French Canadians&The Blackstone ValleyJohn J. BarronEthnicity in MassachusettsWed. 12:30The French have a lengthy history on this continent. The French became interested in the New World in 1524 when King Francois I sought wealth for his European domain (Brown 19). Expeditions were underwritten by the crown. It was eager to compete with other European powers in search for riches. Included in the early voyages were trips by Frenchman Jacques Cartier. Cartier discovered the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1534 (Brown 21). He made further excursions toward the heartland of the continent, resulting in vast land claims.
Another early visitor to America, Samuel de Champlain, organized colonies on the mouth of the St. Croix River in 1604 and at the present site of Quebec City in 1608 (Brown 78). France quickly spread its influence from Quebec to New Orleans. Though sparsely populated, the land that France claimed was astounding in size. While the English colonies were developing along a strip of the east coast no wider than 210 miles, the French laid claim to much of the territory between the colonies and the Mississippi.
Trappers, traders, and explorers during the 17th and 18th centuries, the French were present in the new land. The intent of French exploration was the search for riches; gold and silver. However, failing to produce such wealth, France settled for revenues from the fur trade. Although the search for riches was the initial goal of the French in the new world, the main intent became to spread the Catholic faith. In 1642, French missionaries contributed to the founding of Montreal (Brown 72). In the following years the missionaries would spread like wildfire. The devout Catholicism is evident in American French communities even today.
King Louis XIV made Canada a royal province in 1663 (Brow French Canadians&The Blackstone ValleyJohn J. BarronEthnicity in MassachusettsWed. 12:30The French have a lengthy history on this continent. The French became interested in the New World in 1524 when King Francois I sought wealth for his European domain (Brown 19). Expeditions were underwritten by the crown. It was eager to compete with other European powers in search for riches. Included in the early voyages were trips by Frenchman Jacques Cartier. Cartier discovered the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1534 (Brown 21). He made further excursions toward the heartland of the continent, resulting in vast land claims. Another early visitor to America, Samuel de Champlain, organized colonies on the mouth of the St. Croix River in 1604 and at the present site of Quebec City in 1608 (Brown 78). France quickly spread its influence from Quebec to New Orleans. Though sparsely populated, the land that France claimed was astounding in size. While the English colonies were developing along a strip of the east coast no wider than 210 miles, the French laid claim to much of the territory between the colonies and the Mississippi. Trappers, traders, and explorers during the 17th and 18th centuries, the French were present in the new land. The intent of French exploration was the search for riches; gold and silver. However, failing to produce such wealth, France settled for revenues from the fur trade. Although the search for riches was the initial goal of the French in the new world, the main intent became to spread the Catholic faith. In 1642, French missionaries contributed to the founding of Montreal (Brown 72). In the following years the missionaries would spread like wildfire. The devout Catholicism is evident in American French communities even today.
King Louis XIV made Canada a royal province in 1663 (Brown 116). It was an unsettled region. Only the St. Lawrence River Valley with Quebec and Montreal possessed an urban dimension. Its loose string of settlements south to New Orleans was frail. Efforts were made to populate New France. The rural sectors of France provided most of the immigrants. These peasants were promised land in exchange for their immigration. Though the French continued to populate their colony through the early 18th century, they didn’t reach the numbers that the English colonists did (Brown 127).
The French and the English had been battling in Europe since the beginning so it was of no surprise that they would also battle in the New World. Unrest intensified in the early 16th century. In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht that ended the War of Spanish Succession between Great Britain and France dealt France a humiliating blow (Brown 147). In the peace agreement, France transferred to England its claims to the Hudson Bay territories, to New Foundland and to Acadia. Two events in the following years were characteristic of the increasing hostility between the two. In 1745, an army of New Englanders captured the French fort at Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island (Brown 147). Ten years later, English troops forcibly ejected thousands of neutral French Acadians from their homes in Nova Scotia. A full-scale armed conflict was not far behind. The day of Destiny for N. America was September 13, 1759. The English won the battle of Quebec, and therein lay the outcome of the war. It was on the cliffs of Quebec that the English general, James Wolfe, and his forces defeated the army of General Marquis de Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham. France was a major landholder at the onset of the 18th century. However, in 100 years France gave up everything. Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and the Hudson Bay Region in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 and Canada in 1763 were lost to England.
