What's The History Of French Canadian Immigration Into Vermont?

May 4, 2018

There was a time when it was totally normal to hear French spoken in some of Vermont’s smallest towns and biggest cities.

This month on Brave Little State, VPR’s people-powered journalism podcast, we delve into the history of French Canadian immigration in Vermont. Every month our show takes on questions about Vermont that have been submitted and voted on by you, our audience. This month we’re considering Anglicized names, and the discrimination that some French Canadians faced in the Green Mountain State.

“I think it’s more of an underground awareness,” says Francis Tenney of Northfield, one of our winning question-askers. “The locals seem to know about French Canadian [history], but the general public doesn’t seem to know.”

Our exploration starts in the town of Derby, on the Vermont-Canada border. One of its villages, called Beebe Plain, features a main road that runs east-west, right on top of the international border.

Bertha Patenaude, who grew up in Beebe Plain in the 1950s, says the road’s name is a portmanteau — a hybrid of two words.

'Brave Little State' is VPR's people-powered podcast.
Credit Aaron Shrewsbury

“Canada and U.S.A. — so they called it Canusa [Avenue],” she says. “American customs is like right here, and Canadian right here, and right here was Canusa Avenue.”  

Bertha says that when she was a kid, crossing the street — and the border — used to be a regular thing.

“My mother would send us to the store, which was in Canada,” she recalled recently. “We'd cross the road, which would be in Canada, go to the store, come back, report on the American customs, go back on the Canadian side [to] walk home because there was a sidewalk, and cross when we get home.”

Bertha’s friend Simone Fortin went to Catholic school north of the border for first and second grades.

“When we left the convent, we'd come up the hill to come into Derby Line and go to the post office. They'd give us the mail and we'd go back to the house,” Simone says.

Simone’s parents were Canadian, and so was Bertha’s mom, but both women were born in Vermont. And their families were part of a French Canadian community here that ran deep.

“We grew up, you see, and we knew so many people on both sides,” Simone says. “So it was all just like one big family.”

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Today, the women can switch from English to French as easily as they used to cross the border. When asked to introduce herself, Simone opts to do it in her native language.

Mon nom c'est Simone Fortin. Je reste à Holland à peu près à 1 mile de les lignes di Canada. On a toujours bien arrangé avec nos voisins, n'a plusieurs sont Canadiens. And I just love being in Vermont … I said, my name is Simone Fortin, and I was born and I always lived in Vermont. Our parents were from Canada but they moved to Holland, Vermont. And we all love it.”

French Canadian heritage runs deep in Derby Line. But Vermont's border towns weren't the only communities that drew French Canadian families into the state.
Credit Vermont Historical Society

Vermont’s border towns weren’t the only communities that drew French Canadian families into the state. The mother-in-law of another of our question-askers, Marcia White, grew up in central Vermont.

Anglicized names

Marcia lives in Gardner, Massachusetts, and she asked us this:

“What is the background of the name changes, the Anglicization of the French Canadian names?”

Marcia is a retired administrative assistant. But her true passion — she calls it an obsession — is genealogy. She was a founding member of a genealogy society in Gardner in 1993.

Marcia has followed her own family line back to England, Scotland and France. One day she got tired of researching her own family, and began looking up the names of her husband’s relatives.

Marcia’s mother-in-law was born in Waterbury. Her name was Ruth Tatro. The Tatro family knew it had some French Canadian roots, but Marcia was the one to figure out the original spelling of the name: Tetreault.

Marcia traced two other branches of the family back to Canada as well. One was Kirby, originally Corbeil, and another was Demas, originally Demers. She figures her husband’s forbears changed their names for ease of pronunciation. But she wants to know more about how and why this Anglicization happened.

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According to Susan Ouellette, who teaches American history at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, there are many reasons why people’s names got changed, “and it wasn't always on purpose.”

Susan will be our historical guide through this episode.

“The French Canadian history of Vermont is very rich and textured,” she says, “and I don't think that people give it the kind of attention that it deserves.”

We’ll hear lots more from Susan. But first, we meet a few Vermonters who are actively tracking their French-Canadian ancestry, just like our question-asker, Marcia.

