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On the Trail of French-Speaking Migrants in North America

We know everything about Jacques Cartier, the French sailor who discovered the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada in 1534. But we know far less about the other Francophones who settled in North America from the 17th century onwards. This is the ambitious objective of a transatlantic research project set to finish in 2026.

Des Moines in Iowa, Traverse City in Michigan, Eau Claire and Prairie du Chien in Wisconsin, Belle Fourche in South Dakota, Coeur d’Alene in Idaho… French place names are everywhere in North America. And there are at least 17 towns called Frenchtown! However, French settlers are rarely mentioned in the history books.

“Francophone migrants have long been ignored by North American historians, who preferred to focus on the continent’s Anglophone history,” says Yves Frenette, professor at the Université de St. Boniface in Winnipeg and director of the research project Three Centuries of Francophone Migrations in North America (1640-1940). “Our goal is to give a voice back to communities you rarely hear about.”

More Than 40 American, Canadian, and French Researchers

Over the next seven years, 41 researchers from the United States, Canada, the U.K., France, Belgium, and Switzerland will be studying migrations of Francophone communities across six major regions: Acadia, Quebec, New England, the Great Lakes and the Mississippi Valley, the Great Plains, and Washington State. They will be looking at how the migrants, those who stayed behind, and those who welcomed them, experienced this journey by drawing on letters, diaries, and songs.

The project is being supported by 27 universities, museums, and associations, including La Loure, which preserves oral traditions in Normandy. The research will be focused on migrants from France, Switzerland, and Belgium, Canadians of French heritage, Acadians, and those of mixed race. Francophones from Syria and Lebanon who arrived between 1880 and 1940 will also be part of the study. “There were very few of them,” says Yves Frenette, “but they had a major influence through their professions as merchants and traveling salespeople.”

The censuses compiled in Canada since 1666 and in the United States since 1790 will enable the researchers to paint a “detailed portrait” of the Francophones in North America between the 17th and 20th centuries. Information such as dates and places of birth, occupation, and the languages spoken at home is now available online, and offers a clear image of Francophone communities and their movements. “Thanks to this data, we can draw up a profile of a family of French Canadians in Minnesota in 1910 and to track their journey by studying the Canadian censuses and registers of births, marriages, and deaths.”

A Continental Project

There are also other research subjects in the project. Gérard Fabre, researcher at the Center for the Study of Social Movements at the French National Center for Scientific Research, will be studying the accounts recorded by migrants. France Martineau, linguist at the University of Ottawa, will be focusing on the spread of French-Native languages including Michif, a mixture of French and Cree spoken in Manitoba and North Dakota. And Robert Englebert, historian at the University of Saskatchewan, will be looking at the relationships between Francophone explorers and Native American women in a number of villages in the Mississippi Valley.

This “continental project” financed by a subsidy of 2.5 million dollars from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada will conclude in 2026 with a bilingual virtual exhibition. In the meantime, the researchers’ work will be published online and presented in locally organized exhibitions and conferences. In June 2020, a symposium at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, will be presenting the colony of Frenchtown, founded southwest of Seattle in 1824, and the French presence in the Pacific Northwest.

“Contrary to popular belief, Francophone populations have always migrated and were not always welcomed with open arms,” says Yves Frenette. “The situation of these settlers over a century ago is comparable to the situation of Hispanic and African migrants today, which gives our research project a very current perspective.”

  • Well over 10 millions in the US alone are of French heritage, yet this not widely known or researched. As Dr. Frenette is quoted in the article, “Francophone migrants have long been ignored by North American historians, who preferred to focus on the continent’s Anglophone history.” So true/tellement vrai! Best wishes in this wonderful research project.

