French-Canadians of all ages worked in the mills of New England. This is Lewis Hine's
1909 photograph of Jo Bodeon
, a back-roper
Cotton Mill in Burlington, Vermont.
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July, 1609 The French in Vermont
Appeared in the Journal-Opinion, July 15, 2009
Four hundred years ago this month the French came to the area that would become Vermont, a state whose name means “Green Mountain” in French. In July 1609 the explorer Samuel de Champlain accompanied a band of Hurons and Algonquians into the lake they called Bitawbagok, “the waters between.” Champlain and the two Frenchmen who accompanied the party were amazed by the beauty and abundance of the place. He would later rename the lake for himself.
Champlain had established Quebec in 1608, laying the foundation for what became New France. That colony flourished throughout the 17th century with an economy based on the fur trade, fishing and agriculture. However, its development was transformed by the competition between the French and the English colonies to the south. That competition led to a series of colonial wars between 1689-1763.
The native people who had occupied the area for centuries were caught in these struggles. Champlain had accompanied a war party on his 1609 visit. The target was the Iroquois, his companions’ traditional enemy. During a battle Champlain shot two Iroquois chiefs. From that time on the Iroquois sided with the English and other native tribes sided with the French. The French had better relations with the natives because they recognized the sovereignty of native tribes, while the English regarded them as savages.. However, caught between the two European groups, the native came out the losers.
Concentrated initially along the St. Lawrence River, the French moved to control the significant waterway stretching from the Richelieu River along Lakes Champlain and George. They built settlements and forts including Fort St. Anne in Isle LaMotte and Fort St. Fredric at Crown Point. The soldiers, missionaries and farmers who occupied these sites brought with them a French culture transformed by their contacts with native cultures.
At the same time, the English population to the south was growing dramatically, outnumbering the French over twenty to one. The French attempted to contain the growth of the English colonies. The first French to come to the local area may have the Jesuits who had a mission among the local Abenakis on the Cohase. French fighters along with native warriors passed through our area to attack English settlements down river. One of their targets was Fort Number 4 at Charlestown, New Hampshire, the northernmost English settlement in the valley. Established in 1740, this fort came under attack several times including a three-day siege in 1746 by 700 natives and their French allies.
The fall of Quebec and Montreal to the British in 1759-60, and the subsequent treaty, brought the French and Indian Wars to a close and the end of New France. Although the French officials withdrew, about 60,000 French settlers remained. Surrounded as they were by English-speaking Protestants, they struggled to retain their French Catholic heritage. That struggle was known as la survivance, survival.
This strategy was based on vigorously retaining the language, faith and folkways of the French culture. A visit to modern-day Quebec is a testimony to the success of the strategy. Part of the strategy included strong pressures to marry within the cultural group and have large families; “the revenge of the cradle.” Since most Quebecois were subsistence farmers, the large number of sons soon outgrew the available farmland. This shortage coupled with declining harvests made the farmland of northern New England beckon.
Some migrants from Quebec came as seasonal workers with every intention of returning to their families. Others brought their families and settled on farms close to the border. There was additional French migration following the failed Patriote Rebellion (1837) against British rule in Quebec. As with other immigrant groups, French-Canadians were attracted by employment in the mills of Burlington, the forests of northern Vermont and New Hampshire and employment on the new railroads.
Gerard Brault estimates in his book The French-Canadian Heritage in New England that by 1850, 62% of the 20,000 French-Canadian immigrants had settled in Vermont. Some came to fight in the American Civil War, enticed by idealism, promises of good wages or adventure and in same cases, coercion.
Over the next century the migration of French-Canadians shifted from rural areas to the mills of New England. They were major source of workers for the Fairbanks Scale Co of St. Johnsbury, the Estey Organ Co. of Brattleboro, the granite industry of Barre, paper mills in Berlin and the textile mills of Manchester, Lebanon and the Burlington-Winooski area. Employers were ready to take advantage of their strong work ethic.
By 1900, over a half-million French-Canadians had migrated to the urban centers of New England. Three-quarters of the French population was centered in New England south of Vermont and northern New Hampshire. Virtually every city in New England had its “Petit Canada”, neighborhoods in which the strategy of la survivance was very evident. Retaining ethnic identity and a sense of community made life familiar for the immigrant family as well as offering a defense against dominant Anglo-Protestant culture.
The Church was central to the life of the immigrants. St. Joseph’s Parish in Burlington was established in 1850, the first of a network of French parishes, often served by French-speaking priests. Parochial schools reinforced both language and religion. The school day was divided with lessons taught in French in the morning and English in the afternoon. Religious orders provided teachers. This practice continued in some parishes into the 1950’s. Public schools were avoided as both a threat to the language and because the use of French in the home was often a barrier to student success.
