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French-Canadians in Woonsocket

Rhode Island's connection to France and French culture dates to 1524 when French explorer Giovanni de Verrazano explored the area around Block Island and Newport. By the end of the nineteenth century, French colonies in the new world extended from the St. Lawrence River in Canada to the mouth of the Mississippi River. These colonies prospered by trading timber, furs and fish. When the English defeated the French in the French-Indian War in 1763, a major priority of the French population in Canada became "la survivance" - the perpetuation of French language and culture in the new world.

In the late 17th century, French Huguenot families immigrated to Rhode Island and became influential in business and political affairs. One of these immigrants was Gabriel Bernon - a Newport merchant and relative of Crawford Allen for whom the Bernon Mill Village in Woonsocket was named.

George C. Ballou Woonsocket had its first direct contact with French culture in the late 17th century when the Ballous and Tourtellots, French Huguenot families, settled in the area. The Ballous, especially Dexter and George, were pioneers in Woonsocket's textile industry. As the textile industry in Woonsocket grew, so did the need for mill workers. The first French-Canadian families were recruited from Quebec to work in the mills of Woonsocket in the 1840's. Once started, this migration continued for almost a century.

Rural Quebec Farm House - Museum of Work and Culture The life of the French-Canadians in Quebec was largely agrarian. It was a system where each household grew, produced or bartered for everything the family needed to survive. As the population grew and family farms could no longer support succeeding generations, many left behind this self-sufficient life style for one based on wage labor in the mills. Eventually, one third of Quebec's population immigrated to New England. By 1900, sixty percent of Woonsocket's population was French-Canadian and Woonsocket was the most French city in the United States.

Precious Blood Church In Woonsocket, these immigrants were textile workers instead of farmers, but everything else remained the same. French was the language that they spoke and life centered on family and the Roman Catholic Church. The first French-Canadian parish in Woonsocket was "Precieux Sang" - Precious Blood Church - established 1872. Eventually, Woonsocket had five French-Canadian parishes - Precious Blood, St. Anne, St. Louis, Our Lady of Victories and Holy Family. With strong French-Canadian churches, French language newspapers and French-Canadian fraternal and civic organizations, "la survivance" thrived in Woonsocket.

On the Shop Floor - Museum of Work and Culture The French-Canadian focus on spiritual rather than material wealth was a godsend for mill owners. Even in the best times, life in the mills was difficult and unhealthy. The workday was long. The air was full of flying lint particles that often caused respiratory disease. It was cold and drafty in winter, hot and humid in summer; dirty, noisy, and uncomfortable at all times. While labor strife was common in textile cities across New England at the turn of the century, Woonsocket remained relatively calm. It was not until the 1930's with the collapse of the area's cotton industry and the arrival of skilled trade unionists from Belgium that labor unions became and active force in the community. Even then, these workers continued to define themselves first as French-Canadians, and second as industrial workers in American society.

Today, French-Canadians are still the largest ethnic group in Woonsocket and the city is proud of its French-Canadian heritage.

This page utilizes information from:

  • A History of Rhode Island Working People, edited by Paul Buhle, Scott Molloy, and Gail Sansbury and published by Regine Printing Co., Providence, 1983.
  • Triomphe et Tragedie: A Guide to French, French Canadian and French-Huguenot Sites in Woonsocket written and published by Robert Bellerose, Slatersville, RI.
  • Woonsocket - Highlights of History 1800-1976 written by Alton Pickering Thomas, MD and published by the Woonsocket Opera House Society in 1973.

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