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Jolliet, Louis: Mississippi River exploration with Jacques Marquette, S. J.

 Photo credit: The Encyclopædia Britannica[i]

Yesterday, I went to my Gmail account and read posts written by people who are following my blog. It was an education and I am not finished. At least two of my readers are investigating their French-Canadian and French ancestry.

The story of the French in North America is a lengthy tale and although Quebec is home to the largest concentration of French-speaking North Americans, French Canadians are everywhere in North America and a large number are in the United States. Let us raise that curtain.

The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes

The first to leave New France and find a home in the United States are the Huguenots (Reformed Church of France or Calvinist Protestants). There were many Huguenots in New France. They left when Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, in October 1685.[ii] For instance, whenever the Bourbeau family, my mother’s family, has a reunion, most “relatives” comes from the United States. The Bourbeau family was a Huguenot family. Three Bourbeau families found refuge in Canada, but two left for the United States in 1685 so they could remain Huguenots. One Bourbeau family converted to Catholicism. They stayed in New France and are my ancestors.

In an early edition of his Histoire du Canada, written between 1845 and 1848,  François-Xavier Garneau expressed the view that New France was weakened when the Huguenots left. However, he had to delete these comments to avoid condemnation on the part of the Church. His Histoire would have been à l’Index, or on the List of Prohibited Books.

The Voyageurs

The Tonquin in 1811 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many Canadiens who worked as voyageurs were employed by German- and Waldensian– born John Jacob Astor (July 17, 1763 – March 29, 1848).[iii] Upon retirement, they settled in Minnesota, but many moved to other parts of the United States.

Gabriel Franchère

In fact, John Jacob Astor so trusted one of his voyageursGabriel Franchère (3 Nov. 1786 in Montreal – 12 April 1863 in St Paul, Minn), that he asked him to take voyageurs from New York to Fort Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia River, in the Oregon Country. These voyageurs, some of whom were employees of the North West Company, based in Montreal, traveled on the Tonquin around Cape Horn. The Tonquin was purchased by American John Jacob Astor on August 23, 1810, the day John Jacob founded the Pacific Fur Company. It left New York on September 8, 1810 and reached its destination on March 22, 1811.

Gabriel Franchère returned to Montreal, married and wrote his memoirs for his family and friends. However his manuscript was edited and published by Michel Bibaud in 1820. After spending several years in Montreal, Franchère went back to the United States and died in St Paul, Minnesota.

It is possible to follow the path of Canadiens voyageurs who worked for John Jacob Astor. They gave French names to rivers, forts and other locations. For example, it has been suggested that Ozark comes from aux arcs, at the arches, because of bends in a river. I heard this on A&E.

Acadians of the Great Expulsion (1755-1763)

Other inhabitants of New France who became Americans are Acadians deported in 1755. Some boats did not sail down the Thirteen Colonies, but some did. The deportees stayed aboard until one of the colonies, Georgia, allowed them to leave their ships. A few of these Acadians found their way back to Canada’s current Atlantic provinces, but many traveled from Georgia to Louisiana, another province of New France, and are known as Cajuns.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (27 February 1807 – 24 March 1882) immortalized the Great Expulsion (le grand dérangement [the great disturbance]) by creating a fictional Évangéline whom Acadians transformed into their héroïne. The mythic Évangéline is alive in the mind of Acadians.

French Canadians and Acadians: US Migration

Moreover, close to a million French Canadians and Acadians left Quebec or Acadie because they could not find employment in Canada. This period of Canadian history, the USA Migration FR (1840-1930), is often referred to as l’Exode. I have an American grandfather. He could not find work in Canada. My grandmother stayed in Canada, but my grandfather rebuilt his life in Massachusetts. I would never have met him had my mother not decided that her children would have at least one grandfather. Her father had died.

In fact, many of the voyageurs were French Canadians or Canadiens who could not find employment on the shores of the St Lawrence. The thirty acres of land they had rented from a seigneur since the seventeenth century could no longer be divided. Some retired near the Red River in Manitoba, but the voyageurs who had been in the employ of John Jacob Astor became Americans. These could be considered exode French-Canadians.


The above seem the main groups of Canadiens who became Americans. But there may be others. For instance, the people of Louisiana, other than the Cajuns, were also French, but traditionally Canada and Acadie have been considered the provinces of New France. Until recently, Louisiana was not looked upon as a province of New France.

Therefore, the French-speaking inhabitants of Louisiana are the descendants of the French who settled in Louisiana and did not return to France after the Louisiana Purchase (1803). They are not descendants of French-Canadians. Acadiens, called Cajuns, are the descendants of Acadiens who were deported and settled in or near Baton Rouge when Louisiana was still a French colony. Other French-Canadians are descendants of voyageurs, or French-speaking Canadians who left New France to avoid religious persecutions or migrated south because they could no longer earn a living in Canada.

I will conclude by saying that French Canada and the United States are inextricably linked because of migrations from New France and Canada to the United States. Many, if not most, Americans of French-Canadian descent do not speak French, but we share cultural affinities and a collective memory. Historical events have linked Americans and French-Canadians. There is a brotherhood among us, a brotherhood I celebrate.


[i] Jolliet, Louis: Mississippi River exploration with Marquette. Photograph.
Britannica Online for Kids. Web. 13 Nov. 2012.  <http://kids.britannica.com/comptons/art-101193>.

[ii] The Edict of Nantes, an edict of tolerance, was issued on 13 April 1598, by Henri IV, king of France and Navarre.  Henri IV had been a Huguenot.  He is famous for have said that “Paris (being King) was well worth a mass” (Paris vaut bien une messe). The first expeditions to Canada, Acadie to be precise, were undertaken during his reign by Pierre Du Gua de Monts (c. 1558 – 1628) a Huguenot, and Champlain, also a Huguenot but less visibly.

[iii]John Jacob Astor founded the American Fur Company (1808) and the Pacific Fur Company (June 23, 1810).

Pierre Du Gua de Monts
 © Micheline Walker
 November 13, 2012