Thursday, June 23, 2005

Immigrants and War: French Canadians in the Civil War Era III

NB: This is the 3rd and final part of a series (Here is Part 1 and Part 2). If you don't feel like reading the other three, I guess you could be satisfied reading this post. As far as the entire 4-part series goes, it is a conflation of a traditional research paper with online links interspersed. Time prevents me from a thorough going-over, so any mistakes, misattributions or faulty citation (in short, "sloppiness") should be taken with a grain of salt. While I'm aware of some formatting inconsistencies, I ask that the reader pass over those: I'm more concerned with the content than the presentation. Nonetheless, it would be appreciated if legitimate scholarly errors or oversights were brought to my immediate attention.

Part 3: French Canadians in New England after the Civil War

French Canadian Reputation in America

At the end of the Civil War, the old patterns of migration back and forth across the border did not return. Thousands of French Canadians who had worked in the New England textile mills before the war returned to New England and joined those who had stayed throughout the war. In 1865, the great French Canadian migration truly began, but they did not only go to New England. The abundance of farmland in the American Midwest and work in the timber industry in places like Michigan and Wisconsin was attractive to many habitants. Eastern Canadian cities were well connected to the eastern cities of the United States via railroad, which in turn connected to the American Midwest. Despite the romantic allure of life in the west, it still cost less to move to New England and most French Canadians did choose to remain close to home by settling in the “petit Canadas” of New England factory towns. [1]

Their willingness to migrate to these “petit Canadas”, despite the filth and poorly kept housing that characterized these neighborhoods, led to a reputation of being an ignorant and unclean people. “Darkness, foul odors, lack of space and air, shabby surroundings, all these were universal characteristics of tenement life, to which the French Canadians had no exclusive claim, but their quarters were repeatedly singled out as among the worst or most ill-kept in New England.”[2] The reasons for living in these ghettos were many. Economic factors were the primary reason as it was simply cheaper to pack a family into a small row house, which was often owned by their employer. Additionally, they had a natural desire to live near those who they knew and they moved to those neighborhoods in which their relatives and friends lived. Finally, they followed the tendency of most immigrants, especially those from a rural background, to want to maintain their traditional values in a new environment. Settlement in “petit Canadas” allowed them to be close to their work and also allowed them to settle in a neighborhood that closely resembled the parish that they had left. The surroundings may have been alien to them, but the familiar people and sense of community provided a cocoon that insulated them and helped them cope with the monumental differences between American society and that of their heritage.[3]

Their willingness to employ all able members of their families in the mills allowed them to survive on less than the average American family, but also caused them much ill will. A reputation of excessive frugality caused jealousy among other workers, who often referred to the French Canadians as the “Chinese of the East.” Finally, the fact that many had been brought in as strike breakers did not gain them any sympathy from their co-workers. These were but a few of the problems encountered by the French Canadians as they tried to make a living in America, but these were experienced by many immigrant groups. The French Canadian encountered more resistance than many other immigrant groups chiefly because of their apparent unwillingness to accept and be accepted into American culture. [4]

La survivance: Benefits and Drawbacks

La survivance was both a noble ideal and a stumbling block to the full acceptance by Americans of French Canadian immigrants. When the French Canadians arrived in the United States, the prospect of them staying or going back to Canada was often an open question for both themselves and Americans. At first, they didn’t seem inclined to make the U.S. a permanent home. They sought jobs in the U.S. because of poor economic conditions in Canada and hoped to earn a few hundred dollars in the mills and return to their farms to continue to aspire to the ideal of la vocation de la terr. Those who did not return to Canada immediately did send money home, which seemed to indicate the transient nature of their stay in America.[5]

Unlike European immigrants, the French Canadians in New England were geographically close to their homeland and the maintenance of family and communal bonds was facilitated through visits, reading newspapers from Canada and by sending their children to be educated in the land of their heritage. This open, dual loyalty puzzled many Americans, especially when contrasted with the attitudes of the majority of other immigrant groups. To many Americans, the French Canadian people appeared willing to reap the rewards of the economic boom while at the same time unwilling to participate in American society as a whole. This dichotomy led to much resentment, and it was the French Canadian attitude towards religion, education, and language that led to the most suspicion.[6]

The Catholic French Canadians took their faith to Puritanical New England and faced many obstacles as they attempted to practice their religion. It is true that there were already Roman Catholic parishes throughout New England, but most of these had been established by the English speaking Irish who had been established firmly in New England prior to the arrival of the French Canadians. The Irish viewed the French Canadians with jealousy and suspicion, an attitude at least partially developed from the fact that the Irish were overwhelmingly pro-union and had seen French Canadian strike breakers brought in by mill owners time after time. Misunderstandings between the two groups were exacerbated by the additional problem of the language barrier. The language problem proved especially difficult because Irish priests often led the mixed parishes of Irish and French Canadians and there were internal clashes between the two groups. A natural desire to establish their own, French speaking parishes led Bishop Goesbriand of Vermont to lobby the Church of New England for the establishment of French parishes with French speaking priests. Though initially opposed, by 1869 his request was granted and soon French Canadians throughout New England began setting up parishes of their own.[7]

Hand in hand with the establishment of the churches was that of the parochial schools, which usually taught in both French and English. This was in contrast to the public schools, which made little or no effort to provide for non-English speaking children. It was primarily for this reason that public schools were rejected by the majority of French Canadians in favor of the parochial schools. Besides serving the spiritual and educational needs of the French Canadian community respectively, the French Roman Catholic Church and parochial school provided for the maintenance of la survivance.