They’re members of the Vermont French-Canadian Genealogy Society in Colchester, where they met on a recent Saturday.

The Vermont French-Canadian Genealogy Society in Colchester owns volumes of records, allowing members to trace their heritage back hundreds of years. Research often involves some bilingual detective-work.
Credit Henry Epp / VPR

The group owns volumes of records, allowing members to trace their heritage back hundreds of years. But they often run into an early hurdle.

“We find when we're tracing our families the last names are changed so often you have to discover what the real name is,” says Marge Allard.

Marge’s fellow society member, Sue Valley, speaks fluent French and does a lot of translating for the society. And she has a method for finding the roots of Anglicized names.

“If I sit with someone who speaks French like I do, we’ll just throw their name back and forth and back and forth and we’ll say, ‘Well, OK, what happens with this vowel?’ You know, the vowel sound in French compared to the vowel sound in English. And eventually it comes up.”

Sue cites a recent example, when she traced the modern-day surname Watso back to Watzeau.

Often, it’s not just a change in spelling. Many French names were directly translated into English. Sue lists off a few: “Mr. Little would have been Mr. Petit. Le Grand, the tall one. Seymour is really not Seymour; it's Cinq Mars, the 5th of March.”

In some cases, translating or altering a name may have been intentional. That was likely the case for one of the society’s founders, John Fisher. His father’s name was Poissant. (The French word for fish is poisson.)

One possible factor for John’s father? He was running a business: the NBC Bakery in Burlington.

"Some [Anglicization] is a product of linguistic misunderstandings and illiteracy. And some of it was deliberate, but not so much as you would think." — Susan Ouellette, Saint Michael's College

“I don't know that people necessarily felt the need to translate their names unless they had ambitions of middle class status,” says Susan Ouellette, the history professor at Saint Mike’s. “But a lot of this I think happened organically.”

Susan says while some people hand-picked their new names, others didn’t really have a choice in the matter. It was done for them, through the Federal Census, which really ramped up in 1850.

“Census-takers were hired to go out and canvass neighborhoods and write down the information about the various populations of people that they were counting,” Susan says.

And the average Census-taker didn’t speak French.

“And he would ask, you know, who lived here, and he'd write down what he heard. Which meant that often French names got not directly translated, but instead there would be a kind of corrupted transference of what the name was.”

So, for example: Say a guy’s name is Jean Baptiste Viens dit Lumiere. When the Census-taker heard that, he’d write down John Lumen.

And that, Mesdames et Messieurs, is Anglicization.

“So some of this is accidental. Some of it is a product of linguistic misunderstandings and illiteracy,” Susan says, “And some of it was deliberate — but not so much as you would think.”

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Immigration history

It makes sense that there are lots of reasons French Canadian names got changed — because there have been many chapters of French Canadian immigration into Vermont.

“It's not one stream,” says Susan Ouellette, our history guide. Susan says French Canadians have been in this region since before the American Revolution, and have migrated in waves of different sizes over the centuries. She says the biggest wave was probably during industrialization, in the heart of the 1800s.

“I think most people who think about this, that's the wave that gets recognized,” Susan says.

By 1860, more than 16,000 French Canadians were living in Vermont, more than double any other state in New England. Their presence was so pronounced that when the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne visited the Burlington waterfront, he wrote in his travelogue that if he didn’t know for sure that Vermont was indeed in America, he’d think he was in Canada.

“Because there were so many French people and Canadian money, and everyone around him [was] speaking French,” Susan says.

Burlington, Winooski and Manchester had the jobs that drew people here. There was work in and around the mills and factories that were cranking at the time.

Many French Canadians took jobs in Vermont's factories and mills. This photo, thought to have been taken in a mill in Winooski, includes a caption suggesting that the man's name is Abair.
Credit Vermont Historical Society

“And so, that's not lost on French Canadians, and they're not far away,” says Susan, noting that it was most common for young girls to take jobs in the mills. Mill owners actually preferred immigrants to the so-called “Yankee girls.”

“Yankee girls saw themselves as deserving more respect and better pay and better treatment than the mill owners actually wanted to give,” Susan says.

