Presence and Development of Métis and French Canadian Communities in North Dakota, 1730–1930

Yves Frenette (Université de Saint-Boniface) et Étienne Rivard (Université de Saint-Boniface)

Between 1840 and 1930, nearly a million French Canadians left Quebec for the United States. Less than half of them returned. In the last thirty years, researchers have extensively studied this migratory phenomenon, this demographic deficit, that so deeply affected Quebec’s development.

Our study focuses on migration to North Dakota, a destination that may not have been especially popular, but which nevertheless highlights the extent of French-Canadian mobility within North America. We aim to situate this particular case within the broader analytical framework of French- Canadian mobility by exploring how various migratory experiences, whether associated with the fur trade or even the establishment of Franco-American communities in New England, may have helped shape the French-Canadian presence in North Dakota. We are also seeking to clarify the role played by Métis and French-Canadian groups in establishing and developing various communities in the region, by retracing their movements and assessing their levels of socio-economic integration.

The situation in North Dakota was decidedly different from that which prevailed in other American regions that attracted French-Canadian migrants. As the fur trade expanded, a first wave of French-Canadian migrants integrated into existing Indigenous populations, creating Métis communities where daily life was based on trade.

A second wave of migration from Quebec and elsewhere in the United States, and especially New England, started around 1880. This time, whereas some French-Canadian migrants joined existing Métis communities, others engaged in pioneer agriculture.

As we contribute to an expanding field of study whose vitality has consistently made it possible to showcase the high degree of French-Canadian mobility, our research addresses the following topics:

  • The migration of French Canadians to North Dakota
  • The migrants’ places of origin
  • The routes taken
  • The migratory networks that connected Quebec, New England, the Midwest, Western Canada and North Dakota
  • The economic integration of migrants
  • The social integration of migrants and the creation of communities
  • The institutions established by migrants
  • The factors leading to the decline of these communities