French Immigration to the USA in the 19th Century

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Attracted by the project of founding a new society or simply better conditions of life for themselves and their families, French immigrants brought to the USA their techniques, cultural practices and art of living.

The arrivals of French immigrants came in waves, depending on the difficulties in France and the economic health of America, which was becoming better known, thanks to travellers’ tales and letters home from emigrants who had already moved there.

Seeking an Ideal Society

The vast extents of available land in the USA and its democratic political system appealed to people hoping to found an ideal society. From 1848 onwards, Étienne Cabet, whose book Voyage en Icarie became extremely popular, led his partisans to make a series of unsuccessful attempts to set up Icarian colonies: on the Red River in Texas, at Nauvoo in Illinois, at Corning in Iowa and finally St. Louis, where he died in 1856. Influenced by Charles Fourier’s ideas, Victor Considerant founded an ephemeral community, La Réunion, in Dallas County in Texas (1855-1857). Having stayed in Kansas, then in Corning, a few families left with Jules Leroux and Armand Dehay to Cloverdale, in California, to attempt to make up a collective settlement, called Icaria Speranza (1881-1886). These communities did not last long, riven by internal dissensions and the poor organisational qualities of their leaders.

The desire to counter the ills of the industrial revolution and to struggle against growing poverty made philanthropists buy up properties in the newly created and little-inhabited States to set up communities of workers. For example, Ernest Valeton de Boissière organised a cooperative farm to raise silkworms in Silkville, Kansas (1869-1884).

The Hope to Improve Your Situation through Emigration

Thus, the USA came in for immigration more for economic purposes. However, this was not an “emigration of poverty”. Most of the migrants had some financial capital, professional training or relatives who helped them to find accommodation and work. There was a high rate of literacy.

Entrepreneurs organised farming colonies in Texas (Castroville) and the Midwest. Until the 1860s, New Orleans, St. Louis and the Mississippi River System were the main traditional destinations for French migrants looking for a Francophone environment. They then headed for more dynamic centres: New York, which was the main entry port, Chicago or California. The resulting immigration increased urbanisation and the economic development of the USA.

After the discovery of gold in California, twenty-five to forty thousand migrants rushed there in the 1850s, from all the regions of France. Many stayed for just a few years, while others started families and acted as magnets for the flows of migration coming from the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Aveyron and, after 1870, from Alsace and Moselle.

When the Civil War broke out, the French took part and became involved, either in the North (the Lafayette Guards of New York fought under the orders of Régis de Trobriand) or in the South (in 1862, Édouard Lacouture managed to convince Napoleon III to support the South). This participation in political struggles accelerated their Americanisation.

French Neighbourhoods

In towns, French immigrants focused on activities based on the prestige of France and Paris, in particular luxury and a tasteful lifestyle. Both male and female artists, actors, painters, musicians, sculptors, architects, doctors, vintners, teachers, but also cooks, launderers, designers contributed their talents and knowhow, which was appreciated by well-off, educated Americans.

When there were enough of them to make up French neighbourhoods, they built Francophone churches, such as Notre-Dame des Victoires in San Francisco, French hospitals, or opened department stores, banks and businesses. They published newspapers, with opposing opinions, such as L’Abeille de La Nouvelle Orléans (1827-1923), Le Courrier des États-Unis (1828-1940) and Le Messager Franco-Américain (1860-1883) in New York, L’écho du Pacifique (1852-1865), Le Franco-Californien (1886-1926), L’Écho de l’Ouest (1910-1926), in San Francisco, L’Union Nouvelle in Los Angeles, Le Courrier de l’Ouest in St. Louis or else Le Courrier de Chicago. They also founded mutual-support societies and associations to perpetuate their regional cultures. July 14th, first celebrated in 1880, affirmed their French identity, while on July 4th they displayed their loyalty to their host country.

During the First World War, many of the young left to fight in Europe. That terrible demographic blood-letting, economic improvements in France and the restrictive laws of the 1920si lastingly put a brake on French immigration.


Published in september 2020
Picture caption : Courrier des États-Unis. Organe des populations franco-américaines. Édition spéciale pour l'Europe. 1869-1883

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