  • Bonjour,
    Mon nom : Jean Claude Bruneau, venu aux USA le 5 mars 1973 dans le village de LeSueur, Minnesota, pour fabriquer des camemberts et bries dans une usine laitiere de la ville en representation du groupe Bongrain (aujourd’hui Savencia). C’etait la premiere installation manuelle des fabrications francaises des pates molles aux Etats Unis. Le village de LeSueur a ete cree en 1682 par Pierre Charles LeSueur (ne en Artois en 1657). L’histoire, reelle, dit que Mr. LeSueur a ete envoye par le roi de France pour non selement decouvrir de nouvelles opportunites, mais egalement collecter certaines taxes dans l’Etat de Louisiane. Pierre Charles devint un fugitif apres la collection d’impot et remonta le Mississipi jusqu’a la Minnesota River qu’il prit par megarde et trouva son point d’atterissage a un endroit qu’il fortifia et qui prit son nom. Personellement, j’ai joue le role de Mr. Le Sueur lors du Bicentenial de 1976. Une tres belle histoire plus detaillee pourrait etre fournie, non seulement par moi-meme, mais egalement par la ville de Le Sueur.
    A votre service.

    Jean Claude Bruneau

    • Merci pour cette histoire ! Pierre-Charles Le Sueur, en remontant le Mississippi depuis le Golfe du Mexique, est devenu le premier Européen à explorer la vallée de la rivière Minnesota.

  • A large area of Northwestern Minnesota was settled by French Canadians, like Pierre Bottineau who settled Red Lake Falls. At one time, the Catholic priest was a francophone as many of the parishioners spoke French. There are many French place names. My own ancestors are all French Canadian. The first one came with Champlain and others later in the 18th c. I will look forward to hearing more of this research.

  • The first French colony in South Carolina was established in the 16th century, although it wasn’t successful. By the mid-18th century, Huguenot settlers had established towns throughout the state. My grandmother and her extended family lived in Abbeville and New Bordeaux, SC. Since the colony was primarily British at the time, the French assimilated to British culture and language.

  • Formidable ce numero. Je suis moi-même casablancaise de mère française, arrivée aux USA en 1964. Nous avons d’abord vecu au Wisconsin, où l’influence française est bien marquée. Je me demandais au debut ce que voulait dire “prairie du chiiine”. J’ai appris. Fiere d’etre américaine, mais je n’oublie jamais mes racines françaises et nord-africaines. En fait, je viens de publier mon dernier livre, Le Riad au Bord de l’Oued, en français. Great job !

  • Mes ancêtres étaient les Acadiens, Cadiens (Cajuns) et Créoles qui ont habité dans la Louisiane depuis les 1700s (et en Acadie depuis les 1600s). Ma famille et moi habitont aujourd’hui dans le sud de la Louisiane.

  • I have always felt alone as a French-American girl growing up in California. So I visited my mother’s family in Brittany when I was seventeen in 1977. I welcome this project to celebrate our heritage.

  • Il faudra venir dans le Maine où il y a toutes sortes de francophones d’origines québecoise, acadienne, cajun, française, belge, suisse et de divers pays du continent africain. A bientôt j’espère !

    Régine Whittlesey
    Présidente Alliance Française du Maine

  • My ancestor Olivier Charbonneau came to Montreal with his family in the late 1600s. In the 1800s among his descendants a Charbonneau came to Detroit, originally a French settlement on the Detroit River founded by Cadillac, and settled there. My father, Louis H. Charbonneau was a prominent Detroit attorney and retired as a Brigadier General after serving in WWI and WWII. I learned la belle langue francaise in high school, and taught French for many years. I am fiercely proud of my French-Canadian heritage and delighted at the prospect of this study.

  • Ayant immigré à Seattle en 1971, prof de français toutes ces années, je serai très contente d’en savoir plus sur la présence francophone dans l’Etat de Washington. Le colloque à Walla Walla est ouvert au grand public ?

  • I am 100 % Acadian and am so very interested in this project. I have traced my ancestry to their arrival in 1632. Many ended up in the USA following the deportation of 1755. I have not traced them in that country. Your project sounds exciting and will be of great interest.

  • I am very surprised that the French colony in San Francisco is not part of the study. It was the largest concentration of French immigrants outside of France starting in the mid-1800s, continuing into the mid-1900s! The French church (Notre Dame des Victoires) is separate from the San Francisco Archdiocese, started by Marist priests from France. Many of its large retail businesses were started by French merchants. One sad note was that, although many of these people married, had children, and became naturalized American citizens in the early 1900s, the men were drafted by the French Army at the beginning of WWI–when they did not return for this, they became persona non grata in France for the rest of their lives.

