The labour of indigenised immigrants: Jason L. Newton, ‘“These French Canadian of the Woods are Half-Wild Folk”: Wilderness, Whiteness, and Work in North America, 1840–1955’, Labour / Le Travail, 77, 2016, pp. 121-150


Excerpt: In 1853 the Brown Company was a small water-powered sawmill in Berlin, New Hampshire, but by the turn of the century it had become a highly successful lumber and paper-processing company which made some of the largest timber cuts in the Northeast US. Its success depended largely on the French Canadian immigrant labourers employed to cut and drive logs. The company found that these workers could be hired cheaply, worked long hours, and, perhaps most importantly, it regarded them as innately suited for logging work. According to company officials, French Canadians were of a “hardy type, accustomed to the work in the bush, such as portaging, running rapids, etc., … [and were] as a rule, pretty high-grade men.” The French Canadian affinity for logging work was recognized all over North America. Adirondack scholar Alfred Donaldson wrote in the 1920s that these people “seemed naturally endowed with the agility, recklessness, and immunity to exposure that must combine to make them expert. They have always predominated as a race in the lumbering operations.” The French from “the settlements,” one Canadian sociologist wrote, “[have] the lure … of the woods tingling in their blood down through the generations.”

From 1850 to 1930 one million Québécois migrated to the US, pushed by rapid population growth, a shortage of good agricultural land, and slow industrial development in their home country. By the 1870s, new rail lines, specifically the Grand Trunk, Québec Central, and the Canadian Pacific accelerated their immigration. By 1901 almost one quarter of the entire population of Québec moved to New England. Ninety-two per cent of these immigrants settled in urban areas in the “border states or in states immediately south of them.Even though most settled in urban areas, in the forests along the border and in inland lumber regions of New England and New York there were logging camps composed entirely of French Canadian workers. By 1890, a congressional report found that “American farmers’ sons no longer follow wood chopping for a business, and their places have been filled by the French Canadians.” In 1900, 33.6 per cent of New England “woodchoppers, lumbermen [or] raftsmen” were French Canadian immigrants and the percentage was much higher in the northern portion of the region. Their affinity for the woods made them useful for specific tasks in other rural industries as well. On railroad grades, one sociologist found, the French “prefers to be in the vanguard. The space and freedom of the trail and water routes appeal to him … assisting with ready axe to erect the big log company camps.” When it came to technical work, however, the experts claimed they were useless. These comments on French Canadian loggers are evidence of how the perceived racial hierarchies that were constructed in the US by academics, government, and business officials pushed immigrant workers into specific industries based on their perceived racial characteristics.

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