Maine’s Franco-American History Offers Lessons for Today’s Immigrants and Their Neighbors

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Ask the average person on the street about diversity in Maine, and they’ll likely tell you two things – that Maine is “mostly white,” and that any racial or ethnic diversity the state does have comes from the recent arrival of New Mainers from Africa. Views like this ignore Maine’s rich immigration history. At the height of America’s immigration boom, in 1910, one in eight Mainers was born overseas (today it’s less than one in thirty). These immigrants powered Maine’s industrial economy. In 1910, half of all workers in the state’s largest industries – textiles and paper – were immigrants.

The great majority of these immigrants came to Maine from French Canada, especially Québec. Like most who come today, these historic migrants were seeking both economic opportunity and political freedom. By the early 19th century, French Canadians were second class citizens in their own country, denied rights and political power by an English-speaking elite backed by the British government in London.

Some of the first French Canadians came to Maine in the late 1830s and 1840s, prompted by a failed armed uprising in Quebec, and by economic pressures in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, where French Canadian families were being pushed out by land speculators and Irish immigrants. Father Moïse Fortier, the parish priest of St-Georges-de-Beauce, made several visits to Maine between 1841 and 1844, following his parishioners who had come to Skowhegan, Waterville, and Augusta in recent years. Many of these migrants had begun as seasonal workers in the Maine woods, or working for farmers in the summer. But eventually they stayed and formed permeant communities.

The early trickle of French Canadians southward became a torrent after the end of the Civil War, the expansion of the railroads, and the boom of the New England textile industry in the 1870s and 80s. By 1891, the Lewiston Sunday Journal took its readers through what it called “the little world” of the city’s blossoming “Little Canada” neighborhood, whose rapid expansion it compared to a Western boom town.

The new arrivals weren’t always welcomed. Press reports commonly described an “invasion” from the north, and fretted that the large size of French Canadian families meant that the “native” population would soon be outnumbered. While it seems strange to us today, many people saw the French Canadians  as totally different to Maine’s older, “Yankee” stick. The French Canadians spoke a different language, followed a religion that was widely seen as anti-American (Catholicism), and were even seen as a separate race from those of Northern European descent.

At times, this opposition bubbled over into organized hostility. As early as the 1840s, Father Fortier noted that the French Canadians were “deprived of all religious succor and surrounded by fanatics who do not cease ridiculing the practices of the Catholic faith.” In 1854-55, the nationwide “Know-Nothing” movement manifested in Maine with the burning of Catholic churches in Lewiston and Bath, as well as the tarring and feathering of Father John Bapst in Ellsworth.  Politicians sympathetic to this anti-immigrant sentiment passed a series of restrictive laws in 1856, including one which restricted the ability of non-citizens to naturalize in local courts. In 1892, Maine implemented a literacy test to make it harder for French speakers to vote. In 1919, the state prohibited schoolchildren from speaking French in public schools. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan had an active chapter in Maine which focused on removing Franco-Americans from local school boards and public life more generally.

Despite these trials, Franco-Americans persevered. They supported each other with shared institutions, including schools, hospitals, orphanages, social clubs, and newspapers. They taught each other English and offered naturalization classes for aspiring citizens. Franco-Americans pioneered some firsts in the state, including the first hospital in the state (St. Mary’s in Lewiston) and the first indoor ice arena (the predecessor to today’s Colisée in Lewiston). Franco-Americans founded the college which became the University of New England. In 1925, Lewiston hosted the first ever international snowshoe convention, a tradition which continued for decades. In 1951, a team almost entirely composed of Franco-Americans represented the United States at the World Hockey Championships in Paris.

Today, about one third of all Mainers identify as having Franco-American ancestry. Tens of thousands still speak French, while even more will make tourtière and sing French carols this Christmas season. One lesson we can draw from this history is that perseverance in the face of hostility and discrimination pays off. In the words of the Franco-American community, even with all those difficulties, and after all this time, the community is “toujours icitte” (still here).

About the Author

James Myall is a local historian and, by day, a Maine-based public policy analyst. Having moved to Maine from Great Britain in 2009, he now lives in Topsham with his family, and has been studying Maine’s Franco-American community and its history since 2010, when he became coordinator of the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine.

He has a Master’s degree in Ancient History and Archeology from the University of St Andrews in Scotland, and a Master’s of Public Policy from the University of Southern Maine. In 2015 he co-authored The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn (History Press:2015). His previous public work on Franco-Americans includes research on contemporary Franco-Americans in New England for the Maine State Legislature. He has taught college-level classes on Franco-American history at the University of Southern Maine.