Although a few arrived in the 150 years before to exploit the region’s natural resources, French-speaking Canadians began settling in New York in larger numbers during and after the American Revolution (many as refugees from English power in Canada).
Another large contingent crossed the border for safety following the Patriot War of 1837-38 in Lower Canada (Quebec), which was the result of rising tensions between the French Canadian majority and the English minority.
The rebellion was led by French-Canadian nationalist Louis-Joseph Papineau. Many of those who arrived at this time settled in Northern New York, including Plattsburgh, Mooers, Malone, Watertown.
Later, especially during the 1840s-1860s, many immigrated from Quebec to Northern New York in search of jobs in lumber camps and mills. They often went back and forth across the border, which was unregulated at the time.
Among those who emigrated at this time was Louis Seymour, known as “French Louie,” (c. 1832-1915), a woodsman, trapper, Adirondack guide and hermit in the Southern Adirondacks.
These French speaking immigrants mostly settled along river and canal towns such as Plattsburgh, Mooers, Malone, Watertown, Whitehall, Waterford, Cohoes, Troy, and Albany, where their neighborhoods, sometimes called “Little Canadas,” could be found.
The settlers created their own churches, newspapers, and social networks. According to the website Franco-American Immigrants: Making Waterford Our Home, “Family and religion were the pillars of their culture and they believed that one could not survive without the other.”
The sentiment is echoed in Franco-Americans in the Champlain Valley (Arcadia Books, 2018) which states that “the church was their refuge in Canada and quickly became a refuge in their new country. It provided comfort and familiarity in a time of great change.”
Many of the French Canadians worshiped at Irish Catholic churches or other buildings until they were able to establish their own. For example, in Troy Reverend Peter Havermans of the largely Irish and Irish-American St. Mary’s Church, held services in French at Moulders Hall, State and River Streets, and later Apollo Hall, River and Congress Streets, as early as 1850.
In 1867, St. Jean de Baptiste Church was incorporated in the city at 230 2nd Street. The new church’s cornerstone was laid in 1868 and it was dedicated on October 24, 1869. (In 1970 the parish was merged with St. Mary’s due to dwindling enrollment; St. Jean de Baptiste was torn down in 2021).
French Canadians in Troy had a weekly French newspaper, L’Avenir National (1871-1876) and La Patrie Nouvelle (1876-1891). By the 1880s there were an estimated 3-4,000 French Canadians living in the city, many working in the area’s boot and shoe factories.
Some other French Catholic churches in Northern New York and the Capital District included: Notre Dame des Victoires in Whitehall (1868), St. Joseph’s in Cohoes (1868), St. Anne in Waterford (1887), St. Alphonsus in Glens Falls (1853), St. Jean Baptiste in Keesville (1853), St. Peter’s in Plattsburgh (1853), Notre Dame des Victoires in Plattsburgh (1907), Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Schuylerville (1860’s), and St. Joseph de Corbeau in Coopersville, Clinton County (1818).
A history of St. Joseph de Corbeau’s (1818-1969) in North Country Notes (April 1970) reveals that about 1818 Father Pierre Mignault from Chambly was a missionary in charge of all the Canadians in New York. A church built of logs at Corbeau (Coopersville) which became “the rallying point of Catholicism in the North.” According to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, from 1818-1850 Father Mignault set aside 14 days each year to minister to the French Canadians in Northern New York.
Like St. Jean de Baptiste’s in Troy, many of these French speaking churches are now closed, or have merged with other parishes. The American-Canadian Genealogy Society has published the baptisms and marriages for many Catholic churches in New York and other states. Their books are available for purchase, but also available at many public libraries, the New York State Library in Albany, and at Americanancestors.org (a fee-based site).
French Canadians also created St. Jean Baptiste Societies. In Quebec these were mostly patriotic organizations, but in North America they were about preserving the French language, culture and religion, and creating solidarity.
One of the first was created in Malone, NY in 1848, but societies were also known to have existed in Troy, Cohoes, and Albany. They demonstrated the role and power of French-speaking Canadians in North America according to the Encyclopedia of French Cultural Heritage in North America.
Siena College owns an interesting collection of Franco-American materials, which is available online. Je Me Souviens…I Remember: Presenting and Preserving the Heritage of Upstate New York’s Franco-American Communities includes photos of French families and church communities, artifacts, newspapers, some birth certificates, photos of gravestones, a list of school pupils etc.
There are detailed descriptions of each object, and one can search by name, location, and format. The following are a few examples from the collection of over 300:
- A History of the Amyot Family, Cohoes, NY (written in 2008)
- List of School Pupils, Riverview NY, Clinton Co., 1918/1919
- Photo of St. Joseph’s Academy, Cohoes, class of 1963
- Baptismal certificate of Antoine Elie Desautels, Waterford, 1936
- Photo of Therien family, Mooers, NY, 1924
- Photo of Chartier family, Troy, NY, 1910
- Letter of a young woman found in the wall of the rectory in Redford, NY, 1918. It is written in French, saying that she was compelled by law to return to Montreal.
- Newspaper L’Avenir Nationale, December 1872
- Birthday Postcard to Abram LaValley, Champlain, NY, from daughter Lena, 1900
- Naturalization of Edmund Reno (Renaud), Albany, NY, 1901 (and photos of Renaud family, Cohoes)
- Photo of headstone of Jacques Fornier and Wife, St. Jean Baptiste Cemetery, Troy, NY
- Photos of St. Peter’s Catholic Church, Plattsburgh, NY.
- Photos of Assumption Church (1855-2005), Redford, NY
Even today, French Canadians and French ancestry are prominent in the northern counties of New York, especially Clinton, Franklin, and St. Lawrence.
Illustrations, from above: Two French Canadian Renaud-King-Lavigne family members arm wrestling in Cohoes (Je Me Souviens Collection at Siena College); Adirondack French Louie (Louis Seymour); Julienne Jacques’ First Communion Photo, 1901 (Je Me Souviens Collection); and L’Avenir Nationale clipping referring to the St. Jean Baptiste Society in Albany, 1872 (Je Me Souviens Collection).