Monday, August 13, 2012

Of How Many Does a French Canadian Family Consist?

The following item appeared in the Brunswick (Maine) Telegraph, May 28, 1875, page two.

Of how many does a French Canadian Family Consist?
A few facts will furnish a reply. There is a family at work in the cotton mill, which consists of a father and mother and twenty-four children, all the children large enough being at work. The woman is the fourth wife; a brother of the husband living with his fifth wife in Montreal, has twenty-five children. Three families arrived here last week to go to work in the mill and they numbered all told 37 persons. A lady friend of ours a few days since met a Frenchwoman, who, looking at the babe in the carriage said to our friend, “I have got fifteen of those.” The only possible reply of the lady with the one babe was, “Oh Lordie!” Ten and twelve and fifteen children are by no means uncommon in the French Canadian families, but twenty-four are a little above average.
My great-grandfather was one of 23 children by two wives. Another great-grandfather was one of 17, all born to the same woman. As astonishing at this seems by modern standards we might bear in mind that family size is conventional. There is no normal family size and customs vary.

The Ouellettes And Their Twelve Children
The picture on the right shows my great-great-grandparents Thomas Ouellette and Josephine (Racine), seated in the center, with their adult children in 1909. These are not their children accompanied by their spouses. All of these people are their children. One of the children, Thomas Ouellette fils, is not in the picture since this photo was taken in Maine and he had returned to live in his native Québec by this point. Another child seems to have died before this photo was taken. I can confirm that Josephine bore at least 14 children and there may have been others about whom I don’t yet know. (My great-grandmother Albina Ouellette Vermette, b. Roxton Falls, QC, 1868 is seated at the far right.)

I am often asked why they had such large families. The usual assumption is that the children were required to serve as the labor force on the family farm. This may have been one reason for the custom of large families, particularly in the earlier days when land needed to be cleared and more hands meant more axes chopping down more trees.

Another reason for the large families was political and involved what was known as la revanche des berceauxthe revenge of the cradles. The idea was that the Francophones would retake Canada from their English conquerors by out-reproducing them. I’ve heard some stories of priests in the confessional asking fathers (mothers seem to have had little say in the matter) why they were not producing more children.

The revenge of the cradle backfired. The rapid population growth outstripped the economic/agricultural development required to support it. This strategy, intended to bring about demographic dominance, led to the departure of a large percentage of the population. Historians will continue to debate the point but it seems to me that the flight from Québec in the later 19th and early 20th centuries, both to the States and to other Canadian Provinces, was the result of an underdeveloped economy.

Given the economic and personal risk, the emotional toll, as well as the social sanctions against making such a move, it seems unlikely that the rural poor would have left la belle province in such numbers unless they were under duress. Many families auctioned off all they had to finance their trip to the States. That’s a risky, desperation move.

Another reason for large families is that children were a farmer’s retirement plan, his and his wife’s Social Security. Life expectancy was considered to be about 65 years for those who survived childhood. In order to enjoy a few years of retirement after a long life of hard work on the farm, it was necessary to produce a son who could inherit the property and support the habitant and his wife in their old age. This son would need to be grown, established, and able to take over his father’s farm by the time his parents reached about 55 to 60 years of age.

About a third of the children born alive did not make it to adulthood. If a couple’s first children were girls, they had to keep reproducing in order to have a son ready to inherit at a suitable age. Since there was a one-in-three chance that any son produced would die in childhood, the couple’s insurance policy, at least up until a certain point in life, was to keep reproducing as long as they were able.

These practical reasons were probably not uppermost in the minds of the parents of these families, however. Once the custom of large families was established it persisted by the inertia characteristic of traditional societies. It was accepted and normal in their world that a woman would be pregnant most of the time between ages 20 and 40. 

Although large families continued to be a custom in the Québec Diaspora in New England, the birth rate began to drop slowly when these families moved into an industrial economy. In these New England Franco-American families, the “revenge of the cradle” factor and the motive related to the traditional socio-agricultural system lost their relevance. The Franco-Americans may have been influenced also by the relatively smaller family sizes of their Yankee neighbors. That said, large families persisted in many Franco-American communities well into the 20th century. The birth rate in Québec did not decline until about 1960.

1 comment:

  1. I would think that the birth rate in Quebec today is lower than it is among Franco Americans living in the U.S.