French Americans

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by Laurie Collier Hillstrom


The French Republic (République Française)more commonly known as Franceoccupies 212,918 square miles, making it the largest country in Western Europe and slightly smaller than the state of Texas. It is hexagonal in shape, with half its borders, or 1,920 miles, made up of coastline. It borders on the Atlantic Ocean to the west, the English Channel to the northwest, Belgium and Luxembourg to the north, Germany to the northeast, Switzerland to the east, Italy to the southeast, the Mediterranean Sea to the south, and Spain to the southwest. The topography of France includes the Pyrenees mountains along the southern border and the Alps along the southwest border. The remaining terrain varies from mountain ranges to plains to forests, and includes four major river systems.

The population of France was approximately 55.5 million in 1987, and it has remained relatively stable over time. The capital and major cultural center is Paris, where about one-fifth of the total population resides. France has held a prestigious position in Western culture since the Middle Ages, showing particular influence in art, architecture, philosophy, and literature. The country became a leading member of the European Economic Community (EEC) and later the European Community (EC) and is one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. The French national flag consists of three wide vertical stripes of blue, white, and red.

About 80 percent of French people consider themselves Roman Catholic, though only 20 percent of French Catholics attend church regularly. According to Jonathan Harris in The Land and People of France, French discord with the Catholic church dates back to the eighteenth century, when the church reached the height of its wealth and power. Since then, anticlericalism has been a pervasive attitude in French society. France is also home to about 800,000 Protestants, who, despite their minority status, enjoy a strong influence in business and the government. In addition, with 700,000 Jewish residents, France has the largest Jewish community in Europe besides Russia. About 1.5 million Muslimsmostly emigrants from the former French colonies of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisiacomprise another sizable religious minority in France.

Since conditions in France historically have been considered humane and prosperous, relatively few French citizens have decided to emigrate. On the contrary, an estimated four million people from other lands have chosen to immigrate to France in the past 150 years. The most prevalent sources of immigrants to France in modern times include Portugal, Spain, Italy, eastern Europe, northern Africa, and Asia. The foreign population in France grew by 4.5 percent annually throughout the 1970s. Although this rate slowed to 0.7 percent during the 1980s, immigrants comprised seven percent of the population of France by the early 1990s. One estimate suggested that up to 500,000 of these immigrants had remained in the country illegally. While France has faced some problems in assimilating such large numbers of immigrants from different cultures, some experts claim that the French have largely succeeded in forging a sense of national identity.


The history of France dates back to about 1000 b.c., when Celtic tribes moved into large areas of northern Europe. The Celts who remained in the area that eventually became France were known as Gauls. Around 600 b.c., Greek colonists settled in the Mediterranean area of Marseilles, and their civilized ways had a strong influence on the Gauls. In 59 b.c., however, Julius Caesar led Roman forces in conquest of the area, which the Romans ruled for the next 500 years. During this time they built the foundation of many modern French roads and cities and ensured that Latin would form the basis of the French language. After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 a.d., France was ruled as an absolute monarchy by four successive dynasties. By the time King Henry IV established the Bourbon dynasty in 1589, France had developed a strict system of social hierarchy known as feudalism. Wealthy aristocrats owned the land and participated in government, while poorer people worked the land and had few rights.

The stage was set for French immigration to North America in the early 1500s, during a religious movement known as the Reformation. At this time, many citizens of France and other European nations protested against some of the doctrines and corrupt practices then prevailing in the Roman Catholic church. The Reformation caused conflict throughout Europe, eventually dividing the church into two separate factions, Catholics and Protestants. John Calvin, a French priest, was instrumental in the spread of Protestantism. His followers, called Huguenots, built 2,000 churches in France by the mid-1500s, though they also became the targets of persecution by French Catholics during 30 years of civil war. King Henry IV, who was born a Protestant but converted to Catholicism, stopped the conflict temporarily in 1594 by enacting the Edict of Nantes, which granted political rights and freedom of religion to French Protestants. After spending several years unsuccessfully pressuring Protestants to convert, however, King Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685. This sudden loss of rights and status caused thousands of Huguenots to leave France for North America. The majority of Huguenot immigrants were skilled, well-educated, and prosperous.

Another important event in French history that affected immigration to North America occurred in 1763, with the conclusion of the Seven Years' War (also known as the French and Indian War) between France and England. These traditional enemies had clashed repeatedly over expansionist policies and colonization in Europe, North America, and India. After losing this conflict, France relinquished to England control of its colonies, through the Treaty of Paris. According to Jean-Baptiste Duroselle in France and the United States: From Beginnings to Present (1976), French Americans "nursed the knowledge that they had been abandoned by a country that was no longer their homeland, and of which they today retain nothing but the language." Duroselle goes on to state that this event marked the end of French political power in the land that would become the United States. The American Revolution began just 12 years later, however, and France was persuaded to provide invaluable military aid to the American side. In fact, many historians claim that the French support enabled the United States to form.

