Jean Lamarre, the French Canadians of Michigan: Their Contribution to the Development of the Saginaw Valley and the Keweenaw Peninsula, 1840-1914

By Henerlau, Wendy | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Jean Lamarre, the French Canadians of Michigan: Their Contribution to the Development of the Saginaw Valley and the Keweenaw Peninsula, 1840-1914


Henerlau, Wendy, Labour/Le Travail


"[T]HE MOBILITY of the French Canadians was a fundamental trait that demands examination if the continuity of the Quebec identity is to be fully understood." (7) Jean Lamarre examines this mobility in his study of the migration of French-Canadians from Quebec to the lumber and mining industries of Michigan during the second half of the 19th century, bringing to light a migration story that differs from the classic Quebec--New England model. He provides evidence that a triangular migration pattern existed among Quebec, New England, and the Midwest, and that the French-Canadians who followed this route "were rarely the powerless victims of a shifting economic context, but that they always, with varying degrees of success, attempted to adapt by using their life and work experience and their sense of family solidarity to the best of their ability." (160)

The French Canadians of Michigan is a compact and well-organized volume in four chapters. The opening chapter provides the backdrop against which French Canadians made the choice to immigrate to the United States. The second chapter informs the reader about the Saginaw Valley, a lumber region, and the Keweenaw Peninsula, with its mining industry. The final two chapters discuss the French Canadian migration to these two regions and the impact of these immigrants in both the lumber and mining industries. To supplement his narrative Lamarre includes tables providing statistics on population growth, socioeconomic profiles, employment trends, birth origins, ethnic profiles, and lumber and copper productivity. The early 19th century in Quebec was marked by economic hardship. Lack of enough arable land in the St. Lawrence Valley to meet the needs of a large rural population as well as declining wheat production forced many farmers who had been self-sufficient to sell their farms and move. Some bought land in the Eastern Townships, while others migrated to the United States, settling in the agricultural regions of the northeast. When the agricultural sector in Quebec and the American northeast could no longer support them, they migrated to the Midwest where fertile farmland could be found. French-Canadians who were unable to buy land sought local employment as farm labourers or lumbermen. As this growing proletariat found it difficult to find work in Quebec, they migrated to the textile and shoe factories of New England, or to the lumber industry, where they already had experience. Later, as pine stands were depleted and the lumber industry moved west, French-Canadians followed the westward migration pattern to Michigan. This migration to Michigan was not an unusual choice. The for trade that had built up Quebec in the 17th and 18th centuries had gradually extended west to the Great Lakes, and French-Canadians had followed, establishing semi-permanent settlements to sustain the trade. As Lamarre explains, "Migration to this region was therefore never considered an expatriation, but rather a relocation within a French Canadian sphere--to which the territory of Michigan belonged." (27)

Large French-Canadian communities grew up in the Saginaw Valley and the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan over the second half of the 19th century. Both regions were developed by entrepreneurs, exploiting the lumber resources in the Saginaw Valley and the copper ore on the Keweenaw Peninsula. French-Canadian farmers had already been migrating to the Saginaw Valley. They were joined by lumber workers from Quebec and the Northeast who had been recruited because of their experience. At about this time, copper was discovered in northern Michigan. Mining and lumbering went hand in hand, as mining regions had to be cleared of timber before the land could be mined, and lumber was used to build the mining infrastructure and company settlements. French-Canadians worked in the lumber sector of the mining industry and later directly in the mines. …

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