The French language is one of the primary languages in North America. It is the official language of the Canadian Province of Quebec and shares this distinction with English in the Province of New Brunswick.
The Northern New England states bordering these provinces- Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine- all have some French in their heritage as a result of contact with their northern neighbors, albeit in three very different ways. This is the first of a three-part series which explores the history of the French language in Northern New England. Today’s post focuses on the smallest of the states- Vermont.
The first European explorers to discover Vermont were in fact French: Jacques Cartier is thought to have set foot in Vermont in 1535 while Samuel de Champlain visited the area he named les Verts Monts (The Green Mountains) in 1609 and would thereafter give his name to the state’s important lake. The construction of Fort Sainte Anne on Isle La Motte in Lake Champlain- the first European settlement in Vermont- signaled France’s claim to the area.
Southern Vermont, meanwhile, saw settlement from the neighboring British colonies of New York and Massachusetts. The area remained a disputed territory until the 1763 Treaty of Paris following the French and Indian War ceded control to the British, who decided to allow settlement only in Southern Vermont, leaving Northern Vermont to the Indians. A cultural distinction between North and South remains to this day.
Vermont, whose population center, Burlington, lies only 45 miles from the Canadian border, is simply the closest state to Quebec, and so early Canadian immigrants often stopped their journey here. Between 1840 and 1930 900,000 French-Canadians immigrated to the United States. In 1860, 44% (16,580 people) of the immigrants from Quebec to the six New England states had chosen to remain in Vermont, although industrialization later caused immigrants to prefer the factory towns of Southern New England over the agricultural jobs generally found in Vermont.
Factory jobs were to be found, however, at the textile mills of Winooski, a village just outside of Burlington. In 1867 the total population of Winooski was 1,745, of whom 855 were French-Americans. The parish of St. Francis Xavier was founded in 1868 in Winooski to serve this population- masses were in French and education at the parochial school was bilingual.
As for many immigrant groups, religion was an important identifier for French-Canadians in Vermont and was the only institutional context in which they could use their native tongue. In 1891 the diocese of Burlington had a French-speaking priest for every 1,600 francophone parishioners- the best ratio in New England, and really no surprise considering that of the 45,000 Catholics in the Diocese of Burlington in 1890, at least 33,000 were of French-Canadian origin. However the upper echelons of the church hierarchy were not very sympathetic to its French parishioners. Said the Bishop of Burlington in 1908: “As to the prominence and influence of French-Canadians, the claim that they possess either, is misleading. Good people and devoted, yes. But they havenot (sic) the education or the other qualities for prominence and influence, either in Church or state.”
The Good Bishop also made a prediction about the fate of the French language in Vermont: “in a very few years there shall be little or not (sic) French spoken in Vermont, unless in…Winooski…because they have French schools.” The words of the Bishop were prophetic- in Vermont, 24% of residents declare that they are of French or French-Canadian heritage, making this the largest ethnic group in the state; and yet the French language is nowhere to be heard, even in Winooski, where as recently as 1990 55% of residents claimed French-Canadian heritage. This perhaps coincides with the demise of bilingual education- the St. Francis Xavier school still exists, but offers instruction only in English.
The result of decades of growth in Vermont is that despite its historical importance to the state and its people, French is a language which is to be learned and spoken only at home; however the recent strengthening of the Canadian dollar with respect to U.S. currency may catalyze some change in this situation. Last year the City Council of Burlington passed a resolution encouraging the use of both French and English on everything from highway signs to restaurant menus.
In Northern Vermont the history of French is still being written. Increasing tourism, business, and political relations with Quebec may restore institutional dignity to the French language. In the land where the “rivers flow north”, lakes, radio programs, and entire towns cross the border; an increased level of bilingualism is the last piece of the puzzle.