Recent Focused Series »

Indo-European Origins
Northern California
The Caucasus
Imaginary Geography
Home » Cartography, Cultural Geography, Historical Geography, Linguistic Geography, Northern California

French speakers in California, Past and Present

Submitted by on April 17, 2013 – 10:15 pm 17 Comments |  

Last week I dined at a French bistro in Palo Alto. Though I first addressed the staff in English, when I heard them speak among themselves in French, I switch to that language. “Française or Americaine?”, the head waiter asked me. I told him that I am an American but speak some French; he was very surprised, as not many of his American clients are fluent in his language, apparently. Census data indicate that among the fifty states, California has the largest population of those who were born in France (over 25,000, according to the 1990 census), as well as those who claim French roots (over a million in 1990). Both New York and Louisiana trail far behind in those figures. But when it comes to people who speak French at home, California has only the third largest population, with 129,454 speakers in 2005. Louisiana has slightly more (129,910) and New York even more (141,017). California’s francophone population shrank by about 4% between 2000 and 2005. But historically, the situation was quite different, as French used to be an important and widely spoken tongue in the state. And while researching this topic I finally found the answer to a puzzle that perplexed me since I wrote an earlier post on Russians in the Bay Area: what language could Nikolai Rezanov and his beloved Concepción (Conchita) Argüello have possibly communicated in? Not that love needs many words, but if he spoke Russian and she spoke Spanish, how could they understand each other? The answer turned out to be… French! But more on that below.


While today fewer than 1% of Californians speak French, some 150 years ago this language played a prominent role statewide, especially in northern California. The first Frenchman whose presence in California is documented is Pierre (Pedro) Prat, a doctor in the 1769 expedition headed by Gaspar de Portolà and Junípero Serra. Not long after, in 1782, a French-speaking sailor from Brittany, Pierre Roy, shows up at the new mission at San Buenaventura. Note the French map of California reproduced on the left produced around that time by Didier Robert de Vaugondy for Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie; as did many maps of the time, it shows California as an island—a mistake which first surfaced in 1510 and persisted well into the 18th century despite evidence to the contrary. There must have been some French Canadian merchants and trappers who made it to Alta California in those early years, but there is no documented information about their visits. Additional settlers must have come from the French-speaking Midwest.

In the first half of the 19th century, California, then under Spanish and subsequently Mexican control, established trade relations with the rest of Spanish-speaking America and New England, as well as with many European countries, including Russia and France. French-speaking immigrants continue to arrive in this period, coming chiefly from western regions of France (Normandy, Brittany, southwestern regions), as well as from Belgium and Quebec. Each regional group typically filled an occupational niche: people from the southwestern regions of France were often winemakers and carpenters, those from the Pyrenees were mainly merchants and teachers, while immigrants from Brittany and Normandy were often sailors. They settled in Monterey, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and elsewhere. Many of the French-speaking immigrants learned Spanish and some married Mexicans, but typically they continued to speak French at home and even outside the French-speaking community (Foucrier 2005: 236). In multilingual early 19th century California, each tongue occupied its own niche: Spanish as the official language, English as the chief language of trade, and French—which was at the time the international diplomatic language—as an important political and cultural vehicle. Being able to speak French helped talented and ambitious young men like Victor Prudon and José María Covarrubias to became personal secretaries of influential men and thus to serve as intermediaries in the complex politics of the era. In May 1843, Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo wrote to the governor Manuel Micheltorena suggesting that Victor Prudon be named prefect of the newly created Sonoma prefecture, pointing out that the young man had an advantage of speaking three languages: Spanish, English, and French. Vallejo himself is characterized by a Swedish traveler who visits him in 1842-1843 as “speaking good French and passable English” (Van Sicklen ed. 1945: 84).


Trade with the Hudson’s Bay Company, whose representatives made annual roundtrips between the company’s regional headquarters near Portland and the place that became known as French Camp, CA (near Stockton in the Central Valley), was conducted in French as well. One of Hudson’s Bay Company’s chief trappers, Michel Laframboise, wrote to Mariano G. Vallejo, asking that the latter write back in either French or English as neither he nor his men could understand Spanish (Foucrier 2005: 238)

Conchita_Rezanov_Presidio_muralFrench was also the language spoken by many of the Russian officers in charge of the fur-trapping colonies established in Alaska at the end of the 18th century. In April 1806, the head of the Russian-American Company Nikolai Rezanov, an aristocrat, accomplished statesman, explorer, and author of a lexicon of the Japanese language, found Russian settlers in New Archangel (Sitka) in Alaska half-starving, and thus sailed along the Pacific coast to what was then Spanish California, hoping to establish trade. His initial attempts to communicate with missionaries there were in Latin (Foucrier 2005: 237), but then he began trade negotiations with the commandant of San Francisco, Don José Darío Argüello, in French (Bancroft, p. 70). Officers of the Russian colony in Fort Ross, established in 1812, spoke and wrote in French as well. An official letter sent in August 1838 by Peter Kostromitinoff to Mariano G. Vallejo, informing him of the presence of “the governor of the Russian colonies in America” at Fort Ross, is composed in French. In 1841 Eugène Duflot de Mofras, a French diplomat on an information-collecting mission arrived at Fort Ross and was greeted with “truly imperial hospitality”; the hosts provided him with a chosen selection of French books and best French wines (Duflot de Mofras, 1844: 20). When the Russians finally decide to sell the settlement at Fort Ross to John Sutter, a German-speaking Mexican citizen of Swiss origin famous for starting the California Gold Rush, the purchase contract, signed on December 19, 1841, was also composed in French.

