-year-old son were weavers. They abandoned the southern experiment and returned to the North.

Railway station in Summerville
circa 1935-40
For unknown reasons, the “colony” of French-Canadians in Summerville fizzled. The Francophone school and church were never built. Younger generations never took jobs for any length of time in local textile mills. Within less than 20 years, nothing would remain of this attempt to bring French-Canadian farmers and textile workers from New England to the South. 

Were there other such attempts? The Tribune piece of 1903 suggests as much. Further research awaits…

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Why do I tell the Franco-American story?

My friends at the French Canadian Legacy Podcast asked a few of us to write on this theme: "Why do I tell the Franco-American story?" Here is my response.

Why questions are ambiguous. The question “Why do you tell this story?” can mean “What was the impetus that gave rise to you telling this story?” Or “why” can mean “What is your purpose in telling this story?” I’ll speak first to how I started telling the Franco-American story and then to what might be some purposes in telling it.

I have always been interested in the origins of things. When confronted by anything from a style of music, to the X/Y coordinate system in algebra, I would wonder how it came to be, how it developed, and who was involved. I’m unclear on the origin of this interest in origins. My mother’s storytelling and her interests certainly influenced me.

I’ve been a storyteller since I can remember. I imagined my own stories and was both the creator and the audience for them. Eventually, I wrote them down. I started writing when I was 11. I wrote about 100 pages of a sci-fi novel around that time, believe it or not. My interests turned toward nonfiction in high school, philosophy and history in particular. I read, researched, and scratched naïve notes in loose leaf notebooks. I’d write, and I did, when the only one who read it was me.

As I recount in the introduction to my book A Distinct Alien Race, it was at age 19, while I was in college, that my father died. He was buried with my mother’s family in Biddeford, Maine where there is a vast Franco-American cemetery where almost all of the text, on almost all of the gravestones, is in French. At least it was at that time. It’s not just a few gravestones, either, but many thousands, spreading out over acres. When the priest who came to read the prayers at the burial asked if we wanted them read in French or in English, I knew I had to explore these origins.

After getting a college degree I slowly developed a career as a researcher, writer and editor for academics, authors, businesses, and consulting firms. I have a small number of academic citations in some of the areas I researched and wrote about for my clients. It seems obvious, in retrospect, that I would combine my interest in Franco-American origins with my profession. But when I started learning in detail about the Franco-American story, I didn’t conceive of myself as a public storyteller of that particular story. 

Starting around the turn of the 21st century, I occupied myself at almost every possible moment at the New England Historic Genealogical Society library in Boston. I filled notebook after spiral bound notebook with handwritten scrawls of genealogical and historical information, extracted from the library like impacted wisdom teeth. My notes dealt with history as much as with genealogy. 

On the Number One bus between Comm Ave., Boston and Harvard Square, Cambridge, I would pour over what I had written in my notebook that day, often typing up and organizing the notes once I got home. I was telling these fragments of Franco-American stories to myself, and then to my sister, and to one or two other people in my family. I wasn’t writing a book yet.  

It was only when people asked if I were writing a book, or suggested I write one, that my interest began to go public. I wrote a couple of articles for publications like Le Forum out of the University of Maine, Orono, and I had a website, and then a blog. I read every year at the gathering of writers and artists under the auspices of the Franco-American Center at the University in Orono. It was the response to these early forays into telling the story that encouraged me to make my research and writing on these topics public, leading to speaking engagements, a book, articles in mainstream publications like Smithsonian and TIME, and more speaking.

That’s a sketch of the series of events that led me to tell the Franco-American story. But why bother telling Franco-American stories?

Why do we tell any story? Because stories make meaning of our lives. It looks as though humans can’t live without making meaning. If anything, we have a glut of meaning. We tell so many stories about ourselves and others that we populate the universe with our meanings.

Let’s not understate the weight of storytelling. The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad and The Odyssey, The Bhagavad Gita, The Bible consist, in whole or in part, of stories. Of such are derived entire civilizations and worldviews. Stories bring worlds into existence.

