The First Franco-Americans Revisited: Revolutionaries and Refugees

Last spring, on this website, I wrote of Clément Gosselin and other French Canadians who participated in the American War of Independence. After three years, a lengthy labor of love now comes to fruition with the publication of my “Promises to Keep: French Canadians as Revolutionaries and Refugees, 1775-1800,” which will appear in the next issue of Brill’s Journal of Early American History.

The article follows the Canadians who were swept up in the “Patriot” invasion of Quebec in 1775-1776, who continued to serve in the Continental Army, and who were resettled along Lake Champlain when peace returned. Although the French-Canadian combatants likely never numbered more than 300 after the summer of 1776, both they and their families posed a major financial challenge to the leaders of the nascent United States. While the men continually pleaded for pay and pensions, women and children lived in Albany and Fishkill, New York, on rations authorized by Congress. The allocation of land in Clinton County, near the international boundary, in the 1780s in fact proved to be rather poor compensation in the short term.

While my article will be available from Brill, I take this opportunity to whet your appetite with some fast facts you won’t find in the published version.

1. The French-Canadian officers and soldiers spent the bulk of the war split between two regiments. James Livingston’s regiment included three companies of predominantly Canadian soldiers, led by captains Augustin Loiseau, Jean-Baptiste Allin, and James Robichaud. Another regiment, led by Moses Hazen, had French-Canadian companies led Laurent Olivier, Philippe Liébert, Michael Gilbert, and Antoine Paulint. Each regiment had its own operations until Congress disbanded Livingston’s, in 1781, and some men were integrated into Hazen’s regiment. Significantly, whereas Hazen continually advocated on his Canadian soldiers’ behalf and offered them promotions, Livingston was of a different mind, writing, “I think them unfit to serve as officers of the Continental Army, yet must recommend them to the Hon[orable] Continental Congress for half-pay.”

2. The two “Canadian” regiments were consistently the least provided for. Whereas most units were supported by individual states, these two regiments were supported by Congress, which had no power of taxation and regularly failed to meet its financial obligations to the troops. Surviving reports of soldiers without shoes, or dressed in tatters, are all too common. A table of items needed by Hazen’s regiment before absorbing the Livingston soldiers is quite telling:

  Good Bad Wanting
Breeches   45 363
Woolen overalls   29 379
Stockings 13 153 803
Shirts 13 253 803
Hats   253 416
Shoes   253 389
Blankets   166 408

Of the invalids at Fishkill, a French officer remarked in 1780 that “[t]hese honest fellows were not covered even with rags; but their steady countenances and their arms in good order seemed to supply the defects of clothes and to display nothing but their courage and their patience.”

3. The wartime fracture between Canadiens north and south of the boundary line was not permanent. There may have been lingering resentment, ideological or otherwise. But the veterans who settled in northern New York especially from 1786 onward regularly visited Quebec (and, soon after, Lower Canada). Jean-Baptiste Hamelin, then listed as a resident of Point Au Roche, south of Chazy, married Agathe Bureau in Chambly in August 1788—and asked that their child thereby be legitimized in the eyes of the Catholic Church. A week later, Jean Langlois of Chazy River married a local girl, Marie Chartier, also in Chambly; the priest recognized their three children. Another week passed and veteran Etienne Trahan married a niece of Clément Gosselin. Through the next three decades, the Franco-American population of upstate New York continued to avail itself of the “spiritual resources” available along the Richelieu River, possibly laying the basis for later migrations between the Richelieu parishes and northern New York and Vermont.

For those of you who may be looking for French-Canadian ancestors or family connections to the War of Independence, Debbie Duay of the Daughters of the American Revolution provides a list of soldiers on her website. The list is neither complete nor without its errors, but it provides a solid starting point, as do the Continental Army enlistment records on

Next week on Query the Past: French Canadians’ connection to another “American” War, the conflict in the American Southwest and Mexico in the 1840s. Stay tuned.

Addendum: Click here for access to my article.

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