My mother in law, Rose Anna Morin L’Heureux, of Sanford, was only four years old when her family traveled by wagon from Roxton Falls Quebec, to Biddeford Maine, entering the US via the Old Canada Road, at the turn of the 20th century. They were among tens of thousands of immigrants who entered Maine via once rugged international passes. There’s even a historical society in Bingham where the history about this immigration and migration pattern are maintained.
In the scheme of human history, a century is just “recent news”. It was 100 years ago when the Old Canada Road from Quebec into Maine, now Route 201, was the rugged terrain many immigrants took, traveling on foot, horseback, wagons and trains, to enter the United States. These immigrants were enticed and, often, even recruited to find employment in manufacturing mills. Today, the trend towards immigration is reported to be going in a reverse, opposite direction. Yet, up until the 1950’s, the migrant population of peoples from eastern Canada into Maine were the “Immigrants of the North”. What a difference 100 years makes.
A classic report about this special history was published in 1982, by students from the private Hyde School in Bath, who studied the French-Canadian immigration. Their publication titled “Immigrants from the North” seems to be more important today, than when it was published, in light of the renewed national debate about immigration. What’s interesting about this publication is the almost prophetic dedication, written by The Franco-American Grant Class, Hyde School 1979-1981. “This book is dedicated to all the ethnic minorities of America for making this great country what it is today and to all the Franco-Americans who have worked with us, especially the members of the Cushnoc Club of Augusta, Maine. Your enthusiasm for our project has instilled in us some of the ‘can-do’ spirit of the Franco-Americans.”
Included in their report were 40 first person interviews; six of them with people who lived in Canada before immigrating to Maine; and the others were second or third generation Americans. In my family, Rose Anna Morin’s story was first person history, because she was born in Roxton Falls Quebec.
Obviously, French-Canadians who immigrated to America during the 19th and 20th centuries were seeking a better way of life. For many French-speaking families from Quebec and New Brunswick, Canada, their lives had been hit by hard times. Their situation was aggravated by a growing scarcity of food, worsened by Canada’s short growing season. Hyde students reflected, “When all of these stories were pieced together, it was hard for us to imagine such a life of strife and hardship. It was equally hard to make the stories seem real because the people who lived them were so positive and optimistic. How could men and women who endured so many hard times be so happy and bear so little bitterness.?”
Generally speaking, there are two major groups of French-Canadian immigrants who came to Maine and New England. In the first group were the Acadians, the victims of the 1755 “le grand derangement”, or the great upheaval, after the British cruelly displaced them from their homes in the Canadian Province of Nova Scotia, during the French and Indian Wars. Many of these victims were “scattered to the winds”, forced on ships while their families were separated. Some became desperate refugees, who eventually settled the Madawaska territory, in Northern Maine.
A second major wave of French-Canadians immigrated to Maine during the 19th and 20th centuries industrial expansions in New England, when factories were desperate for labor to produce increasing demands for textiles and shoes.
Today, tens of thousands of the descendants of the two groups are now among 25 percent of Maine’s total population, as reported by percentage of residents, in 16 Maine counties, (reported in the legislative Task Force on Franco-Americans):
Androscoggin 14.3 percent Franco-Americans
Aroostook 8.5 %
Cumberland 14.7 %
Franklin 2.0 %
Hancock 1.6 %
Kennebec 11.5 %
Knox 1.5 %
Lincoln 1.5 %
Oxford 3.6 %
Penobscot 10.7 %
Piscataquis 1.1 %
Sagadahoc 2.0 %
Somerset 4.8 %
Waldo 1.5 %
York 19.2 %
Of course, Franco-Americans today speak proudly about the heritage they’ve inherited from French-Canada. Many also shake our heads in disbelief about the difference 100 years makes in American-Canadian immigration.