Why Do I Tell the Franco-American Story?
I believe it is important to know your roots. I believe that you have a better chance to know who you are if you know where you come from, if you know how you got to where you are today. Why is it important to know who you are? I believe you will lead a more fulfilling life if you have a sense of how you fit in the larger flow of humanity. It’s about what I call coherence, which I take to mean having a unified sense of being, a feeling of being whole in body and soul and mind. It’s the opposite of being alienated, the feeling of being disconnected from society. Knowing who you are and knowing something about where you are gives a person a better chance of feeling a sense of community, a sense of belonging to something larger than your individual self.
Who am I? has the simplicity of the old Baltimore Catechism question, Who made me? In Catholic elementary school a lot of answers were provided. Just memorize what’s in the book. Just listen to the priest at Mass. Just do what Sister Therese de L’Enfant de Jesus says. They offered a lot of answers after providing the questions as well. But in all those school days in a French Catholic school, I don’t recall any of the authorities telling us how the French Canadians wound up in Dracut, Mass. There was no local history in school. They customs, yes, like singing the Canadian national anthem in French, and the flag of Quebec in the classroom next to the red, white, and blue U.S. flag. Sometimes the Mass was in French. Early on it was in Latin in my day. Then it was English with the priest facing the faithful in the pews. “Pray, pay, and obey,” was the unspoken game plan. We had a few “French” items in the school cafeteria like Chinese Pie or Pâté Chinois, the regional concoction that is a twist on Shepherd’s Pie from Ireland and Britain. Until the canonical law changed, we were not served any meat on Fridays. Gooey mac and cheese, tomato-rice soup, fish sticks. We had French language day on Thursdays and French courses, grammar and conversation, all the time. At home my parents spoke French to my grandparents and their siblings (not all the time). We visited relatives on New Year’s Day, which is special for the French Canadian-Americans. The older generations told stories about the immigrants and subsequent generations. My ancestors on both sides came to Lowell, Mass., in 1880. Despite all this, my generation turned out to be highly American in identity.
As someone interested in history, I always had a sense of my past and was curious but not in any extraordinary way. I had lost my ability to speak French fluently, even semi-fluently, after high school or likely before public high school. One of my brothers attended a French Catholic high school, but I chose not to. As the years went on, I began to think more about my family’s origins. When my son was born in 1995, the sixth generation of our line in Lowell, he came to my wife and I with her 100 percent Irish roots stretching back to 1870 in the city and my 100 percent French background. I realized that he would be far from his ethnic origins. It would be up to me to give him some grounding so that he would have an understanding of where he comes from. His arrival heightened my commitment to tell the French Canadian-American story in my writing, both the Lowell French story and my family’s place in it. I’m still reconstructing the family experience. Fortunately, two of my aunts had researched the genealogy of the Marion and Roy lines as far back as the mid-1600s in Normandy, France. The paper trail doesn’t go back farther, so far. I’ll keep at it.
And so, as a writer, I have a way to tell the story of my family, my community, my people. The knowledge has added texture to my experience. Embracing the identity has opened up connections to other people in New England, in Quebec, around the U.S., and abroad. I’m part of a larger effort to remember. There’s a transcript of an interview with a French Canadian-American woman from Lowell from the 1980s, I think. In it, she tells stories about the Lowell French in her time, early 20th century, and she sings songs. The lyrics are reproduced. Speaking to the interviewer, she says at one point, “I’m a memory worker.” That captures what’s going on in this telling of the French story in America. Those of us who write, speak, sing, research, and more are all memory workers in the big Memory Bank.
— Paul Marion, March 25, 2020
Why do I tell the Franco-American story?
Jason L. Newton
Because it is the story of my family but also because it is part of the story of a landscape. When I was growing up I didn’t know much about my French-Canadian heritage. I wasn’t aware that my family came from a part of Canada where people spoke French. I’m not sure that I even knew there was a part of Canada that spoke French! I never learned the language and my family name, Newton, is about the furthest thing from a Franco-American name as there can be.
I started to learn about my French-Canadian roots during annual trips to my family camp in the forests around the village of Tupper Lake in New York’s Adirondack State Park. My family went there most summers and on the way we passed a twelve-foot-tall wooden lumberjack statue. At our family camp, we made campfires, swam in the lake, and hiked up mountain trails that revealed spectacular views of a great forest dotted with little communities. There I met family with the last names Dechene and Delair. I heard stories of my grandparents who grew up in Tupper Lake learning both French and English from Catholic nuns who judged their students’ performances with raps from the end of a yardstick!
In Tupper Lake I learned that my great-great grandparents were part of the large migration of French Canadians to America that happened between 1850 and 1930. By 1901 almost one quarter of the entire population of Québec moved to America. Ninety-two per cent of these immigrants settled in regions next to the Canadian border like the Adirondacks.
