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…

1 comment:

  1. Great article/blog. Shoot me an email if you don't mind. Have some input on this topic (French in S. Carolina)