The French inhabitants of the upper St.John River valley, viewed by the editor of the Portland Transcript, Edward Elwell, in 1858 and 1878

In 1858, as part of an attempt to induce people to settle in the northern part of the State of Maine, a group of newspaper editors made a tour of northern Aroostook County. This promotional trip, referred to as "the Editorial Excursion," proved successful, and the head of the group, Edward H. Elwell, editor of the Portland Transcript newspaper, made a follow-up visit in 1878.

The reports are full of praise for the hard-working and industrious Americans who had settled in these areas. But here's what he had to say about "The French Settlements":

"About twenty miles north of Ft. Fairfield are the famous Madawaska settlements, where the descendants of the ancient Acadians preserve in all their primitive simplicity, the manners and customs of their French ancestors. Like their kindred of Canada, they cling to the river bank, each farm having its river front and extending in a long narrow line to the forest. They are a light-hearted, improvident, unenterprising people, more fond of the fiddle than the hoe, and content to remain stationary while all around them is progressing. Knowing nothing of our political institutions, they readily sell their votes to politicians, and he who bids highest carries the day. At the polls the inquiry is, 'How much do you give for a vote this year?' and a nine-pence turns the scale. But we cannot do better than to copy what our friend Dingley, of the Maine Evangelist, says of this peculiar people:

'The French settlements extend, from the southern boundary of van Buren fifty miles to the north-western boundary of Hancock, on the American side of the St. John, and an equal extent on the British side. The population of the American side is estimated at three thousand and on the British side at one thousand. The ancestors of these settlers were the French who were expelled from Acadia, in Nova Scotia, by the English about the year 1763. ... Two or three hundred fled to the St. John, near Woodstock [New Brunswick], and in 1783 they were again compelled to flee to their present location. On the banks of the St. John they settled, with all the habits and tastes which their fathers brought from France. These habits--the habits of the peasantry of France,--they still retain, having made scarcely an advance step in civilization since the days of Louis XIV.

'The French settlers upon the western and southern banks of the St. John were declared citizens of the United States by the treaty of 1842, and by the same instrument the title to the lands on which they were settled were confirmed to them. Although they have increased from a population of about five hundred to as many thousands, yet they have not gone back from the river. Instead of imitating the enterprise of the Yankee pioneer, by plunging into the forests and clearing new farms, each succeeding generation has divided the land patrimony of their fathers among the children, until nearly every farm has a river front of but a few rods [one rod is about 5-1/2 yards]. They are generally ignorant and unambitious, each generation contenting themselves with simply existing. They subsist chiefly on pea soup and other vegetable food which is raised on their patches of land. A gentleman who visited them a few years since, informs us that he stopped at a small cabin in which there was but one room, where the happy head of the family could call around him twenty-three children. He counted fifteen houses near each other, averaging twelve children to each house. They make large quantities of maple sugar, but in general content themselves with the simple fare of their fathers. The State has made several attempts to educate and civilize them, and in some instances with good results. They are, however, a peculiar people, distinct in tastes, habits and aspirations from the Anglo-Saxon race.'"

Elwell returned to northern Aroostook county twenty years later, in 1878, to do an update on the conditions there. Again, he was full of praise for the industrious Yankees, as well as the Swedes who had been brought in to settle in what was called "New Sweden." Here are his comments on "The French Settlers" (note they are still called settlers, though most of them had been born where they lived, and their parents and grandparents had moved to the Valley in the 1780s-1840s).

Just prior to this section Elwell has described the farm of Salmon Jones outside of Caribou, and how hard working, industrious and successful he has been.

"He has one great advantage in the cheap labor of the Acadian French. The road just beyond him is settled by them away to Violet Brook, a distance of twenty-two miles. They live in small, untidy looking houses, two to a lot and two families in every house. And children--they have no end of them. A stranger riding by one day, exclaimed, 'In the name of goodness are these all school houses?' We counted one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight little girls all playing in front of one house. Their fecundity and lack of thrift keeps them poor, though some have tolerable farms. They hire out for low wages. Every morning in planting, haying or harvest time, numbers of them drive past Mr. Jones's door and ask for work. He sends them into the fields, gives them seventy-five cents per day, and pays in buckwheat. It is rare in a new country that labor is so abundant and convenient."

Edward H. Elwell, Aroostook: With some account of the Excursions Thither of the Editors of Maine in the years 1858 and 1878, and of the Colony of Swedes, settled in the town of New Sweden (Portland: Transcript Printing Co., 1878), pp.25-26, 37.

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Last revised 08 Jan 2002