France became embroiled in its own revolution in 1789. As the French middle class, or bourgeoisie, became more prosperous and powerful, they began to resent the feudal system and demanded equal rights and tax reform. King Louis XVI accepted some of the people's demands, but later brought troops into Paris to try to crush the rebellion. On July 14, crowds of armed protesters destroyed the Bastille, a fortress that was used to hold political prisoners and that gradually had become a symbol of oppression. This event marked the end of the old regime and the beginning of the French Republic, and it has been celebrated ever since as a national holidayBastille Day. France soon adopted a constitution that ensured equal rights for all citizens and limited the powers of the monarchy and the church. The French Revolution continued, however, as conservative and radical forces vied for control of the new government. These factions staged reciprocal campaigns of violence against one another during what came to be known as the Reign of Terror.

In the meantime, France entered into war with a coalition of European nations determined to halt the revolution and its radical ideas. Napoleon Bonaparte gained prominence as a French military leader and then overthrew the government of France in 1799, granting himself dictatorial powers as Emperor Napoleon I. Although Napoleon scored many popular military victories and initiated lasting reforms to the French educational and legal systems, he also severely limited individual rights. His rules made it virtually impossible for French citizens to emigrate, for example, so only a few immigrants came to the United States until the end of his reign in 1815.

Public opinion in the United States, which had been generally positive toward France since the American Revolution, gradually became negative during the Reign of Terror. The United States eventually claimed neutrality during the French Revolution and refused to provide assistance during the resulting war in Europe. Relations with France became the subject of intense debate among the leaders of the U.S. Congress and in the newly influential American press. Negative attitudes toward France peaked in 1797 with the XYZ Affair, when three unnamed French diplomats demanded a huge bribe before they would agree to speak with American delegates about a new treaty. This perceived insult caused the United States to prepare for a war with France.

During this time, French Americansespecially those who had come to the United States as refugees from the French Revolutionwere viewed by some American leaders as a potential threat to national security. In 1798 the U.S. government passed the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts, which were intended to monitor and limit the power of immigrant groups. For example, the Acts increased the residency requirement from five to 14 years before immigrants were allowed to vote, forced ships to compile dossiers on immigrant passengers, and granted the government the power to deport anyone it considered "dangerous." The Acts became the subject of considerable public outrage and were allowed to expire two years later. Shortly thereafter, the 1803 purchase of the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon helped relax the tension over immigration. This vast tract of land doubled the size of the United States and provided a new frontier for a large wave of new immigrants.

After Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815, France was ruled first as a constitutional monarchy and then as a republic. In 1848, Napoleon's nephew Louis Napoleon Bonaparte was elected president of the republic, but he soon overthrew the government and proclaimed himself Emperor Napoleon III. He was soundly defeated in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, however, which resulted in the loss of the French provinces Alsace and Lorraine to the German Empire. Thousands of Alsatians chose to immigrate to the United States at this time rather than live under German rule. France approved the democratic constitution of the Third Republic in 1875.

World War I helped improve relations between France and the United States when French and American soldiers fought together. In the period between the World Wars, France endured a weak government and low birth rates. These conditions contributed to the fall of France in 1940, shortly after the beginning of World War II, and to its occupation by German troops for the next four years. The Fourth Republic was established in 1946, but the government was unstable and faced constant conflict with French colonies seeking independence. Charles de Gaulle was elected president of the Fifth Republic in 1958 and managed to bring peace and economic recovery to France.


The history of French immigration to the United States involves a number of patterns. In only a few cases did groups of French citizens make a collective decision to leave France for the United States. Instead, typical French immigrants came as individuals or families seeking change or economic opportunity. Some analysts attribute this lack of group movement to the humane climate of France, while others claim that in general the French are reluctant to organize into groups. As a result, the number of immigrants to the United States from France has always been smaller than from other European countries.

According to the Statistical Abstract of the United States, for example, immigrants from France accounted for only 0.46 percent of total American immigrants over the 30-year period from 1961 to 1991or 78,300 out of a total 16.98 million. In addition, only 18,000 people came to the United States from France between 1980 and 1988, compared to 112,000 from England and 56,000 from Germany ("French American Relations: Rapprochement," Economist, March 16, 1991). In total, approximately 740,000 immigrants from France have settled in the United States since 1820, and between 30,000 and 40,000 came earlier. In 1990, 119,233 people living in the United States told the U.S. Census Bureau that they had been born in France. The flow of French immigrants to the United States also has been very stable in comparison to other countries, ranging from a high of 77,000 during the decade of the 1840s to a low of 18,000 during the 1970s.

