Wednesday, June 22, 2005

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

In "Non-Natives, the Military and 'Empire'," I wrote an elaborative commentary on a piece by Max Boot in which he proposed that illegal immigrants should be recruited for military service and in which he referred to some claims that mercenaries had caused the "fall" of Rome. I also mentioned another bit of Boot's "call to history," in which he wrote:

In the past, the U.S. military had many more foreigners than we do today. (During the Civil War, at least 20% were immigrants. Now it's 7%.) The British army, among many others, has also made good use of noncitizens. Nepalese Gurkhas still fight and die for the Union Jack despite not being 'culturally bonded' to it. No doubt they would do the same for the Stars and Stripes.
As it happens, I have done research on the French Canadian immigrants to New England during the Civil War era. Thus, prompted by a historian's natural desire to offer a historical example to compare and contrast with contemporary issues, I have decided to post my research in a series, beginning today.
What follows 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. However, while I'm aware of some formatting inconsistencies, I ask that the reader pass over those: it's about the content, not the presentation. Nonetheless, it would be appreciated if legitimate oversights were brought to my attention. A final note: Boot wrote about illegal immigrants. To my knowledge, there was no such delineation between a "legal" and an "illegal" immigrant in the Civil War era. However, this is not to say there wasn't an idea of "desirable" versus "undesirable."
I will start today with a brief Introduction and Part 1: French Canadians in New England Before the Civil War. Parts 2 and 3, which deal with French Canadians in New England during and after the Civil War, will follow in the next few days.

PART 1  -  PART 2  -  PART 3  -  PART  4 


Many French Canadians entered the United States to find work during the years before the Civil War. This first wave of immigrants became acquainted with American culture and society, which some of them embraced and some resisted. New England was particularly attractive to the French Canadians because of the availability of relatively high paying jobs and its close proximity to their native Canada, which facilitated the maintenance of social and cultural ties between the French Canadians working in New England and their families and communities in Canada. When the Civil War erupted, many French Canadians stayed in the United States and some from both sides of the border volunteered to fight for the Union. Towards the end of the war, and in the years after, the number of French Canadian immigrants increased as they sought to escape the economic hardship of Canada by working in the more industrialized United States. They encountered cultural and social resistance from both Canada and America in their pursuit of economic security. Their attempt to maintain their culture and society, an ideal called la survivance, as distinct within the greater American society proved difficult. Over time, the effort to maintain la survivance diminished and was surpassed by the desire of succeeding generations to take part in American society to the fullest degree.

Part 1: French Canadians in New England before the Civil War


Economic and Social Conditions in Quebec

The French Canadians in Quebec had an agrarian dominated society that suffered from a variety of poor economic and agricultural difficulties throughout the nineteenth century. There was no systematized program to educate the French Canadian farmer, or habitant, in the modern scientific and technical developments in farming and this lack of familiarity with modern agricultural techniques led to a decline in soil quality and concomitant low crop yields. With insufficient means to generate an adequate income, the habitant needed to borrow money to pay taxes and parish charges as well as to feed his ever-growing family. Already suffering from poor credit with more reputable financial institutions and having received no help from the government, the habitant was often forced to turn to usurers and borrow at high interest rates to pay off his debts. Additionally, the subdivision of farms to provide for the inheritance of the children of the large French Canadian families resulted in the unfortunate paradox of less land to feed more people.[1]

Large tracts of arable farmland did exist, but the land tenure system known as seigneurialism and the centralization of property ownership by English landowners made this land inaccessible to the poor habitant. Attempts were made by the government to prompt colonization of the Eastern Townships of Quebec, but expansion into that region was thwarted by the exceedingly high land prices being charged by speculators. In a perpetual state of poverty and having nowhere else to turn, the French Canadians were either pushed off of their lands or were forced to search for sources of supplementary income. Some turned to the timber trade, particularly in the more remote regions of Quebec, while others turned to industry. Unfortunately, while industry was growing in Canada, the population was growing at a faster rate, which led to a surplus of workers.[2]


The Allure of New England

Meanwhile, New England had been transforming from an agricultural to an industrial economy at a much quicker pace than its northern neighbor. From the establishment of Slater’s Mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island to about 1844, New England had emerged as the cradle of the Industrial Revolution. For example, by this time ninety-four factories were located along the Blackstone River valley between Worcester, Massachusetts and Pawtucket, Rhode Island by way of Woonsocket, Rhode Island. By the 1850’s, the attractiveness of New England as a place to earn a decent wage had become obvious and the comparatively high wages paid there were well known. Factories were not the only, or even primary, employers that attracted French Canadians. Employment as farmhands throughout rural northern New England as well as in the lumber camps of Maine or in the Vermont brickworks proved to be the most attractive. Before the railroads, the French Canadians traveled to New England via waterways or in wagons, which could take a long time. Time spent in transit was time not earning wages, so speed and distance were important factors for the French Canadian to consider prior to moving. The geographic proximity of northern New England made the fiscal cost of moving less prohibitive.[3]

