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.
French farm laborers in Silkville, Kansas, ca. 1880-1900. © Kansas State Historical Society

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.”