The Emigration of Single Acadian Women to New England, 1906–1940

Phyllis LeBlanc (Université de Moncton)

What was life like for female Acadian emigrants at the turn of the twentieth century? Although population movements are most often a family phenomenon, the first three decades of the nineteenth century saw a large and growing number of single adult women migrate within the Maritime Provinces and into the United States, unaccompanied by their parents. And yet, little research has been conducted on how these independent single women experienced geographic mobility.

Our study focuses on the migration experiences of single Acadian women who emigrated to the United States during the first decades of the twentieth century. The aim is to create a quantitative and qualitative database capable of supporting further research on these women’s characteristics and migration experiences.

Since the mid-nineteenth century, large numbers of people from throughout the Maritime Provinces had been emigrating to the United States. Economic changes underway in the region are among the most commonly cited factors to explain the magnitude of emigration, especially to the US Northeast. During the first decades of the twentieth century, the Maritime Provinces were transitioning from a rural, family-based economy to a larger-scale commercial and industrial one. And this transition fostered different forms of geographic mobility, including urban migration.

The Acadians are the cultural group at the centre of our study. A minority within each of the three Maritime Provinces, they felt the same economic pressures as their English-speaking neighbours, and faced the same challenges and opportunities associated with those pressures. However, the Acadian experience of geographic mobility was not as closely tied to contemporary economic factors as it was for Anglophones.

In the political and cultural discourses and representations of Acadian leaders, single women were rarely identified as potential migrants or emigrants. Rather, it was assumed that women experienced geographic mobility in the context of family migration. As a result, the discourses, attitudes, and actions of leaders focused on family migration rather than migration involving independent single women. The same holds true for the rural settlement strategy, which was seen as an effective solution to the geographic mobility of Acadian families and especially as a means of reducing the number of families emigrating to the United States.

Our study takes a macro-historical approach to exploring the identities and characteristics of those single Acadian women who migrated on their own to the United States through one of the ten border crossings located along the New Brunswick border. The goal is to understand the reasons for these movements and the processes that made them possible. The period of study runs from 1906, when the United States introduced a new border regime, to the outbreak of the Second World War.

In 1906, customs officers at American border crossings began recording highly detailed information on every individual seeking to enter the United States. This information included the person’s name, place of birth, age, gender, marital status, occupation, ability to read and write, native language, race, nationality, and last permanent residence. Travellers also needed to provide the name of a reference in their community of origin, the dates of any previous travel to the United States, the name of the person paying for their trip, their address or destination in the United States, the amount of money in their possession, and their intended length of stay. Finally, the customs officer recorded a brief physical description of the individual. As a result, the manifest cards on which this information was recorded not only make it possible to identify single Acadian women who were travelling alone, but also address a series of related questions:

  • How many single Acadian women left for the United States without their families?
  • When did these women tend to emigrate (seasons, years, decades, etc.)?
  • Where did they come from (which province; urban or rural community)?
  • How many of these women experienced migration within the Maritime Provinces before leaving for the United States?
  • What types of work experience had they acquired before emigrating?
  • What reasons did they give for leaving?
  • What types of kinship or friendship networks did these women rely on while in the United States?