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.”