Immigration and Immigrants: France
Immigration and Immigrants: France
Migration of French men and women to the new American nation followed two distinct, successive patterns between the 1780s and the 1820s. Setting aside the few individuals who fought alongside the Americans during the Revolutionary War and remained in the United States afterward, a first group included sizable contingents of migrants who reached the United States during the 1790s and 1800s, usually as a consequence of the French and Haitian Revolutions. Beginning in 1790–1791 and accelerating in 1792–1794, some ten thousand émigrés arrived in the United States from metropolitan France. Most were royalists. Others were moderate republicans who fled the increasing Jacobin radicalization of the revolutionary process. At the same time, the slave revolt in Saint Domingue led to a significant emigration of white and mulatto colonists—along with some of their slaves. Many of the white colonists had only arrived in the prized sugar island during the 1770s and 1780s. They now reinforced the French communities in the United States. One of the largest, albeit belated, population movements took place in 1809, when former Saint Domingue colonists who had resettled in Cuba were expelled from the island by the Spanish authorities as a consequence of Napoleon's invasion of Spain. Some eight thousand of these refugees fled to New Orleans, whose French-speaking population they doubled within a few months. Last and quantitatively least significant during these decades were the migrants, often of republican and later Napoleonic persuasion,
who fled Napoleon's imperial and Louis XVIII's Restoration France during the 1800s and 1810s.
Quite different from these diasporic movements linked to the French and Haitian Revolutions were the migrations that developed when peace returned to Europe after 1815. Like other Europeans at the time, some French women and men were attracted to the United States by economic motives. Fewer individuals left France than other areas of Europe in the late 1810s and 1820s because the country's lesser demographic growth alleviated population pressure and helped maintain France's pattern of small farms and small industry in the countryside, where many small farmers were also part-time laborers in the local mill or mine.
But France did not escape the migratory temptations that were common in the British islands and western continental Europe at the time. During the 1820s several thousand left France every year and many others dreamt of following their examples. The Río de la Plata, Mexico, and the United States were on the mental map of many Frenchmen hoping for a different future. Aside from Paris, most of those who chose the United States came from the peripheral regions of France: Alsace and Lorraine in the northeast, the southwest from Bordeaux to Toulouse to the Pyrenees, or the mountain regions of central France.
The different groups of immigrants and exiles who went to the United States between the 1780s and the 1820s created lively communities in the new American Republic, particularly in the capital at Philadelphia and in New York, Baltimore, Charleston, Norfolk, and New Orleans after the Louisiana Purchase (1803). During the 1790s Philadelphia was host to thousands of French men and women of contrasting political persuasions, ranging from Jacobin supporters of the French Revolution to royalist exiles.
In general, and although individual situations could be very different, continental émigrés and Saint Domingue refugees were mobile populations in uncertain circumstances. They crowded the seaports' boardinghouses and attempted to make do by using whatever social networks of the past might be available or by founding new ones. They created French ethnic societies and more than ten newspapers, which—while often short-lived—brought them news from home and provided space for political debates. More often than not, they disagreed in their assessments of the political situation in France and the events in Saint Domingue. Some émigrés left the seaports and relocated in rural America, becoming farmers in Pennsylvania or planters in Alabama or Virginia. Once the political situation quieted down in France in the late 1790s, many continental exiles returned to France. But others stayed. The arrival of the Saint Domingue refugees from Cuba in 1809 reinforced New Orleans's post–Louisiana Purchase preeminence as the most important concentration of French—indeed, the only one where French speakers were a majority.
Therefore, French economic migrants of the late 1810s and 1820s did not arrive in a vacuum. They built on migratory traditions within the French Atlantic that went back to the eighteenth century. Entering the United States through the ports of New Orleans or New York City, some decided to stay and reinforce what had become the two largest French communities in the United States. New Orleans's city directories of the 1820s testify to the number of French natives who became merchants, clerks, artisans, or teachers and attempted to take advantage of the port's extraordinary growth. Like their predecessors in the 1790s, French migrants of the 1820s developed ethnic institutions in New Orleans and New York, including the Courrier des États-Unis, which was created in New York in 1828 and soon became the longest-lasting and most influential French newspaper in the United States. Perhaps the greatest moment of visibility for French migrants took place when Lafayette traveled to the United States a last time in 1824 and 1825 as "the guest of the nation" and met with his countrymen and women, some of whom had left the seaports and attempted to better their lots in rural America—in the Ohio and later the Mississippi Valley or in rural Louisiana.
With the exception of the later migration to California, the migratory patterns of French people to the United States between the 1780s and the 1820s remained in place for much of the nineteenth century. The relative weight of French migrants within the total European migration, however, became less significant.
Brasseaux, Carl, and Glenn R. Conrad, eds. The Road to Louisiana: The Saint-Domingue Refugees (1792–1809). Translated by David Cheramie. Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies, 1992.
Geggus, David P., ed. The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.
Greer, Donald. The Incidence of the Emigration during the French Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1951.