French Canadians have been coming to the Copper Country
since Samuel Champlain first heard about it in 1610 (Fren
1). Arriving first
as explorers, miners, and fur traders in the 17th century, they later
came seeking work as lumberjacks and mining industry surface workers.
These occupations neatly reflect two distinct waves of French Canadian
immigration to Michigan: the first came before the American Revolution,
when the fur trade was in full swing, and the second – and
much larger – wave occurred after the Civil War when the Keweenaw’s
mining industry was rapidly developing (Fren
French Canadians trace their ancestry back to the explorers
and settlers who established New France in the 16th and 17th
centuries in what is now Canada. It has been argued that French
Canadians regard pre-1759 Quebec as the foundation of their
culture and identity (Fren
3). By all accounts it was a profoundly religious
foundation. Catholic missionaries began to arrive in New France shortly after
Champlain established the fur trading colony of Quebec in 1608 in an area they
called Canada along the St. Lawrence River. By 1615, Ascetic Franciscans (the
Récollets) had come in order to bring the Christian message to Natives.
They were followed by the Jesuits in 1625, and they in turn by other missionary
groups. In fact, according to a royal charter issued in 1627, one of the goals
of the French colony was to convert the Iroquois, Huron, and other indigenous
people to Christianity. Farmers followed the explorers and priests when Louis
XIV established a royal government in New France in 1663, coming mainly from
Brittany, Normandy, and Poitou; between 1660 and 1765, the population of New
France grew from 2,500 to nearly 70,000.
Faith and family were emphasized over education as New France developed, and
society became distinctly stratified with a civil and ecclesiastical elite and
a rural, unschooled underclass of farmers and laborers who referred to themselves
as habitants. While they exercised a great deal of economic independence, habitants were not allowed to serve in government nor operate printing presses; the clergy
did not encourage political or educational activity and preached traditional
religious values of humility, chastity, and obedience (Fren
4). As Great Britain and France
battled for control of valuable North American territory through the 17th and
18th centuries, French Canadian culture continued to develop along these stratified
Perhaps the first substantial movement of French Canadians
southward occurred during the French and Indian War (1754-1763).
Thousands of French Canadians – Acadians – were
forcibly removed by the British from territories in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia
to lands in the United States (Fren
5). Acadians settled in places like Maine and the
French territory of Louisiana, where their descendants are known today as Cajuns.
The British acquired Quebec in 1759 following their victory over the French in
the Battle of the Plains of Abraham; the Treaty of Paris (1763) ceded French
Canada to Great Britain.
Instead of weakening after the forced deportations, the official
British takeover, and separation from France, French Canadians’ sense of identity strengthened
as they focused on maintaining their language and Catholic faith, particularly
in Quebec. The term survivance came to describe their efforts to contend with
English-speaking, Protestant rulers. Although a majority remained loyal to the
British, some French Canadians refused to fight when Revolutionary troops invaded
Quebec in 1775 as they sympathized with their neighbors’ arguments against
the Crown (Fren
6). In fact, in the 19th century French Canadians increasingly sought
opportunities in the United States.
Between 1780 and 1830, many French Canadians continued the tradition
of trading and settling in Maine, New York, Vermont, and New
Hampshire, and exploring the Midwest and West. Julien Dubuque
established his eponymous city in Iowa in 1796; he was followed
by Jean-Baptiste Beaubien (Chicago, 1813) and Laurent Salomon
Juneau (Milwaukee, 1818) among others. A fluid border allowed
many French Canadians to move back and forth between Quebec and
the United States, but immigrants increasingly stayed in the
United States after 1840. Numbers peaked between 1880 and 1895
as unfavorable economic conditions in Quebec induced many to
find work in the milling and lumber industries of New England
and the Midwest, including the Upper Peninsula. Despite leaving
Canada, an emphasis on protecting their language, faith, and
ties to Quebec remained.
French Canadians were very early drawn to Michigan (Fren
7). Not only
was there the allure of copper, the Upper Peninsula also presented
a strategic geographic location and the animal resources to support
the fur trade. Many of the earliest French Canadian settlements
in Michigan are still thriving communities today: L’Anse
on Keweenaw Bay was established as a mission by Jesuits in 1660,
who also built communities at Sault Ste. Marie (1668) and St.
Ignace (1671) (Fren
8). Downstate, French Canadians accounted for 80%
of the non-Native population of Detroit when the United States
government established a presence there in 1796. The French Canadian
majority continued until about 1825, when they were outnumbered
by Americans arriving through the brand new Erie Canal. By 1837,
the fur trade was waning and French Canadians were less inclined
to move to the newly created state of Michigan. Immigration picked
up after the Civil War, when rapid industrialization created
a need for laborers; once again, French Canadians came seeking
opportunities in the Upper Peninsula.
