By Dan Cole, Contributor
This month we acknowledge the 255th anniversary of the charter establishing the Town of Charlotte. The original grantees were primarily from Dutchess County, New York, and virtually all were land speculators who quickly sold their rights to settlers from Massachusetts (primarily Lanesboro) and Connecticut, where the majority originated in Litchfield County. But two distinct ethnic groups also served our town: the Irish and the French-Canadians. Let’s take a brief look at the latter group.
Charlotte’s first families were remarkably homogeneous culturally and almost exclusively Protestant in their outlook, from our 1762 charter through the 1820s. Political repression by the English and famines in Ireland saw migrations of the Irish, many arriving in Quebec City to find political repression of the French-Canadians by the English and famines in Quebec. Many looked south of the border for relief.
The history of French-Canadians is one of resilience rooted in the desire to retain their traditions and, above all, their language—to be a distinct cultural community. Francophones have succeeded so well that, in Canada, despite losing their French colony to Great Britain in 1760 and remaining a minority ever since, the Canadian government must translate every single official document into French, and all border agents, Air Canada flight attendants and Service Canada employees must be bilingual. Their attitudes were little different when they relocated to the States almost two centuries ago.
Kevin Thornton, Ph.D., son of our late Historical Society President Frank Thornton, writes that “the French-Canadian population of Vermont is estimated to have risen from around four thousand in 1840 to over twelve thousand in 1850, with most settlement occurring on the northeast border and along the Champlain Valley.” He describes them as often “desperately poor, often illiterate and, in the case of the French, sometimes unable to speak English.” Locally they were met with a social wall of resistance. According to Thornton, Rowland E. Robinson (of Rokeby) in his book Vermont: A Study in Independence (Boston, 1892) spoke for a large number of locals when he described the Quebecois variously as “an inferior class,” “professional beggars,” “vagabonds,” “lazy,” and the women as “slatternly with litters of filthy brats, all as detestable as they were uninteresting.”
Thornton writes that a Francophone settler “was invisible also to nearly everyone in town except his closest neighbors. As far as his participation in public life was concerned, he may as well have been living in a wilderness.” Yet it didn’t seem to matter. They came, often taking the most menial jobs as farm laborers and servants. Most important, they brought their culture with them, the French language its core, although some Anglicized their names: for example, Charbonneau became Coleman (or Cole); Boisvert became Greenwood; Boivin became Drinkwine; Vaillancourt became Vancor. Many fought for the Union in the Civil War.
Regardless of how the Yankees viewed them, the French-Canadians declined to compromise their form of cultural nationalism. As a result, Thornton emphasizes that they often found themselves culturally isolated on the periphery of society as they moved into a well-established Yankee community—and they were Catholic. An RETN promotion for Kevin Thornton’s work states that French-Canadians were “scattered throughout a town [Charlotte] that had always lacked a true center, unable to form homogenous ethnic neighborhoods, lacking even a church until 1858,” which had to be dealt with.
Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church was being built by 1860 in response to the growing numbers of immigrant Catholics. The church’s history notes that the parish was too small to have an established priest, therefore mass was infrequent and often held on a weekday to allow the clergy to preach Sundays at their regular churches. In 1872 Father Jerome Cloarec wrote of the impact on Charlotte’s 70 Catholic families (predominantly Irish): “The Congregation would no doubt do a great deal better if a priest could say mass for them regularly on Sundays. The French Canadians of the Congregation suffer more than the Irish because they are [hired out] and have no opportunity to attend mass on weekdays.” He adds, “This Congregation promises to do a great deal better if it could be attended regularly on Sundays. It seems to be a little discouraged. They attend their religious duties pretty regularly. I find the greatest difficulty teaching Catechism to the children, especially to the Canadian children as very few of their parents can read.”
Thornton refers to 1846 Charlotte settler and French-Canadian Antoine Loraine as “a member of a rural underclass almost invisibly superimposed on the antebellum New England village. Seeing him clearly we also see the problem of class where we might least expect it, in the heart of the Free-Soil ideal being formulated at just about the same time he was clearing his land and building his house.”
It took time, but attitudes changed. It is hard to imagine Charlotte without the influence of its French-Canadian and Irish heritage—people who began with almost nothing, seized any opportunity that presented itself, and now occupy a respected place in Charlotte’s historical record. For the French, by persevering, by emphasizing family, by adhering to their religion, and by retaining their unique and clearly identifiable language and culture, often through traditional music, they did not cross an international border as much as they extended the boundary line south.
“The Vermont of to-day, with its railroads, its telegraphs and telephones and broader means of culture, has only entered into the reaping of what the fathers sowed. One by one those earlier workmen have disappeared, as we, too, shall disappear in our turn someday.
“Thus time works his changes, ceaseless as the cycles of the sun. He is pictured to us as wrinkled, old and gray, but he marches onward with the vigor of eternal youth, with energies as fresh as when the morning stars sank together over the birth of the world. It is for us to face the responsibilities of our day, as the fathers and the mothers faced theirs. We are remembering that the present is all that mortal man can call his own, for tomorrow is something that may never come and nowhere in all the annals of the ages has yesterday been seen again.” [W.W. Higbee]