The French had not given up their spirit, however, and in years to come gathered together for cultural survival in the Anglo world. In the years immediately following the Conquest, the English and French fashioned a coexistence out of need. Quebec was in ruins; rural regions in the St. Lawrence River Valley lay in an unproductive state because of the chaos that the war had brought. Survival came first. But as early post war years led to a rebuilding, friction between the two groups resurfaced. The English were assertive in taking over government land and commerce, which left the French with the unrewarding jobs as farmers and small merchants, By British law, no Roman Catholic could vote, nor be elected or appointed to public office. Though the Quebec act of 1774 allowed the French the right to religious and political activities, it was with apprehension that the French faced the future (Brown 195). Political considerations were not the only struggles for the French in Canada following the Conquest. The difficulty in making a living was significant. It was to be a key factor in families’ decisions to leave Canada for New England. Rural Canada was poor. The years following the Conquest were barren and unproductive for most French families. The French had been trappers and traders. Now they were thrust into roles as small farmers, roles they were untrained for. The English industrialized in Quebec and Montreal, but the French were not to be a part of this new wave of economic activity and prosperity. Discrimination and exclusion kept the French on farms of marginal land. The climate was dry and the growing season was short. The crops that they cultivated were of subsistence quality. Adults and children alike labored on these farms for up to 16 hours per day. This preoccupation with the crops was a major reason for their lack of formal education. The situation became pressing after 1820. Farmers could barely support their families. Compounding their difficulties came a crop-devastating insect, the wheat midge. It threatened thousands of inhabitants who could hardly afford further deterioration of their crops.
The opportunity to seek something better finally presented itself. Word reached the Quebec countryside that quaint New England villages were turning into booming mill towns. Mill agents were seeking workers for cash. Though some French families decided to head for the Canadian west, or America’s Midwest most opted to head south to New England. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants came south in the 19th and 20th century. Filling positions in the New England Textile industry, the French were arriving as the industry was expanding.
The arrival of the immigrants came just after developments in the technology of textiles, which made for an abundant number of jobs. The 18th century had witnessed the golden age of invention in textiles; The spinning mule and Eli Whitney’s cotton gin revolutionized the processing of cotton. All the mills needed after this development was workers. As mill owners built larger buildings and filled them with more machines, the first call for labor was put out. Those answering were Yankee farm girls from the surrounding countryside. Though the work in the mills was demanding the girls were happy to be making money for themselves and their families. The American mill was not to become a retreat for farmers’ daughters, however. Increased technology and greater markets created the need for more workers. Mills came first, the development of the town second. Industrialists pushed ahead with rapid expansion. The French were to hear the cries advertising work. However, it is important to mention that the first ethnic group that made an impact in New England Mills was the Irish. Although there were already several Irish in New England, The potato famine of the 1840s caused the Irish to cross the ocean in large numbers (Aguire 202). Desperate for provisions, the Irish immigrants would take jobs at low wages and work long hours. As more of these Irish immigrants arrived, the working conditions of the mills deteriorated. The presence of the Irish and French enabled manufacturers to become lax. These workers weren’t Americans, the practice implied, so why worry about the human factor? As the textile industry approached the mid 19th century, the working conditions were atrocious. One characteristic of early French Canadian migration was the tendency for those of a family, town or parish to stick together. If one family left for the New England states, it was likely that the next family to leave would also depart for that community. Brothers followed Brothers, and cousins would often move in the wake of cousins. But parish members would also tend to move to communities in which friends had settled. It wasn’t unusual, therefore, to have a homogenous community of friends and relatives already established in some mill towns. And often was the case when a New England town would have a distinctive Canadian flavor. If six dozen habitants from Farnum settled in the same community, for instance, it was bound to take on a certain quality reflective of that back home. Little Compton, RI named for Compton, Quebec gives evidence to this custom. I found that this was apparent when tracing my family tree. While doing research for this project, I found that several French Canadian communities recur: Thompson, CT., Woonsocket, RI, Worcester, MA, and Biddeford, ME. These same predominantly French Canadian communities recur in the birth records of my Ancestors. Within these communities they quickly established lifestyles very similar to those in Quebec. They established parochial schools, societies, clubs and, foremost, Catholic churches. The French Canadians had incredibly strong relationships with their parish. The parish priest was, perhaps, the most powerful man in the little Canadas of New England. This is evident in the incredible churches that the French Canadians have erected throughout New England. Unlike other churches made of wood and white clapboard, the French Canadian churches were erected of stone and brick with marvelous arches and stained glass. Some beautiful churches that are worth an excursion to include: Notre Dame des Canadiens in Worcester, Ma. Erected in 1870Notre Dame de l’assomption in Millbury, Ma. Erected in 1885Sainte Famille in Woonsocket, RI. Erected 1903Sainte Anne’s Church in Fall River, MA.