According to John Forster, “[t]he Canadian Frenchman could
not be induced to become a miner (Fren
9).” Instead, he preferred
to work in the woods, farming, or in business. Despite the fact
that deep-shaft mining dominated Houghton County’s industry
in 1900, it was second only to Wayne County in the number of
residents who were born in French Canada (Fren
10). Michigan also had the
largest number of French Canadians in the Midwest, and nationally
lagged behind only Massachusetts, California, and Rhode Island.
In Houghton County, they found work in mining company smelters
and stamp mills, and as lumberjacks and carpenters. Many of Houghton
County’s French Canadians lived in the village of Lake
Linden, also called “Little Canada” or “Frenchtown” due
to their overwhelming majority (Fren
First settled in 1851, Lake Linden was at the heart of a booming lumber district
with a thriving French Canadian community. French Canadians published newspapers,
established churches and schools, and worked in sawmills. One of the most well-known
individuals associated with that industry was Joseph Grégoire (Fren
in St. Valentin, Quebec in 1833, he came to Lake Linden when he was 21 years
old. He found work as a woodsman, and in 1867 went into partnership with Louis
Deschamps and Joseph Normandin. Together, they operated a sawmill until 1872
when Grégoire assumed sole ownership (Fren
13). Grégoire ultimately built
a small empire consisting of mills, factories, and 65 thousand acres of timberlands (Fren
Grégoire also had a hand in constructing Lake Linden’s first church:
St. Joseph’s was built in 1871 and dedicated to St. Joseph de Calasant.
By 1883 the congregation numbered 1,800 and was overwhelmingly French Canadian.
A larger church to accommodate the faithful was completed in 1912, still stands
on Calumet Street, and hosts an active multi-ethnic congregation (Fren
15). French language
newspapers included Le Courrier du Michigan (1912) and Le Franc-Pionnier, which
began printing in 1875 (Fren
16). Le Courrier moved to Detroit in 1919, and stayed in
print until 1957. Each newspaper was founded by men from Quebec who had immigrated
While many of Michigan’s French Canadians were members
of the Société de Lafayette, Union des Canadiens-Français
Catholique, and International Order of Foresters, their most
important benevolent society was the Société St-Jean-Baptiste (Fren
Based in Montreal, the Société in Michigan helped
French Canadians maintain their culture, language, and ties to
Quebec and mediate their assimilation into mainstream American
culture. By 1900, chapters were located in several cities in
the Lower Peninsula as well as Houghton, Hancock, Calumet, Lake
Linden, and several other towns in the Iron Range. The Société and
other French Canadian organizations held annual parades, picnics,
and bonfires on June 24, St. Jean Baptiste day.
Clearly, preserving their cultural traditions – survivance – was
a concern for the Keweenaw’s French Canadian immigrants.
As early as 1874, classes were being offered in Calumet for people
wanting to learn to speak and write French fluently (Fren
18). St. Anne’s,
an imposing French Canadian church, was built in 1900 in Calumet,
and restaurants operated by J.R. Jacques and Treffele Homier
during the late 19th century competed with several others in
Houghton County (Fren
19). Other traditions remained as well. Born in 1905,
Evelyn Othote Glesener remembered a French Canadian custom her
family practiced each New Year’s Day: children would speak
privately with their father, recounting all their misdeeds of
the previous year and then receive counsel on ways to improve
their behavior. Their session would end with the father granting
his blessing (Fren
20). Not only did Glesener recall how she and her siblings
would try to get their well-behaved brother to go first to ensure
their father’s good mood, but she also shared how important
the tradition was to teach “respect for family, for our
parents.” By speaking of the importance of faith and family
in maintaining ethnic identity, Glesener offers a local expression
of survivance (Fren
Very little French is spoken in the Keweenaw today. Along with surnames like
Dupuis and Desrochers – which are pronounced in various ways – place
names such as L’Anse and Bété Gris may serve as the most
vivid reminders of the once-dominant French Canadian presence in the Keweenaw.
However, as Glesener demonstrates, a closer look at family traditions may reveal
a more personal history of French Canadians and their contributions to the
ethnic history of the Copper Country.
Barkan, Elliott Robert. “French Canadians.” In the
Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, edited by Stephan
Thernstrom, 388-401. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980.
DuLong, John P. The French Canadians in Michigan. East Lansing:
Michigan State University Press, 2003.
---. “Tracing French Canadians in Michigan’s Copper
Country,” French Canadian Genealogical Research in Houghton
Website: http://habitant.org/houghton/fcgenealogy.htm, accessed August 17,
Monette, Clarence. The History of Lake Linden, Michigan. Lake
Linden, MI: n.p., 1977.
Sauer, Carl O. Seventeenth Century North America. Berkeley:
Turtle Island, 1980.
Thurner, Arthur W. Strangers and Sojourners: A History of Michigan’s
Keweenaw Peninsula. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994.