When an Influx of French-Canadian Immigrants Struck Fear Into Americans

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.”

…These Little Canadas, often wedged between a mill and a Catholic church, formed a cultural archipelago, outposts of Québec scattered throughout the Northeast in densely populated pockets. By 1900, one-tenth of New Englanders spoke French. And in the region’s many cotton mills, French Canadians made up 44 percent of the workforce—24 percent nationally—at a time when cotton remained a dominant industry.

French-Canadian workers often lived in overcrowded, company-owned tenements, while children as young as eight years old worked full shifts in the mills. Contemporary observers denounced the mill town squalor. When 44 French Canadian children died in Brunswick, Maine, during a six-month period in 1886, most from typhoid fever and diphtheria, local newspaper editor Albert G. Tenney investigated. He found tenements housing 500 people per acre, with outhouses that overflowed into the wells and basements.

…Some Fall River tenements, continued Hale, “do not compare favorably with old-time slave-quarters,” a not-so-distant memory in the 1890s.

Other immigrants also faced pitiable conditions, but the French Canadians were unique because they thought of themselves as Americans before they came to the U.S. …In their view, “American” was not a nationality, but a collection of “all the nationalities” living under the Stars and Stripes. In keeping with this understanding, they coined a new term for their people living in the U.S.: Franco-Americans.

….If naturalized citizens obeyed the laws, defended the flag, and worked for the general prosperity, he felt their duties were discharged—language, religion, and customs could remain in the private sphere. Gagnon’s concept of citizenship was based on Québec’s history, where French Canadians had maintained a distinct cultural identity despite British rule since 1763. The Franco-American elite expected their people to maintain their identity in the U.S. just as they had done in Canada.

…By the 1880s, elite American newspapers, including The New York Times, saw a sinister plot afoot. The Catholic Church, they said, had dispatched French Canadian workers southward in a bid to seize control of New England. Eventually, the theory went, Québec would sever its British ties and annex New England to a new nation-state called New France. Alarmists presented as evidence for the demographic threat the seemingly endless influx of immigrants across the northeastern border, coupled with the large family size of the Franco-Americans, where 10 or 12 children was common, and many more not unknown.

…”This is the avowed purpose of the secret society to which every adult French Canadian belongs.”

… In the mid-19th century, supporters of the Know Nothing movement led attacks on Catholic neighborhoods from New York City to Philadelphia. In New England, among other incidents, a Know Nothing-inspired mob burned a church where Irish and French Canadian Catholics met at Bath, Maine, in July 1854. In October of that year, Catholic priest John Bapst was assaulted, robbed, tarred and feathered, and driven out of Ellsworth, Maine. While the Know Nothings faded away, in the late 19th century the nativists regrouped as the American Protective Association, a nationwide anti-Catholic movement.

…The New York Times reported in 1881 that French-Canadian immigrants were “ignorant and unenterprising, subservient to the most bigoted class of Catholic priests in the world. … They care nothing for our free institutions, have no desire for civil or religious liberty or the benefits of education.”

…Amaron and Morehouse identified Protestantism with Americanism. For them, it was unthinkable that the U.S. could accommodate a variety of religious traditions and yet retain its political culture.

In retrospect, the fevered discourse about New England’s class of destitute factory workers reveals how little chattering classes in the U.S. knew their neighbors—a people whose presence in North America preceded Plymouth Rock.

…Talk of a French Canadian threat waned in the first years of the 20th century, as migration across the northeastern border slowed temporarily. This Victorian episode faded from memory only when U.S. fears were transferred to new subjects: the even more foreign-seeming Jewish and non-Protestant immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, who, in the early 20th century, began to arrive in growing numbers on U.S. shores.

When an Influx of French-Canadian Immigrants Struck Fear Into Americans | History | Smithsonian Magazine

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