So when immigrants begin to show up, including French Canadians, “the factory owners start to see, here is a population of people that they can use to kind of edge out the more annoying Yankee girls who are making demands.”

And once one family member got a job down in Vermont, others would usually follow.

“The function these days doesn't have quite the positive ring to it,” Susan says. “But it's a kind of chain migration.”

In 1995, a woman named Claire Chase recounted how her family congregated in Winooski. She told the Vermont Folklife Center’s Jane Beck:

“My grandfather came down to work in the mill. They had relatives here. My grandfather's brother was here and there were other people from my grandmother's hometown, which was Cap-Santé, very near Quebec City … It was a case where cousins would say, ‘We're here ... Come down, there's work here. We have our own church. We have our own school.’”

These islands of French culture were known as “Little Canadas,” where everyone from the grocer to the undertaker was French.

Because of this, Susan says, “you didn't need to learn English unless you had to.”

And indeed, as Claire Chase recalled: “The first six years of my life were lived entirely in French, and I had absolutely no contact with anyone else who were not Franco-Americans.”

Eventually, the main flow of French Canadians shifted from Vermont to other New England states, leaving us with the smallest percent of the region’s population by 1930. But the “Little Canada” of Winooski held on to its French Canadian heritage. And you can still find it today, if you know where to look.

Winooski's French Canadian history

If you live in the area, you may know Winooski best for its sometimes harrowing traffic circle, which is right in the center of downtown.

Nearby are the Winooski Falls. They were the power source for the mills worked by many French Canadian immigrants, including Rita Martel’s parents.

“My mother went to work there at the age of 12,” she says.

Rita is in her 80s. She’s the former president of the Winooski Historical Society and she remembers the almost comical lengths to which her family would go to keep their jobs.

“My grandmother would dress them to look more mature than their age, but then they would get caught and they would get fired,” Rita says. “Then grandmother would redesign their style … and down they go and get rehired.”

Rita says the mills created a tight-knit community.

“It was a neighborhood in itself. People supported one another,” Rita remembers. “They had a lot of conflicts, but they were able to iron it out and discuss it.”

The mills closed in the 1950s. The remaining mill buildings now house condos, offices and restaurants. But for decades, they were the economic engine behind a bustling French Canadian community. A central part of that community was St. Francis Xavier Church. It’s up the hill from downtown. 

St. Francis Xavier Church was established in 1868 as many new families arrived from Quebec.
Credit Henry Epp / VPR

Outside that church, we met two local history buffs, Joe Perron and Kim Chase. Kim is the daughter of Claire Chase. Joe is the new president of the local historical society, and he also grew up in Winooski.

Kim and Joe point out that Winooski was not exclusively French-Canadian. There were also families of Polish, Lebanese, Italian, Irish and Syrian descent. Kim and Joe don’t have the exact numbers, but of all those groups, French Canadians were the largest — and St. Francis church was built through many small donations from working-class French Canadian families.

Joe looks up at the church, a tall, red brick structure with two steeples topped with aging copper, and points out some details.

“Do you see where the louvered parts are? Each one of them has a little Canadian maple leaf on it,” he says.

St. Francis parish was established in 1868 as many new families arrived from Quebec. Joe and Kim say, given the prominence of the Catholic Church in Quebec at that time, it was crucial to establish a French parish with French-speaking priests.

"People who had established themselves in Winooski would tell relatives in Canada, ‘Well hey, it's not so bad here.'" — Joe Perron, Winooski Historical Society

“It was not only worshipping in their native language, but it was also to be able to receive the sacraments, Joe says. “So if they were to go … to the Sacrament of Reconciliation — confession — that would be important to have a French speaking priest. But also marriages, baptisms, funerals, all of the social events that are centered around the church.”

The sanctuary is lined by colorful frescos and intricate stained glass. Joe says this served as a sort of beacon back to Quebec.

“People who had established themselves in Winooski would tell relatives in Canada, ‘Well hey, it's not so bad here.’” And this was one of the ways that they could make it appealing, he says. “We have a beautiful French parish here where you can come and worship you don't have to sacrifice all of your culture by coming here.”

