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.
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 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 2022.
Thank you for such a pithy, well-written, and concise piece about a sometimes overlooked ethnic group that helped flavor the New England stew.
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.
Sara Losier- Tracadie, NB, Canada.
That was the thought I had to abt the use of the word ’round-up’ to describe the Expulsion of Acadians. I also thought that the emphasis on French-Canadians from Quebec was not accurate–there were many French Acadians from the Maritime provinces who also relocated to many of the places mentioned.
It would be important to note when and why these folks proudly decided to call themselves
Franco-American and not French Canadians.
The Franco-American Women’s Institute can provide more information on the women’s contributions.
Author of ‘down the Plains,’ & Wednesday’s Child
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
Franco-American Women’s Institute
2015 is the 19th Anniversary of FAWI!
Great Roundup of 1755???? Some call it a genocide!
The Expulsion of the Acadians (avec vidéo)
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.
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!
The poutines as described here are not the poutines we eat in New England. The poutines with gravy and cheese curds are from Quebec.
I should add that the style of poutines we eat around here come from New Bunswick.
[…] Between 1840 and 1930, about 900,000 French-speaking Canadians left Québec to work in New England https://newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/the-little-canadas-of-new-england/ […]
[…] The Little Canadas of New England […]
They also came to the mills of West Warwick.
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.
Are these Chicopee ,MA people ? We have D’Amours’ and my mothers’ family are Desrochers . There was a Gabrielle in Napoleon Desrochers family who was a cousin of my grandfather Prosper Desrochers . The D’Amours founded & still own The Big Y Supermarkets in MA & CT.
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.
[…] For many, many years, le reveillon was the way Franco-Americans ushered in New Year’s Day in New England’s Little Canadas. […]
[…] Candlemas night, Franco-Americans often had pancake parties, believed to bring good […]
Did they”drift back”or get absorbed by America? Say it loud and proud-Franco-American!
[…] late 1775, Continental Army Commander-in-Chief George Washington was trying to win the support of French-Canadian Catholics as the army was preparing to invade Canada. He was also trying to keep the colonies — […]
[…] Kerouac was born in Lowell, Mass., on March 12, 1922, the son of Franco-American immigrants. Lowell was no longer the splendid city of industry populated by well-paid mill girls who attended […]
[…] lumber camps had them. The jumping Frenchmen tended to be shy, ticklish French-Canadians who responded dramatically when startled. They were often the victims of practical […]
[…] Fall River textile mills employed a large immigrant population, mostly from Quebec, Ireland and England. Like most Chinese immigrant cooks, Frederick Wong tailored his food to the […]
When I grew up, in the 40’s-50’s the town of Southbridge MA was considered a French town. My last name is french, but I do not speak or understand French.
[…] the 20th, the annual celebration was celebrated with large processions in Montreal, Quebec City and Little Canadas in the United States. In 1930, for example, the Willimantic, Conn., L'Union de St. Jean Baptiste […]
[…] Foster Sweetser, in his King's Handbook of Newton, Massachusetts, described the English, Irish and French-Canadian immigrants who were working the […]
[…] millworkers lived in Brunswick’s Little Canada, four blocks of filthy, decrepit, company-owned tenements along the Androscoggin River. Nearby […]
[…] was born Grace de Repentigny on Sept. 8, 1924, to poor Franco-American parents in Manchester, N.H. Her father, a merchant seaman, left the family when she was […]
[…] of the victims had immigrated from Canada and Ireland. Most were women, children or old […]
[…] is only the third most Franco-American state in the Union. New Hampshire comes in second. Maine, with 25 percent of its population claiming French ancestry, […]
[…] Kerouac Jean-Louis Kerouac was born in Lowell, Mass., on March 12, 1922, the son of Franco-American immigrants. Kerouac’s father was a printer who lost his shop in a flood; his mother worked in a shoe […]
[…] 1884, a French parish in Fall River, Mass., locked their Irish pastor out of their church and made his life a living hell. They evicted him […]
[…] 5,000 newcomers had arrived in the four years since 1910. They were Irish, Italian, Polish and French-Canadian immigrants come to work in the mills, the wharves and the tanneries. They were jammed into […]
My mother grew up in Randolph Maine as a French-Canadian
American. She remembered the KKK marching in her small town and burning crosses in back of her house which was an open field. Her father (my grandfather) was a butcher and because he was catholic he was a target. I must mention, my mother told me the marches that she experienced did not consist of the killers and tormentors the KKK had become elsewhere. They were none the less frightening. My Grandfather did lose business but in the end, his customoer all came back.
Interesting article but it does not mention New Bedford, Mass. which has a large Franco-American population. In the 1950s it had at least five French speaking parishes. The largest and most impressive French church was St. Anthony of Padua built in the early 1900s in the Romanesque style and decorated by Italian artists. It houses a famed Casavant organ. https://www.saintanthonynewbedford.com.
[…] who frequently visited Lowell, hung out with Kerouac’s relatives and drinking buddies. He tried to educate the Rolling Thunder Revue about Jack […]
Is there a book on this that I can buy? I would love to read about my great ancestors. My grandmother was born in 1900 in Fitchburg, Mass. It would be interesting read and I know many others that would buy a copy.
Not that we know of … but we would love to read it too, if it existed!
[…] to Maine Yankees. Protestant ministers often joined Farnsworth on the podium to denounce the French-Canadian and Irish immigrants who worked in the textile mills and logging […]
[…] 1884, a French parish in Fall River, Mass., locked its Irish pastor out of the church and made his life a living hell. Parishioners evicted him […]
[…] revealed his animus toward immigrants in a comment about French Canadians: You cannot believe a thing they tell you…They are a pretty genial folk but many have a […]
[…] But after the Civil War ended, many more French-Canadians moved to Lowell in a great wave of migration. Between 1840 and 1930, about 900,000 residents of Quebec moved to the United States. One-third of Quebec moved to New England to neighborhoods called Little Canadas. […]
[…] this period French-Canadians established Little Canadas in industrial towns from Lake Champlain to the Blackstone River Valley, and from the coasts of […]
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