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In only a few cases did groups of French citizens make a collective decision to leave France for the United States. Instead, typical French immigrants came as individuals or families seeking change or economic opportunity. As a result, the number of immigrants to the United States from France has always been smaller than from other European countries.
In total, approximately 740,000 immigrants from France have settled in the United States since 1820, and between 30,000 and 40,000 came earlier.
French immigrants are generally urban, middle-class, skilled, and progressive, and they are most likely to be employed as artisans or merchants. The U.S. Census of 1910 showed that French Americans were more literate, more concentrated in liberal professions, and had fewer children and larger living spaces than other immigrant groups.
However, many French immigrants returned to France despite their high rate of success in the United States. In fact, a 1980 estimate showed that only one-third of registered French immigrants ultimately decided to seek U.S. citizenship.
Many of the earliest French settlements in North America were mainly intended as trading outposts. Jean Ribaut, a French Huguenot sailor, established two of the first French colonies near Beaufort, South Carolina, and Jacksonville, Florida, in the 1550s.
Originally, French colonial policy allowed only Catholics to emigrate, but most French Catholics were reluctant to leave their homes. As a result, the few people who came to North America from France were mostly explorers, traders, or Jesuit missionaries seeking to convert the Indians.
These individuals tended to spread out and travel far into the wilderness. In fact, by the time the Pilgrims arrived in New England in 1620, the French had already discovered three of the Great Lakes.
This migration to the Midwest later led to French bases in Detroit and St. Louis. Robert Cavelier de La Salle traveled the length of the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico in 1682, and upon completion of his journey founded Louisiana by claiming the entire Mississippi Basin in the name of King Louis XIV of France. Jean-Baptiste Bienville followed by forming a successful French colony in New Orleans in 1717.
There have been several notable waves of French immigrants to the United States based upon economic, religious, or political factors. For the most part, however, French immigration has been a result of individual decisions rather than a mass movement.
The earliest flow of French immigrants began around 1538 and consisted of Huguenots who felt alienated from mainstream French society due to their Protestant faith. The Huguenots emigration peaked after King Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, outlawing the Protestant religion and forcing the Huguenots to either convert to Catholicism or face death.
Many Huguenots decided to flee from France, but it was still illegal for Protestants to emigrate. Those who managed to leave often had to pay bribes or use connections to acquire false passports. As a result, the majority of the 15,000 Huguenots who arrived in North America were wealthy and skilled, and they eventually gained prominence as craftsmen and merchants.
The Huguenots established a strong presence in New York with settlements in Harlem, Staten Island, New Rochelle, and New Paltz. In fact, the first child born in New York City was Jean Vigné, the son of a Huguenot immigrant.
Pennsylvania, Virginia, South Carolina, and Massachusetts also became the sites of successful Huguenot settlements. Since the Huguenots could not settle among French Catholics and felt alienated from France, most accepted North America as their new homeland and changed their names to sound more English.
With the beginning of the French Revolution, a wave of Roman Catholic refugees emigrated from France to the United States. Many of these immigrants were either wealthy aristocrats or working-class people, such as chefs and hairdressers, who depended upon the aristocrats for their livelihood.
Another important group of refugees to arrive at this time included 100 French priests. Since there were only 25 priests in the American colonies prior to their arrival, these immigrants had a strong influence on the development of the American Catholic church.
Missionary work carried the Roman Catholic refugees to far-ranging French colonial areas, such as Michigan, St. Louis, and Louisiana.
About 10,000 political refugees managed to leave France during the French Revolution, and many of these immigrants traveled through French colonies in the Caribbean to reach the United States. This group included about 3,000 people of mixed black and French ancestry who settled in Philadelphia.
Following Napoleon's defeat in 1815, a large wave of French immigration began, which lasted through the start of the American Civil War. Napoleon's brother Jérome came to the United States at this time with several hundred former soldiers and tried unsuccessfully to establish settlements in Texas, Alabama, and Ohio.
The California Gold Rush, which began in 1848, convinced a record number of French immigrants to make their way to the United States. About 30,000 people arrived between 1849 and 1851, with an all-time high of 20,000 coming in 1851 alone.
In 1871 a group of Alsatian Jews settled in Los Angeles, after the Franco-Prussian War put the French provinces Alsace and Lorraine under German rule. Immigration slowed significantly during the American Civil War, and the years immediately following saw a larger percentage of unskilled workers from France moving to the United States. A number of French Jews immigrated after the fall of France to the Germans in 1940. From the end of World War II onward, a strong cultural and economic recovery in France caused the flow of French immigrants to slow considerably.
French American settlement patterns reflect the fact that French immigrants typically came to the United States as individuals or families seeking economic opportunity. Rather than joining groups of previous French settlers or establishing French American communities, these immigrants most often scattered to the areas where new opportunities seemed likely to be found.
For example, the number of ethnic French living in Louisiana dropped from 15,000 in 1860 to half that number by 1930 as the prosperity of the South declined. In the meantime, the French population of California rose from 8,000 in 1860 to 22,000 by 1970 as immigrants pursued new opportunities in the West.
In 1980 more immigrants directly from France lived in California, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania than in any other states. Less than 40 percent of French Americans immigrated directly from France, however, as the majority came from French speaking parts of Canada.
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.
The majority of French immigrants to the United States have been Roman Catholic. This fact is so partly because Catholics form a majority in France, and partly because during colonial times only Catholics were allowed to emigrate. Descendants of the 15,000 French Huguenots who came to the United States tend to be Anglican.
More recently, the United States became a refuge for French Jews during and after World War II.
Many descendants of French Huguenots, including Paul Revere, were distinguished patriots during the American Revolution. In addition, the French government provided invaluable support to the American cause.
One French army captain in particular, Marquis de Lafayette, had an important influence on the events at this time. Lafayette fought brilliantly as a major general in George Washington's army, and later returned to France to convince King Louis XVI to formally recognize the independence of the United States and to provide military aid against the British.
French immigrants fought passionately on both sides of the American Civil War. For example, Brigadier General Benjamin Buisson, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, formed troops out of French volunteers to defend New Orleans for the Confederacy.
A number of all-French American groups, known as Zouave units, fought for both the North and the South, wearing uniforms in the French colonial tradition.