French Canadians in the Copper Country
John P. DuLong, Ph.D.
Notes for a presentation to the Chassell Heritage Center, 3 July 2008.
The French who settled in Canada along the St. Lawrence River, in what is now Québec, played an important role in the early history of the Copper Country. These French Canadians were the first Europeans to visit the Keweenaw Peninsula in the seventeenth century. They were also the first whites to become interested in the rumored copper deposits of the region. But most French Canadians visited the area because of their involvement in the fur trade. When the English conquered Canada and took over the Great Lakes region, they relied on the French Canadians to help them exploit the fur trade and to explore the region. Jean-Baptiste Cadotte, a mixed blood (Métis) fur trader from Sault Ste. Marie, was involved with several English entrepreneurs in the failed attempt to mine copper along the Ontonagon River in the middle of the eighteenth century.
When the copper boom started in the 1840s, the French Canadians involved in the fur trade and lumbering shifted over to transporting goods in canoes and boats for the miners. As the Québec economy stagnated and the Copper Country expanded, more and more French Canadians immigrated from Québec to work for the mining companies. In general, the French-Canadian men were not employed as miners. They preferred surface work and could be found working as lumberjacks, carpenters, or in the stamping mills and foundries. Some also took to working on the railroads. Eventually, some French Canadians prospered and opened up small businesses. Many of them ran small stores or saloons. French-Canadian women were housewives and often ran boarding houses.
Mention should be made of Joseph Grégoire. He was from St. Valentine, Québec, and immigrated to the Copper Country in the mid-1850s. In 1867 he established on the shores of Torch Lake the hamlet of Gregoryville, a “suburb” of the village of Lake Linden. From this location he operated a sawmill, which made lumber, doors, sashes, and blinds. He was the premier French-Canadian businessman in the region. According to a plaque at St. Joseph's church, he was known as the “Father of the French Canadians of Lake Superior.” He earned this title because he offered jobs to immigrants from Québec. Many French Canadians in the Copper Country had their first employment working for Grégoire. Eventually, many of them moved on to working surface jobs at the mining companies. Grégoire never married and died childless in 1895. He was buried in Mount Calvary Cemetery outside of Lake Linden.
Although French Canadians could be found living in every county of the Copper Country, most of them settled in specific communities in Houghton County. Lake Linden and Hubbell had the largest concentrations of French Canadians. So many in fact that Torch Lake was often derisively as “Frog Pond.” There were other “Little Canada” or Frenchtown communities in Calumet (Red Jacket), Houghton, Chassell, Dollar Bay, and elsewhere in the Copper Country.
The French Canadians founded several parishes that were exclusively or partially French including St. Joseph in Lake Linden, St. Cecilia in Hubbell, St. Anne in Calumet, and St. Ignatius Loyala in Houghton. St. Joseph at one time even had French nuns teaching in its school. There were also French-Canadian newspapers published in the region, but they were short lived. Lastly, the French Canadians, like many other ethnic groups in the area, formed their own mutual benefit societies including the Société St-Jean-Baptiste and L'Association Canado-Américaine. Although not exclusively a French-Canadian society, many of them also belonged to the Foresters.
For the French Canadians the annual celebration of the fête de St-Jean-Baptiste on the 24th of June was the occasion to celebrate their ethnic pride with parades, floats, and picnics. The French Canadians were among the slowest ethnic groups to assimilate to American culture, holding on tenaciously to their language, culture, and Catholic religion. New arrivals from Québec found it easy to blend in with their compatriots in the Copper Country.
The peak of French-Canadian immigration to the Copper Country was in between 1880 and 1900. After the great 1913 strike immigration from Québec declined. After the Great Depression it nearly ceased and many French Canadians, now second and third generation Americans, departed the Copper Country to work in the Detroit automobile factories or elsewhere in Michigan. By the 1950s, with the exception of their religion and food ways, most French Canadians had adjusted to American life. French is no longer spoken on the streets of Lake Linden and Hubbell except perhaps by a few old timers. The Société St-Jean-Baptiste is now defunct in the area. Mass is said in English. Despite this assimilation, many people of French-Canadian ancestry in the Copper Country are still very proud of their heritage.
Many people of French-Canadian descent in Michigan can trace their ancestry back to these Copper Country French Canadians. For more information on tracing your French Canadian roots in Houghton County, please visit http://habitant.org/houghton/fcgenealogy.htm.
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French-Canadian Heritage Society of Michigan
For help in tracing your French-Canadian ancestry please consider joining the French-Canadian Heritage Society of Michigan. Point your browser to http://www.habitantheritage.org to learn more about this group. We now offer an email list you can join to exchange messages regarding French-Canadian genealogy, history, and culture.
This page, and all contents, are Copyright © 1997 by John P. DuLong, Berkley, MI. Created 21 June 2008. Last modified 21 June 2008.