An Interior Ellis Island (Print Version)
Keweenaw Ethnic Groups
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
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 lines.
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 11).
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 12). Born 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 14). 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 to Michigan.
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 17). 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
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
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.
(Fren 2) John P. DuLong
argues somewhat more precisely that the two waves occurred 1660-1796 and 1840-1930.
See DuLong, French Canadians in Michigan (East Lansing: Michigan State University
Press, 2001), 3.
(Fren 3) Elliott Robert
Barkan, “French Canadians,” in the Harvard Encyclopedia of American
Ethnic Groups, ed. Stephan Thursnstrom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press),
(Fren 4) Ibid.
(Fren 5) Acadians are
a French Canadian people distinct from Quebecois. Settled in the 17th century,
L’Acadie was composed of territory in today’s provinces of Nova
Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. Acadians tried to remain neutral
during the many political shifts of the 18th century. When France ceded Acadia
to Great Britain in the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) they officially became British
subjects, but in 1754 most refused to take an oath of allegiance to the Crown
when it was asked of them. Their neutrality in question, the British governor
decided to deport them in what is known as the Great Expulsion, or Grand Dérangement.
This event is commemorated in Canada on July 28.
(Fren 6) Ibid., 390.
Most French Canadians watched the American Revolution with neutral, albeit
interested, eyes. By defeating France in Canada, the British claimed control
of the fur trade, which was of immense significance to the French Canadian
economy and way of life. Furthermore, the Quebec Act guaranteed protection
of French Canadian interests and their Catholic faith during a time when many
Americans held anti-Catholic beliefs. See DuLong, 11, for an elaboration.
(Fren 7) For an informative
read on early French and French Canadian exploration in the Great Lakes region,
see Carl O. Sauer, Seventeenth Century North America. Berkeley: Turtle Island,
(Fren 8) DuLong, 4.
(Fren 9) John Forster
writing in 1887, as cited in DuLong, 20.
(Fren 10) Wayne County’s
French Canadian population in 1900 was 4,426; Houghton County numbered
3,144. By comparison, Baraga County claimed 374, Ontonagon 218, and Keweenaw
County a mere 155. All historic census statistics were obtained from
the Geospatial and Statistical Data Center, University of Virginia Library.
(Fren 11) Clarence
Monette, The History of Lake Linden, Michigan. (Lake Linden, MI: n.p., 1977),
(Fren 12) Locally
pronounced as “Gregory.” He has been called the father of the Lake
Superior French Canadians. See Dulong, 22.
(Fren 13) DuLong,
(Fren 14) Arthur
W. Thurner, Strangers and Sojourners (Detroit: Wayne State University Press,
(Fren 15) Monette,
(Fren 16) Ibid.,
(Fren 17) DuLong,
(Fren 18) Thurner,
(Fren 19) Barkan
argues that “without priests…the Franco-American ethnic group
would never have existed.” (p. 392). Whether that is true or not is debatable,
but the various local French Canadian parishes all seem to have been established
with French Canadian priests. For example, Calumet’s St. Anne’s
was constructed under the direction of Reverend J. R. Boissonault, and the
first priest at St. Joseph’s Church in Lake Linden was Reverend Francis
Heliard. Reverend Napoleon Raymond oversaw the construction of the 1912 church
building. See Monette and also www.pasty.com/heritage/ for a brief description
of the history of St. Anne’s.
(Fren 20) Evelyn
Othote Glesener interview, courtesy of the National Park Service, Keweenaw
National Historical Park, Oral History Project Collection, KEWE Cat. # 40525.
(Fren 21) Barkan, “French
Canadians,” 392-393, offers another description of this tradition.