A Franco-American friend from Aroostook County recently said, “Juliana, I’m constantly asked about why being a Franco-American is important to me?”
Franco-Americans have the distinction of being the first European group to formally settle in Maine. A permanent, albeit failed, French colony was established in1604, on St. Croix Island, with a group led by Sieur de Monts and Samuel de Champlain . Today, this is an international historic site, located off the coast of Calais, in the St. Croix River, which is a boundary shared with New Brunswick, Canada.
Although the first colony was unsuccessful, because of the deadly winter experienced by the 79 settlers during 1604-1605, the survivors relocated, with the help of Native Americans, to Nova Scotia.
Descendents of the St. Croix survivors were the French-Acadians of “l’Acadie”.
Other groups of French settlers led by Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain, settled Montreal and Quebec.
During the past 400-years, French history has influenced Maine’s culture, genealogy, religious celebrations and language.
Advancing colonial history forward about 150 years, the Maine Franco-Americans are largely descendants of two diverse groups, with separate histories, both of them connected to medieval ancestry in France.
For the most part, Franco-Americans are either the descendants of the French-Acadians, who settled in Nova Scotia, but eventually fled the British, around 1755, during le Grand Derangement, and settled in the St. John Valley in Madawaska and Aroostook County; and/or they’re related to the tens of thousands of immigrants from Quebec Province, who were recruited to work in New England’s industrial expansion, during the 19th and 20th centuries. Following these two groups to Maine from Canada were professionals like physicians, pharmacists, priests, religious nuns and notaries, to name a few. Professionals and educators, especially the religious nuns, provided the French speaking immigrants with support services, education and social welfare in their tight knit communities, often called “petit Canadas”. They clustered around Roman Catholic churches built in mill towns like Augusta, Sanford, Lewiston, Biddeford, Waterville and surrounding areas.
Parochial primary schools were often associated with the French churches, as in this photograph of the 1938 graduating class of St. Augustine School, in Augusta, ME.
Franco-Americans today live in all of Maine’s 16 counties, with the largest clusters being in York (19.2%), Cumberland (14.7 %), Androscoggin (14.3 %), Kennebec (11.5 %) and Aroostook (8.5 %) counties. As a matter of fact, the Maine Legislative Task Force on Franco-Americans was unaware of this distribution until after they saw the data. Indeed, this information upstaged the prevailing opinion that Franco-Americans lived mostly in the Lewiston-Auburn areas in Androscoggin County or in Maine’s St. John Valley. Surprisingly, this opinion was not entirely supported by the census data.
Franco-American population distribution is described on page 57, in the Franco-American Centre. Occasional Papers Spring 2013: “Contemporary Attitudes of Maine’s Franco-Americans”, by Jacob Albert, Tony Brinkley, Yvon Labbe and Christian Potholm, available here.
Additionally, the report provides a response for my Aroostook County friend, when asked why he is proud of his Franco-American heritage. A public opinion survey of Franco-Americans reported 36.3 percent said they were extremely proud of their Franco-American heritage while another 24.8 percent said they were somewhat proud.
In another survey question, 46 percent said their French culture/history was important to them and 61.9 percent said they valued family gatherings and food/history as a part of their cultural pride.
So, who are Maine’s Franco-Americans and where do they live?
They’re the descendants of French-Canadians, with their historical roots beginning in colonial Canada, and the American Industrial Revolution and who continue to take pride in their culture. They live in all 16 Maine counties, with the largest percentage reported in York and Cumberland counties.
This blog will continue to tell their stories.
Nous raconter nos histories ici.