I heard a vague story growing up about my Acadian great-great-grandfather Joseph Doucette and his involvement in the Tenant League Riots on Prince Edward Island. The story, as sketchy as it was, conveyed volumes. The story situated my ancestors in a hierarchy and taught me that there was some “we” who had a prescribed relationship to that hierarchy. 

It also conveyed the perception that our ancestors were the underdogs, struggling against a perceived injustice, and that the “bad guys” were the English. This was different from most of my friends in the good ol’ USA for whom the English were friends and allies, as most Americans in the generations born after World War II regard them. The story also suggested that there was a difference between what was legally binding and what was morally right.

Along with the story came the emotionality of it: we were the ones fighting. There was conflict, loss, hope, pride a whole set of feelings that came along with the story.

I’m also aware of the potentially dangerous limitations of any origin story, storyteller, and storytelling. No telling is comprehensive, none definitively true in an apodictic sense or even in an emotional sense. I have no illusion that my telling of the Franco-American story is complete or definitive.

To craft a narrative is like carving a statue out of marble, a great deal is left on the scrap heap. Stories thrive on omission, on emphasis, on juxtaposition of this detail placed like a diamond in this setting rather than that one. Their incompleteness – the narrative equivalent of negative space – gives them form and life.  

There are so many Franco-American stories that I’m unable or incompetent to tell them all. It is impossible to tell it all and remain coherent. The truth of Franco-Americans is not the fragments I happen to have told, but all of the stories, the sum total of all tales – both real and those we imagined to be true.

So, why do I tell the Franco-American story?

Because my father died when I was 19 and I never had a chance to have an adult relationship with him.

Because I’m a storyteller from way back, and I’ve found a juicy yarn, that I thought I could tell well.

Because it makes meaning for me and, it seems, for others, too.

Because history is for the present. The fact that we never learn from the past doesn’t mean it’s useless to tell the stories.

Because if we don’t tell the stories the people who said “it’s the rabble who are leaving” Québec; the people who said we were a “low and sordid people,” that we had been kept “a distinct alien race”; the Klan, eugenics advocates, and their ilk, will win. Can’t have that.

Because my forebears lived and died in those mill towns and their spirits won’t let me not tell the tale.

Because, now, there’s someone out there listening.

Because it’s mine to tell.

My book
A Distinct Alien Race is available here

Monday, May 4, 2020

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

Mistakes. You try to avoid them of course. You check your facts and then check them again and still errors sneak through.

If you read many books about the same subject – as I did when I was researching the textile industry – you will find factual errors in all of them. Without exception. This includes books published by the likes of Harvard and Yale. This is not to make excuses for my own errors. There is no excuse. But I am in good company.

Below are a few mistakes of fact (excluding typos) that we have discovered after publishing the book A Distinct Alien Race: The Untold Story of Franco-Americans.

Page 220: I state that William MacDonald was President of Bowdoin College. He was not the President but a professor of Political Science and History at Bowdoin from 1893 to 1901. The President of Bowdoin in this period was William De Witt Hyde – who, like MacDonald, also wrote about Franco-Americans.

Page 238: I state that “One of the first General Conventions of Canadiens of the United States in October 1868 condemned the then-recently created Dominion of Canada. It censured what the convention saw as undue pressure on Nova Scotia to enter the Confederation. The Convention called for U.S. annexation of Canada or a republican form of government for the latter.”

This passage is based on press reports of the 1868 convention and I cite an article in the New York Times from October 9, 1868 as my source. Apparently, a telegraph press release regarding the convention was issued, and used as the basis of the Times's report and several other press accounts.