The power of religion was potent for the French. The French were considered docile by the mill owners when it came to long hours, low wages, and unsafe working conditions. However, when the French were not being represented in the Providence, diocese, as it was mostly Irish, they protested loudly. In addition to the Catholic Church, an institution that helped the French Canadians acclimate to New England was the societies. Though the ethnically oriented fraternal groups are still prominent today, they were of paramount significance in the early years. The first such organization in New England was societe Saint-Jean-Baptiste. The society was founded in 1850. These societies were formed to sustain unity and promote the welfare of the French. This included raising money to build churches, and obtain French speaking priests. They even became predecessors to labor unions. The United Textile Union (ITU) of Woonsocket was formed by leaders of the Societe Sainte-Jean-Baptiste.
In addition to church and society, a key aspect of early French life in New England was French newspapers. Virtually every major industrial center and several modest communities had their own French newspapers. Woonsocket RI. Had three French newspapers. I will write of them more in depth in the sections on specific cities. The fact that so many French newspapers were able to flourish indicates that the early Franco-Americans were good readers. The image that seems to have been passed down by the Anglo press and historians is that the French were illiterate. Such vibrant publications could not have existed without readership. Perhaps many immigrants were slow to learn English. They evidently did not lack the ability to read and write in their own language. WoonsocketThe story of the industrial revolution in the Blackstone valley begins in Woonsocket RI. It was the Blackstone River that initially invited the earliest settlers. The water was convenient for watering their livestock and crops. The soil of the Blackstone River valley was fertile. However Woonsocket is not known for its agriculture but for its mills and manufacturing.
Richard Arnold and Samuel Comstock were the first to harness the power of the Blackstone river when they Built a saw mill on what is presently Woonsocket in 1666 (Wessel 212). The growth of Woonsocket continued slowly. It was not until 1712 that the power of the Blackstone was again harnessed and put to work by a corn and fulling mill (Wessel 212). At this point the development began. The erection of a Quaker meeting house, a tavern, an iron mill and the first bridge over the Blackstone within the next decade were testimony to the growth of Woonsocket. Woonsocket’s growth was inevitable due to the power of the Blackstone river, but also because of its location on the turnpike from Providence to Worcester, and the road from Boston to Connecticut (Wessel 213). Shortly after 1820 the Quakers erected a free school called the Smithfield Academy (Wessel 213). The next signs of progress were the erection of a public library in 1800, and Woonsocket’s first bank in 1805 (Wessel 214). The transition of Woonsocket from town to city occurred when Samuel Slater smuggled the specifications for textile manufacturing equipment from England (Wessel 214). This opened the floodgates for the erection of the Mill City that we see today. Entrepreneurs like Ed Harris and others erected profitable mills along the Blackstone River throughout Woonsocket. By 1850 The city had regular mail service, a transportation system consisting of roads, The Blackstone Canal and the Providence ; Worcester Railroad, And a plethora of textile manufacturing mills. Woonsocket had grown to a population of 4000, accommodating 17 cotton mills, 3 woolen mills, 6 machine shops, an iron foundry, 2 grist mills, a saw mill, a soap manufacturer, and 2 grocery stores (Wessel 215). Although there were French-Canadians living in Woonsocket throughout the 17th century, the largest influx of French immigrants came to Woonsocket from Canada after 1830, and then again in 1860 when several of the mill hands were called away to fight in the Civil War (Wessel 216). Of all the immigrant groups that have given to Woonsocket its present character and reputation, none other has been so numerous or influential as the French Canadian, and