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The Little Canadas of New England

Young millworkers from Manchester's Little Canada, 1909. Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine, courtesy Library of Congress.

Young millworkers from Manchester's Little Canada, 1909. Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine, courtesy Library of Congress.

Dozens of Little Canadas have contributed a significant but often ignored part of the character and history of New England since the 19th century.

They’ve given us magnificent churches, Catholic hospitals and sports heroes like Springfield’s Leo Durocher and Woonsocket’s Nap LaJoie. They’ve produced writers like Annie Proulx, who comes from Norwich, Conn., and chefs like Emeril LaGasse, a native of Fall River. They’ve toiled in the textile and paper mills, the defense factories and the logging camps. They’ve sent politicians like Norm D’Amours from New Hampshire and Fernand St. Germain from Rhode Island to Congress.

Even today, New England’s Little Canadas celebrate midnight Mass at Christmas with pancakes afterward and serve poutine – French fries, gravy and cheese curds – in restaurants and social clubs.

Leo Durocher

Leo Durocher

Creating Little Canadas

By 1990, Massachusetts had the highest number of Franco-Americans in the United States, with 310,636 – and nearly half of all Franco-Americans in New England. New Hampshire ranked fifth, with 118,857, Connecticut sixth with 110,426 and Maine eighth with 110,209. French speakers comprise at least 14 percent of the residents of Coos County in New Hampshire and Androscoggin and Aroostook counties in Maine.

They didn’t all come at once. Some were expelled by the British in the Great Roundup of 1755. Some fled the fighting between the French and British in the Patriots Rebellion of 1837.

In the 19th century, most French Canadians who left for New England’s Little Canadas were young adults fleeing poverty, unemployment and backbreaking toil on subsistence farms.

Between 1840 and 1930, about 900,000 French-speaking Canadians left Québec to work in New England's factories, mills, potato fields and logging camps. The mythical figure Paul Bunyan was a Franco-American ( ‘Bunyan’ is similar to the Québécois phrase "bon yenne!").

By 1850, most Frano-Americans were living in Vermont, named from the French words vert mont, or green mountain. The state’s most famous Franco-American export was the wildly popular singer and actor, Rudy Vallee, born in Island Pond. Even today, 26 percent of the residents of Canaan, Vt., speak French.

By 1860, another 18,000 Canadian immigrants moved to New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, but it was the economic boom after the Civil War that attracted waves of French Canadians. They came to the huge textile mills in Lewiston, Maine, in Woonsocket, R.I., in Berlin and Manchester, N.H., and in Lowell, Worcester, Holyoke and Fall River, Mass. They were the only major ethnic group to arrive in the United States by train.

Wife and children of a poor French-Canadian potato farmer in the St. John Valley, 1940. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Wife and children of a poor Franco-American potato farmer in the St. John Valley, 1940. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

By 1875, Quebec started luring its young people back by offering them free land. As many as half returned. They were called Canucks and resented by the Irish, who had arrived earlier and viewed them as interlopers willing to work for lower wages and take their mill jobs, tedious though they might be.

By 1900 they were still clustered in crowded Little Canadas like Woonsocket and Biddeford, Maine, both 60 percent Franco-American. The densest Little Canadas, not surprisingly, are along the Maine-Canada border in the St. John Valley. There, 79 percent of Frenchville residents speak French.

20th-Century

In the first decade of the 20th century, the population of Salem, Mass., was more than one-fifth Quebecois and their children. In South Salem’s Little Canada, children attended French schools like Sainte-Chrétienne. They built French churches like Église Sainte-Anne and they started French businesses like St. Pierre’s Garage, Ouellette Construction and Soucy Insurance.

St. Ann's Church complex, Woonsocket.

St. Ann's Church complex, Woonsocket.

Franco-Americans were almost all Roman Catholic, and strict ones at that. They believed that abandoning the French language meant abandoning their religion, and they clung to their language and customs longer than many other immigrant communities. They called it la survivance. Battles often erupted between French parishes and the Irish-dominated parishes over their desire to hire French-speaking priests.

Life in the Little Canadas revolved around the neighborhood parish and the home, where families were often large. By the 1920s, Little Canadas supported thriving French-language newspapers, Catholic schools, social clubs and fraternal organizations. They established Rivier College in Nashua and Assumption College in Worcester. They built the first Catholic hospital in Maine, St. Mary’s in Lewiston, and started the first credit union in the United States, also named St. Mary’s, in Manchester, N.H.

St. Ann Roman Catholic Church was built with nickels and dimes from Franco-American millworkers and painted with such magnificent frescoes it earned the nickname ‘the Sistine Chapel of Woonsocket.’

Manchester, N.H., had perhaps the most well-known of the Little Canadas on its west side, where Peyton Place author Grace Metalious and Revlon founder Charles Revson grew up. West Sider Rene Gagnon participated in the most celebrated flag raising in history, on Iwo Jima during World War II.

Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac

The most famous Franco-American author, Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac or Jack Kerouac, was born in Lowell’s Little Canada.

Tensions with the Irish continued into the 1920s, as well as the Ku Klux Klan. Anti-Catholicism fueled the resurgence of the Klan in New England, especially Maine, and  Franco-Americans stayed in their houses when the Klan roamed through Little Canadas looking for trouble.

By then, New England’s mills were in decline, and Quebec’s economy was booming. Franco-Americans began to drift back to Canada, emptying out some of New England’s Little Canadas, and World War II ended their cultural isolation.

This story was updated in 2017.

 

23 comments

  1. Thank you for such a pithy, well-written, and concise piece about a sometimes overlooked ethnic group that helped flavor the New England stew.

  2. Interesting article to read!

    As an Acadian living in the maritimes of Canada, I do feel the need to correct the author on one thing.

    It may be a local term used in New England, but I have never ever heard the term “round up” used to describe the expulsion of my ancestors from their settlements in 1755.
    It seems to down play the severity of the attempted genocide and land grab done by the English at the time.
    The correct term used here in Canada, is the Great Deportation, or Le Grand Dérangement, in French.

    I thank you for an interesting article on the Franco-American communities in the states.

    Regards,
    Sara Losier- Tracadie, NB, Canada.

  3. It would be important to note when and why these folks proudly decided to call themselves
    Franco-American and not French Canadians.

  4. The Franco-American Women’s Institute can provide more information on the women’s contributions.
    http://www.fawi.net/

    Author of ‘down the Plains,’ & Wednesday’s Child
    http://www.rhetapress.com/

    Edited
    Canuck and Other Stories
    Rhea Côté Robbins, Editor
    Canuck, by Camille Lessard Bissonnette, (1883-1970), 
    translated by Sue Huseman, Ph.D. and Sylvie Charron, Ph.D.
    La Jeune Franco-Américaine, The Young Franco-American
    by Alberte Gastonguay, (1906-1978), 
    translated by Madeleine C. Paré Roy
    Françaises d’Amérique, Frenchwomen of North America
    by Corinne Rocheleau Rouleau, (1881-1963), 
    translated by Jeannine Bacon Roy
    Director of:
    Franco-American Women’s Institute
    Established 1996
    2015 is the 19th Anniversary of FAWI!
    http://www.fawi.net/

  5. Great Roundup of 1755???? Some call it a genocide!

    The Expulsion of the Acadians (avec vidéo)

    http://www.learnliberty.org/videos/expulsion-acadians/
    Speaker: Amy H. Sturgis, May 26, 2012

    The sad history of state-sponsored ethnic cleansing in North America begins with the story of the 18th century expulsion of the Acadians by the British. Professor Amy Sturgis explains that the Acadians were peaceful French colonists who had prospered in Nova Scotia. In 1755, the British forcibly uprooted the Acadians from their land and scattered them across North America. In the upheaval, approximately 55 percent of the 18,000 Acadians lost their lives to drowning and disease, and many families were torn apart. The expulsion effectively ended the Acadian way of life forever.

  6. My family lived above the Missisquoi River in the Eastern Township of West Potton and Glen Sutton. We weren’t Quebecois but we had our own “Learned District” and sawmill and were internationally famous for our cheeses which won 1st Place at the Buffalo World’s Fair and the Paris Exposition at the turn of the Twentieth Century. We became player piano manufacturers in Cambridge and Worcester, Massachusetts and in Shelton, and particularly in Meriden, Connecticut. Our women worked in mills in Lowell and Worcester and Meriden and one branch of our Learneds changed their name to Leonard and one descendant from them designed the locking mechanism that allowed the Apollo-Soyuz space capsules to unite and brought our world together in outer space. We are very proud of our Canadian ancestry but we are not French. Long live our special bond between Canada and the United States!

  7. The poutines as described here are not the poutines we eat in New England. The poutines with gravy and cheese curds are from Quebec.

  8. I should add that the style of poutines we eat around here come from New Bunswick.

  9. They also came to the mills of West Warwick.

  10. Norman D’Amour, the politician you mentioned wS my 2nd cousin. First cousin to my mom Grabrielle Simonne Desrochers. Normans wife’s name was also Collette. His mom, Simonne, was my mom’s aunt & god mother. I went to their house many many times for Sunday gatherings.

  11. It has been said that a minister in Boston once asked his congregation to stand. He asked those from Nova Scotia to be seated, those married to a Nova Scotian to be seated, those related to a Nova Scotian to be seated etc. at the end of his questions, not one person was standing.

  12. Did they”drift back”or get absorbed by America? Say it loud and proud-Franco-American!

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