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.