While these figures provide useful information about the trends of French immigration, demographers admit that counting French Americans has been problematic since U.S. colonial times. For many years U.S. officials tended to overestimate the number of French immigrants because they equated immigrants' nationality with their last place of domicile before arrival. This policy meant that many people who actually hailed from Germany or Eastern Europe and had settled in France temporarily in order to facilitate their eventual passage to the United States were regarded as French Americans. Another problem in the U.S. immigration figures involves inconsistent treatment of the French speaking people who came to America from Canada or the Caribbean. French Canadian Americans, Acadians (or Cajuns), and Creoles form distinct U.S. ethnic groups but are not always distinguished from French Americans in census figures. Compounding the problems with U.S. immigration figures, for many years French officials tended to underestimate the number of emigrants because they wished to downplay any outflow of French citizens. However, most sources agree that French immigration to the United States has been small and steady over time.

Despite their relatively small numbers, French immigrants have tended to be more successful and influential than other groups in America. French immigrants are generally urban, middle-class, skilled, and progressive, and they are most likely to be employed as artisans or merchants. The U.S. Census of 1910 showed that French Americans were more literate, more concentrated in liberal professions, and had fewer children and larger living spaces than other immigrant groups. In the 1930s, moreover, French Americans accounted for ten percent of the entries in Appleton's Encyclopedia of American Biography, although they made up only two percent of the overall population. However, many French immigrants returned to France despite their high rate of success in the United States. In fact, a 1980 estimate showed that only one-third of registered French immigrants ultimately decided to seek U.S. citizenship.


Many of the earliest French settlements in North America were mainly intended as trading outposts. Jean Ribaut, a French Huguenot sailor, established two of the first French colonies near Beaufort, South Carolina, and Jacksonville, Florida, in the 1550s. He settled in these locations in order to compete with the Spanish for control of trade in the Caribbean region. In 1534, French explorer Jacques Cartier became the first to travel the length of the St. Lawrence River. Although he failed to find the gold he was seeking, by 1542 he did reach the area that would become Quebec, including Montreal, in Canada. After forming an alliance with the powerful Algonquin Indians, Samuel de Champlain founded the first permanent French settlement in Quebec in 1608.

Originally, French colonial policy allowed only Catholics to emigrate, but most French Catholics were reluctant to leave their homes. As a result, the few people who came to North America from France were mostly explorers, traders, or Jesuit missionaries seeking to convert the Indians. These individuals tended to spread out and travel far into the wilderness. In fact, by the time the Pilgrims arrived in New England in 1620, the French had already discovered three of the Great Lakes. This migration to the Midwest later led to French bases in Detroit and St. Louis. Robert Cavelier de La Salle traveled the length of the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico in 1682, and upon completion of his journey founded Louisiana by claiming the entire Mississippi Basin in the name of King Louis XIV of France. Jean-Baptiste Bienville followed by forming a successful French colony in New Orleans in 1717.


There have been several notable waves of French immigrants to the United States based upon economic, religious, or political factors. For the most part, however, French immigration has been a result of individual decisions rather than a mass movement. The earliest flow of French immigrants began around 1538 and consisted of Huguenots who felt alienated from mainstream French society due to their Protestant faith. The Huguenots' emigration peaked after King Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, outlawing the Protestant religion and forcing the Huguenots to either convert to Catholicism or face death. According to Albert Robbins in Coming to America: Immigrants from Northern Europe, the king's official decree gave orders to "kill the greatest part of the Protestants that can be overtaken, without sparing the women, to the end that this may intimidate them and prevent others from falling into a similar fault."

Many Huguenots decided to flee from France, but it was still illegal for Protestants to emigrate. Those who managed to leave often had to pay bribes or use connections to acquire false passports. As a result, the majority of the 15,000 Huguenots who arrived in North America were wealthy and skilled, and they eventually gained prominence as craftsmen and merchants. The Huguenots established a strong presence in New York with settlements in Harlem, Staten Island, New Rochelle, and New Paltz. In fact, the first child born in New York City was Jean Vigné, the son of a Huguenot immigrant. Pennsylvania, Virginia, South Carolina, and Massachusetts also became the sites of successful Huguenot settlements. Since the Huguenots could not settle among French Catholics and felt alienated from France, most accepted North America as their new homeland and changed their names to sound more English.

With the beginning of the French Revolution, a wave of Roman Catholic refugees emigrated from France to the United States. Many of these immigrants were either wealthy aristocrats or working-class people, such as chefs and hairdressers, who depended upon the aristocrats for their livelihood. Another important group of refugees to arrive at this time included 100 French priests. Since there were only 25 priests in the American colonies prior to their arrival, these immigrants had a strong influence on the development of the American Catholic church. Missionary work carried the Roman Catholic refugees to far-ranging French colonial areas, such as Michigan, St. Louis, and Louisiana.