Next door to the church is another landmark of French Canadian Winooski: St. Francis Xavier School. It was founded in 1862, and for many years, it was run by the Sisters of Providence. Their former convent is across the street.

Rita Martel, the former president of the Winooski Historical Society, recalls how her grandmother would dress her mother up to look as old as possible so she could work in the Winooski mills.
Credit Henry Epp / VPR

“The French speaking population of Winooski thought it was more important to have a school built before they had a church built,” Joe says, “because if they had a school they could preserve the language.”

According to Tom Devarney, who went to St. Francis starting in 1946, half of every school day was taught in English, half the day in French. As Tom tells it, into the 1960s, school subjects were pretty evenly divided.

“The French side was catechism, bible history, art, French grammar, French literature, some math,” he says. “English was geography, history, English literature, science… so it was like, you got two parts of your psyche. This is this and this is that.”

Sue Valley grew up in Winooski and went to St. Francis around the same time as Tom. She also spoke French at home, but in a dialect her teachers didn’t like.

“I'd get my hands smacked if I said mweh instead of moi, for example,” Sue says. “But then when I get to high school with the Irish nuns, I got thrown out of French class. I was fooling around and so I was told, ‘What would you like?’ I said, ‘Give me Spanish!’ And so I ended up majoring in Spanish and teaching French and Spanish for 30 years.”

Back outside St. Francis School, Kim Chase says having bilingual classes not only preserved French; it also helped older generations who didn’t speak English.

“My grandmother did not speak any English and was illiterate so that, you know, that was important in that she had to kind of try to learn English by pretending to help her kids with their homework,” she says.

"The French Canadians had their own bubble ... It was very much self-sufficient." — Kim Chase

But like we heard before from Kim’s mother Claire, English fluency wasn’t really necessary in Winooski.

“The French Canadians had their own bubble, Kim says. “I mean, it was very much self-sufficient.”

Joe Perron adds it really wasn’t the French Canadians that had to learn a new language.

“A lot of the English speakers in Winooski had to learn French if they wanted to be successful in business … I think it prompted some bilingualism on the part of the so-called Yankees as well.”

But not all so-called Yankees were so open-minded.

Discrimination

According to our question-asker Francis Tenney, his grandmother Doris Leclair, a first-generation Vermonter who grew up in St. Albans, was told not to speak French at home.

“And the reason she was not to speak French in her own house was because with the French dialect, they would treat her differently than they would with somebody that spoke with an English accent,” Francis says.

Francis, who lives in Northfield, wanted to know more about the discrimination that some French Canadians faced in Vermont, and why it isn’t talked about more.

“It’s just been swept under the rug,” he says. “You know, I don’t want to — what happened in the past I can’t change, but it’s like, c’mon guys, we’ve all got skeletons in the closet, and it’s time that we let things go as long as we’re not still going in that bad direction.”

Another interview conducted by the Vermont Folklife Center speaks to the difficulties of being a Franco American in Vermont. “Where to be begin?” Martha Pellerin said with a laugh, when talking to the late, great folklorist Greg Sharrow in 1997.

"In graded school you're told not to speak French. You get to high school and you have to take a second language, and suddenly it's important to know French?" — Martha Pellerin

(Side note: Martha was a collector of Franco-American song and a musician herself. She was a member of Jeter le Pont, one of the bands we’re feature in this month’s episode. You can listen above.)

Martha grew up in Barre, and hearing to her talk about her childhood, you get the sense that Francis’ grandmother Doris would have been able to relate.

This quote has been edited for length:

“To be a first-generation Franco-American, basically you deal with most of your life lots of cultural conflicts that, before you're 20, when you're in high school even, 16-, 15-years-old, you're pretty burned out because you're continuously given mixed messages. In graded school you're told not to speak French. You get to high school and you have to take a second language, and suddenly it's important to know French? And you've almost lost all your French already because you've tried so hard to do right, to do the right thing. Then you get into high school and they're like, ‘You should take French.’ And then you get into French class and you figure you're going to get an easy A and you come out with a D because they don't like the way you speak French. So no matter what, it's always a situation where you always feel inadequate. You never quite feel like you got it all together. And I'm sure that's the same with lots of first-generation ethnic anybody. I'm sure it's not just an experience that Francos had.”