the reason for this pre-eminence is not hard to discover. While living in the province of Quebec, before migrating to New England, these French Canadians were neither contented nor prosperous. The farms on which they were living had been cultivated too long and replenished too little. Moreover, these farms were too small to support the large families that tilled them, and neither capital nor enterprise was available for introducing the improved agricultural methods and machinery which might have made the impoverished acres yield an adequate supply. Their well-established dislike of British institutions and British neighbors made the Quebecois disinclined to seek escape from their adversity by migration to other parts of Canada. They were, however, without any such prejudice against their neighbors to the south. When the invitation came, to migrate to this land of freedom and opportunity, they responded in constantly increasing numbers. Because of their geographical proximity, the call was very definitely sent to them by the mill owners of Woonsocket, hard pressed by the labor shortage caused by the civil war. For the Canadians to accept this invitation was relatively easy. Possible competitors from Europe had to cross the stormy and expensive Atlantic Ocean, but immigrants from French Canada had to cross only the frontier. If the first town they reached did not offer the opportunities they were seeking, they could continue their overland journey to another and to yet others. In the course of these journeys, many of them came to Woonsocket and settled there.
Whether they liked the conditions of this new mill town or not is unkown, but they did write home and advise others to come. Regardless of the insults and bad treatment that they received from their Yankee and Irish predecessors, By the 20th century French-Canadians were the majority inhabitants of Woonsocket. In fact, The Mayor, 8 of the councilmen, (Wessel 224) and 84.3% of Woonsocket’s inhabitants were French-Canadian in 1920 (Wessel 228). In Woonsocket as in other textile producing cities the French Canadian influence is evident in their churches. The French in Woonsocket were very poor. They had to attend catholic mass at English speaking parishes until Societe Saint-Jean-Baptiste raised enough money to erect Precieux Sang in 1875. From 1890-1953 Seven more Catholic, French churches were erected in Woonsocket. Most of them were named Sainte Anne, Sainte Joseph or Notre Dame (presumably after the incredible church on the Ile de France in Paris).
More evidence of the French prominence in Woonsocket is The abundance of French Language newspapers in the archives at the American French Genealogical Society; La’Sentinelle, La’Tribune, La’Courier du Rhode Island, La’Courrier Canadien, and Le Re’veil. The French newspapers helped these immigrants retain their language and culture. In fact, it is not uncommon to see French being spoken in Woonsocket in 1999.
Although the French culture has endured, efforts have been made to acculturate the French. In the early part of the 20th century legislative measures were taken to ban French speaking parochial schools. The Americanization forces, crusading to make Rhode Island literate in English, secured the passage of the Peck Law, under which English was to be the basic language in all schools (Wessel 223). Woonsocket’s French community objected, Ostensibly. After repeated attempts to amend the Peck law the French Canadians of Woonsocket were successful, in 1925, when a compromise was reached and the Peck law read:Reading, writing, geography, arithmetic, the history of the United States, the history of Rhode Island, and the principles of American government shall be taught in the English language substantially to the same extent as such subjects are required to be taught in the public schools, and that the teaching of the English language and of other subjects indicated herein shall be thorough and efficient; provided, however, that nothing herein contained shall be construed or operate to deny the right to teach in such private schools.any of said subjects of any other subject in any other language in addition to the teaching in English as prescribed hereinC. 678 of Rhode Island Acts and Resolves, January 1925.
American French Genealogical Society Archives.