  • I am from New Brunswick, Canada, and have been living in Fitchburg, MA for now 58 years. Both my parents were Acadian French, my dad was a Thibodeau and my mom a Leger and both were from NB and my great, great, great, etc. from Port Royal, Nova Scotia.

  • I have been researching my heritage for years and have come against a stone wall for my 4th great-grandparents who came to Vermont from Quebec, as so many did, still speaking French and knowing of their Metis blood, but hiding it. I hope this helps to clarify Jean Baptiste Meloche (Manosh, Minish, Menoche) born circa 1802 in St Michel? Married to Lizzie Lambert with at least two children, John Jr and Mary, and second marriage to Cordelia Adelaide Chauvin, from Chambly, with many more children. My ancestor died in the Civil War, John Jr who married Mary Laplant. I and my many cousins keep searching, and DNA connects us to Meloche people all over Quebec and even into Manitoba, as well as into Michigan and points west, and all of New England. Yet, I do not know his parents or Lizzie Lambert’s. They were part of the tub building industry in Montgomery, VT.
    I look forward to this study!

  • Check out Western PA all along the French Supply Route, Allegheny River, and French Creek from Fort Duquesne (aka Pitt) to Fort Presqu’Ile (Erie), and big concentration in Crawford County.

  • I have three sides of French heritage. My grandfather was a Landry, my grandmother Bonneville (born in Farnham, near Montréal) and my other grandmother a Langlais, one of whose ancestors was the child of English settlers in Maine who were captured and brought to Canada. I have been both to Québec and to France many times. Celebrating our heritage gives me great joy!

  • My 7 times great-grandfather was designated as one of the First Pioneers of Canada. Etienne Fontaine, son of Jacques (De,Des) Fontaine & Jeanne Colinet in Saint-Sauveur On Ille d’Yeu, France left France to apprenctice for 3 years on a ship that sailed the world. Eventually he married Marie Conille in New France and also had a Brigantin called The Saint Louis. He and his sons traded goods up and down the St Lawrence seaway until 1708. He owned 50 arpents of land and employed many. Much more was gleamed on his life from Quebec archives whom translated for me a brief history of his life on L’lle D’Orleans. I have been researching for over 25 years and at present await the digitizing of France archives of all of there holdings to unblock a “brick wall” on Jacques (De,Des) Fontaine and his father’s pedigree in France.

  • Red Lake Falls, MN is located about 20 km west of Oklee, MN that was absorbed by the non-extant Lambert Town, so named because of the large number of Lambert families, where missionaries first held mass services between 1881-1884. Alphonse Lambert and Marie Rodrique headed one of the Lambert Town families, Alphonse being a descendant of Aubin Lambert, born in France’s ancient Perche province, who settled in New France’s Quebec area. Another descendant of Aubin Lambert, Gervais Lambert, married to Catherine Lesieur, settled from Yamachiche, New France to Bourbonnais, IL.

  • Great project! Yves Frenette has been doing research on the migrations of Francophones in North America for years. With renewed interest more will be published, hopefully better assessing what the French have brought to North America. I myself have written Le rêve californien : Migrants français sur la côte Pacifique on the history of the French in California from 1769 to the end of the 20th century when this book was published. More will follow.

  • Will there be research about the Alabama Gulf Coast? I descend from Jean-Baptiste Baudreau dit Graveline (père) who was from Quebec. He was sent to south Alabama (Dauphin Island) in the early 1700s by d’Iberville to colonize. Supposedly over 10,000 Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama residents descend from him, yet I feel like he is not given much attention nationally.

  • I descend from many French/Canadien ancestors. Have been tracing my family for about 25 years. Some of the names are Clavet, Melanson, Thibault, Cloutier, Mouet de Moras, Delanglade, Grignon,Charbonneau, Miville, Pepin, Boyer, and many more. This sounds like a great project!

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