Who Is Franco-American?

When I began research for my solo show, Piecework: When We Were French, I wouldn’t have described myself as Franco-American. When I was growing up in Vermont, my family tended to describe ourselves as French-Canadian or simply French. Before long I realized that this was a description of our past rather than our present. I slowly began to adopt the term Franco-American, but it still has its difficulties, primarily that it describes many different groups of people with French ancestry. Franco-American encompasses:

  • People whose ancestors immigrated south from Quebec during the Industrial Revolution to work in the mill towns of New England. (This is the group that Piecework looks at most closely.)
  • Those whose ancestors came south from Quebec earlier, to escape British rule in Canada.
  • Those whose French ancestors were living in Northern New England before the U.S./Canadian border was drawn.
  • Those in the U.S. Midwest whose ancestors were early French settlers of that area, likely fur traders and voyageurs.
  • Descendants of French Huguenot settlers to various parts of the British colonies now the U.S.
  • Cajuns, whose ancestors were expelled from present-day Nova Scotia and went on to settle in the bayous of Louisiana.
  • Other descendants of Acadians, including Franco-Americans from some parts of Maine, which were originally part of the French colony of Acadie.
  • People whose ancestors immigrated directly from France to the United States.

All of these groups could accurately be described as Franco-American, in that their origins were French and their present is in the United States. If we look at the term “American” more broadly, though, meaning not just the U.S., but the American continents, the term Franco-American could be applied even more broadly, to include francophone communities in Canada, South America, and the Caribbean. It’s little wonder that there is no single, unified Franco-American identity to speak of when the groups’ origins are so diverse and historically different.

Supposedly more than 11 million people in the U.S. and more than 8 million in Canada claim French ancestry. French is the fourth most spoken language in the U.S. after English, Spanish, and Chinese. These facts confirm for me that our history is important, and that the Franco-American story is an important part of the larger story of North America.

If you’d like to contribute to the telling of that story, please visit our on-line fundraising page to learn how you can support the production of the DVD of Piecework: When We Were French.

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4 thoughts on “Who Is Franco-American?

  1. Franco-American is a term I’ve read before. Blogger David Vermette at http://www.frenchnorthamerica.blogspot.co.uk/ also uses the term. I understand the term conceptually as an umbrella for all people from French speaking backgrounds. They even use it on Wikipedia.

    For me, it simply doesn’t work. Although my deep origins are in France and other countries, my cultural framework is North American. French Canadian is not just descriptive of French, but for Great Lakes French Canadians it describes a particular culture, deeply rooted in the area. For a very large portion of French Canadians in the Great Lakes to say you’re French Canadian is also to say ‘Part Indian.’

    On a more subtle, even unconscious level, I believe it privileges France over other aspects of culture and identity and undermines the significance and legitimacy of Cajun, Great Lakes French Canadians culture, and other manifestations of the same phenomenon. This is not dissimilar from the view by some French Canadians I’ve met who believe that the majority of us have pure french lines all the way back to France, ie the ‘pur laine’ notion.

    1. James, thanks for mentioning my blog. I generally use the term “Franco-American” narrowly. I use in speaking about the descendants of francophones from today’s Canada who came to New England in the historic movement of about 1870-1930. It’s the term that’s reasonably established in New England and which I inherited from an earlier generation. I use the term “French North American” to describe other groups of French descent in N. America, but I use it provisionally in lieu of a better term. I wrote a post on my blog about this very issue, namely the lack of an adequate name that embrace the various branches in our times of the 17th and 18th c. French migrations to N. America. I’m not attached to my nomenclature and use it flexibly to suggest or emphasize different aspects of the stories I tell. Thanks, as always, for your thoughts.

  2. Hello, I am French and I am from Paris. i know there are many french heritages in America even for Indians(esplorators) or Blacks (Louisiana), catholics, protestants (huguenots). 11 millions of Americans claim french origins but don’t you think that is a kind of common origin for most Americans because of a lot of situations. That would be funny to say that Americans who descent from immigrants are cousins by French People. There is an american writer Dean Louder living in quebec who has wroten about french heritage in USA. There are plenty of books and studies about this fact but that’s not very known. What do you think about that? Didier

  3. Didier, a culture of shame has kept North Americans of French heritage silent for centuries. This is changing.

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