French-language newspapers, social organizations as well as credit unions and other institutions were set up in many French enclaves. Well into the 20th century it was possible to conduct daily affairs entirely in French in locations such as the West Side of Manchester, N. H. Close to the border, French was as common as English in Newport, Vt.. As third and fourth generations became acculturated into the American culture, dedication to the French culture diminished. French-Canadians became Franco-Americans.
A number of area Franco-Americans shared their experiences as evidence of both dedication to and loss of their traditional culture. They include Robert Lefebvre, Andre Thibault, and Vera Petelle Grant, all of Bradford and Helen Jette Bonneau of Williston, formerly of Bradford. Their stories reflect the acculturation of the immigrants.
Both Lefebvre and Thibault are able to trace their ancestry back to specific individuals who came to New France in the 17th century. Thibault’s ancestor was Francois-Louis Thibault, an indentured servant who subsequently married a “filles du roi” (“daughters of the King”). This was a designation given to French women who were brought to the colony by royal officials to supply wives for the settlers. Both of these men were born in Quebec and came to the United States as children. Thibeault said that he had 105 first cousins, evidence of the large families of his parents.
Helen Bonneau, the youngest of 14 children, grew up in the French neighborhood of Hanover Street, Lebanon. Her parents did not allow her to speak English until she entered Sacred Heart School. She recalls the holiday celebrations that were so much a part of her family life. They include the “reveillons” or “awakening”, a celebration that followed Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day began with a blessing of the family by their father followed by traditional food, song and dance, often lasting all day.
While their circumstances were different, all these individuals shared some degree of remorse over the loss of cultural identify in their children and grandchildren. This was especially strong when that loss included decreased devotion to the faith of their ancestors.
The arrival of the French-Canadians was not without controversy. The ugly reactions of discrimination and disapproval from the older Yankee stock began early. Well’s History of Newbury indicates that in 1847 the short-lived Newbury newspaper Northern Protestant and American Advocate railed against all Catholics, including French Canadians. In the 1850’s many Vermonters joined the nativist Know-Nothings and, in 1855, the American Party of Vermont was organized. These groups blamed a loss of traditional American culture on the “decay” caused by immigrant groups. Many histories of Vermont of that period just simply ignored the existence of the French immigrants in the state. Historian Abby Hemenway was an exception to that practice.
While this reaction was based on visions of Anglo-Protestant superiority, it was also a reaction to the growth of cities, perceived by many to be evil. Bigotry against the French-Canadian immigrants continued throughout the next century. Laborers often resented them, fearing that they would lower wages. The success of the Ku Klux Klan in northern New England and the eugenics movement in Vermont in the 1920’s and 30’s were indications of this xenophobia. That period’s writings of Henry F. Perkins of UVM and Roland E. Robinson reflect the misplaced disdain held by some Vermonters.
It is within recent memory that nicknames such as frog, canuck or frenchie were used in a disparaging or stereotypical manner. The belief was still held by some area residents that somehow those of French-Canadian heritage were socially or intellectually inferior. Those interviewed for this article said that they had experienced some discrimination but felt that it was now a thing of the past.
Control of the Roman Catholic Church in New England was another controversy when French migrants mixed with those from Ireland. For over a century following 1840 there was a feeling that the Irish were favored in the appointment of the church hierarchy of the region. While the first bishop of the Burlington diocese was at least partially French, that appeared to have been an exception to the normal practice in such appointments.
Locally, the first Catholic parish was St. Ignatius in Wells River organized in 1874 by Rev. J. S. Michaud of Newport. It had closed by the 1930’s. At a time when other parishes were distinctly Irish or French, this church was served by a series of priests from both groups. This was also true of St. Joseph’s of Woodsville organized in 1896. Local observers indicated that Our Lady of Perpetual Help that was built in Bradford in 1946 and St Eugene’s Chapel that opened in Wells River in 1947 had a mixture of Catholics from different ethnic backgrounds, with no one ethnicity having more influence than another.
A review of the 1880 census of our local area reveals only a small number of French names. This is not a fool-proof guide as some immigrants changed the spelling or anglicized their names to avoid discrimination. Currently, names such as Minard, Dube, Boudreau and Gendron are more common than a century ago. The assimilation is almost complete among most families. The culture the immigrants brought from Quebec and carefully nurtured has now been chiseled away by changes in the American way of life.
As Vermont observes the quadricentennial of Champlain’s visit, we recognized French, who by the the hundred of thousands followed him. As with other immigrant groups, they have contributed to our cultural, political and economic way of life. Their mantra of family, faith and hard work has been a model to others. That they stood in the face of discrimination and prevailed against it, is to their credit.
Some consider our region to be a cultural melting pot with distinct cultures having melded into one. Others see it as a cultural patchwork, with each group retaining some cultural identify while still being part of the whole. One way or the other, we might do well to consider the words of Joseph-Andre Senecal of UVM who wrote in 2003: “We are all Vermonters and none of us are real, first or native, not in a way that should matter.”