Developing the Keweenaw French-Canadian Project: Mapping and modeling social and geographic mobility

Don Lafreniere et Sarah Scarlett (Michigan Technological University)

Keweenaw Time Traveler

What were the settlement experiences for French-Canadians as they migrated across North America? A diverse literature exists on the French-Canadian experience in communities across North America including settlements along the Detroit Frontier, Louisiana, and the Red River Valley, however little is known about the French-Canadians who settled the Upper Great Lakes (a notable exception is the work of Jean Lamarre) and even less is known about this population during the industrial and post-industrial period of the late 19th to mid-twentieth centuries.

The Keweenaw Study Site, led by Don Lafreniere and Sarah Scarlett will focus its research efforts on mapping and modelling the social and geographic mobility of French-Canadians during industrialization and deindustrialization for the period 1860-1940.

The study site is Michigan’s Copper Country, located on the Keweenaw Peninsula, a singular and nationally recognized example of the lasting sociocultural and environmental effects of the deep interaction between humans and the natural world. Endorsed by the creation of the Keweenaw National Historical Park in 1992, the Copper Country is the oldest and one of the largest copper mining regions in the United States. The potential for employment drew a number of cultural groups to the region, especially Cornish miners, Finnish labourers, and French-Canadian timbermen during the period 1860-1920. The bulk of the mines closed in the interwar period and as a result many of the French-Canadians either changed jobs, migrated back to Canada, or moved to the thriving industrial cities in the lower Great Lakes such as Chicago and Detroit.

The work will begin with a study that will establish the composition of the French-Canadian population that migrated to the region. How many arrived during each decade? Where did they settle? Were they single men? Or couples or families? Did the breadwinner lead and the rest of the family followed once employment was secured? Were extended kin networks included in the migration stream?

The bulk of the activities will focus on answering the question: Were French-Canadians socially mobile as they migrated from Lower Canada to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula?

This project will study mobility across a range of spatial, temporal, and population scales. It will examine mobility of individuals, couples, families, households, as well as the entire French-Canadian population of the region. The study aims to examine the existence, direction, and intensity of social mobility in individuals, couples, families, and households as reflected in changes in occupational class, wages, housing conditions, neighbourhood socio-economic status and occupational hazard and risk.

The project also aims to document how the processes of assimilation impacted French-Canadian’s ability to be socially mobile. Identifying, linking, and mapping French-Canadians in the Keweenaw to the household level also provides a rare opportunity to use cultural landscape and architecture to explore the material texture of everyday life for migrants. Housing stock, commercial buildings, churches, and schools in this region survive largely unaltered, since economic conditions after the mining demise have not supported widespread renovation or modernization.

By studying the nineteenth and early twentieth-century buildings constructed and used by French-Canadians, it is possible to investigate the process of assimilation and its impact on social mobility. Because French-Canadians in the Keweenaw, especially the first generation, worked in lumbering, ran the region’s largest sawmills, and pursued carpentry, we can compare building technologies and land use to precedents in Quebec. Moreover, social mobility can be assessed using domestic architecture by analyzing the size, age, and amenities of houses. When and to what degree did migrants acquire new systems for plumbing, electricity, and waste disposal? Could they separate workspaces from polite rooms for leisure? How much individual privacy was afforded by their single-family house equipped for “modern” living? By triangulating between demographic and spatial data over time – especially to the degree of detail afforded by the Copper Country Historical Spatial Data Infrastructure (CCHSDI), rich archival collections, and extant architecture in the Keweenaw – the proposed micro-histories promise to offer a rich dimension of human experience to this study of trans-continental migration.