By the start of the 1860’s, the railroad had become well established, but the trip could still take a relatively long time. It took one family four days to go from St. Ephrem d’Upton, Quebec to Lowell, Massachusetts via railroad. Nonetheless, the speed of railroad travel coupled with the close proximity of northern New England resulted in an immigration pattern that favored Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. Additionally, the social cost of separating from their native culture was reduced when they moved to the geographically closer states of northern New England. This close proximity to their homeland enabled them to more easily maintain their family and community ties.[4]

Table 1

French Canadian Population Distribution in New England by 1860

New Hampshire - 1,780

Vermont - 16,580

Massachusetts - 7,780

Rhode Island - 1,810

Connecticut - 1,980

Maine - 7,490

Total - 37,420

Source: Yves Roby, Les Franco-Américains de la Nouvelle Angleterre, 1776-1930, (Sillery, Quebec: Septentrion, 1990), 47.

The Attractiveness of Factory Work

In southern New England, especially Massachusetts, the small factories had begun to evolve into huge enterprises. Though other goods were produced, such as chairs, shoes, axes and leather goods, the textile industry was the prime mover of the economic expansion in southern New England. As the booming pre-Civil War economy fattened the wallets of the factory owners, it also did the same for the wallets of the American and Irish factory workers. The modernization of the factory processes also resulted in the creation of repetitive jobs that could be filled by unskilled labor. These jobs were unsatisfying to many American and Irish workers who left the factory floor for supervisory jobs or left the factory altogether.[5]

The ever-growing number and size of factories combined with the increasing difficulty of keeping workers led to a worker shortage. Immigrants were an attractive source of labor as they were willing to work for less than American workers, and the mill owners turned their eyes to the north and sent recruiting agents among the French Canadians. The recruiting agents were most successful at hiring young, single workers and recruiting was made easier when these young French Canadian men returned home flashing gold watches and dressed in the latest fashions. Such overt exhibitions of prosperity served to whet the appetite of many French Canadians, especially the habitants.[6]

Temporary employment in the mills of New England soon became an attractive way to earn supplemental income for the habitants. They went to America, leaving their families behind, and hoped to make enough money to pay off debts and get the farm back home up and running. Soon, many of them realized that “a few years of toil in the textile mills for Pierre, and of domestic service in a New England family for Marie, and enough money would be saved to return in state to Canada, or to found a family in Massachusetts or Vermont.”[7] They also realized that the jobs they were doing in the textile factories required no real skill and that almost anyone, including children, could find work. Child labor was not taboo in French Canadian society and their Roman Catholic faith encouraged large families. These two facts combined to make factory work extremely attractive as the habitants realized that the more children they had, the more they could earn. Many habitants sent for their entire families with this in mind.[8]

As the French Canadian immigrants were beginning to establish their own communities, called “petit Canadas”, in the mill towns throughout New England, the Civil War began. Worse yet, Southern cotton, the essential resource required by the textile industry, became almost unobtainable and the large textile mills were forced to shut down, some permanently and some to retool. The lack of jobs and the uncertainty of life in a country in the midst of a civil war worried the French Canadians and many returned to their farms and homes in Quebec.

[1] William McDonald, “The French Canadians in New England,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol.12, No.3 (1898) 246; Armand Chartier, The Franco-Americans of New England: A History, trans. Robert J. Lemieux and revised, edited and translated by Claire Quintal. (Manchester, NH: ACA Assurance and Worcester, MA: Institut Français of Assumption College, 1999), 6-7; and Iris Saunders Podea, “Quebec to ‘Little Canada’: The Coming of the French Canadians to New England in the Nineteenth Century," The New England Quarterly, Vol.23, No.3 (1950), 267.
[2] Chartier, 9; and Belanger and Belanger, “French Canadian Emigration to the United States, 1840-1930,” 2000.
[3] Philippe Lemay, “The French Canadian Textile Worker,” interview by Louis Pare, American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940, No. 1801 (1938-39): 3; and Belanger and Belanger, “French Canadian Emigration to the United States, 1840-1930,” 2000.
[4] Chartier, 7; and Damien-Claude Bélanger and Claude Bélanger, “French Canadian Emigration to the United States, 1840-1930,” 2000, <> (22 June 2005).
[5] Chartier, 11.
[6] Podea, 368; Chartier, 12; and A.R.M. Lower, “New France in New England,” The New England Quarterly, Vol.2, No.2 (1929), 284.
[7] Hugh Llewellyn Keenleyside and Gerald S. Brown, Canada and the United States: Some Aspects of Their Historical Relations, Introduction by W.P.M. Kennedy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952), 307.
[8] See Lower, 284; McDonald, 246; and Judith A. McGaw, “’A Good Place to Work.’ Industrial Workers and Occupational Choice: The Case of Berkshire Women,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol.10, No.2 (1979), 236.
Up Next: Part 2 - French Canadians and the Civil War

PART 1  -  PART 2  -  PART 3  -  PART  4 

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