Billy Fumey dreamed of being a cowboy when he was a child, but the young man has actually become an American “emissary” for his native French region of Franche-Comté. Guitar in hand, he tours Missouri, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, following in the footsteps of the first Franc-Comtois settlers.
The inhabitants of Besançon in Eastern France know that their city shares its name with a village in Indiana. They also read in the local press that 57.5% of this same village voted for Donald Trump in 2016. But they may not be aware of the full extent of its Francophone past. “The city of Besançon is twinned with Charlottesville, Virginia, but has little to do with its homonym in Indiana, which was founded by people from the Franche-Comté region in 1846,” says Billy Fumey.
The 26-year-old guitarist, folklorist, and historian is originally from Champagnole in the Jura département, and decided to “re-establish a link with the Comtois diaspora,” in North America. “I didn’t come up with the idea,” he says. “The people of Alsace, the Basque Country, and Brittany have maintained close ties with their American cousins, but there was nothing of the sort for the Franche-Comté region.”
Last October, the young Frenchman started out his second American tour in Mexico. The town of San Rafael in the state of Veracruz was founded in the 19th century by immigrants from Champlitte, near Dijon. A 1986 twinning agreement officialized the link between the two cities and has fostered transatlantic exchanges. Billy Fumey hopes to achieve the same thing in North America.
His research has led him to draw up a list of towns founded by Franc-Comtois settlers in North America, including Belfort (New York), Besancon (Indiana), Bonnots Mill (Missouri), Frenchtown (Pennsylvania), Frenchville (Pennsylvania), Perryville (Missouri), Saint-Claude (Manitoba), and Saint-Lupicin (Manitoba).
A Little-Known Chapter of History
Between 1820 and 1870, more than one thousand people from Franche-Comté left their region and moved to the United States. The reasons for their departure vary, from frozen vines and mediocre harvests to limited prospects for the youngest members of large families. Entire villages set out to try their luck in Missouri, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, according to Billy Fumey.
In the 1840s, Felix Bonnot left the village of Valone, in the Doubs département, and traveled all the way to a farm on the Osage River, in Missouri. With the advent of the railway, the Frenchman built a station, a sawmill, and a windmill. He lent his name to the new town: Bonnots Mill was born. Other inhabitants of Valone heard of his success, and decided to join him. In just five years, the French village lost some 20% of its population.
There are no French speakers left in Bonnots Mill today, as observed by Billy Fumey, who played a concert at Johnny Mac’s Bar & Grill (“a real saloon”) in the town. However, the Dauphine Hotel and the St. Louis of France catholic church are a nod to the origins of the first residents. The local cemetery is also home to tombstones bearing “typically Franc-Comtois last names” such as Boillot, Dubrouillet, Eynard, Henriot, Hubert, Jacquin, Perrot, and Vincent.
A “Missouri Roundabout” in the Doubs département
The same story can be found in other towns. In Indiana, the suburbs of Fort Wayne have encapsulated the village of Besancon, but the Saint-Louis catholic church — supposedly named after the church in the Montrapon neighborhood in the French city of Besançon — is a testament to the region’s French heritage. A fleur-de-lis adorns the nave of the church, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and old passports granted in the French town of Vesoul are exhibited in the local museum. And in Frenchtown on Lake Erie, the parish of Saint-Hippolyte founded in 1834 is said to have taken its name from a town in the Doubs département. As Billy Fumey has noticed, the towns founded by Franc-Comtois settlers in the United States have generally “remained Catholic communities in mostly Protestant regions.”
In every town he visits, the young musician sings folksongs in French and Arpitan (a regional language spoken from Franche-Comté to the Aosta Valley in Italy), playing along with a guitar and forging ties with the French descendants. He hopes to one day create the equivalent of the Franche-Comté Québec association in the United States and make the cultural exchanges official. He is hoping to convince the council in the village of Levier, Doubs, to inaugurate a “Missouri Roundabout” in honor of the 210 inhabitants of the village who moved to the United States. He is also working on a Halloween parade for 2018. Billy Fumey is already planning another tour of the United States and Canada, and is even developing an idea for a Franc-Comtois immigration museum. “It’s a little-known chapter of history in France and the United States; there’s so much left to explore!”