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French-Canadian influence detailed in new book

“Franco-Americans in the Champlain Valley” by Kimberly Lamay Licursi And Celine Racine Paquette

There’s been a burgeoning interest recently in French-Canadian influence in our region. A new book from Arcadia Publishing, “Franco-Americans in the Champlain Valley,” furthers that appreciation.

It’s easy to forget that so much of the land in the Champlain Valley was once owned by French settlers. Only after the battle on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 did England definitively halt French colonization in this part of North America. But Britain’s victory in no way erased the French culture that had already become established.

Samuel de Champlain gets his inevitable starring role. It’s notable that although the memorials to the explorer on Isle la Motte (on the site of Fort St. Anne, the first settlement in Vermont), near downtown Plattsburgh, and at Crown Point are the best known, none of those were the first. That honor goes to a statue erected in 1907 by St. Mary’s Church in the border village of Champlain.

The village of Chazy, and the eponymous river, are named for a French officer killed by Mohawk natives in 1666. However, title to the first settler in Clinton County belongs to a man named Jean Framboise, who arrived during the 1760s.

Photos are included of some of the 10 to 20,000 French-Quebecers who fought in America’s Civil War. One was Lewis Barttro, from the Thirteenth Vermont Regiment. He survived the infamous Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg, then returned home and fathered 18 children.

The larger flow of French Canadians, though, began during the nineteenth century. During a period of rapid industrialization, many farm families in Quebec relocated to cities, especially Montreal. After all, that’s where they saw opportunity. Many of them moved a bit further, south of the border, into New York and New England, where jobs were plentiful in the mines, woods, mills, quarries, and also with canal commerce.

Villages as varied as Champlain and Plattsburgh, Burlington and Winooski, developed discrete French sections. When jealousies and frank discrimination raised their ugly heads, the new arrivals supported each other, even to the point of having their own fire departments. Winooski is singled out as being especially French-influenced with its own chapter in the book.

Some traditions faded in the melting pot that long defined America, and much of cultural importance has been lost. For instance, the Union Saint-Jean-Baptiste and Canado-American Club are among organizations that once played important roles in French-influenced settlements. They served as service and support organizations for fellow immigrants, and also played a major role in civic celebration. Photos in the book document what seems to be no end of parades!

Meanwhile people of French-Canadian lineage have become leaders in the region. Plattsburgh’s first mayor boasted such heritage, and he was only the first of several over a century. Any roster of doctors, lawyers, public officials, and businessmen included people of French-Canadian descent, albeit some with names a bit anglicized or changed to more phonetic spelling.

Religion became an important demarcation. Though a majority were Catholic, they would not be satisfied worshiping next to Irish and Italian townspeople. Instead, many argued for the right to have French priests who would serve masses in their native language. Plattsburgh, Keeseville, and Burlington are among the communities whose most prominent architectural structures are French — and Irish – churches.

The church also became the nucleus for education, though many of the venerable parochial school buildings no longer stand. Another role of the Catholic Church in the region, not addressed, was that of establishing some of the early hospitals.

A considerable amount of space in the book is allotted to industry and occupations. What surprised me was the relative lack of attention to the textile industry. This was once an important magnet for young French-Canadian women. Another traditional job source given little space is that of forestry and the variety of roles in which men were employed in the woods.

Citizens of this ethnicity were numerous enough that Burlington, Plattsburgh and Glens Falls all had French language newspapers at one time. During World War II, advertising flyers for war bond sales were printed in French.

It’s always satisfying to view photos of one-time businesses and long-gone methods of earning a living (livery stable and blacksmithing, to offer two). Ceremonies are well documented, too, especially ones in which children have central roles. Remarkably, most of the people in these photographs are identified. Descendants will enjoy finding their forebears.

After the natural impulse to look at all the pictures first, go back and read the text. That’s how you’ll come to better appreciate the effort the authors put into the book.

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