Between 1850 and 1930, something like a million French Canadians left Canada for the United States. Today, their descendants number almost 10,000,000. But where did they go? Which parts of the US have the most people of French-Canadian descent?
We can go some way to answering those questions by using data published annually by the US Census Bureau, from its “American Community Survey.” This questionnaire asks respondents to report their ancestry – English, Irish, German, etc. One wrinkle for scholars of the Franco-American community is that Franco-Americans tend to give one of two different answers – either “French” or “French-Canadian.” Technically, both are correct, of course, and it speaks to the prevalence of a French-Canadian identity separate from France (few Mexican-Americans would call themselves “Spanish”, for example), but it makes something of a headache for demographers and sociologists.
Using some data-crunching and visualization software, it is possible to map Franco-Americans across the country. Here, the data is presented on a county-by-county level. Because of the French vs. French-Canadian dilemma noted above, this includes some people whose ancestors came directly from Europe to the US, but this population is relatively small.
The results are somewhat as you might expect – some of the most heavily Franco-American counties are in Northern New England (Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire), and, to a lesser extent, the rest of New England and New York state. Southern Louisiana, of course, also has strong representation.
But some of the more interesting results come when you examine counties in which Franco-Americans make up between 10 and 20% of the population – a minority, but a significant one. These include counties in Michigan, but also Northern Illinois, Eastern Missouri – places with colonial-era French-Canadian settlement as well as later immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries.
When you examine counties with a Franco-American population of between 5 and 10%, you can see a whole patchwork of settlements across the Western states, from Montana to New Mexico – the descendants of those French-Canadians who headed West for gold, homesteading or ranching, and those who continued the tradition of the voyageurs in exploring the prairies and Rockies.
The Franco-American presence in the United States is often described as “quiet.” Sometimes, that “quietness” comes from being overlooked or ignored. In any case, the data show that not only are there millions of Franco-Americans nationwide, but also that they, and their history, can be found in every corner of the country.