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À Manchester: Franco-American Culture in New Hampshire

“Je viens du New Hampshire” (I'm from New Hampshire). That’s my quick, memorized introduction whenever someone asks where I’m from in a French class. I started learning French in high school at the late age of 13. I’ve continued studying and am currently pursuing a minor in French Language. For me, discovering French and the Francophone diaspora in New Hampshire was an accident. It started within the four walls of a public high school, but it has blossomed into so much more. Franco-American culture in New Hampshire has deep roots. The story of this blog starts in the same town that the FAC calls home: Manchester. 

Textile Production & French-Canadian Workers

Amoskeag Manufacturing Company was a large cotton textile company established in Manchester. The company grew quickly, becoming the largest cotton textile plant in the world. In Manchester, the company owned and operated 30 mills staffed by 17,000 employees. The size of Amoskeag required a steady flow of workers, but it also granted increased economic stability. The agricultural industry of Québec was weak during this period, and the milling industry provided a more prosperous alternative. French-Canadians from across Québec and New Brunswick saw this as an opportunity. Nearly a million migrants settled in New England from 1840 to 1930. 

Amoskeag Mills Today

To achieve this, French-Canadians flocked to mill towns like Manchester, where they could bring their families and find work. At the peak, it’s estimated that about 40% of the workforce in Amoskeag was Franco-American. Many Franco-Americans also entered other industries. The Manchester Coal and Ice Company was another large employer of these immigrant workers. Shoe manufacturing was also a major employment sector. Some even saw entrepreneurship as a way to fulfill their economic needs and increase their presence in the area. 

Factory Conditions

In the factories, Franco-Americans found themselves working long days, typically 10-12 hours, up to six days a week. They were often used as strikebreakers, brought in to keep the factories running while other employees demanded higher wages. For the Franco-American community, this resulted in discrimination against them, as other communities saw them as an enemy of higher wages. For those who had left Québec, even the reduced wages were a step up from their previous lives in Canada. 

Francophone Children in Manchester

Further, there was a large culture of child labor in these mills, something that was heavily documented by photographer Lewis W. Hine. Outside of the mills, children were often forced to stop speaking French as well. In many schools, these students were physically coerced into losing their mother tongues and assimilating into the English-dominant culture of the United States. 

Chain Migration

The pattern migration that occurred into New England from Canada occurred in a phenomenon known as “chain migration.” Chain migration occurs when groups of people – often towns or families – migrate in quick succession. For the French-Canadians, this often meant the father or head of a household would leave first to scope out the potential in a new area such as Manchester. Then, their immediate family would follow, establishing themselves in these New England towns. Quickly, whole families and eventually towns full of people would follow suit and migrate south. In these pockets of migration, they would establish areas known as “Little Canadas.” Often, these were the only areas where speaking French was protected and encouraged, as all the residents were French-Canadian. By 1910, Manchester was home to 23,000 French-Canadians, equaling 38% of the city’s population. 

Large Group of Francophone Migrants in Manchester

In 1922, there was a long and tense strike in the Amoskeag Company. This strike affected the French workers and caused a slowing of migration into Manchester. For some, they sought to return to their homelands in Québec. Over 10,000 people left Manchester in the 1920s. By 1935, Amoskeag shut down operations in Manchester, leaving 11,000 people without jobs; roughly half of them are estimated to have been Franco-Americans. To encourage returning to Québec, the Canadian government initiated a “Back to the land movement,” which convinced over 300 families to return to Canada and take up agricultural work in the West. With migration patterns shifting north, Little Canadas across New England began to disappear, and French became a relic of the past, often only spoken by middle-aged people. 

Map of French Canadian Populations in New Hampshire

Modern Legacy

Today, the Franco-American community is alive and well, but it is significantly reduced from its peak during the Amoskeag era. Manchester remains a welcoming home of Franco-American culture in New Hampshire, although there are Francophones across the state. When Xfinity shut down French-language programs earlier this year, there was a revitalized attention to Francophone individuals within Manchester. However, organizations like the Franco-American Centre (FAC) have been seeking to both keep Franco-American culture alive and promote it to a new generation of French speakers. 

Personally, I found a place to celebrate French as a language and its history in New Hampshire when I started going to the FAC’s French-speaking group, Prêt-à-Parler, in 2020. Since then, I've been active in the FAC’s mission. Events like the Governor’s yearly proclamation of March as Francophonie Month across the state are promising signs of progress in recognizing Franco-Americans in New Hampshire.. The history of Francophone culture in areas like Manchester is incredibly important to the cultural fabric of our state. To avoid being lost, we must revitalize efforts to spread a love of French and Francophone traditions across the state.

FAC's PoutineFest

Other Franco-American Work to Check Out!

The history of French in New Hampshire, and especially in Manchester, has been heavily documented before. This blog post is only a dip into the pot of information that is out there. To indulge yourself in some more work, check out some of the following resources!

Written by Kaleb Houle-Lawrence

University Intern

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