About 10,000 political refugees managed to leave France during the French Revolution, and many of these immigrants traveled through French colonies in the Caribbean to reach the United States. This group included about 3,000 people of mixed black and French ancestry who settled in Philadelphia. Following Napoleon's defeat in 1815, a large wave of French immigration began, which lasted through the start of the American Civil War. Napoleon's brother Jérome came to the United States at this time with several hundred former soldiers and tried unsuccessfully to establish settlements in Texas, Alabama, and Ohio.

The California Gold Rush, which began in 1848, convinced a record number of French immigrants to make their way to the United States. About 30,000 people arrived between 1849 and 1851, with an all-time high of 20,000 coming in 1851 alone. Unfortunately, few of these immigrants ever found the riches they were seeking. According to Abraham P. Nasatir in French Activities in California, the following letter written by Montes Jeanone of the French immigrant "forty-niners"describes the conditions immigrants encountered in San Francisco in December 1849: "It is twenty-four days since we arrived in California, but in what condition.... We have been very fortunate being in a country where a great deal is earned and where work is not lacking. I say 'work'; that is to say, go to the dock of San Francisco, become a working man, carry bales of merchandise to various stores and you will be quite well paid. For carrying a trunk weighing about a hundred livres for a distance of fifty meters or more one is paid three dollars (about sixteen francs); and in this way we have lived up to now, when I am writing you. But at present, since people are arriving in large numbers, prices are diminishing greatly. One cannot go to the mines at this time on account of the rising waters and because the routes are miry and submerged.... Food is very expensive in this country. Bread, for example, costs a half-dollar a livre, and meat twenty-six sous de France. Work is not progressing very much at present, although there are two hundred vessels in the harbor."

In 1871 a group of Alsatian Jews settled in Los Angeles, after the Franco-Prussian War put the French provinces Alsace and Lorraine under German rule. Immigration slowed significantly during the American Civil War, and the years immediately following saw a larger percentage of unskilled workers from France moving to the United States. A number of French Jews immigrated after the fall of France to the Germans in 1940. From the end of World War II onward, a strong cultural and economic recovery in France caused the flow of French immigrants to slow considerably. Most French immigrants in the second half of the twentieth century came to the United States because they married an American citizen or simply wanted to try something different, rather than out of religious, economic, or political necessity.


French American settlement patterns reflect the fact that French immigrants typically came to the United States as individuals or families seeking economic opportunity. Rather than joining groups of previous French settlers or establishing French American communities, these immigrants most often scattered to the areas where new opportunities seemed likely to be found. For example, the number of ethnic French living in Louisiana dropped from 15,000 in 1860 to half that number by 1930 as the prosperity of the South declined. In the meantime, the French population of California rose from 8,000 in 1860 to 22,000 by 1970 as immigrants pursued new opportunities in the West. According to We the People: An Atlas of America's Ethnic Diversity, in 1980 more immigrants directly from France lived in California, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania than in any other states. Many of these French immigrants possessed professional skills that were most valuable in urban environments. Less than 40 percent of French Americans immigrated directly from France, however, as the majority came from French speaking parts of Canada. In general, these groups came from different French social classes and tended to avoid contact with each other despite their shared language.

According to the U.S. Census of 1980, the counties with the largest number of people of French ancestryincluding those whose ancestors immigrated to the United States directly from France as well as those whose ancestors immigrated from Canada or the Caribbeanwere Worcester, Massachusetts, with 90,332; Providence, Rhode Island, with 72,461; Middlesex, Massachusetts, with 66,911; Los Angeles, California, with 65,263; and Hillsborough, New Hampshire, with 58,278. The counties (parishes) with the highest percentage of their population claiming French ancestry were all in Louisiana: Vermillion, with 43.13 percent French ancestry; St. Martin, with 37.67 percent; Evangeline, with 36.22 percent; Lafourche, with 36.2 percent; and Avoyelles, with 33.48 percent.

Acculturation and Assimilation

Historically, the people who immigrated to the United States from northern Europeincluding Francewere more readily accepted than some other immigrant groups. For example, when the U.S. Congress passed a law restricting immigration in the 1920s, northern European groups received the most liberal quotas. This favored status allowed northern European immigrants to assimilate more easily into American culture. The type of individual who was most likely to leave France for the United States, moreover, had a particularly strong propensity toward assimilation. For instance, a high percentage of French immigrants were professionals or merchants who earned their livings among the greater population and within an urban environment. At the same time, very few French farmerswho would have lived in rural areas and been more isolated from the dominant culturedecided to emigrate. Typical French immigrants were also modernists who felt estranged from mainstream French culture and viewed the United States as a progressive, classless, secular, and innovative society. "Given this background of alienation and yearning," Patrice Louis René Higonnet explains in the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, "it is hardly surprising that French immigrants, self-selecting and at odds with the national ethos, should have been assimilationists."

