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Historical context helps students of history understand the importance of an event and the relationship of that event to other parts of history. Context can often be the most engaging part of studying history, because it tells a certain narrative. In order to gain a better understanding of one event, you have to know more about the time and place in which it occurred.

Before moving forward in this learning block, refresh your memory about the aspects of historical thinking that you were introduced to in Learning Block 1-2. Click on this link to view the graphic about the 5 C’s of historical thinking: Change, Context, Causality, Contingency, and Complexity.

This learning block uses the experience and context of French-Canadian (or Québécois) immigrants in the United States to explore the importance of cultural context and the challenges of maintaining a cultural identity in spite of outside resistance.

Learning Objectives

Objectives Icon

In this learning block, you will:

  • Learn more about historical context through the case study of Québécois immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries
  • Practice studying a historical event through different historical lenses
  • Match research questions with specific historical lenses

Coming to America: The Québécois

A Québécois family arriving from Montreal, 1913. (Click button for citation)

From the late 19th century until the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929, an estimated one million French-speaking Canadians came to America in search of jobs, an event sometimes referred to as the Quebec diaspora. Also known as Québécois (or Quebeckers, in English), this population of French-speaking people was drawn to America by the promise of industrial jobs in New England. This group was initially slow to assimilate because of the language barrier and the fact that most of them were Catholic, in contrast to the predominantly Protestant populations of Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire.

Québécois were able to enter the United States easily during this time period because the border was open. Before 1895, immigration officials did not even monitor the border between the United States and Canada, so numbers of Québécois immigrants during this period are only estimates. When the U.S. imposed immigration quotas in 1921, Canadians were exempt. It was not until the system changed almost half a century later that Canadians would be subject to immigration quotas; 1968 was the first year in which Canadians were required to get visas in order to permanently relocate to this country. (Kelly, 2013)

Click on the tabs below to learn more about different aspects of life for the Québécois in the United States.

Select a list item tab, press enter, then search down for text. When you hear End of tab content, go back to the next list item to access the next list item tab.

Historical Context

In 1870, the city of Lowell, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston, was the second largest textile manufacturing city in the United States. Three out of four working people in Lowell earned a living in the textile factories. At that time, six percent of the population of the city was Canadian. By 1900, that number jumped to 16 percent, because of the increased immigration of Québécois to the area. (Early, 1982)

Lowell, MA, mills on the Merrimack River. (Click button for citation)

Lowell is just one example of the rapid migration of Québécois from Quebec to the northeastern United States. This migration was spurred in part because of the overpopulation of rural areas in Quebec, high birthrates, and poverty in the rural farming areas of Quebec. All of these changes meant that participants in the older, rural economies and social structures did not have sufficient land to continue that way of life as urban development spread. A recession in Quebec in the early 1920s also meant Québécois needed to look elsewhere for work.

Exercise: Further Readings

As you begin research for your historical analysis essay, you will encounter secondary sources, such as scholarly journals and periodicals. The following passage is excerpted from a scholarly journal article by historian Frances Early called “Mobility Potential and the Quality of Life in Working-Class Lowell, Massachusetts”, pages 214 to 218. This article examines the quality of life of Québécois immigrants in Massachusetts during the late 19th century.

Readings Icon

Click on the title of the article to read, download, and print a copy of the text. These readings are provided by the Shapiro Library. This reading is required. You will have to log into Shapiro Library with your SNHU credentials to access this article.

As you read the passage, keep in mind the concept of historical context. You will need to choose a sentence or passage that illustrates this concept for your discussion board posting. Click on the highlighted section that serves as an example and explanation of what context the information can provide for readers who are unfamiliar with this time period.

Mobility Potential and the Quality of Life in Working-Class Lowell, Massachusetts

Lowell, at the close of the American Civil War in 1865, was a major industrial town and center for textile production. Only Fall River, Massachusetts, exceeded Lowell in the production of textiles in the United States in this period. Almost 40 percent of Lowell’s workforce was engaged in manufacturing and mechanical industries, mostly related to textile production. Although 65 percent of Lowell’s populace of 41,000 was native-born in 1870, the majority of workers in the textile industry were drawn from the various, largely English-speaking immigrant groups resident in Lowell at this time: 22 percent of the total population was Irish, 4 percent was English, and 3 percent was from Scotland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, and “other.” In addition, in 1870, 6 percent of Lowell’s citizenry was Canadian, in large measure Québécois.

Lowell attracted many working-class people in the immediate post-Civil War years. In its annual report for the year 1866 the Ministry-at-Large of Lowell, a non-denominational charity organization, noted with consternation that in the past two years over 10,000 persons, many of whom were “utterly destitute,” had entered the city in search of work. Many of the persons arriving in Lowell were “wretchedly poor” working-class people from other New England cities who were attempting to “better their condition.” The report continued with a statement that a significant portion of the newcomers were Québécois. They were described in a highly unflattering manner:

“They are nearly all Catholic, do not speak English, are in a low, sensual condition of life, and are less disposed than others to improve themselves. They are not so accessible to our influence. Not mingling freely with society, they do not catch the dominant spirit. The great hope is with the children, who, in our common schools, are readily acquiring our language and adopting our ideas and feelings, and will become teachers to their parents.”

