"The Franco-Americans" emilienoelle's Profile
Franco-Americans are people of French descent living in the United States, of which I am one. Although there are a lot of us, more than 13 million by some estimates, we are not very visible. Outside of places with large Franco-American communities, like Southern Louisiana and Northern Maine, Americans of French descent don't have much to call their own in the way of ethnic American heritage like the Irish Americans and Italian Americans do.
Most people of French descent living in the U.S. came here via Canada. This includes most of my family, and most of the other Franco-Americans living in New England. This also includes the Cajun people of Southern Louisiana who migrated there in the late 1700s from the Canadian Maritime provinces (aka Acadia) after the British took the territory over from the French in 1755.
When given the choice of swearing allegiance to the British Crown or being expelled, most Acadians chose to leave. This period of forced migration between 1755 and 1763 has come to be known in Franco-American history as Le Grande Dérangement or The Great Upheaval. Many Acadians were forced to travel on foot, carrying what they could on their backs.
Thousands of Acadians died during the long trek to Louisiana. And when they finally arrived, they were viewed as lesser citizens by the French Creoles already living in the colony. Forced to scratch out a living in the swamps, the Cajuns (the word is derived from "Acadian") have flourished over the centuries to create one of the greatest, and most vibrant, American sub-cultures.
Back in the days of Le Grand Dérangement "New France" stretched all the way from Louisiana up to northern Michigan, where there is still a large Franco American population today. In fact the city of Detroit was founded by a French army officer and was originally named Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit after one of King Louis XIV's ministers. Two of my grandparents are Franco-Americans from the Detroit area.
Most Franco-Americans in New England get their ancestry from the Canadian province of Quebec, including me. Some of my family migrated to Massachusetts in the late 19th Century during what is known as the "Quebec Diaspora", lasting from about 1840 to 1930. During this time millions of Les Quebecois moved to the United States in search of work in the textile factories of New England and parts of the upper Mid-West.
The Quebec Diaspora resulted in the founding many Franco-American communities in New England, known as "Little Canadas". These communities were plentiful in the mill cities of northern and western Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island and Maine. Lowell, the city where I now live, was home to one of the largest "Little Canadas".
An industrial city built by the owners of textile mills, Lowell depended on the labor of Franco-Americans in the 19th Century. Today the city still has a large Franco-American population. We have two French churches, a French convent, French social and leisure clubs and several French Catholic schools, though the number of all of these is dwindling.
Lowell is also home to one of the United State's most famous Franco-Americans, Beat writer Jack Kerouac.
La Belle France
Another source of French migration to the United States was directly from France. For a brief time during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries a number of French immigrants came to America. My paternal grandmother's family arrived in this country during that time from Marseilles, as did the family of my daughter's father.
Other Franco-Americans who trace their ancestry directly to France include the descendants of the creoles of Louisiana who moved to the French Colony directly from the homeland.
Most Franco-Americans living in modern times no longer speak French, but a few of us still do. My grandparents all spoke French among themselves and to us as children. In school we learned French (oh boy did we ever), eventually learning to view it as a point of pride. And although my French these days is certainly less than stellar, I can still understand spoken French with a surprising degree of accuracy, a fact that never ceases to amaze me whenever I visit Quebec.
Less than one-hundred years ago many cities in New England had French language newspapers, products of our numerous "Little Canadas". Today French is still spoken fairly widely in northern Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire as well as in the Cajun country of Louisiana. That said, the type of French spoken in each of these places varies widely. For example, I can understand French speakers from northern Vermont, but not those from Maine, and certainly not Cajun French, which is a language all its own in many ways.
Because most Americans (and Canadians) of French descent came to North American before the French Revolution, we still identify strongly with the Fleur de Lis which was the symbol of the French monarchy. You will see it used everywhere in Louisiana, for example, and it is part of the Quebec flag. Much of the time I wear a silver Fleur de Lis around my neck. I also like to collect things bearing the Fleur de Lis symbol.
As I mentioned above, the world-famous Beat writer Jack Kerouac was a Franco-American from my hometown of Lowell, his real name being Jean Louis Lebris de Kerouac. Other famous Franco-Americans include the actress Angelina Jolie, former First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, actors Johnny Depp and John Larroquette, jazz singer Madeleine Peyroux, and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain.
One of my favorite things is a collection of poetry written by Jack Kerouac in French.
Most Franco-Americans, and most of the French people for that matter, have a Roman Catholic background. Being a practicing Roman Catholic was a requirement for becoming a member of the colony of New France in North America. There are other Franco-Americans however, descended from the Protestant Huguenots, who also make up a large segment of the Franco-American population, these people having migrated to North America to escape religious persecution in France.
I've heard it theorized that you can tell where in the United States a Franco-American's family comes from based on the ending of their last name. Supposedly names with the ending "ault" ie. Perreault, Archambault and "thier" ie. Routhier, Gauthier are more likely to have roots in New England, whereas people with family names ending in "aux" ie. Archambeaux, Robochaux, etc., are more likely to have origins in Louisiana. I have no idea if this is really true, but I have noticed that there does seem to be a trend there. Of course this doesn't account for all of the Bol ducs, Bouchards, Belangers, and La Flammes out their either. If anyone knows anything about this, please drop me an email!
Most of us Franco-Americans these days have little more than our names to show for our heritage. Since having my daughter I have made it a point to make the study of our Franco-American heritage part of our lives, in the process learning a lot, and finally, after an entire lifetime of feeling "lost" culturally in this country, coming to feel that I belong to something, that I have a "people".
There are lots of resources out there for anyone wanting to learn more about the Franco-Americans or about their family history. Below is a listing of organizations that specialize in Franco-American history and the the preservation of Franco-American culture:
The Franco-American Center at the University of Maine
The Franco-American Women's Institute
Franco-Americans in Lowell Massachusetts
The Franco-American Centre of New Hampshire
Acadian Cultural Society
Acadian Cajun Genealogy and History
Colonial Louisiana History and Genealogy
I can also recommend the book The French Canadian Heritage in New England by Gerard Joseph Brault and the documentary Franco-Americans:We Remember produced by New Hampshire Public Television.
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