FCL Blog

Why I Tell the Franco-American History

Patrick Lacroix

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.

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