Higonnet also attributes the absence of group spirit among French Americans to their geographic dispersion, a general French distaste for group interaction, and the fact that French immigrants came to the United States seeking new forms of society and culture. One early example of assimilation among French immigrants was when the Huguenots chose to join the less-extreme Anglican Church in North America. In the modern era, despite the strong cultural nationalism found in France, French Americans have shown a higher rate of intermarriage than any other non-English-speaking immigrant group. In fact, French Americans tend to assimilate so quickly and completely that most sources can only cite their overall impact on American culture. As James S. Pula confirmed in The French in America, "Place names and linguistic quirks remain as a lasting testimony to the influence of France on American culture, but the people have all but disappeared into an abyss of assimilation. Unlike many other national groups, the French generally held no special reluctance toward Anglicanizing their names and their speech."


The rapid assimilation of French immigrants into American society ensured that few traditional customs were carried over and practiced by French Americans. Instead, Americans studied and emulated French culture, manners, cuisine, fashion, art, and literature. French Americans mainly disseminated information and acted as role models. French culture first gained widespread popularity in the United States in the early nineteenth centuryshortly after the Revolutionary Warwhen Americans followed the events and supported the principles of the French Revolution. French chefs and restaurants bolstered the popularity of French cuisine, while the influence of French impressionists on American art became apparent. Several U.S. presidents also ordered French furniture and silverware for use at the White House.


French immigrants introduced a wide range of interesting foods to America. For example, French Americans made the first yeast breads in North America and brought technical farming skills that vastly improved American rice and wines. Huguenots grew and prepared the first okra, artichokes, and tomatoes. The popularity of French cuisine took off in the 1780s, following the alliance between France and the United States during the American Revolution. Many respected French chefs, such as Arthur Goussé in Los Angeles, immigrated to the United States and established restaurants. Even non-French Americans began to prepare buns and rolls, omelettes, and delicate soups. A number of French culinary terms remain prominent in modern times, including bouillon, purée, fricassée, mayonnaise, pâté, hors d'oeuvres, bisque, fillet, sauté, casserole, au gratin, and à la mode.


Imported French attire gained popularity in the early nineteenth century, particularly items such as gloves and lace. Around 1850, the French custom of wearing beards swept across the United States. In 1908, several women wearing imported French skirts and fishnet stockings were arrested for indecent exposure. France has maintained its position on the leading edge of world fashion through the present day.


The French national holiday of Bastille Daywhich commemorates the uprising that destroyed a major symbol of oppression in Paris and led to the formation of the First Republic in 1789is celebrated in some communities throughout the United States on July 14. In addition, the New Orleans tradition of Mardi Grasa week-long series of parades and parties usually held in Februarywas first organized in 1827 by French American students.


The average life expectancy in France is exactly the same as in the United States70 years for men, and 78 years for women. Although there are no known congenital diseases specific to French Americans, the French have shown a higher than average susceptibility to lung and throat cancers, mainly because they tend to smoke and drink heavily. France has one of the highest rates of alcoholism in the world.


French is a Romance language derived from Latin. It has enjoyed a prestigious position in world culture for over three centuries. French was the official language of diplomatic negotiations, and the preferred language among the upper classes of Western civilization, beginning around 1650. By about 1920, however, English began to gain popularity, and it eventually surpassed French in terms of international status. In 1975 the French National Assembly, reacting to what it viewed as an encroachment of English slang upon the French language (commonly called "franglais"), passed a law restricting the use of untranslated English words in advertising materials. They also hoped to discourage the French public from using English words when an equivalent French term existed.

As of 1990, an estimated 1.93 million people in the United States spoke the French language at home. The influence of French is also apparent in American English. For example, since French explorers often served as guides for other settlers after the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory, French words were used to describe many aspects of the frontier experience, such as portage, rapids, bayou, butte, peak, gopher, prairie, pass, and cache. French explorers also left a legacy of American place names, including Baton Rouge, Sault Ste. Marie, Detroit, Couer d'Alene, Marquette, Joliet, Lake Champlain, Lake Pontchartrain, Des Moines, Eau Claire, Fon du Lac, Charlevoix, and Terre Haute. Finally, numerous French words occur in everyday American usage, such as croquet, poker, roulette, automobile, garage, lingerie, restaurant, crayon, bouquet, and boutique.


Common French greetings and other expressions include: Bonjour Hello, Good morning, Good afternoon; Comment allez-vous How do you do; Au revoir Good-bye; Très bien Very good; Oui, c'est ça Yes, that's right; Merci beaucoup Thank you very much; À votre service You're welcome; or, Don't mention it.

