Today, nearly 2 million New England residents are descendants of those who came to the US in the Great Diaspora, when nearly a third of the population of Québec migrated south to the United States in the years between 1840 and 1930.
The majority of the migrants were from large farm families struggling to find jobs or unable to make a profit from their crops. The population of Québec had been steadily growing for decades, and that meant it was difficult for many to find work.
They came to the US largely to work in the enormous textile mills, such as those in Lowell, Massachusetts, and Manchester, New Hampshire. The textile industry in New England had been growing, and the influx of French Canadian migrants meant they now had workers to power their factories.
Not all came to stay. Nearly half returned home with the money they made in New England. And others lived most of their time in the US, but returned to Québec each spring and fall to sough and harvest crops on their farms back home.
The Daily Life of a French Canadian Mill Worker
On the surface, it appeared as though everyone benefited from the migration of French-Canadians to New England. The mills now had the workers they needed, and the migrants had found the employment they were searching for. However, life was difficult for the French-Canadian mill worker. They faced persecution from the Irish, among other groups, and often earned less than other mill workers. They worked long hours at the mill every day, and lived in crowded neighborhoods.
These ‘Little Canadas’ were populated almost entirely by French-Canadians. They were often very crowded, in tenements owned by the textile companies. However, their inhabitants made the most of their conditions. The neighborhoods often had their own schools, and French language newspapers.
Since Catholicism was a very strong belief shared by nearly all of the migrants, residents of Little Canadas frequently built their own churches. Life revolved around family, work in the mills, and worship. Often after folks built a Church in their area, more French-Canadians would move south to the area. Migration also increased with the establishment of French-Canadian-owned businesses, which in turn contributed to the growth and development of the Little Canada they lived in.
Although the tide of migration slowed during and after the Great Depression, there are still many in New England today who share French Canadian heritage. One can still feel the influence of their culture in many of the cities with the old mills, such as in Manchester.