MSS-032-Franco Heritage in Salem, Massachusetts

Episode 032-May 5, 2015

Salem after the Great Fire

Panorama of Salem, Massachusetts after the Great Salem Fire of 1914; Source:

Many cities around the world have ethnic enclaves within their boundaries where people from similar cultural backgrounds provide familiarity and support for each other as they struggle to survive and thrive in their new land. The French-Canadians were no different. Today we take a look at just such an enclave located in Salem, Massachusetts, and how the people were affected by the Great Fire of 1914.

In our Language Tip, we look at the various sounds of /G/ in surnames.

French-Canadian News

The Vermont French-Canadian Genealogical Society

  • Upcoming classes at the Vermont Genealogy Library- ‘Maximizing Your Use of Census Records’ by Lynn Johnson on May 9th and ‘Finding Your Scottish Ancestors’ by Sheila Morris on May 16th.

The Franco-American Centre in Manchester, New Hampshire

  • May 13th, 7:30- 8:30 PM at the NH Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Manchester- a talk by Kelley E. Spoeri, PhD, on “Marie de l’Incarnation: Missionary Passion in a Multicultural Quebec.”  This presentation will focus on several extraordinary women who were involved in the early settlement, development and Christianization of French Canada in the seventeenth century.
  • May 15th, a dinner and show at the Palace Theater, 80 Hanover St. in Manchester. Dinner begins approximately 5 PM; then you can enjoy Les Miserables at 7:30.
  • May 23rd, 10:30 AM-1:00 PM- there will be a private tour of the Currier Museum also in Manchester. The tour will be IN FRENCH and focus on many of the French-themed artworks that are part of permanent and visiting collections.  A light lunch and pastries will follow at Finesse Pastries.

The French-Canadian Heritage Society of Michigan

  • May 9th- FCHSM is celebrating their 35th anniversary! Celebrations begin at 11:30 AM at the River Raison National Battlefield Park in Monroe. Be sure to click the link for a list of all the sites you can take advantage of while you are there.

The Quebec Family History Society- Roots 2015 conference

Update on the PRDH

With a new or renewed subscription to the PRDH AND a subscription to Québec Records, you may now directly link from a PRDH baptism, marriage, or burial record to the corresponding original record found in the LaFrance database. Researching has never been easier.

Also, to save ‘hits,’ go to the menu and search for the next individual, couple, or family rather than returning to the previous record and linking from there. It takes a bit longer; but your hits will last longer also.

Language Tip #32- The Sound of /G/

Do you have an ancestral surname with the letter G in it?


In English, the letter G usually makes the hard G sound as in the word gather or the soft G sound as in the word gymnasium. In French, the soft G sound is even softer, more of a ZH sound, as heard in the word measure.

Then there is the GN letter combination, which produces an /NY/ sound, as in the word ‘canyon’ or the Spanish word señor. So the surname Agnier is pronounced /ahn-yay/.


This mainly creates a problem when using Soundex-based search engines. Since the soft G sound in French sounds most like our J, the enumerator may have spelled Jervais and Jingras instead of Gervais and Gingras. Therefore, the Soundex code for Gervais might show up as J612 instead of G612. And Gingras might be J526 instead of G526.

Agnier spelled the way it sounds would have a Soundex code of A500. But properly spelled it has the code of A256, indicating that each vowel is sounded, which it is not.

So you really must think creatively when using Soundex-based search engines.

Franco Heritage in Salem, Massachusetts

Whenever an immigrant population moved into a new city, they often lived in the same neighborhoods. These became the Chinatowns, Little Italies, and, in the case of our Franco ancestors, the Little Canadas that you see spread out across America. When we study the lives of people living in one of these Little Canadas, we probably get a pretty good indication of what life was like for our ancestors, no matter where they lived.

And that’s what the project ‘French-Canadian and Franco-American Heritage in Salem, Massachusetts’ is all about. Dr. Elizabeth Blood, professor of foreign languages, and Dr. Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello, professor of interdisciplinary studies, at Salem State University took on the challenge of investigating the experiences of Franco-Americans in Salem by recording oral histories. It is a fascinating look at late-19th and early 20th-century Salem before and after the Great Fire of 1914, which devastated the French-Canadian community. Here is what we discussed.

Richelieu Club

Dr. Blood (as well as Dr. Duclos-Orsello) has French-Canadian ancestry and upon arriving in Salem became involved in the Richelieu Club. Here she met many older Franco-Americans who had grown up in Salem speaking French as their first language. She and Dr. Duclos-Orsello decided to document this rich history.

Their purpose was to uncover the rich history of Franco-American immigration, life, and culture in Salem by creating a permanent archive of oral histories to augment the written record of Salem, which often neglects this aspect of its history in favor of its better-known witches and maritime history.

Francos immigrated to Salem beginning in the 1860s in hopes of improving their economic situations. Although from all over Québec province, many came from St. Hyacinthe. Many found work in the Naumkeag cotton mills or other area leather, shoe, and textile factories.

Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company, Salem, MA

Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company, Salem, MA; from a c. 1910 postcard

By 1900, there were about 7,000 French-Canadians living in Salem, or about 20% of the population. By the time of the Great Fire of 1914, there were 16,000 parishioners registered at St. Joseph’s, the main French-speaking church in Salem.

‘Chain migration’ brought family members from back home in Québec to live with family who had already made the move to America. By about 1910-1920, there was a French-speaking enclave in Salem known as ‘the Point,’ anchored on one side by the church and the other side by the mill.