Family and Community Dynamics


The French educational system, which was initiated during Napoleon's rule, has had a marked influence on schooling in the United States since the early 1800s. The French system features innovative nursery and primary schools, followed by collèges, the equivalent of American junior high schools. Students then must decide whether to complete their secondary education at an academic or a vocational lycée a three-year preparatory school similar to American high schools. Admission to French universities is based upon a rigorous, competitive examination in a specific subject area. Only top students may attend the grandes écoles, or elite schools, that serve as a prerequisite for top jobs in business and government. Educators in the United States emulated the French system of progressive schooling culminating in admission to a private or municipal university. In France, however, the entire educational system is administered by the Ministry of National Education, while in the United States education is controlled by states or local communities. Proponents of the French system claim that it is superior, in that it demands students' best efforts and rewards exceptional performance. On the other hand, some detractors claim that the system works to maintain a social class system in France, since the vast majority of students at the grandes écoles hail from upper-class backgrounds.


The majority of French immigrants to the United States have been Roman Catholic. This fact is so partly because Catholics form a majority in France, and partly because during colonial times only Catholics were allowed to emigrate. Descendants of the 15,000 French Huguenots who came to the United States tend to be Anglican. More recently, the United States became a refuge for French Jews during and after World War II.

Employment and Economic Traditions

On the whole, French immigrants have been highly successful and have made a lasting impact in the United States. According to We the People, the French immigrants who remained in the United Stated tended to be "less traditional and more enterprising, ambitious, and forward-looking" individuals who typically "adjusted without much apparent stress to American ways." In contrast to other immigrant groups, only 12 percent of French Americans were farmers. Instead, French immigrants most often worked as professionals, clerical workers, cooks, waiters, artists, and managers.

Specific French immigration waves contributed different labor practices to American society. For example, the Huguenots introduced a number of skilled crafts to the United States, including sophisticated techniques of weaving, leather dressing, lace making, and felt manufacture. Some historians claim that the Huguenots' stylish ways helped transform crude frontier settlements into civilized cities and towns. Refugees from the French Revolution and the fall of Napoleon who came to the United States tended to be former army officers or aristocrats. These educated individuals often taught the French language or such elite activities as fencing and dancing. A number of French chefs, hairdressers, dress designers, and perfumers accompanied the wave of aristocrats and introduced French cuisine and fashion to America.

Politics and Government

Americans of French ancestry began to influence politics in the United States during colonial times. Most French immigrants rapidly became "Americanized," however, and participated in government as individuals rather than as a group. Four U.S. presidentsJohn Tyler, James B. Garfield, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin D. Rooseveltwere of French Huguenot descent.


Many descendants of French Huguenots, including Paul Revere, were distinguished patriots during the American Revolution. In addition, the French government provided invaluable support to the American cause. One French army captain in particular, Marquis de Lafayette, had an important influence on the events at this time. Lafayette fought brilliantly as a major general in George Washington's army, and later returned to France to convince King Louis XVI to formally recognize the independence of the United States and to provide military aid against the British. French immigrants fought passionately on both sides of the American Civil War. For example, Brigadier General Benjamin Buisson, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, formed troops out of French volunteers to defend New Orleans for the Confederacy. A number of all-French American groups, known as Zouave units, fought for both the North and the South, wearing uniforms in the French colonial tradition.

Individual and Group Contributions


Pierre Charles L'Enfant (1754-1825), a civil engineer by training, fought with Lafayette during the American Revolution. He later became the architect of the United States capital city in Washington, D.C. His designs of majestic buildings and tree-lined squares were considered visionary. French artist Régis François Gignoux came to the United States in 1844. He served as the first president of the Brooklyn Art Academy and had a vast influence on American landscape painting. In 1876,John La Farge painted the first mural in America to decorate Trinity Church in Boston. He later went on to develop techniques that allowed stained glass to be used on a large scale for decorative purposes. Marcel Duchamp, the French Dadaist painter and conceptual artist, lived in New York from 1942 until his death in 1968.

Celebrated poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), of French descent, was perhaps best known for his epic Song of Hiawatha, published in 1855. John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) became a prominent abolitionist as well as poet. French American author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) gained renown with the 1854 publication of Walden, a diary of his two years in the wilderness near Concord, Massachusetts. Two other respected French American writers were Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for The Harp Weaver, and Other Poems, and Stephen Vincent Benét (1898-1943), who won the 1929 Pulitzer Prize for his epic poem "John Brown's Body."

Among the French American actors to gain prominence in the United States were Leslie Caron (1931 ), Charles Boyer (1899-1978), and Claudette Colbert (1905-1996). After making her American debut in 1924, Colbert won an Academy Award as best actress for her role in It Happened One Night in 1934. Actor Robert Goulet made his debut in the Broadway production of Camelot in 1960, and went on to appear in many feature films and receive both Tony and Emmy Awards. Composer Maurice Jarée won several Academy Awards for the musical scores he wrote for such classic American films as Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, Grand Prix, and The Longest Day in the 1960s. In sports, French American jockey Ron Turcotte rode the most famous American racehorse of all time, Secretariat, to victory in the Triple Crown of horse racing.