The Ministry-at-Large evidently accepted, albeit grudgingly, that the French-Canadian influx into Lowell was not a temporary phenomenon. In this, the report was correct. In 1865 only a handful, perhaps 100 Québécois, resided in Lowell. By 1868 the number was around 1200. A brief two years later, in 1870, the approximate number of Québécois living in Lowell was 2000, 5 percent of the Lowell population of 41,000. In the next three decades the French-Canadian population would increase to 15,000, accounting in 1900 for about 16 percent of the 95,000 residents of the city.

The French-Canadian presence in Lowell in the latter part of the nineteenth century was part of a larger pattern of migration. Between 1860 and 1900 approximately 600,000 Québécois migrated to New England. By 1900 one in every ten New Englanders or about 575,000 persons, was of French-Canadian stock. Roughly one in every four French Quebecers was living in New England in 1900.

Québécois abandoned their homeland for economic reasons: the rural system could no longer provide livelihoods for many farmers’ sons and Quebec industry was undeveloped. Soil depleting farming methods combined with repeated subdivision of lands among the offspring of the large French-Canadian families had by mid-century destroyed the viability of the traditional Quebec agricultural system. Although Quebec land was available for colonization, this alternative was largely unsuccessful as most virgin farm land was located in remote areas of Quebec with inadequate transportation facilities. To a large extent, therefore, Québécoiss had little choice but to migrate. As noted in the report of the Seventh Census of Canada (1931), Québécois were forced to settle in New England in this period “not in quest of a higher standard of living but to avoid a lower.”

The economic and demographic factors which pushed Québécois out of Quebec were complemented by similar factors which favored their settlement in New England. Southern New England was by 1865 experiencing rapid economic growth. Industrialization, well under way by the 1860s, created a stiff demand for workers in the textile and boot and shoe industries. Laborers were also needed in building construction and in canal and railroad work. The native and Irish-immigrant labor force present in New England in 1865 could not meet the labor demands of industry. In increasing numbers, therefore, Québécois responded to the lack of economic opportunity in Quebec by moving to industrial centers like Lowell in New England to procure work.

If you are interested in reading more scholarly articles about the Québécois immigrant experience, they are linked below. These readings are optional, but they provide more context for the case study in this learning block.

  • The Family Networks and Geographic Mobility of Québécois Immigrants in Early-Twentieth-Century Lowell, Massachusetts: A study of the movement of Québécois immigrants between 1900 and 1920 and an examination of the importance of kinship and family ties to migration patterns. You can read it at this link.
  • This Is Not a Catholic Nation: An analysis of the role of the Ku Klux Klan in Maine during the early 20th century and its resistance to Franco-American Catholics in the state. You can read it at this link.

Theme: Approaches to History | Learning Block 2-2: Primary and Secondary Sources

Historians use a variety of sources in their research. In order to begin your historical analysis, you will need to familiarize yourself with the types of sources available to you. As you do your research in the Shapiro Library, you will encounter many different types of sources, which can generally be grouped into two different categories: primary sources and secondary sources.

You should use scholarly sources in your historical analysis. Scholarly sources are books, periodicals, and reference materials that are written for the purpose of supporting and advancing scholarly research rather than general interest in a topic. Scholarly sources address a narrow topic in either a book-length or an article-length format.

As you gather and evaluate sources and encounter new information, be sure to keep an open mind. You will certainly have some initial opinions as you begin your analysis, but it is okay to change your position in light of new evidence and arguments you encounter while researching. In fact, failing to keep an open mind can have undesirable consequences. Too stubbornly committing yourself to a particular viewpoint too early in the writing process may cause you to ignore compelling counter-evidence or to use sources that are not credible or compelling.

Objectives Icon

Learning Objectives

In this learning block, you will:

  • Learn what primary sources and secondary sources are
  • Distinguish between the two types of sources
  • Understand the benefits of incorporating each type of source into your writing plan and historical event analysis
  • Get recommendations for where to find these resources

Theme: Approaches to History | Learning Block 2-2 | Page 1 of 4

Primary Sources

Readings Icon

A primary source is a source directly related to a historical topic by time period or participation in the event. Primary sources include letters, speeches, diaries, newspaper articles, photographs, paintings, and oral histories, to name a few. Primary sources are created by someone who was a participant in, or witness to, the historical event you are studying. A primary source can take many different forms, but what is important is that it is defined by its direct relation to the historical event being researched.

For example, let’s say you were examining the New York Draft Riots of 1863 as an example of ethnic and racial tension in America in the 19th century. Primary sources might include pictures of participants, political cartoons depicting the event, newspaper articles about the riots, and firsthand accounts of what happened.