I also learned that my family was a little different from other French-Canadian immigrant families, most of whom settled in industrial cities. My family moved into rural wilderness land. They didn’t work in factories but in the forests. They were lumberjacks like the statue that we drove by every summer! My family was part of a class that became symbols of masculinity and examples of the affinity that Americans formed with the natural world through work. Despite their mythical occupation they were not, in fact, native-born Americans; they probably didn’t even know much English!
The lumberjack figure, and references to it were found all over Tupper Lake. There was the predominate statue that I drove by but there was also the Lumberjack Inn on Main street that served up pancakes to hungry vacationers. The local book shops sold books with tales of historical adventures in the old logging camps and the high school has the lumberjack as its mascot. Tourists can buy lumberjack tee-shirts at the local gas stations, and every summer there is a Woodsmen’s Day festival which draws large crowds. For nearly 100 years forest product manufacturing was a mainstay of the Adirondack economy. By the 1930s the wood products industry was in decline. In the 1950s my grandparents moved downstate for jobs, becoming part of a trend of youth outmigration that had been hampering economic progress in the area since the late nineteenth century.
As I screwed around with the dull firewood axe we had at my camp, I used to wonder what happened to the lumberjacks. The trees were here, but I saw no signs of cutting. Across the street from my camp was a dense forest of mixed second growth trees where there were no houses, camps, or even trails. This was privately owned land, part of the partnership between citizen landholders and the state government that make the Adirondacks unique. While I was thinking about the land and the work, I also used to think about why my relatives chose to settle here, in the woods, instead of in the cities which seemed like they would have presented so many more opportunities for newly arrived immigrants.
These thoughts about my family and the Adirondack landscape stayed with me throughout my adolescents but it wasn’t until college that I was given the time and resources to delve into them. Inspired by my family history and the Adirondack landscape I decided to write my undergraduate thesis on the history of loggers in Northern New York. I hoped this paper would explain the experience of rural people in America during industrialization but I also hoped the research would give me more insight about what life was like for my ancestors. After I finished the thesis, I knew quite a bit about what my family had done for a living but I never really looked deeply into the details of my actual family history. I was more interested in exploring the experiences of the class of people that my family was a part of: rural, working-class immigrants.
While researching, I noticed patterns in American and British-Canadian discussions about French Canadian workers. According to these late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sources, the French didn’t just happen to work in the woods, they were apparently naturally suited to the forest landscape. This sentiment is exemplified by this quote from Adirondack scholar Alfred Donaldson who wrote in the 1920s that French Canadians “seemed naturally endowed with the agility, recklessness, and immunity to exposure that must combine to make them expert. They have always predominated as a race in the lumbering operations.”
These recurring expressions about the type of work that French Canadians excelled at might have contributed to the high proportion of French in the logging industry. In 1900, 33.6% of New England “woodchoppers, lumbermen [or] raftsmen” were French-Canadian immigrants. The lumber industry was second only to the brick and tile making industries in terms of the highest percentage of French-Canadian immigrants employed. Though I took note of these patterns in my thesis, I still didn’t have the time to explore the issue fully in a one-year project.
These loose ends pushed me to graduate school where I continued to work on the topic. I decided to expand my range of study to include the loggers and the landscape across not just Northern New York but also Northern New England. My new area of study was a multiple state bioregion known as the Northern Forest.
During my grad school research I realized that it was not just Adirondackers who saw a unique connection between French Canadians and woodswork but also sources from across New England and New York. I began collecting these sources while reading more about French Canadian immigration and Franco-American history. I learned about famous French Canadians like the one-time world’s strongest man Louis Cyr and the beatnik Jack Kerouac.
I decided to devote a chapter of my graduate dissertation to the pattern I had found in the sources about the French-Canadian connection to woodswork. It turned out that this wasn’t unique to the French-Canadian experience. American industrialists, government officials, and workers used their naive understanding of immigrant culture and racial features to categorize immigrants depending on the type of work each immigrant group was apparently uniquely suited to perform. This type of racial thinking was responsible for other types of occupational streaming and ethnically based immigrant labor systems like the Italian padrone system, tenement sweating in New York City and, by the 1940s and 50s, a federally sanctioned guest worker arrangement for French Canadians in the woods of the Northeast known as the bonded labor system. This guest worker program paralleled the more famous (and larger) bracero Mexican farm worker program in the American west and southwest. Other historians and I have called this phenomenon “racial management.” I published my work on this issue in the Canadian labor history journal Labour/La Travail in 2016. Personally, this research gave me a sense of why my family might have chosen, or been enticed, to settle in the Adirondacks.
I still have not had time to really dig into my own family history. I have been devoting my time to telling the story of the industrialization of the Northern Forest landscape, and French-Canadian immigration is only one part—albeit and important part—of that story. This larger story is what I’m currently writing a book about. When I am not writing, I am teaching about American workers at Cornell, devoting some time in class to explaining to undergraduates what I learned about immigration and industrialization. My students even read a little about French-Canadian lumberjacks! I do plan to collect more information about my family history over time. Perhaps what I find will exposed new patterns in the Franco-American experience that I can expand on in the future.
