During a visit to the Ellis Island and Statue of Liberty National Monument in New York Harbor, I went to the electronic immigration map. A visitor could select a nation of origin and find out where in the United State the immigrants from a particular selected country had settled. When I pressed the button for “French-Canada”, I expected a cluster of lights to appear around New England. Although my expectation was validated, I was surprised to see how many other places on the map lit up, especially when there were dense clusters in California.
All Franco-Americans in Maine, those who are the descendants of French-Canadians, are related to immigrants.
I was reminded about the Ellis Island experience recently when I was fortunate enough to read the wonderful essay “Nebraska“, by the American author Willa Cather. Her essay was originally published in September 1923, in The Nation magazine; but the copyright protection was lifted in 2019, so I was able to transcribe it from the source. (Thanks to the excellent help of Charlie Remy, who is an electronic resources librarian, for his research to locate the original essay in The Nation.)
In the “Americanization” of her home state of Nebraska, Cather skillfully created a history about the people, a story that was rooted in migration and immigration. To summarize her beautiful narrative, she described Nebraska’s resilient settlers, and pioneers as being a mixture of European immigrants and people who migrated to the state from New England. They settled in Nebraska because they wanted to own land, when there was plenty of prairie to cultivate. In other words, who were the people who settled in Nebraska? In 1923, there were very few people who were “native Nebraskan”, unless they happened to be related to the indigenous nations, those who wandered and hunted through the prairie.
She wrote, “When I stop at one of the graveyards in our own county and see on the headstones the names of fine old men I used to know: “Eric Ericson, born Bergen Norway….died…Nebraska.” “Anton Pucelik, born Prague, Bohemia……died, Nebraska,” I have always the hope that something went into the ground with those pioneers that will one day come out again. Something that will come out, not only in sturdy traits of character, but in elasticity of mind, in an honest attitude toward the realities of life, in certain qualities of feeling and imagination.”
Her observation, and the reflection on the Ellis Island immigration map, caused me to apply Cather’s quote to Maine and the state’s Franco-Americans. There are many thousands of graves in Maine’s cemeteries where the analogy can be applied. “Born…..Quebec….died…Maine.”
In Maine, the immigration to the state from France began in 1604, with the St. Croix Island settlement, in Calais. Although the first immigrants failed to establish their vision of a New France at that time (the harsh winter of 1604-05 caused the survivors to re-locate to present day Nova Scotia), they led the subsequent groups of French settlers, trappers, fishermen, soldiers, and Files du Roi, who succeeded in populating Quebec and New France. French-Canadian settlers into Maine and New England experienced parallel experiences, much like the hardships, and tragedies being reported by migrant populations throughout the world and in the Americas.
Le Grand Dérangement continues to be a vivid reminder about the cruelty imposed on Acadian settlers in Nova Scotia. In the 1755, the British expulsions of the French settlers, caused carnage to separated families during the mass exportations. Acadians were “scattered to the wind” when they were shipped off in boats to places, most of them to the east coast of the United States, where they had no relatives to help them. A group of the refugees eventually settled in Madawaska, in Maine and New Brunswick, Canada.
French Canadian immigration into Maine began in earnest when workforce needs created jobs. Railroad connections from Montreal into Maine helped families to settle in Lewiston and other industrial cities where factories needed workers. Immigration from French Canada declined in the 20th century, but the experiences of the immigrants who arrived into the United States in many ways mirror the history of other group migrations. Moreover, Franco-Americans have also adapted, or as Cather described, they accepted “Americanization”.
Becoming Americanized, for Franco-Americans, was challenging. Adjustment was especially difficult during the 1920s, when widespread demonstrations against the French-Canadian immigrants were reported throughout Maine, during Ku Klux Klan rallies, targeting French Catholics. This discrimination continued to be manifested in other ways. For example, in the December 10,1973, The New Yorker, an article by Calvin Trillin titled, “Où se trouve la plage?”, described how Gilbert Boucher, who was the Mayor of Biddeford Maine, claimed access to the beach at Biddeford Pool, using the power of declaring eminent domain. He may have been the first Mayor in the nation to use this power. He did so, because people with distinguishable English names were preventing local Franco-Americans from having access to the beach. Another landmark article titled “The Silent Playground” was written by Ross and Judy Pardis, published in the anthology Voyages, both former state legislators, from Frenchville. They wrote the history about how Franco-American children were prevented, by state statute, from speaking French in public schools. In fact, the “English Only” law was finally erased from the books in 1969, after being in effect for 50 years.
In my opinion, all immigrants are faced with invisible walls when they settle in a new place. Their walls consist of many kinds of difficult social barriers. Nevertheless, in Maine today, those who are only three generations removed from their first French-Canadian ancestors, are actively involved in nearly every segment of the state’s culture, government and social fabric.
Let’s apply Cather’s presumptive topic to Maine, when she posed the topic of who Nebraskans would be today, if there were no immigrants? Who would be living in Maine today, if there were no French-Canadian immigrants who settled in the state? In fact, Maine today has a population of 1.336 million people. In the 2011 community census, at least 25 percent of the population self-declared as being Franco-Americans. Do the arithmetic.