The maintenance of la survivance was also the primary objective of the Societies of St. Jean Baptiste, which began springing up in French Canadian parishes by the mid-1860s. The Society of St. Jean Baptiste was comprised of the leading men of the parish and greatly influenced all aspects of parish life. French was spoken throughout the society and the goals of the society were the aforementioned maintenance of la survivance as well as to serve as advocates for the interests of the French Canadian people in the United States. It is ironic that the desire to give the French Canadian people a voice in their communities, as well as in government and politics, resulted in the slow degradation of la survivance. [8]

The French Canadians initially stayed away from politics or involvement in local government. Neither political party had ever catered to them, chiefly due to the language barrier and probably because of some racial or religious prejudice. As a practical matter, many politicians probably did not want to waste their effort attempting to appeal to a group that primarily consisted of transient workers who made no attempt to speak the language or showed any inclination of making America their permanent home. Eventually, French Canadian leaders, including those in the Society of St. Jean Baptiste, came to realize that self-segregation and their apparent unwillingness to becoming participants in American society was detrimental to their reputation. They determined that naturalization of the French Canadian people was the most effective method they could use to gain acceptance. Initial interest in naturalization was less than overwhelming, but the members of the various chapters of the Society of St. Jean Baptiste persisted. They held numerous National Conventions of French Canadians in the United States to promote naturalization and these meetings also unified them in their efforts to overcome the stereotypes held by other Americans.[9]

These efforts to more fully integrate the French Canadian people into America were hindered by the increasing influx of French Canadians from Canada. While headway was being made to naturalize those already in the U.S., there was a significant amount of time spent indoctrinating and orienting the successive waves of French Canadians coming across the border. The stream of rural habitants arriving in the United States also reaffirmed a negative stereotype. To the jaundiced eye of many Americans, the French Canadians seemed to repeatedly commit the same infractions against accepted American social practices. No discrimination between the recent French Canadian immigrants and those of the second or third generation was made.[10]

Increased Migration and Assimilation Begins

By 1869, the realization had set in that the emigration of French Canadians from Canada because of the poor economic conditions was not a temporary phenomenon. A reporter for the New York Times wrote of the fear expressed by many French Canadians that, after having endured an especially hard winter, they would not be able to make enough money on their farms to make it through another similarly difficult winter. They especially were disappointed by the lack of industrial jobs in their homeland, which could have employed them when the demand for farm labor was not present. In May of 1870, the Montreal Witness reported that there were between two and three thousand dwellings vacant in the city of Montreal. This was estimated to represent the loss of from ten to fifteen thousand people. It also reported that it was not unusual to see two hundred French Canadians a day leaving St. Bonaventure Station for the United States.[11]

The post-War increase in the number of rural French Canadian immigrants in the United States did not go unnoticed. Many American newspapers reported complaints concerning the influx and these complaints were supplemented by exaggerated estimates of the number of French Canadians that had arrived in America. In April of 1870, the New York Times reported that there were estimated to be 500,000 French Canadians in the United States. Recent scholarship puts the actual figure at closer to 100,000 in all of New England (refer to Table 2), which had the largest concentration of French Canadians in the United States. Given this last, it is scarcely believable that an additional 400,000 French Canadians lived in the Midwest or West. Another reporter writing for the Times also noted how the French Canadians continued to migrate southward even when they were encouraged by Parliament and were given inducements to remain in Canada.[12]

The dam that the newspapers, politicians, and religious leaders, on both sides of the border, tried to strengthen with warnings, speeches and harangues in an attempt to check the flow of French Canadians leaving Canada for America only weakened and burst. Idealistic abstractions were no match for the reality of economic hardship. The initial trickle of French Canadians who had endured discrimination, bigotry and mistrust in America showed their friends, families and communities that the rewards of working in America were well worth the trouble. Immediately after the Civil War, the trickle became a stream and by 1870 the stream became a river. The push of economic uncertainty north of the border combined with the pull of ever-growing thirst for manpower by the factories and mills south of the border proved irresistible.

For the next thirty years the immigration of French Canadians to the U.S. reached new levels. Included in this wave were a great many of the intellectual and professional classes who contributed greatly to the social and cultural welfare of the French Canadians in New England. By the second or third generation, the Franco-Americans who were the progeny of the original, unskilled habitants were being brought up bilingual and better able to participate in American society. Undoubtedly, the constant pressure from other Americans to conform to the generally accepted precepts of American life also influenced the behavior of the Franco-Americans. In the end, their willingness to accept American society as their own led to the full integration of the French Canadian people into America, though many would regret that la survivance had been sacrificed in the process.[13]


[1] Mason Wade, “The French Parish and Survivance in Nineteenth Century New England,” Catholic Historical Review, Vol.36 (Jul., 1950), 173, in Winks, 205; and Keenleyside and Brown, 304.

[2] Podea, 375.

[3] Brault, 836.

[4] MacDonald, 267; and Podea, 373.

[5] MacDonald, 267-268.

[6] Podea, 380.

[7] Chartier, 16.

[8] MacDonald, 272-274.

[9] See a variety of articles from the New York Times 1865-1869 for reports detailing the proceedings of these conventions.

[10] Podea, 379.

[11] New York Times, 28 February 1869; 28 March 1869; and 23 May 1870.

[12] New York Times, 6 April 1870 and 10 April 1869.

[13] Chartier, 15; and Podea, 379; and Denis Ledoux, La Survivance. Giving Voice to a Franco-American Experience,” Portland Monthly, (April 2000), http://www.maine.rr.com/Around_Town/features/ portlandmonthly/Default5.asp> (22 September 2003).

Up Next: Part 4 - Summary, Conclusion and an Annotated Bibliography

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