When an Influx of French-Canadian Immigrants Struck Fear Into Americans
By David Vermette, Zocalo Public Square
August 21, 2019
In the late 19th century, they came to work in New England cotton mills, but the New York Times, among others, saw something more sinister
Americans who distrusted their Catholic, French-speaking neighbors burned the Old South Church in Bath, Maine. (Painting by John Hilling. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.)
In 1893, Clare de Graffenried, special agent of the United States Department of Labor, published an article in The Forum describing an invasion of America’s northeastern border. For 30 years, Graffenreid observed, hundreds of thousands of French Canadians had been pouring into states like Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, finding work in the region’s burgeoning industries. “Manufacturing New England, Puritan and homogeneous no longer, speaks a French patois,” she wrote.
Furthermore, Graffenreid continued, French Canadian workers huddled in “Little Canadas” of “hastily-constructed tenements,” in houses holding from three to 50 families, subsisting in conditions that were “a reproach to civilization,” while “inspiring fear and aversion in neighbors.”
Within the two years after Graffenried’s piece appeared, both of my grandfathers were born in Maine’s Little Canadas. A century later, when I began researching these roots, I uncovered a lost chapter in U.S. immigration history that has startling relevance today—a story of immigrants crossing a land border into the U.S. and the fears they aroused.
Inheriting an ideology of cultural survival from Québec, the French Canadians in the U.S. resisted assimilation. This led a segment of the American elite to regard these culturally isolated French speakers as a potential threat to the territorial integrity of the United States—pawns, conspiracy theorists said, in a Catholic plot to subvert the U.S. Northeast.
While French-speaking people had lived in North America since the 1600s, the French Canadians Graffenried discussed crossed the U.S. border during the late 19th century, mainly to earn a living in New England’s cotton mills. Cotton textile manufacturing began in earnest in the region during the War of 1812, and by mid-century, it was the U.S.’s largest industry in terms of employment, capital investment, and the value of its products. When the United States blockaded Confederate ports during the Civil War and prices for raw cotton soared, New England’s mills shut down or slashed hours. Textile workers turned toward other industries, joined the army, or headed west.
Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/french-canadian-immigrants-struck-fear-into-new-england-communities-180972951/
If you are interested in digging deeper into this subject, look for the book, A Distinct Alien Race - The Untold Story of Franco-Americans, Industrialization, Immigration, Religious Strife, which is recommended by one of our members, Anita Nevins.