French-speaking correspondence from the State of Washington

Sarah Hurlburt (Whitman College)

The Francophone Northwest History Conference was scheduled for June 18-20 at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, USA. This international conference would have been open to all persons interested in the history of French-speaking peoples and associated tribes in the West. However, due to the restrictions linked with the coronavirus epidemic, the conference had to be cancelled or postponed. Should the conference take place at a later date, the journal Histoire sociale / Social History has expressed an interest to publish conference elements in some way.

An exhibit had been developed to accompany the conference and was to be on display in the Maxey Museum from March 2020 through the conference in June 2020. Instead, the exhibit will become a virtual exhibit. The exhibit is developed in collaboration with Tamástslikt Cultural Institute of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR). The exhibit is also highlighting elements from the Northwest Archives and family collections to tell the story of Francophone migration to the Walla Walla valley.

The next step will be the electronic edition of three significant collections of francophone immigrant letters housed in the Northwest Archives, together totalling nearly a thousand documents. These documents are not disparate fragments, but concentrated in three family correspondences: the Moxee collection (~160 letters), which documents a secondary migration of French-Canadian families from Polk County, Minnesota to the Yakima valley in Washington state in the 1890s; the Bergevin collection (~170 letters in French, plus several hundred in English) which documents a French-Canadian extended family relationship with relatives back in Quebec as well as across the inland mountain region of the West, ~1880-1920; and finally the Berney-Rochat collection (300+ letters), which extensively documents a group of Protestant Swiss immigrants to the Walla Walla area beginning in 1875.

The digital edition and translation of these collections will make exceptional content in the field of immigrant letters accessible to researchers across disciplines, creating an online, bilingual primary source document for new research in population and migration studies, social history, ethnic and identity studies, anthropology, communication studies, literary studies, and linguistics. Specific areas of investigation that will directly benefit from this edition include the cultural and linguistic Americanization of first and second-generation immigrants, settlement and mobility in the age of the railroad, kin and migration networks, the interaction of gender and authorship in 19th-century immigrant communities, and the articulation between individual and social identity in the ethnic history of the United States.

A significant part of the richness of these collections lies in the possibility of accessing the “voices” of women, children, and sub or marginally literate individuals, voices generally absent from the historical record. The Moxee and Bergevin collections contain a broad range of examples of near-illiterate and semi-literate writing by American speakers of Laurentian French at the turn of the 20th century. The letters document a specific moment in the geographic and generational transition between first and second language in this community, in which the written language abilities of the parents and siblings map their ages to their places of birth and education. The Berney-Rochat collection likewise contains a large number of letters written by women, but documents a very different path, that of educated Protestant Darbyists seeking a place to establish and practice their faith.