The following passage from a sociology book written in 1931 Called An Ethnic Survey Of Woonsocket Rhode Island does a good job of summarizing the French Canadian presence in Woonsocket:To make clear the fact that Woonsocket is, to a degree rarely matched throughout the United States, a foreign city. The Federal Census of 1920 shows its native stock to constitute 15.7 per cent, while its foreign-born stock is 84.3 per cent of the total population. It is a foreign city, predominantly French Canadian, to the extent of more than half the whole number of its inhabitants. Approximately half the school children attend the parochial schools; more than half the public school children are Catholic; and an overwhelming majority of the churchgoers attend the Catholic church.
Wessel, Bessie Bloom, pg. 228.
WorcesterUnlike Woonsocket the immigrants to Worcester never had the opportunity to create a little Canada. Due to Worcester’s geology, agriculture was marginal at best, and textile mills were not as abundant as in other towns of the Blackstone Valley. Regardless of Worcester’s status as the mid-point between the Connecticut River Valley and Boston, the construction of the Blackstone Canal in the 1820s, and the construction of the Boston Turnpike, it remained isolated until 1840 due to the implementation of the railroads. Regardless of the lack of hydropower Worcester grew as a manufacturing city. Worcester didn’t boom as a textile center during the industrial revolution like other cities in the Blackstone Valley but as a manufacturing center. Many of the textile producing machines and other tools were produced in Worcester. Steel mills and shoe manufacturers can still be found near Webster Square. Although W.M. Steel and Worcester shoe remain, several of the buildings have been rented to other businesses. Within these buildings there are distribution warehouses, practice space for local bands, Jonell Upholstering company, and Bay State Gym.
Because of the industry diversity unskilled French-Canadian labor didn’t flock to Worcester. However, the French-Canadians that did migrate established a St. Jean the Baptiste Society, Assumption High School and College, and several churches including the parish of Notre-Dame-des-Canadians to preserve their heritage.
Prior to 1947 Assumption College was one of the flagship institutions of the French American educational establishment. Originally located in Greendale, assumptions eight-year program was designed to prepare catholic clergy and professionals. Assumptions curriculum was a liberal arts program influenced by traditional values and Roman Catholic theology (Brault 97). During the first four years or 9-12th grades students were required to take Ancient history, French, Greek, Latin, and religion, all of which were taught in French. Founded by the assumptionist fathers of France, the French influence was passed to it’s students. The school was known for it’s bilingual atmosphere. However, in 1947 Assumption college began admitting all nationalities rather than strictly French. English speaking professors slowly replaced the French faculty. Multiculturalism was slowly infiltrating the school when a tornado struck the Greendale campus in June of 1953 (Brault 98). The prep school was forced to close and the college reopened at it’s present site on Salisbury Street in 1956 (Brault 99). Assumption currently offers coeducational graduate and undergraduate courses to about fifteen hundred students. Although Assumption College is no longer thought of as a French institution, the Roman Catholic influence remains strong and some members of the faculty are very involved in the promotion of the French culture. Claire Quintal, one of Assumption Colleges faculty is a member of Institut Francais and the author of several books on French Canadians.
Worcester, like other cities, had French language newspapers. L’Opinion Publique was the most popular of the late 17th century. Two other French newspapers were publishid by ferdinand Gagnon in Worcester: L’Etendard National and Le Travailleur.
Worcester’s French-Canadian population never reached the numerical proportion of textile cities in the Blackstone Valley. In addition they were not compactly settled in Franco-American neighborhoods. Responding to economic opportunities French-Canadians in a highly diversified and rapidly expanding manufacturing city were residentially dispersed. However, they were still drawn together by the memory of their ties to the homeland by fears of cultural annihilation in the American environment, and by a determination to establish themselves permanently in Worcester while remaining Canadiens. Notre-Dame-des-Canadiens is their monument.
