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Rise of Industrial America
Immigration to the United States
French Canadian Textile Worker

In the following excerpt, Phillippe Lemay, a French Canadian immigrant, describes how and why many French Canadians immigrated to Manchester, New Hampshire, in the 1870s and 1880s. Many of the French Canadians worked in Manchester's thriving textile industry. According to Mr. Lemay, why did many people leave their homes in Canada to come to the United States? Why were many fearful of becoming citizens of the United States? What sacrifices did the French Canadians described in the interview make to come to the U. S.? What contributions do you think the French Canadians made to Manchester and the United States?

View the entire interview from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 . Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.


French Canadians from the province of Quebec have worked in the mills of Manchester for a long, long time. There was one as far back as 1833, and for more than 50 years they kept on coming until now we are 35,000 strong, 40% of the entire population of the city. Ours is said to be the largest single nationality group.

I am going to tell you as well as I can the story of the French Canadian textile worker; what brought him here; how he came, lived, worked, played and suffered until he was recognized as a patriotic, useful and respected citizen, no longer a 'frog' and 'pea soup eater,' a despised Canuck. And it's the story of all the French Canadians who settled in New England mill towns. The picture of one French Canadian textile worker and the picture of another are just as much alike as deux gouttes d'eau, or, as we have learned to say in English, like two peas in a pod. . . .

Why did our people leave Canada and come to the States? Because they had to make sure of a living for their family and themselves for a number of years, and because they greatly needed money. The wages paid by textile mills was the attraction.

Here and wherever else they went, they didn't forget their duty to God: the churches, schools and other institutions they built testify to that. But their duty to the country that was feeding them, that was another thing. They didn't like to become citizens and feared it for more than one reason. They couldn't speak English, and that, let me tell you, was a big handicap. They were afraid of war and might be drafted. Most of them were still tax-payers in the province of Quebec and the different places from which they came, and they felt that they couldn't pay taxes here too. Most of then hadn't come here to stay. What they wanted most was to go back to their Canadian farms with the money earned in the textile mills. So they kept putting off taking out naturalization papers. . . .

Before we had the railroads, immigrants from the province of Quebec came to Manchester in wagons or other horse-drawn vehicles. If they brought their household goods with them, and that was rare enough, they travelled in hay-racks. Did some travel on foot from Canada? No, I don't think so. Perhaps from places near the border to northern Vermont, but if any immigrant had walked as far as Manchester, we certainly would have heard about it from old settlers, and there were quite a few left in 1872. Anyway, travelling in wagons was bad enough. Even the trip by train in 1864 was terribly slow. There wasn't much comfort for the voyageurs and it was expensive, because we had to stop over more than once and even children were obliged to pay full fare. . . .

Our people didn't come to the States with money they had saved up, though, \ since they emigrated because they were really obliged to go where they could earn their daily bread and butter. To raise enough money to buy railroad tickets for the family and pay for food, rooms and other expenses on route, they had to faire encan, sell all their household goods at auction. That money was practically all gone when they arrived here, and all they possessed was the clothes they had on their backs, you might say. Parents and children alike were dressed in homespun and homemade clothes and they were recognized as coming from Quebec province the very moment they left the train. Most of them, you see, were from small towns and farming districts, very few coming from large cities like Montreal and Quebec. As they were poor, all those who were old enough went to work without waiting to take a much needed rest.

They boarded at first with relatives, if they were lucky enough to have any here, or in some French Canadian family until they could rent a tenement for themselves, mostly in corporation houses, and buy the furniture that was strictly needed.

Money was very precious to us in those days and we spent it carefully, getting along with only the things we couldn't do without, but we were able to make a living and save something besides. You understand that food, clothing, lodging, fuel, everything was much cheaper then than now. For lighting, we used kerosene lamps and the streets were lighted the same way. It was some time later that we had gas.

Our kitchen had to serve also as dining-room and living-room. There was no such thing as a parlor and no place for one, because all the other rooms, including the front one, were bed-rooms and there weren't too many, you can bet on that. We had no draperies or sash-curtains in the windows, just paper shades without roller-springs such as we saw later. A narrow strip of wood, of the same width, was sold with this paper shade and we nailed it across the top to the window frame. In the morning, the shade was rolled by hand and held up by a string fastened to a nail. The floors, not always of hard wood, were bare and had to be scrubbed on hands and knees with lye or some other strong stuff, once a week at least, on Saturdays. The only floor coverings we knew were round braided carpets and catalognes, seven or eight feet long and three wide, all homemade with rags carefully put away for that purpose. Once a week, sometimes twice, our women folks broke their backs over the washboard and wrung the family washing by hand, washing machines and wringers being unknown at the time. There was no hot water in large, convenient tanks, only the one you heated on the kitchen stove in the washboiler, pans and pots, or if you came to afford it, a tea-kettle. This hot water served for cooking, washing the dishes, clothes and floors and to take the weekly bath in the wash tub. . . .

In 1871, there were about two thousand French Canadians in the city. After Father Chevalier's coming and the opening of the first church in 1873, immigration was speeded up for a while, as many as five or six families arriving on the Canadian train, the Train du Canada, every day.
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View the entire interview from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 . Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.