Jason L. Newton is a visiting assistant professor of history at Cornell University. His book manuscript, Cutover Capitalism: The Industrialization of the Northern Forest, 1850-1950, is a history of the changing types of labor performed by people, trees, and the landscape in the American Northeast as that area industrialized. He has also published on nature, race, and immigration. He teaches classes on labor and the environment. Jason also appeared on episode 18 where he talked about his article “These French Canadian of the Woods are Half-Wild Folk”: Wilderness, Whiteness, and Work in North America, 1840–1955.
“Some of this material has appeared in print elsewhere. Please see, Newton, Jason L. ‘”These French Canadian of the Woods are Half-Wild Folk”: Wilderness, Whiteness, and Work in North America, 1840-1955.’ Labour/Le Travail 77 (2016): 121-150; Newton, Jason L., ‘Forging Titans: The Rise of Industrial Capitalism in the Northern Forest, 1850-1950’ (2017). Dissertations – ALL. 794.
Why I Tell the Franco-American History
We’ve only scratched the surface.
With six syntheses in as many decades, hundreds of academic articles, a vast field of memoirs and oral interviews, documentary films, a number of thought-provoking blogs, and now multiple podcasts, one would think that the Franco-American past has given all of its secrets.
I wouldn’t claim perfect originality in all of my research; I am refining and incrementally adding to the body of research as much as I am unearthing long-forgotten stories. Still, I know of archival collections and published sources that have hardly been touched by contemporary scholars. Vast digitization projects have revolutionized research and now highlight just how little of the past we have explored.
For history nerds like me, that’s pretty darn exciting.
But will these sources substantially change how we view the Franco-American past? Naturally, time will tell—the answer you would expect from a historian. At the very least, the last half-century has shown that this past is infinitely more complex than certain early histories indicated.
Standard narratives organized around survivance and mill work, as in the aptly-titled Steeples and Smokestacks, remain. Yet, we are now more aware of women’s essential role in the household economy, more attuned to the gendered aspects of everyday life in Little Canadas. We have begun to look beyond Woonsocket, Fall River, Lowell, Manchester, and Lewiston in order to understand the variety of Franco experiences from Putnam to Salem, Barre to Brunswick. We are recognizing that there was more to these experiences than food and fights over pew rents. (Don’t get me wrong: I do like my meat pie and altar-cations as much as the next person.)
Older histories often portrayed the Little Canadas in terms that echoed their nativist detractors. Clerical authorities depicted the Little Canadas as small citadels, insulated from American materialism, where Francos followed their priests in all things and preserved a “clannish” spirit. More recently, we have come to appreciate the many points of connection between immigrant communities and mainstream U.S. society (whatever that may mean).
We can now study diverse Franco experiences and honor those different journeys without alleging treason—whether this woman fell for an Irishman or that man spoke English to feed his children.
We can now question les vaches sacrées.
As we open up all of these definitions, the field of Franco-American history becomes even wider. This is an incredible time for all things Franco—in research as well as in the realm of cultural programming.
My own foray in this field began at the University of New Hampshire, when I decided to pursue something I vaguely recalled from classes taken in Quebec—something about nineteenth-century emigration. Vague indeed: outside of academic works, the diaspora receives little attention, even less now that a generation with personal ties to Franco-Americans is passing from the scene.
Of course, this is an American story: Franco-Americans’ experiences tell us a great deal about religious conflict, nativism, immigration policy, labor activism, political mobilization, and economic development in the United States. But, still today, theirs is also a Canadian story. The few sentences we find about la grande saignée in Quebec textbooks fail to do justice to nineteenth-century economic woes, repatriation efforts, half-baked colonization schemes, continuing attention to Franco communities in newspapers into the 1950s, the influence of the sovereignty movement, and the availability of Quebec funds for Franco initiatives.
I have sought to emphasize French-Canadian immigrants’ place in both of these national sagas by contributing articles to academic journals. From upstate New York in the 1780s to Fall River and Barre more than a century later, I have followed compelling stories with little regard to time or place. This, after all, is not a story that begins in industrial New England in 1865 only to end there three generations later. The story must be so broad as to include Revolutionary War soldiers and those who disregard doctors’ orders and travel to Manchester every June.
Although this whole business of academic journals may seem like the stuff of ivory towers, they are an important medium for reaching the next generation of researchers, communicating with teachers, and influencing textbooks-in-the-making. I have no grand illusions about the value of own my research, but I do believe in the significance of the Franco-American
story stories. Every avenue ought to be explored in making that case.
It is in that spirit that I launched my blog, which offers a taste of my findings with less jargon and without the unwelcome paywalls. Perhaps yet more people, Franco-American or not, will join the conversation and the effort as a result.
After all, we’ve only scratched the surface.
Patrick Lacroix is a native of Cowansville, Quebec, and spent many years in New Hampshire, where he earned a doctoral degree in history. He now teaches in Nova Scotia. You can follow his research on Franco-Americans at his blog.