Gatineau's History of the Conventions
of the French-Canadians of the U.S.
However, in the October 13, 1868 edition of the New York Times, J.B. Paradis, a Secretary at this convention, in a letter to the editor, corrects that newspaper’s account of the convention’s work. Paradis confirms that political resolutions along the lines indicated by the Times were offered at the convention but voted down. He writes that the convention “was in no respect of a political character. Its only object was to promote the interests of the St. Jean Baptiste societies in this country, and especially to effect a union among them all.”

The book Historique des Conventions Générales des Canadiens-Français aux Etats-Unis 1865-1901 (Félix Gatineau, ed., Woonsocket: L’Union Saint-Jean Baptiste d’Amerique, 1927) has only brief notes about this 1868 convention, but what is there tends to corroborate Paradis’s account. It is as of yet unclear to me exactly what happened at that convention, but I would tend to honor Paradis’s eyewitness report.

In my text, the point of citing this convention was to show support among Franco-Americans of this period for the annexation of Canada by the U.S. The offering of these resolutions, even if voted down, tends to corroborate that annexation was on the minds of at least some Franco-Americans.

Page 296: I place the Whitin Machine Works in Whitinsville, Rhode Island. Whitinsville is in fact a village of Northbridge, Massachusetts, about ten miles from the Massachusetts/Rhode Island border.

None of these factual errors overturn the conclusions of the book. But truth is a high priority. Where mistakes were made, we'll correct them. The mistake regarding William MacDonald was corrected in the second printing of the book. The others will be handled in subsequent editions. I will update this list should further errors of fact come to light.
Purchase the book here.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

A French Catholic State in North America? Rescuing Tardivel

“La Vérité,” the organ of the Ultramontane Party, says that confederation is merely a half-way house for the French Canadians; their goal is “the complete autonomy of the French Canadian nationality, and the foundation of a French Canadian and Catholic state, having for its mission to continue in America the glorious work of our ancestors." 
Thus wrote W. Blackburn Harte in a November 1890 issue of a U.S. news magazine called The Forum. Harte's quotation in this passage is a not inaccurate translation from a piece that had appeared in La Vérité, a Québec newspaper, the previous year.1 

La Vérité was frequently cited in both the U.S. and Canada as a source for the notion that the 19th c. French-Canadian Catholics were engaged, in Harte’s phrase, in “open sedition.” Supposedly, they were plotting to separate Québec from its rightful sovereign in Great Britain, perhaps taking part or all of New England with them

An Immigrant Becomes an Advocate

Jules-Paul Tardivel, the founder and editor of La Vérité, was an immigrant to Québec. He was not Québécois de souche. Born in Covington, Kentucky in 1851, Tardivel’s father was French (of France), while his mother was English (of England). His parents were immigrants in the United States. The future Jules-Paul grew up calling himself Julius Tardeville. 

Right across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Covington emerged as an industrial center in the 19th century. Like its neighbor in Ohio, Covington attracted immigrants from Europe, Catholics in particular.

After his mother died, Julius and his sister lived first with an aunt and then with an uncle, a Catholic priest in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Influenced by priests from 
Québec who had come to the Midwest to counter the anti-Catholic agitation of Charles Chiniquy, Tardivel’s uncle sent him to Canada to receive a classical education. He matriculated at the Collège de Saint-Hyacinthe, an ultramontane stronghold. Tardivel did not speak a word of French before he was 18 years old and entered Québec to pursue his studies at the famed seminary. 

Upon completing his education, he made a brief, disappointing reappearance in the U.S. and then returned to 
Québec. He became a French-Canadian by adoption. Like the religious convert who is a more fervent believer than the lifelong adherent, Tardivel became more Canadien-français than the Canadiens-français. He was an outspoken advocate for a conservative, ultra-Catholic strain of Québec nationalism. 

When Tardivel founded the newspaper La Vérité in 1881, after an apprenticeship as a journalist and a literary critic, he intended to remain independent of party politics. Like Saint-Jean Baptiste himself, Tardivel would be a voice crying in the wilderness in the service of a vision of the Canadiens-français as a Catholic nation. This new nation would, proclaimed Tardivel, continue the work of 17th-18th c. France in catholicizing and “civilizing” the continent. 

