Quebec and Hinterland Canadians

In several weeks, I will have the privilege and pleasure of sharing my work on Franco-Americans at a colloquium on Quebec Studies at my dear alma mater, Bishop’s University. Below is a sneak peak, which may touch on themes familiar to friends and frequenters of this blog.

Though Franco-Americans in the hinterland were typically not served by a local ethnic press, resources that tell of their experience survive. Population statistics, oral testimony, and the record of institution building enable us to bridge local histories often authored by independent researchers. Other newspapers, either Canadian or American, also carried items about migrants in geographical peripheries, but often without identifying individuals—often relegated to social notes, advertisements, or legal notices in back pages—specifically as migrants or as members of a minority group. In light of the limited scholarly attention devoted to northern New York and northern New England, including the near-absence of scholarly work on the Franco-Americans of northern New Hampshire, the importance of reimagining a regional narrative is patent. In so doing and, especially, in examining the early phase of the diaspora and its legacy, we may find that we are developing a larger view of Quebec, one unconstrained by political boundaries.

As Lower Canada’s great demographic hemorrhage began after the Rebellions of 1837-1838, migrants and immigrants sought opportunities primarily in Vermont and Maine. According to geographer Ralph D. Vicero, of the approximately 8,000 French Canadians in New England at the end of the 1830s, some 90 percent were likely living in either of those states. By 1850, “[m]ore than 48% of New England’s French-Canadians were to be found in the four counties (Grand Isle, Franklin, Chittenden and Addison) which front Lake Champlain.” Their five largest centers in Vermont were within short distance of the international border: Burlington, St. Albans, Swanton, Highgate, and Colchester (then including Winooski). In Maine, small pockets of settlement emerged in Waterville, Old Town, Orono, and Skowhegan, but altogether the French Canadians in these four towns still amounted to less than a thousand in 1850 and most migrants settled in the northern Aroostook region. Although outside of Vicero’s scope, New York State was also a major destination for those seeking to better their lives on U.S. soil. From different bodies of evidence, scholars have formed widely diverging estimates of total French-Canadian migration prior to the Civil War, a challenge made all the greater by the seasonal and often temporary nature of migrants’ movements. We can, however, expect that the net migration from Lower Canada to New England prior to 1861 exceeded—perhaps considerably—Vicero’s estimate of 22,000.

The emergence of a cohesive rail network across the Northeast and the expansion of the textile industry in the 1850s altered French-Canadian patterns of settlement. It became easier to travel to the Merrimack Valley and southern New England and more alluring to seek easy wages in manufacturing establishments. Consequently, beginning with the Civil War, historians tend to shift their gaze to the Little Canadas rising in the shadow of smokestacks. The Franco-American communities of northern New York and New England did not disappear, however, nor did the region cease to attract immigrants. In fact, Franco-American life became increasingly structured, between 1865 and 1900, in the less populated areas of the Northeast just as it did in large cities.

Bishops responded to this influx of Roman Catholics by creating national parishes where previously there were simply missionary circuits or “Irish” churches. In the 1860s, such parishes appeared in quick succession in villages and “mini-mill towns” like St. Johnsbury, Winooski, East Rutland, Fairhaven, in Vermont, and Waterville, in Maine. A critical mass of French Canadians also justified the creation of fraternal and mutual benefit societies in places far removed from large agglomerations. A great celebration of la Saint-Jean-Baptiste in Montreal in 1884 included delegations from Champlain, Cohoes–Troy, Glens Falls, Plattsburgh, Rochester, and Whitehall in New York State; Montpelier and Vergennes in Vermont; Berlin, Claremont, and Lebanon in New Hampshire; and Portland, Maine. In 1886, the biennial Franco-American convention was held not in eastern Massachusetts, but in Rutland, Vermont. Scholars should only warily claim that Quebec was “transferred bodily” in these rural regions, as they have in regard to urban Little Canadas, yet it remains, as will be seen, that the “hinterland Canadians” could be as noticed, as disruptive, and as thoroughly connected to the homeland as their city-dwelling compatriots.

The mere mention of the above places hints at the diverse occupations that enabled French Canadians to complement or replace income earned in Canada. Vicero drew attention to the docks and ships of Lake Champlain; the woolen mill of Winooski; stone and marble work in Rutland County, Vermont; the boot and shoe industries in the Cocheco River region of New Hampshire; agriculture in northern Aroostook County, Maine; and lumber and wood trades along the Kennebec and Penobscot rivers. Historian Susan Ouellette adds that Plattsburgh, “a modest but lively commercial hub,” offered the varied opportunities that accompany a diverse economy. Canadians in and around the city worked as farmers and farm laborers, lumberjacks, teamsters, and tradesmen. As David Vermette has argued, woolen and cotton mills did employ thousands upon thousands of French Canadians over the course of generations. And yet, again, to focus entirely on those mills is to impoverish our understanding of the expatriated Canadiens.

The pattern of migration did not simply tend to favor larger cities over time, as the post-Civil War period would suggest. The weight of French-Canadian immigration shifted across sub-regions in northern New York and northern New England as new opportunities arose between 1870 and 1930. Through chain migration, some locations remained firmly tied to regions of origin in Quebec, but change occurred. Aroostook County in northern Maine was an early destination for French Canadians, especially those living downstream from Quebec City. Other areas became more attractive at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth, as with Berlin, Rumford in Maine, and the Upper Androscoggin basin, thanks notably to the pulp and paper industry. Upstate New York tended to decline in importance and some Vermont towns and villages saw a net loss in French-Canadian population in the 1860s and 1870s. Yet “Franco” life still thrived in small centers—Claremont and St. Johnsbury, or Laconia in New Hampshire—and beyond. In 1910, 42 percent of Franco-Americans in Vermont were still deemed rural, hardly the sign of headlong rush into factories.

We know, then, where these “migrants on the margins” settled and what they did. We presume that their historical experience differed substantially from that of their cousins in places like Fall River, Lowell, and Manchester. But what of that historical experience, and would it merit a new and distinct narrative?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *