top of page

Nos vieux - Our French Family History

French flag flying under the Arc d' Triomphe

I was feeling a little remiss about not recognizing the French and their history in North America last week on Bastille Day, so I am trying to make up for that this week. Soon after Christopher Columbus discovered the New World news spread about the large quantities of gold and silver which spurred on exploration by other countries, like France.

Newfoundland (Canada) was claimed for Britain in 1497, but the Breton French were documented in Newfoundland and Labrador soon thereafter and as early as 1504, as fishermen found the supply of cod plentiful and profitable. While Britain was setting up the Jamestown Colony in 1608 (as we discussed last week), the French were founding Quebec. But colonization was not the main goal of the French at this time. Trade and spreading Catholicism were more important.

While cod was the more lucrative product to be found in "New France," it was the fur trade that according to the History Museum of Canada, " underwrote exploration, evangelization, and settlement initiatives while providing income for habitant households and generating private fortunes for officials, merchants, and investors. Additionally, the fur trade shaped patterns of mobility and settlement in New France through its requirements of an itinerant labour (sic) force and inland trading posts. Some of these posts – like those at Quebec, Detroit, and Green Bay – became the nuclei of permanent population centres (sic)."

Map of New France, Great Britain & Spain in N America

France outlawed the Protestant religion in 1685. The Protestants known as the Huguenots had begun leaving to escape the discrimination they were facing as early as 1538, but you had to be Catholic to be allowed to emigrate legally. The majority of the 15,000 that first arrived in America were wealthy enough to buy fake passports or pay bribes and settled largely in New York. Pennsylvania, Virginia, South Carolina, and Massachusetts also received a large number of Huguenots.

Paul Revere and horse cartoon

One of these Huguenots, Apollos de Rivoire, born in 1702, was sent at the age of 13 first to his Uncle Simon at Guernsey, but very soon his uncle sent him on to Boston in America to be apprenticed to a goldsmith. He changed his name to something more American sounding as many Huguenots did, and he became Paul Revere (Senior), the father of the American Revolutionary hero!

The next big wave of French immigrants came with the French Revolution in 1789 (Bastille Day!). About 10,000 political refugees managed to leave France during the Revolution, and many came through French colonies in the Caribbean. This group included about 3,000 people of mixed black and French ancestry who settled in Philadelphia.

cartoon of a 49'er panning for gold in 1848 USA

Gold Fever struck France and a record number of French immigrants came to the U.S. - about 30,000 people between 1849 and 1851, with an all-time high of 20,000 coming in 1851. The French population in California grew from 8,000 in 1860 to 22,000 by 1970, whereas the French population in Louisiana dropped from 15,000 in 1860 to less than half of that in 1970, surprisingly (at least to me!).

Reportedly, only 40% of French immigrants came to the U.S. directly from France, most came from Canada.

Where would I find most French immigrants' descendants in modern times, you may well ask? From the website (full link below), "According to the U.S. Census of 1980, the counties with the largest number of people of French ancestry—including those whose ancestors immigrated to the United States directly from France as well as those whose ancestors immigrated from Canada or the Caribbean—were Worcester, Massachusetts, with 90,332; Providence, Rhode Island, with 72,461; Middlesex, Massachusetts, with 66,911; Los Angeles, California, with 65,263; and Hillsborough, New Hampshire, with 58,278. The counties (parishes) with the highest percentage of their population claiming French ancestry were all in Louisiana: Vermillion, with 43.13 percent French ancestry; St. Martin, with 37.67 percent; Evangeline, with 36.22 percent; Lafourche, with 36.2 percent; and Avoyelles, with 33.48 percent."

Here is a great map I found from Simtropolitan (copyrighted, see full link below). It shows the reported number of people who identify as at least part French for the US census of 1990 and the Canadian census of 2016.

Map of N America showing percentages of French ethnicity

Are you researching French families? What sites do you like the best? I have found the following are the most often recommended sites for French genealogical records: & (acquired by Ancestry in 2021 subscription required after free trial) (free to use with opening an account)

Library & Archives of Canada has a lot of records online, worth a look has a broader European DNA database, you can upload other site DNA test results (subscription required after free trial)

FamilyTreeMagazine has a very informative research guide about which records are available and how to find them (and I love the way they warn you you have to know geography and history to get the right locations to search!)

cartoon of hot orange and yellow sun

The weatherman advises that we are halfway through Meteorological Summer (June 1 thru August 31) which has been under "Un soleil de plomb" (a sun of lead), so cooler days are ahead of us here in the Northern Hemisphere. Kids will soon be back in school and many more of you, my friends, will be back to genealogy full time! In the meantime, let me know if another set of eyes might help you, I'd be glad to take a look at no charge.

As always, my best wishes for your search,

Leslie Ryan

No compensation is received for any links or referrals.

Further info & other links

Virtual museum of New France from Canadian Museum of History

Map of New France

History of French Americans

Book about Paul Revere in PDF format

North American French ethnicity & census map


bottom of page