French Immigration

French Immigration

In 1608 the explorer, Samuel de Champlain, founded the first permanent French colony at Quebec. He also explored the area that is now northern New York State.

It was not until sixty years later that the French began to expand south. In 1673 Jacques Marquette and Luis Joliet explored the central portion of the Mississippi River. They were followed by Robert Cavalier de LaSalle who sailed down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico and claimed the entire territory for France. He named the territory Louisiana in honor of King Louis XIV.

The French established settlements in what it called New France in Detroit, St. Louis, Memphis, Natchez, and Mobile. The largest colonies were in the lower Mississippi Valley where the fertile soil and warm climate enabled the settlers to establish successful farms and plantations. New Orleans, founded in 1718, became a busy seaport and trading centre.

French immigration to Louisiana was restricted to Roman Catholics and so French Protestants (Huguenots) who wanted to live in America tended to settle in English colonies. As a result of the work of French missionaries and priests, the Catholic Church became well established in the Mississippi Valley.

By the middle of the 18th century the population of New France was 80,000. This was scattered over a wide area whereas the English population of 1,500,000 was concentrated in thirteen colonies along the Atlantic seaboard.

In 1754 war broke out between the French and English settlers. General Edward Braddock was sent to America to command the English forces. In his first campaign he led an army of English regulars and colonial militia against the French controlled Fort Duquesne (Pittsburgh). However, they were defeated by a combination of French and Native American forces.

When William Pitt became prime minister in 1757 he sent reinforcements to America. This enabled the English to capture Fort Duquesne and Fort Niagara. The following year he appointed General James Wolfe as commander of the English forces and in 1759 he defeated the French led by by Louis Joseph Montcalm at Quebec.

Under the terms of the Treaty of Paris (1763), Spain received St. Louis, New Orleans, and the Louisiana Territory west of the Mississippi. In 1803 it was returned to France and three years later it was sold to the United States.

The French resumed emigration to America in the 19th century. Many were political refugees fleeing from the failed 1848 revolution. In 1851 over 20,000 French immigrants arrived in the United States and the French newspaper, Le Republican, began to be published in New York. There were also French-language newspapers published in Philadelphia and Charleston.

The loss of Alsace-Lorraine during the Franco-Prussian War also resulted in an increase in French immigration. Most preferred city life and settled in New York, Chicago and New Orleans. However, a few French settlements were established during the Middle West.

On the outbreak of the Civil War the French community were keen to show its support of the Union. The Lafayette Guards, an entirely French company, was led by Colonel Regis de Trobriand. The 55th New York Volunteers was also mainly composed of Frenchmen.

After the civil war there was a large increase in the number of French-Canadians arriving in the United States. By 1900 there were over 134,000 French-Canadians in Massachusetts (16 per cent of the state's foreign population). Other places that French-Canadians settled included Rhode Island, Maine and Vermont.

From 1820 to 1900 over 353,000 people from France emigrated to America. The Census of 1930 revealled that there were 135,592 people living in the United States who were born in France.

An investigation carried out in 1978 revealled that since 1820 over 751,000 people emigrated to the United States from France. This amounted to 1.5 per cent of the total foreign immigration during this period.

Primary Sources

(1) In 1673 Luis Joliet and Jacques Marquette travelled along the Illinois River. Joliet wrote about his experiences in a letter to Claude Dablon (1st August, 1674).

The river which we named for Saint Louis, which rises near the lower end of the lake of the Illinois, seemed to me the most beautiful, and the most suitable for settlement. The place at which we entered the lake is a harbor, very convenient for receiving vessels and sheltering them from the wind. The river is wide and deep, abounding in catfish and sturgeon. Game is abundant there; oxen, cows, stags, does, and turkeys are found there in greater numbers than elsewhere.

A settler would not spend ten years in cutting down and burning the trees; on the very day of his arrival, he could put his plow into the ground. After sowing grain of all kinds, he might devote himself especially to planting the vine, and grafting fruit-trees; to dressing ox-hides, wherewith to make shoes; and with the wool of these oxen he could make cloth, much finer than most of that which we bring from France. Thus he would easily find in the country his food and clothing, and nothing would be wanting except salt.

(2) In 1673 Jacques Marquette and Luis Joliet travelled along the Illinois River. Marquette later recorded what he saw.

We have seen nothing like this river that we enter, as regards its fertility of soil, its prairies and woods; its cattle, elk, deer, wildcats, swans, ducks, parroquets, and even beaver. There are many small lakes and rivers. we found on it a village called Kaskasia, consisting of 74 cabins. they received us very well, and obliged me to promise that I would return to instruct them. One of the chiefs of this nation, with his young men, escorted us to the Lake of the Illinois.