Click through the slideshow below to see some examples of primary source documents related to the New York Draft Riots and the Irish immigrant experience in America.

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Destruction of orphanage.

A depiction of the destruction of an orphanage for African-American children during the draft riots, which was published in Harper’s Weekly in August of 1863. (Click button for citation)

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Draft riot cartoon.

A cartoon depicting the New York Draft Riots by Joel Tyler Headly. (Click button for citation)

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Sheet music cover.

The cover of sheet music for the “Know Nothing Polka.” (Click button for citation)

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Political cartoon.

A political cartoon depicting two white men about to beat a black man. The caption reads “HOW TO ESCAPE THE DRAFT.” This image was published in Harper’s Weekly in August of 1863. (Click button for citation)

Importance of Primary Sources

Primary sources give you a glimpse into the past, so that you can see history with your own eyes. Firsthand accounts and documents can make history feel more real, and they give you an opportunity to draw your own conclusions about historical events. Primary sources also help develop your critical thinking skills as you analyze the sources, and they require other knowledge of the event, as primary sources are often incomplete.

Studying primary sources allows you to examine any potential biases surrounding an event and how the point of view may affect an eyewitness account. By looking at primary sources, you can draw conclusions about historical events for yourself, rather than relying on someone else’s interpretation.

Finding Primary Sources

Shapiro Library has many suggestions for digital collections that include primary sources such as photographs, manuscripts, and documents. You can find a list of those databases at this link. Additionally, there are many other resources available online, which are listed below.

  • Primary Source Sets: This collection from the Library of Congress provides primary source sets for selected key topics in American History.
  • 100 Milestone Documents: From the National Archives, this collection includes documents that chronicle American history from 1776 to 1965. Original and transcribed copies are both available.
  • Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC): This database includes photographs, drawings, prints, and drawings that represent close to 95% of the holdings in the Library of Congress.
  • Smithsonian Source: A collection of primary sources from the Smithsonian Institute that can be searched by keyword, topic, or type of source.

These resources will be valuable as you begin to research the historical topic for your writing plan and your essay. You will learn more about searching for and examining primary sources in Theme: Communicating Historical Ideas. For now, you need to know what a primary source is and start thinking about what primary sources might be helpful in your historical event analysis.

Secondary Sources

A secondary source summarizes, evaluates, or otherwise informs you about primary sources. Secondary sources include scholarly journal articles, books, and other periodicals. Most of the sources you will find in the Shapiro Library, such as journal articles and books written by historians, will be secondary sources.

Secondary sources give you an idea of what others have written about a topic and what arguments historians have made about certain issues. This context will be important to know when writing your historical analysis, so that you can compare and contrast your argument to existing material.

Types of Secondary Sources

Authors of secondary sources create their own interpretation or narrative of events based on primary source documents. Below are some examples of secondary sources that you might find when researching your historical event analysis.

Some examples of secondary sources you might find during your research in Shapiro Library:

  • Journal articles: Scholarly journals are a great resource for shorter historical analyses. These essays will give you an idea of what arguments already exist surrounding your topic.
  • Popular periodicals: Magazines and newspapers can provide context for the historical event you choose. For example, editorial pieces can reveal how people felt about certain events, either when they happened on in retrospect.
  • Monographs: These books deal with narrow topics or an aspect of a topic, such as a specific time period in American history.

Reference books, such as Encyclopedia Britannica, and reference websites, such as Wikipedia, provide basic information about your topic for you to use as a cursory reference. These reference books and websites may give direction as to where to look for academic resources (people, places, events to research for example), but they are not in and of themselves a valid academic resource. They should not be used for critical research and should not be referenced in your paper. You should use Shapiro Library as the starting point for all your research.

Graphic: Types of Sources

The graphic below summarizes the difference between primary and secondary sources.

To determine whether or not a source is a primary or secondary source, you need to assess its relationship to the historical event you are analyzing. If it was created by a participant directly involved in the event, then it is a primary source. If it was created by someone who was not directly involved, it is a secondary source. It is possible for a primary source for one historical event to be a secondary source for another event.

Primary and secondary sources

Week 2 Short Response

Based on your readings about primary and secondary sources, please respond to the following question. Type your response to the question in the textbox below. Be sure to respond in 2-3 complete sentences, using proper grammar. When you are finished, click “Submit.” This response will be graded. After submitting, you can edit your response by clicking “Edit.”

Week 2 Short Responses – Question 1

What types of primary and secondary sources will you need to use to support the topic you are examining in your essay? You don’t need the actual sources yet, but you should have an idea of what they might be (such as an eyewitness account of an event, for example).

Week 2 Short Responses – Question 2

What are two or three keywords you could use to look for sources to answer this question?

Week 2 Short Responses – Question 3

What subject terms can you use to continue your search?

Week 2 Short Responses – Question 4

When you search for “construction,” you get a lot of extraneous answers. What Boolean operators and corresponding search terms could you use to narrow your search?

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