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.
People from the Little Canadas have toiled in textile and paper mills, defense factories and 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.
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.
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 Franco-Americans lived 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. This time, the economic boom after the Civil War 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, New Bedford and Fall River, Mass. They were the only major ethnic group to arrive in the United States by train.
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.
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.
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 Little Canadas
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.
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 with 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. Finally, World War II ended their cultural isolation.
This story about New England’s Little Canadas was updated in 2020.