Thomas Gallaudet (1787-1851) founded the first American school for the deaf in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1817. He also established teachers' training schools and promoted advanced education for women. Gallaudet College, a national institute for the deaf, was established in Washington, D.C. in 1855. French American Edouard Seguin (1812-1880) was responsible for significant developments in the education of mentally challenged individuals. In 1842, Father Edward Sorin, a French priest, founded a seminary which later became the University of Notre Dame. Finally, James Bowdoin served as governor of Massachusetts and first president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He also founded Bowdoin College and established the Massachusetts Humane Society.


One of the most influential French Americans in the history of U.S. government was John Jay (1745-1829). Among his many contributions, Jay acted as president of the Continental Congress, negotiated the treaty with England that ensured American independence, and served as the first Chief Justice of U.S. Supreme Court.


One of the most famous French Americans, partly due to the variety of his contributions, was Paul Revere (1735-1818). The son of Huguenot Apollos Revoire de Romagnieu, Revere led several protests against British rule of the American colonies, including the Boston Tea Party. He also made the legendary "midnight ride" to warn Massachusetts residents that British soldiers were approaching at the start the American Revolution. In his time, however, Revere was also known as a talented silversmith who developed a distinctly American style. He designed and engraved the plates for the first paper money in Massachusetts and established the first mill for rolling copper sheets. Pierre Faneuil, who belonged to a wealthy and influential family of merchants, donated to the city of Boston the public market and meeting place known as Faneuil Hall.

Eleuthère Irénée Dupont de Nemours (1772-1834), who was considered a radical in France, came to the United States after losing his publishing business during the French Revolution. He opened a gunpowder mill in 1799, which grew rapidly during the War of 1812. Eventually, under the management of his heirs, his holdings grew into the Dupont Chemical-General Motors complex, one of the largest industrial concerns in the world. In 1851, French American John Gorrie invented an ice machine and received the first U.S. patent for mechanical refrigeration. Philip Danforth Armour, whose Armour brand meats are still sold in the United States, first entered the meat-packing business in 1863. His contributions to the industry included the development of advanced slaughtering and modern refrigeration techniques.


Civil engineer Octave Chanute came to the United States from France at the age of six. He conducted numerous experiments in aeronautics and created the wing design that became the basis for the Wright Brothers' successful airplane. John J. Audubon (1785-1851), the son of a French immigrant who fought in the American Revolution, is remembered as America's premier naturalist. His comprehensive study Birds in America, which included over 1,000 illustrations drawn or painted by Audubon, appeared beginning in 1827. Matthew Fontaine Maury is credited as the founder of the modern science of hydrography. He was the first person to chart the flow of the Gulf Stream, to conduct deep-sea soundings, and to imagine the potential of a transoceanic cable. His best-known work, The Physical Geography of the Sea, was published in 1856. Marine explorer Jacques Cousteau (1910-1997) contributed to the invention of the aqualung in 1943 and won an Academy Award in 1957 for his documentary film feature The Silent World.

In medicine, surgeon François Marie Provost performed the first successful cesarean sections in Louisiana in 1809. Alexis Carrel (1873-1944) became famous during his tenure at the Rockefeller Institute as the first doctor to sew blood vessels together, transplant animal organs, and keep human tissue alive in jars. He wrote the seminal work Man, the Unknown, and won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1912.




Published by Trocadero Publishing, Inc., this weekly periodical is a French language tabloid established in 1943 by prominent refugees. It covers news from France and Franco-American life in the United States.

Address: 1560 Broadway, Suite 511, New York, New York 10036-1525.

Telephone: (212) 221-6700.

Fax: (212) 221-6997.

E-mail: [email protected].


France Today.

Published ten times annually by France Press, Inc., France Today covers contemporary issues, events, trends, and travel in France.

Address: 1051 Divisadero, San Francisco, California, 94115.

Telephone: (415) 921-5100.

Journal Français d'Amérique.

Published bi-weekly by France Press, Inc., this periodical covers French history, politics, culture, and travel.

Contact: Anne Prah Perochon, Editor.

Address: 1051 Divisadero, San Francisco, California, 94115.

Telephone: (415) 921-5100.

Fax: (415) 921-0213.

E-mail: [email protected].

Organizations and Associations

Fédération Féminine Franco-Américaine de la Nouvelle-Angleterre (Federation of French American Women).

FFFA was founded in 1951, the 8,000-member FFFA promotes French culture; conducts an oral history program; sponsors French speaking contests, youth festivals, ethnic vacations, and an annual scholarship for outstanding students of French; compiles statistics; and maintains an archive and a hall of fame.