Jules-Paul Tardivel (1851-1910)
In his long career as the gadfly of Québec, Tardivel took issue with nearly everyone of importance in the province, including members of his own ultramontane set. He stood fiercely alone, inhabiting his own ideological space. 

Yet writers like Harte and the editors of the Toronto Mail made this odd-man-out represent the views of the Québec elite at large. They took a fringe figure – with quite an unusual background by Québec lights – and made him represent the mainstream of French-Canadian opinion. 

Much if not all of La Vérité is available online. The first thing a modern reader notices is that the utterances and writings of the Pope were front-page news. If the paper had a dominant theme it was opposition to Freemasonry. I intuit that a closer scrutiny would reveal the influence of U.S. anti-masonic literature on Tardivel.

There’s much in Tardivel that is bizarre, often objectionable from many of our modern viewpoints. He had a colonialist turn of mind, seeing himself as the possessor of an allegedly superior civilization with expansionist proclivities. Although he hearkens back to the days of Nouvelle-France, his talk of “civilizing” has more the flavor of 19th c. European French imperialism.

I have no intention of defending Tardivel in toto. But the implication that his views on 
Québec's future amounted to “open sedition” was false. Elements of the English-language press misrepresented Tardivel's stance, tearing his statements out of context. 

Tardivel’s Vision

Harte’s quotation from 
La Vérité in his 1890 piece in The Forum appeared in Tardivel's October 12, 1889 issue under the headline “Un pas en avant” (“A step forward”). The subject at hand was Wilfrid Laurier's address to a Liberal group in Toronto. Tardivel shares with Laurier the view that the “current Confederation is not the last word on our national destiny.” But Tardivel differed with Laurier in having a specific post-Confederation future in mind for his people. 

Writes Tardivel,

But we know and we loudly proclaim what we want, the future that we dream of, that we foresee for the French-Canadian race if it remains faithful to its providential mission. Why not say frankly what every patriot wishes from the bottom of his heart? For us, ‘the step forward,’ that we would only wish to take at the hour marked by God, is a more complete autonomy for the French-Canadian nationality, towards which it must lead[:] to the foundation of a French-Canadian and Catholic state having for its mission to continue in America the glorious work of the country of our ancestors.2
However, the “realization of the project” of “a French-Canadian and Catholic state,” continues Tardivel,
…does not suppose the least infringement of the rights of other races which have established themselves on the soil that our fathers conquered for civilization. We desire that the change [in Québec's political status] should be done naturally, peacefully, without shock, without upheaval, by mutual consent; but at last we want French Canada to be a country absolutely autonomous, living its own life, having its distinct place among the nations of the earth. There’s space enough on this continent for us, having our place in the sun, without inconveniencing the other peoples in the process of its formation. We threaten no one; we ask only for our national existence.
Tardivel’s vision is clear. He wishes only that the French-Canadian people will continue to exist, and he imagines that a day will come when a peaceful political change will result in an independent Québec. On that day, “marked by God,” a new French-Canadian nation will emerge that will in no way infringe upon the rights of minorities living in Québec

“We threaten no one; we ask only for our national existence.” But the mere wish for the continued existence of the Canadien-francais, in some post-colonial future, was threatening to Harte and his ilk, despite Tardivel's reassurances. 

New England and the Providential Mission

Did Tardivel’s support for the “providential mission” of the French-Canadians in catholicizing the U.S. mean that he advocated the overthrow of New England by a revived New France?

As early as 1881, Tardivel addressed the question of emigration to New England.3  Far from supporting the New England Canadiens as an advance-guard of Catholic missionary activity in North America, Tardivel sought a means to discourage emigration. He believed that the solution to the population drain was to return to the land, to the rural identity which he assumes is essential to French-Canadian nationhood.  

Tardivel believes that his people must learn to love agriculture once again. They must see in it their best chance for well-being and independence, thought Tardivel. Only the “colonization” of the hinterlands of Québec will discourage the outflow toward New England mills and factories. 