The French in Salem also participated in ‘sojourner migration’ and ‘return migration.’ This is when immigrants would stay for a while and make some money, then return to Canada, or stay there a while before coming back to Salem. It was very easy for them to move back and forth.

The Point

The point can best be described as a point of land which was the original landing site for most immigrant groups who ever came to Salem over the course of its 400-year history. Even today, the area houses the largest percentage of Salem’s immigrants or the children of immigrants.

The first comprehensive immigrant group to establish themselves at the Point was the French-Canadians. That didn’t begin to change until the 1950s.

The Great Salem Fire of 1914

Map of Salem fire

Map of Salem fire,

Last summer marked the 100th anniversary of the Great Fire which began on June 25, 1914. It burned nearly one-third of the city, over 250 acres.

Bird's-eye view of ruins of Great Salem Fire, June 25, 1914

Bird’s-eye view of ruins of Great Salem Fire, June 25, 1914; Unknown photographer – Reproduced from an original postcard published by Tichnor Brothers, Boston, Massachusetts

The Point neighborhood was the hardest hit. Both St. Joseph’s Church and the Naumkeag Mills were a victim of the flames.

St. Joseph's Church after the Great Salem Fire

Postcard of the ruins of St. Joseph’s Church after the Great Salem Fire. The photographer was Leland Tilford. Courtesy of Salem State University.

Many of these Franco families ended up living in tents on the Salem Common and in Forest River Park. Some Francos moved back to Canada, some moved to neighboring towns, and some rebuilt. Those who stayed took pride in rebuilding the Point, which is now in a consistent Classical Revival style. It has recently been listed as a National Historic District.

Francos extended beyond the Point to an area called Castle Hill. They belonged to the parish of St. Anne.

There are many businesses in the Point today bearing French-Canadian names.

The Oral History Project

Some of the people interviewed for the oral history project actually lived in the Point; others were children or grandchildren of those who had lived there. The oldest interviewees were nearing 100; the youngest was in his fifties. Most had lived a part of or most of their lives in and around either the Point or Castle Hill.

Dr. Blood and Dr. Duclos-Orsello were most interested in stories of daily life: family, the neighborhood, schools, holiday traditions, religious practices, celebrations, struggles, and linguistic changes.

One interviewee was a child at the time of the fire and remembers her mother making blankets for the victims.

Another tells the story of a family wake for a small child on the day of the fire. (See video below. From

St. Pierre family crucifix

St. Pierre Family – crucifix found in ruins after 1914 fire; photo courtesy of E. Blood


The Great Salem Fire and Salem’s Franco-American Community



Franco-American Salem: Businesses


Franco-American Salem: Neighborhoods



Franco-American Salem: Food



St. Joseph’s Church Records

Apparently some brave soul saved the records from St. Joseph’s Church during the fire. These records can be viewed at the archives of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.

  • Baptisms:  1873-1922
  • Marriages:  1873-1927
  • Confirmations:  1888-1925
  • Burials:  1890-1914

More recent records are located at St. James Church:

Dream Offer

Dr. Blood is looking for French-to-English translation projects for her French students. If anyone has any documents they want translated from French into English, please contact her at eblood [at] salemstate [dot] edu during the summer or fall [of 2015] (or by next December [2015] at the latest) with any French-language journal articles or documents you’d like translated. This will be a free service, on a first-come, first-served basis. Students will complete projects under her direction by May of 2016. Let’s use “MSS Translation” in the subject line to make it easier for Dr. Blood to separate out our submissions.


Translation Database

I’m thinking of starting a database of notarial translations. Yes, only a miniscule number of documents will be there, but if it’s the one you’re looking for, the numbers won’t matter. There is a prototype at Click on Rose Mandeville’s Testament. What do you think?

If you have a translated or even an abstracted (not word for word) notarial document, send in a PDF or JPG of the original as well as the translation (and transcription if you have it), along with the following information, and I’ll add it to the database:

  • Name of the party or parties involved
  • Type of document
  • Number of document (if available)
  • Last name of notary
  • Location
  • Your name
  • Your email address

Other Interesting Links



Action Item

If you have a Franco ancestor living in Salem who disappears or who moves around 1914 or 1915, perhaps now you know the reason.


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3 comments on “MSS-032-Franco Heritage in Salem, Massachusetts

  1. Peter Marcaurele

    This podcast really hit home for me.
    My father’s family were burnt out during the Salem Fire. Some of his relatives were store owners and lost their homes and business. Many of my relatives including my Father, Mother and Grand parents worked in the Mills until they closed.
    I was born in Castle Hill and though we eventually moved from there, I have fond memories of visiting my father’s brothers and sisters who lived in Castle Hill till their passing. My sisters and I would attend masses at the Old Saint Anne’s occasional when we were young. Great memories,
    Thanks for the effort you put into this podcast and the others.

  2. Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello

    Peter, t s wonderful to know that this podcast connected to your family history. We are seeking with your work to help breathe new life into the history of so many Franco-American families whose ancestors helped Salem grow and prosper for over a century.

  3. Bud Dorr

    When I lived closer, I did a lot of research at the Manchester center. I have quite a few relatives from Salem. Salem was one of the few places which did not have a repertoire. The staff there said the “authorities” would not let them transcribe the records. That is a shame. It is an important treasure trove of French-Canadian records.

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