C. Stewart Doty wrote in the introduction of “The First Franco-Americans: New England Life Histories from the Federal Writers’ Project 1930-1939” (published in 1985, by University of Maine at Orono Press): “French speakers immigrated to New England from Quebec and Acadia (Nova Scotia). Surprisingly, we still know very little about their experiences in the new land. Thanks to census studies, we do have a good idea where these immigrants came from and where they settled.” It’s noteworthy to read how Doty dedicated this collected history, “For the Franco-American students of the University of Maine; that they might better know their heritage.”
America’s immigration news continues to be a trending topic, but the history about French-American immigration is seldom mentioned in the complex “great melting pot”. A recent blog about “Why They Came“, was a retrospective about the roots of Franco-American immigration, updated with information about our newest French-African immigrants.
Expert writings and lectures by the late Professor C. Stewart Doty (1928-2011), provided context about the impact of the Franco-American immigration experience. Nevertheless, the motivation for the French immigration waves, beginning with colonial settlements in Quebec and Nova Scotia, are usually written in French. Unfortunately, many are not widely read, unless they happen to be published in an English translation.
In my growing library, including dozens of books collected about the French in North America, I quickly pulled out five histories about French-American immigration and the influence the immigrants, some of them refugees, had on our nation’s history.
As an original source reference, not reported through a third person, “Immigrant Odyssey: A French-Canadian Habitant in New England“, is the compelling history about the pride of one particular Franco-American immigrant named Félix Albert. It’s also titled “A bilingual edition of histoire d’un enfant pauvre” (History of a poor child.) This memoir was originally written in the French vernacular, spoken by Hebert, when he told his story to the narrator. In The University of Maine Press edition, published in 1991, the history is translated into English, by Arthur L. Eno, Jr.
The importance of Hebert’s memoir is explained in the book’s introduction, written by Frances H. Early. “Why is the life of Félix Albert important?” In fact, his autobiography was almost lost to history, until it was discovered by a local historian Richard Santerre, in a Lowell, Mass, attic. It’s a life history of about “plain people”.
Although men and women who achieved greatness were often the subject of memoirs, the North American immigrants, the French-Canadians, almost never wrote their stories because most of them were, unfortunately, illiterate. Hebert told his memoir to an unknown scribe (probably a priest) in the context of the dire economic situation that existed in Quebec in the second half of the 19th century.
At the time of the immigration to the US from Quebec, the French-Canadian society was undergoing tremendous change. Its population experienced a demographic-agricultural crises of enormous proportions, as well as the beginnings of large-scale industrialization. Those developments brought about changes to older, rural-based economic, and social structures and values. As a result, an exodus of French-Canadians occurred. They were motivated to make the very difficult decision to leave their homes and families in Quebec, and start a new life in Maine and New England.
My “go to” book about French-Canadian immigration is “Immigrants from the North“, written by the students at the Hyde School in Bath, Maine, with an endorsement by Edmund S. Muskie, former Maine governor and Secretary of State for President Jimmy Carter. In this excellent and concise publication, the student authors learned how the French-Canadians were struggling to survive on their Quebec farms when the opportunity arose to find employment in New England’s industrializing cities, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Each well written chapter describes a segment of the French immigration history, including the assimilation of the culture into America’s melting pot.
“A Tale of Two Migrations: A French Canadian Odyssey“, by Patricia Demers Kaneda, is a family history written in fictional narrative. In the book’s dedication, Kaneda writes, “…this book is dedicated to those who are gone but not forgotten”. In the introduction, she adds, “If you are one of the over five million descendants of those original ten thousand (ie, immigrants) who settled Quebec, and called themselves Canadiens, this may be your story. For others, it’s a little known piece of the American mosaic.”
Another description of “forgotten history” is chronicled in the book “When the United States Spoke French“, by Francoise Furstenberg. In fact, the book is a researched reminder about how the French influenced early American history. It puts five refugees from France, prominent men who fled the tyranny of the French Revolution, into the heart of Philadelphia during the formative years of the American nation. Furstenberg describes the American adventures that were experienced by the prominent refugees, as they integrated themselves into Philadelphia, when the city was our nation’s temporary capital. Their stories include the histories of their time, like interactions with George Washington, the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), the 1803, Louisiana Purchase and America’s westward expansion. The five refugees Furstenberg followed were: Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, La Rochefoucauld, duc de Liancourt, Louis-Marie, vicomte de Noailles; the writer Médéric Louis Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry, and the philosopher Constantin-Francoise de Chaseboeuf, comte de Volney.
These five books add to our growing knowledge about French and American history, while underscoring the important contributions made by immigrants and refugees to our nation’s history.