Tardivel's views on this particular subject were, for once, not contrarian. In advocating agriculturalism and the "colonization" of Quebec, Tardivel embraced the conventional wisdom of French-Canadian Catholicism in his day (see the famous work of Fr. Antoine Labelle).

In an 1885 piece, Tardivel explained what he called “our program” regarding emigration.4  This definitive statement shows how Tardivel’s talk of a “providential mission” implied neither an aggressive expansion southward, nor a deliberate subversion of U.S. political institutions. Writes 
We do not deny the providential mission of the French-Canadians who emigrate to the United States. If they preserve the Faith…they will certainly contribute, in a large measure, to the conversion of the United States…but beside that beautiful role there is a very real danger, it is the loss, for a great number, of the inestimable gift of that same Faith. 
Tardivel’s recommendation for avoiding this “danger” was to “colonize the province of Québec; we are the true masters here, but it’s necessary to become still more so. Here is our program for the moment.” Tardivel’s “program” did not include the conquest of New England. He sought rather the concentration of French-Canadian forces within Québec, and the consolidation of the province as a Canadien homeland. 

Tardivel calls again for a renewal of agriculture that will serve to fill the crown lands, create new parishes, and put an end to mass emigration. He would direct those who must leave 
Québec toward Manitoba or the Canadian Northwest, reinforcing the “French element” in these regions.

When the notion of a French-Canadian takeover of New England arose, Tardivel rejected it. In an 1881 issue of 
La Vérité, Tardivel discusses the insightful observations of a Frenchman (of France) named Jannet, who commented on the French-Canadians of Québec and New England.5  Jannet noted that some “Canadien enthusiasts” spoke of “Frenchifying” (franciser) New England. For Jannet, such talk was delusional. The vast majority of the emigrants were working class. These poor workers were unable to impose their mores “on a powerful American civilization,” Jannet reasoned. Tardivel found this argument “persuasive.” 

Commenting on Jannet's observations, Tardivel acknowledges that a small number of French-Canadians in the U.S. had acquired political office. But the Kentucky-born journalist thought that the French-Canadians of New England did not understand the U.S. political system. He concurred with Jannet that they did not have the capacity to subvert U.S. institutions even if they wished to do so.

Hopes and Dreams Are Not Sedition

Tardivel hoped for nothing more than the continued existence of the French-Canadian people. He also speculated that if they should survive, one day they would establish an independent francophone Catholic state in North America. 

Recognizing that such pronouncements have led to misunderstandings, Tardivel emphasized that he imagined a peaceful political transition to an independent Québec, but only by the hand of le bon Dieu, and such that the rights of other peoples were respected. Mere hopes and dreams for independence, at some indefinite point in the future, hardly constitute the “open sedition” of which Harte wrote. 

Although Tardivel recognized that the French-Canadians in the U.S. had some role to play in catholicizing the States, he preferred that they “colonize” the hinterlands of 
Québec. This was his “program” in 1885 and he never rescinded it. He remained a lifelong opponent of emigration to New England.

Harte and other anglophones who mined La Vérité tended to distort Tardivel’s views in order to agitate their readers and to stigmatize French-Canadians as disloyal citizens and political subversives. 

Political discourse in this period dwelt much more on the U.S. annexing Canada than on Québec annexing bits of the U.S. I’m turning my attention next to this annexation question, that loomed large from about 1890 until the First World War.

More about the "providential mission" of the French-Canadians in my book
A Distinct Alien Race



1. "'Un Pas en Avant,'" La Vérité, October 12, 1889, 12:90.

2. All translations from La Vérité are my own.

3. "Les Canadiens emigres," La Vérité, August 4, 1881, 2:2.

4. "Emigration et Colonisation," La Vérité, January 24, 1885, 27:2.

5. "Le Canada en France," La Vérité, August 11, 1881, 3:2.