Martha was aware of the universality of her experience — that difficult back and forth between two cultures. And because French Canadians and Franco-Americans were minorities in Vermont, they were also subjected to more organized discrimination. Professor Susan Ouellette talks us through two forms that it took.

The Ku Klux Klan

You might think of the KKK as a group that only targets African-Americans. But historically, it was against a whole range of minorities, including Catholics.

“And it's the anti-Catholic language that really affected French Canadians because they were Catholic,” Susan says.

Susan says it established a presence — albeit a short one — in the Green Mountain State. (Though it’s important to note that there is still some Klan activity in modern-day Vermont.)

The KKK arrived in Vermont in the 1920s and began trying to recruit people.

“Vermonters are, generally speaking, I think they’re really torn,” Susan says of that time. “There are people who begin to be attracted to the message of the Klan, which at that point is very xenophobic. The anti African-American aspect of it is less of an issue here because there aren't large populations of black folks. And so it's the anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish aspect of the Klan that really appeals. But there's also people who are very stridently opposed.”

A scholar named Mark Paul Richard writes about this in his book, Not a Catholic Nation: The Ku Klux Klan Confronts New England in the 1920s. Mark didn’t want to be interviewed for this episode, but his book is really interesting. He digs up all newspaper editorials roasting the Klan for things like bigotry and lawlessness. That said, the group did have a foothold in the state, and hoods were donned and crosses burned. In July of 1924, there was a cross-burning at the Catholic cemetery in Montpelier. Frances Emmons Carver was a young girl at the time. Here’s what she wrote about it years later:

My bedroom window faced the hill on which St. Agustine’s [sic] cemetary [sic] rested. One night I reached to draw the curtain before retiring and was terrorized by a massive cross in raging flames and white hooded maniacs prancing around it. It was many years before the nightmares ceased; I was a Catholic and in my childish mind I relived the horror and felt sure they were coming after me.

The KKK was also officially opposed to drinking, so their reputation in the state took a hit when, in 1924, a group of Klansmen got drunk and broke into a cathedral in Burlington. You can read all about it in Mark’s book. Susan knows the story, too.

“Eventually, these guys were caught and prosecuted. And I think that it really made it clear to a lot of Vermonters that the Klan really wasn't an organization that was about sobriety and purity and so on,” she says. “And basically, by 1925, 1926, it's not a vibrant organization.”

However, at around the same time, a second form of persecution came along that targeted minorities in Vermont.

The Eugenics Movement

“The eugenics movement was a far more subtle and perhaps more damaging kind of wave of misplaced pseudoscience, I guess is the way I would describe it,” Susan says.

This is something that another question-asker, Diane Alberts of Rutland, asked us about. Diane wasn’t able to talk to us for this episode, but in any case: That pseudoscience was championed by a University of Vermont zoology professor named Henry F. Perkins.

“And so the idea was, you didn't want people who were considered to be ‘substandard’ people to reproduce,” Susan says, “because then that would diminish the vigor among American people.”

We’ve covered this disturbing history in a previous episode, about the Abenaki Native Americans. They were persecuted — along with poor people and the so-called “feebleminded.” People who were considered marginal were sterilized so they wouldn’t have kids. The idea was to address “degeneracy” and combat poverty.

“There was this idea around, from state leaders, that the cause of these failures in Vermont were due to this incoming foreign weaker element, so to say,” says Mercedes de Guardiola.

Last year, when she was a senior at Dartmouth College, Mercedes wrote her senior thesis on Vermont’s eugenics movement. She talked to Vermont Edition about it, and said that Henry Perkins didn’t actually target French Canadians in the way he did other groups.

"There was this idea ... from state leaders, that the cause of these failures in Vermont were due to this incoming 'foreign weaker element,' so to say.” — Mercedes de Guardiola, former Dartmouth student

“He definitely does in some of his letters say that he doesn’t quite think that they’re the root of this degeneracy,” Mercedes notes.

