by Elise A. Guyette
Imagine it is 1609. The green mountains, rounded by the grinding of a two-mile high glacier, form a backbone between a river valley to the east and a lake valley to the west. Trees, some six feet in diameter and two hundred feet tall, grow in such abundance that in many places sunlight cannot reach the ground. The ancient trails of the Abenaki cut through the forests, past old decaying trees and abundant mushrooms covering the forest floor. Patches of sunlight warm the ground where the original people built villages and cleared land for garden plots, deer grazing and berry bushes. For the first time ever, three Frenchmen canoe up Lake Bitawbagok (later renamed Champlain) with high mountains on each side. Algonquin and Huron people from the north are their guides as they search for a water route to the riches of Asia. The beautiful islands, huge fish, and abundance of vines and maize growing on the shores amaze the Frenchmen. Samuel de Champlain describes it like this in his journal:
“The vines are finer than I have seen anywhere else. Many chestnuts — and I had seen none before — grow only on the lakeshore. Many kinds of fish are in great abundance. . . . I saw a chaosarou, 5 feet long, thigh-thick, its head as big as two fists, a beak two and a half feet long, with a double row of sharp, dangerous teeth. Its body is like a pike’s, but its scales are so tough a poignard (spear) cannot pierce them.”
This day in 1609 is the beginning of the European story in Vermont.
When French ships first started sailing to North America, some of the passengers and crew freely chose to search for the fabled Northwest Passage (and later, furs) in hopes of becoming rich. They may have had a push from their families who had left much of their wealth to an older brother or they may have been pulled by hopes of grand adventures. Others on the ships may have been forced out of prison and onto ships to provide a strong crew for the voyage. Married women may have freely chosen to accompany their husbands or not. The children had no choice.
Others, such as religious women, or nuns, and Jesuit priests may have freely chosen the Americas as their duty to God. The filles du roi (daughters of the King) were orphaned girls sent to the Americas as servants or wives for the Frenchmen. How much choice did they have? Probably little — they had a bleak future in France. Enslaved Africans forced north from French colonies in the Caribbean had no choice in their migration. Those escaping had the tremendous push of the horrors of slavery and the pull of freedom to help them with their decisions. With conquest and colonization, the native peoples were often pushed out of their homelands and many became refugees with other nations.
At first, however, the encounters were peaceful as each group gradually learned about the other. In the beginning, the French used their old ways to sustain them (as do most immigrants): their way of dressing, the shapes of their buildings, their tools, and especially their Catholic religion. As they built trading posts and garrisons along the Champlain Valley, they also built chapels and brought Jesuit priests with them to try and convert the native peoples.
Cultural diffusion ensued with each new contact. They traded and took from each other what was useful. The French learned about corn and squash, wooden houses (the forests in France were largely destroyed by this time), tobacco, canoes, snowshoes, beavers and the uses of their pelts. The native peoples learned about wool, cotton, guns, and copper pots, which they cut into ornaments. Out of this borrowing back and forth a unique blend of French-Canadian culture formed that eventually flowed into what is now Vermont.
The first fort in Vermont was Forte Ste. Anne in Isle LaMotte. Small French settlements began to grow near the trading posts and forts, modeled after the feudal system in Europe in which the King granted land to seigneurs (noblemen and women). The first successful seigneur in Vermont, Sieur de Hocquart, was granted land at the southern end of Lake Champlain, across from Fort St. Frederic, now Crown Point, N.Y. Named Hocquart (HAH-core), it was the first European settlement in Vermont (c1741). The settlers called themselves habitants (ha-bee-TAHN) — those who live here permanently.
This and other small French settlements in Vermont that grew up around trading posts and garrisons thrived until the Seven Years War. After the final English victory in 1759, the French surrendered Canada, including their portion of Vermont, and all their lands in the Mississippi River Valley. (The French later regained control of Louisiana and sold it to the United States in 1803.) The British now ruled Vermont & Canada, but clues to French settlement survived in place names along the Champlain Valley. Hocquart was named Chimney Point after the chimneys left standing when the habitants burned the village and fled the approaching British soldiers. Other names that survived British conquest were: The Lamoille River (once la mouette, French for gull), Lake Champlain, Mallett’s Bay (after Captain Mallette, a French settler) and Isle LaMotte (after the seigneur of that island).
Some French Canadians, who disliked their old enemy, sided with Vermonters during the Revolutionary War to fight against the British and stayed after the war. France sent ships, sailors, and money to the American rebels to help them beat the British. In memory of the French help during the Revolution, Vermont towns bear names such as Montpelier, Orleans, Calais, Vergennes (after the Comte de Vergennes), and St. Johnsbury (after Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur, the French consul general to the United States at the time).
As British immigrants continued to flow into Canada, French-speaking people became a minority in the Province of Quebec. The Patriote Rebellion (1837) against the British, discrimination, worn-out soil, and crop failures caused many French-Canadians to move south into Franklin and Orleans counties to farm. Later, many found work in Vermont’s mills. Because of crop failures and unemployment in Quebec after the American Civil War, thousands more came to farm and work in the mills and factories. So many immigrated, they were sometimes pejoratively called the “Chinese of the Eastern States” and alleged to have “le mal des Etats-Unis” [sickness for the United States].
The mill owners offered the newcomers low wages, which they had to accept to get jobs. The wages were so low that almost everyone in the family had to work full time, including children as young as six. When the old immigrants (Irish and Yankees) went on strike for higher wages, many owners went to Quebec to recruit French workers. The owners paid the new immigrants’ train fares and brought them into Vermont full of hope for a new life. Of course, what awaited them was anger and discrimination. Bitter friction between the new French Canadian workers and the settled Irish and Yankee workers lasted for decades.
The flow of French Canadians over the border continued until the Great Depression of 1929, when immigration from all over the world came to a standstill. Like all immigrant groups, the French Canadians tended to stay together in their neighborhoods where there was a sense of belonging. They could speak their own language and practice their customs without feeling alienated. In this way, they held on to their culture and prospered. In addition to large French populations in the Champlain Valley, Newport and St. Johnsbury were centers of French culture on the eastern side of the mountains. Today, French Canadian descendants are the major farming group in the state and the largest minority group as a whole in Vermont.
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