Contact: Marthe W. Whalon, President.

Address: 240 Highland Avenue, Fall River, Massachusetts, 02720.

Telephone: (508) 678-1800.

French American Foundation (FAF).

Founded in 1976, FAF works to strengthen relations between the United States and France by creating opportunities for French and American professionals to discuss problems of concern to both societies. FAF sponsors exchanges of specialists, internships, study tours, conferences, and fellowships, including the Tocqueville Grant Program for U.S. doctoral candidates and a continuing Chair in American Civilization at a university in Paris.

Contact: Diantha D. Schull, Executive Director.

Address: 509 Madison Avenue, Suite 310, New York, New York 10022-5501.

Telephone: (212) 288-4400.

Fax: (212) 288-4769.

E-Mail: [email protected].

French Institute/Alliance Française (FIAF).

Formed in 1971 through the merger of Alliance Française de New York (founded 1898) and French Institute in the United States (founded 1911), FIAF encourages study of French language and culture among its 8,600 members and fosters friendly relations between French and American peoples. FIAF also offers a program of French lectures, films, concerts, theater, and art; operates a school of French for adults; and maintains a library of 40,000 volumes in French.

Contact: Jean Vallier, Director.

Address: 22 East 60th Street, New York, New York, 10022-1077.

Telephone: (212) 355-6100.

Fax: (212) 935-4119.

E-mail: [email protected].


National Association of Franco-Americans (AFA).

Also known as Assemblée Nationale des Franco-Americains. Founded in 1977, AFA works to provide a cultural identity and create a forum for the exchange of ideas among its 7,000 members, who share a French linguistic heritage or belong to a French speaking population in the United States. AFA also represents Franco-Americans in legislative matters, conducts research on Franco-American history and culture, and publishes a bimonthly newsletter.

Contact: Real Gilbert, President.

Address: 500 Chestnut Street, Manchester, New Hampshire 03101-1614.

Telephone: (603) 627-0505.

Museums and Research Centers

The American and French Research on the Treasury of the French Language (ARTFL) Project.

Cooperative effort of the University of Chicago and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique that is involved in the development of an online database covering French language and literature from the Middle Ages to the present, including more than 150 million words of major literary, technical, and philosophical texts.

Contact: Dr. Robert Morrissey, Director.

Address: Department of Romance Languages and Literature, 1050 East 59th Street, Chicago, Illinois, 60637.

Telephone: (773) 702-8488.

E-mail: [email protected].


The Center for French and Francophone Studies.

Located at Louisiana State University, the center conducts research into French and francophone culture of the southern United States and the Caribbean, including studies of mores and customs, work, law and commerce, role of women, Creole languages, and literature.

Contact: Assia Djebar, Director.

Address: Department of French and Italian, Louisiana State University, 225 Prescott Hall, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 70803.

Telephone: (504) 388-6589.

Fax: (504) 388-6620.

E-mail: [email protected].


Henri Peyre French Institute.

An integral unit of the graduate school of the City University of New York, the institute conducts research into French literature, philosophy, politics, film, and the arts with the support of the French government.

Contact: Dr. Mary Ann Caws, Director.

Address: 33 West 42nd Street, New York, New York, 10036.

Telephone: (212) 642-2311.

Fax: (212) 642-2761.

E-mail: [email protected].

Society for French Historical Studies.

Independent, nonprofit historical society focusing on French history in the United States and Canada.

Contact: Professor Shelton Stromquist.

Address: University of Iowa Department of History, Iowa City, Iowa 52242.

Telephone: (319) 335-2330.

Fax: (319) 335-2293.

E-mail: [email protected].

Sources for Additional Study

Bernstein, Richard. "The Myth of the Anti-American," Fragile Glory: A Portrait of France and the French. New York, Knopf, 1990.

Brasseaux, Carl A. The "Foreign French": Nineteenth-century French Immigration into Louisiana. Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies, University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1990.

Duroselle, Jean-Baptiste. "The Hereditary Enemy," France and the United States: From Beginnings to Present, translated by Derek Cotton. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

Ekberg, Carl J. French Roots in the Illinois Country: The Mississippi Frontier in Colonial Times. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.

Harris, Jonathan. The Land and People of France. New York: Lippincott, 1989.

Houde, Jean-Louis. Translated into French by Hubert Houle. French Migration to North America, 1600-1900. Chicago: Editions Houde; Glencoe, Illinois: Distribution, Editions Houde, 1994.

Pula, James S. The French in America, 1488-1974: A Chronology and Fact Book. Dobbs Ferry, New York: Oceana, 1975.

Robbins, Albert. Coming to America: Immigrants from Northern Europe. New York: Delacorte Press, 1981.

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