And even if French Canadians were targeted for sterilizations, Mercedes says, “it’s hard to determine to what extent because a lot of these records from institutions have been lost, and there’s issues with the sterilization records we have now.”

At the very least, Mercedes says French Canadians were subjected to anti-immigrant sentiment — not from the KKK this time, but from people who believed in the purported science of eugenics.

“Most Vermonters, especially state leaders and institutional officials who were supporters of the eugenical movement, were fairly biased against French Canadians like other immigrant groups,” Mercedes says, “kind of again getting back to this ‘foreign weaker element.’”

Mercedes’ full interview with Vermont Edition is definitely worth a listen — especially if you weren’t aware of this history. Susan Ouellette says it’s not exactly a story that gets top billing.

“I think it's not a proud moment in the state's history,” Susan says. “And I think it's one that people would happily forget.”

Definitions of success

There’s another reason French Canadians may have been misunderstood or looked down upon by so-called Yankees.

Susan puts it this way: In the mid-20th Century, the definition of success for a white, middle-class Vermonter “would have been: education, maybe white-collar occupation, achieving homeownership, a better life for your children — all of those things would have been really important hallmarks of your success.”

But Susan says for French Canadians, that measure of success was a little different.

“Family, and large family and integrated family was of much, much greater value to them,” she says. “And so one of the reasons why these communities were so vibrant and so interconnected was because of these large families that were figured far more horizontally than vertically.”

And beyond the extended family, Kim Chase says there was a commitment to building institutions for the community.

“I don't think they were flaunting but they certainly were proud of what they could put together,” she says, standing in St. Francis Xavier Church. “French Canadians were criticized for, ‘They never want to get anywhere socially.’ Trying to compare the Yankee mentality of, you know, this social ladder, has nothing to do with French culture. Like for the most part it's, if everybody's fed, we're together and people are getting along, that everything is good.”

The next generation

Back in Derby Line, Bertha Patenaude pulls out an old school photo from the days when her now-husband Albert was in class with Simone, just east of here, in the town of Holland.

Albert points people out, many of them now deceased.

But new generations are coming up right behind. Bertha and Albert have six kids and 12 grandkids and seven great-grandkids. They babysit their grandson Aden three days a week.

A few years ago, Bertha and Albert sold their family businesses to Aden’s parents, and now Jason and Alison Patenaude run the excavating outfit and Sweet Meadows Maple Products.

They drive down the road to the sugar house, where Jason and a few of his employees and buddies are getting ready to boil sap. His parents take in the scene with pride.

Three generations of Patenaudes gather in the family's sugar house at Sweet Meadows Maple Products in Derby Line. From left: Aden, Jason and Albert.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR

A few more relatives join in the mix, including a son and a great-granddaughter. This is clearly a family operation, and Jason says he’s proud to be carrying it forward.

“A lot of people call it a hobby, but for us it’s more of a way of life,” he says. “It’s something we’ve always done, and we take a lot of pride in making maple syrup.”

Bertha, Albert and Simone say crossing the border into Canada isn’t as easy as it used to be. They say things really changed after 9/11, so they don’t go there as much as they used to. But they also don’t really need to. For the most part, their families are here now.

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Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. We have support from the VPR Innovation Fund, and from VPR members. If you like this show, consider becoming one.

The archival recordings of Claire Chase and Martha Pellerin were used courtesy of the Vermont Folklife Center. To access these and other recordings in the Vermont Folklife Center Archive please visit them at vermontfolklifecenter.org.

Special thanks this month to Andy Kolovos, Madeleine Winterfalcon, Lynn Johnson, Ed McGuire, Scott Wheeler, Ian Drury, Betty Smith, Kari Anderson, Lise Larivee, Emily Corwin and Paul Carnahan.

Our editor is Lynne McCrea and our theme music is by Ty Gibbons. We have engineering support from Chris Albertine. Other music in this episode was used by permission or via a Creative Commons license:

Correction 5/21/18 11:47 a.m. The Vermont Historical Society originally identified one of the men in this story's lead image as having the last name Tuapanier (no first name is available). The name should be spelled Trépanier.