The social position of French-Canadians in the United States

Evan Roberts (University of Minnesota)

How did French-Canadians maintain and adapt their communities when they migrated to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century? And how distinctive was their social position as an immigrant community in the United States, unusually proximate to where they had come from?

This research will contribute to the broader project by describing and analyzing the changing position of French-Canadian origin people in the United States along three key dimensions: family formation and fertility, language use, and work and employment. Family, language use, and employment can be measured across time, and provide different insights into how people associated with their community of origin and their new community of residence in the United States.

Family and household formation and fertility: Who a person chooses to marry is an important indicator of the extent of social contact and acceptance with different groups. If social groups are interacting frequently and amicably enough it will tend to show up in marriage behavior. Prior studies of marriage and family formation behavior of immigrants to the United States that have looked at immigrants across the country have ignored the French-Canadian population, likely because in prior samples the Francophone population was too small.

Using the Canadian census data to generate indicators of distinctively Francophone first and last names, and the US census information on origin (birthplace) and language use (in selected census years) we will identify people along a continuum of French-Canadian origins and connections between 1880 and 1940. Taking account of their location, the availability of partners in their area and their generation in the United States, we will measure the extent to which French- Canadians married out of their own group.

Before 1940, marriage was often quickly followed by a transition to parenthood, though the speed with which this occurred changed significantly over the period 1880-1940. Prior work has examined how generation and nativity influence fertility differentials. The degree to which immigrant groups converged to the lower fertility rates of native-born Americans is an important indicator of how French-Canadians settled in North America. This is particularly important because religious and regional factors provide conflicting hypotheses on how French-Canadian fertility should behave. When they migrated to New England, French-Canadians entered the region with the lowest fertility, and fastest and earliest fertility transition. Acculturation to these norms would mean that French-Canadian fertility dropped quickly. Yet we know that adoption of contraceptive methods was an important part of the fertility decline, and religious factors suggest that French Canadians may not have been exposed to ideas and methods for restricting fertility.

A second indicator of social proximity is the extent to which people live proximately to people of a different background. Adapting to prior work on the proximity of kin, we will examine the extent to which French-Canadians were segreated from native-born Americans, and from other immigrants. To address the broader goals of the project, this analysis will consider how residential segregation varied along regional lines, and changed over time as immigration from Canada slowed.

Language use: Residential proximity to people with a similar background provides a key mechanism through frequent informal social contact for the maintenance of the French language. Using the complete count censuses, we will examine the multi-layered effects of parents, household composition, and the effect of immediate and wider neighbors on the transmission of the French language to second generation children. The French-Canadian population in the early twentieth century provides an important test of sociological theories about language use in immigrant communities that can be informative for current understanding of Spanish-speaking migrants.

Work and employment: The contours of French-Canadian employment in the first two decades of the twentieth century is well known, with migration to New England factory towns dominating the literature. Already the complete count census records for the United States are revealing that this narrative is somewhat incomplete, with smaller French-Canadian communities elsewhere working in other occupations and industries. Using the complete count census data will provide an unparalleled opportunity to describe the changing patterns of employment and economic status in the Francophone-origin population over time. A key indicator of the social position of French-Canadian migrants will be the extent to which the second generation moved into white-collar employment, where English language skills are more likely to have been required.

Family budget studies: Economic advancement was an important motivator for Francophone families to move to the United States, and a long debated question is how families fared in New England mill towns. We have collected a series of 28,000 individual records from 33 budget studies in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island that contain information on earnings, spending, and nationality conducted between 1870 and 1900. Similar budget studies were conducted in Michigan in the 1890s, and contain several hundred Canadian-born workers. This series will give us new insights into the economic status and earnings of the Francophone population in the United States, and complement the stream of work done by Don Lafreniere and Sarah Fayen Scarlett on industrial work in the Upper Peninsula.