Northbridge, Whitinsville, Linwood, Rockdale, and RiverdaleWhitinsville is one of five mill villages that comprise the town of Northbridge. It developed as an early mill village along the banks of the Mumford River, a tributary to the Blackstone River, during the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in New England. Whitinsville’s mills reflect more than a century’s evolution in two of New England’s leading industries, textiles and textile machinery. Whitinsville, by the 1920’s, housed the world’s largest textile machine shop in the Whitin Machine Works. Known as South Northbridge prior to 1835, the village was renamed Whitinsville in honor of Paul Whitin, Sr., who established large-scale industry in the community. Paul Whitin, whose family came from Dedham Massachusetts, apprenticed in the iron forge owned by James Fletcher. Paul Whitin married Fletcher’s daughter, Betsy Fletcher in 1791. In 1800, Paul and Betsy Whitin built a large Georgian Homestead, which is now The Victorian Restaurant. There they had five sons, Paul Jr., John C., Charles P., Nathaniel D., and James F., and one daughter Margaret. With the help of his sons, Paul Whitin Sr. and his wife between the years 1800 and 1850 created what would later become a world leader in the production of cotton in this nation. What separated the Whitins and set them on their significant course was the inventive genius of one of the sons John C. Whitin. In 1831, he patented a cotton picker machine that was such an improvement over its predecessors that it generated a great and lasting demand. It was on the basis of this and succeeding inventions that the Whitin Machine Works (WMW) was founded and expanded into an industrial giant. From its first building in 1847, the Whitin Machine Works expanded decade by decade through the 1920’s to meet regional, national, and eventually international demand. Other mills followed and in the late 19th century Paul and Betsy decided to divide the family business among the five sons. Paul Jr. managed the Riverdale and Rockdale mills. Which have become a wire mesh manufacturer and Coz Chemical. Charles P. got the granite Whitinsville Cotton Mill and the little Brick Mill, Which is now a center for the mentally handicapped and a retirement home. John C. received the most lucrative part of the enterprise by acquiring the Machine Shops themselves, Which house many small and large businesses, including Eastern Acoustic Works. James F. Whitin got the Crown and Eagle Mill of North Uxbridge and later constructed the Linwood Cotton Mill in 1866, both of which are now apartment complexes. The breakup of the business among the sons is the reason for Northbridge being comprised of so many smaller villages.
By the end of the 19th century the family business was expanding at such a rate that a shortage of labor became a serious problem. As a result, the Whitins started bringing in a large influx of French Canadians to fill labor needs. The French formed a section of Northbridge called The Village. Several blocks of buildings constructed identically in which there are six apartments in each structure identify the village. This is evidence of the strong French Canadian kinship. Entire families would inhabit the entire building. The parents may occupy one apartment, while the children occupied others, and grandparents, yet another. In Northbridge, as in the other cities of the Blackstone Valley the French provided the labor for the industrial revolution. They erected French churches also; like Bon’Pasteur in Linwood.
By the 1930’s the mills were suffering, as were all businesses from the great depression. The War, as with most industries, provided a surge in Whitin Machine Works production once again. By 1948, the mills were operating at peak capacity. However, the 1940’s witnessed labor unrest and a move toward union activity, which eventually brought an end to the mills by the 1950’s. Today, the mills still stand and over the years have been renovated into apartment complexes, shopping places, and the homes of several large businesses. The mills, built over 150 years ago, are still being used as the major source of business in Northbridge. In fact, The Riverdale Mills Corporation, a wire mesh manufacturer, is Northbridge’s largest employer. BibliographyBibliographyAguire, Adalberto JR. & Turner, Jonathan H. American Ethnicity: The Dynamics and Consequences of Discrimination. McGraw-Hill, Boston, Ma. 1998.
Brault, Gerard J. The French Canadian Heritage in New England. McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, Quebec. 1986.
Brown, Craig. The Illustrated History of Canada. Lester ; Orpen Dennys LTD, Toronto Canada, 1987Doty, C. Stewart, The First Franco-Americans. The University of Maine at Orono Press, Orono ME. 1985.
Wessel, Bessie Bloom. An Ethnic Survey of Woonsocket, Rhode Island. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago IL. 1931.
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