The Gold Rush, which started with the discovery of rich gold deposits in 1848, changed the demographics of northern California. Masses of hopefuls began to arrive in 1849; among them were no fewer than 25,000 French speakers from France, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, and Louisiana. Unlike earlier French immigrants, many of those attracted by the prospects of finding gold came from Paris. While many of these newly arrived francophones looked for fortunes at the gold mines, many settled in the cities as well, including San Francisco. French neighborhoods were established, as were French social organizations and clubs. Unlike earlier French immigrants, those of the Gold Rush era typically did not speak English, nor were they motivated to learn it as they hoped to get rich and to return home within several months. Most were happy to get by with only one member of a group speaking (or perhaps only thinking that he spoke) English. The others would turn to such “designated interpreter” with Qu’est-ce qu’il dit? [‘What did he say?’]. As a result, the French prospectors got a nickname keskydees. In later years, as the gold mines were exhausted and xenophobic attitudes started to surface, obstinate refusals on the part of the francophone gold-seekers to learn English provoked distrust and hostility, on occasion even violence (Foucrier 2005: 239).

But the Gold Rush era was also the golden era of the French community in San Francisco. Cafes and restaurants in the City’s French quarter prospered. Several institutions were established to aid French-speakers in need. In 1851 a mutual aid society was founded to help sick francophones who did not speak English; hospital visits of such patients by French-speaking doctors were arranged. Two years later a French speaking volunteer fire brigade, the Compagnie Lafayette, was organized to combat the frequent fires and to insure proper communication during such emergencies. San Francisco’s French community also had its own church, numerous newspapers, and theaters. The most important French-language newspaper was the Echo du Pacifique, which, beginning in June 1852, came out three times a week on four pages: three in French and one in Spanish. In December 1855, it became a daily. For a few years, French theater flourished as actors and directors—fleeing economic and social turmoil in France in the wake of the 1848 revolution—brought the best and the latest of Parisian comedies, vaudevilles, and operas. This golden age of French theater in the City by the Bay was short-lived, however, as the fires that ravaged the city in May and June 1851 destroyed a number of theater buildings. But already in July of that year, the rebuilt Adelphi theater opened its doors to the public; sometimes its facilities were used for balls and other special events in the French-speaking community. All in all, life in California for the French immigrants of the mid-19th century must have been rather good. In fact, so many Frenchmen were leaving for the United States at the time that some politicians in France and French Canada feared a mass exodus. As a result, negative representations in newspapers and novels proliferated (Lemire 1987, Lamontagne 2002).

Francophone immigration to California continued throughout the second half of the 19th century, but unlike their predecessor-keskydees, many of the newer French-speaking immigrants—arriving from smaller villages and often speaking a regional patois rather than Standard French—learned English and assimilated rapidly into the American society. Those who married Anglophone Americans typically did not use French at home. By 1890 the French-only community in California constituted merely 1% of the population. In 1922 a French writer remarked that:

“The sons of the French [immigrants] are Americans, true Americans, with some warm feelings towards the country of their fathers. Often when the father and the mother are French—and always if the mother is an American—the children do not speak French. In the street and at school, they try to conceal their parents’ nationality to avoid being called by the epithet Frenchy which their fellow students inevitably gave them.” (Gontard 1922: 235; translation mine)

To encourage the use of French, both among those of French descent and in the larger community, the government of France formed the Alliances françaises. That of San Francisco was founded in 1889; one of its principal organizers, Daniel Lévy, was also one of the founders of the Bibliothèque française, which opened its doors to the public in 1876. Books were donated by both the French government and the local francophones. By 1906 the library had 21,000 tomes, but then the disaster struck: the earthquake of 1906 and the subsequent fire destroyed most of the library. Lévy issued another appeal for book donations, characterizing the French community in San Francisco as the only foreign colony in the city and the only French colony in the United States to have a library of such size and importance. By 1916, the library had acquired 20,000 books and had subscribed to numerous French newspapers and magazines.

In the 1930s and 1940s, immigration quotas, economic crisis, and then World War II impeded the arrival of new transatlantic French-speaking transplants. In contrast, the number of French Canadians moving to California grew, though they settled mostly in Los Angeles and the surrounding areas. In the later decades of the 20th century, French-speaking immigration dwindled down to a trickle of people attracted mostly by economic and professional opportunities. These new arrivals typically spoke some English and became proficient in it relatively quickly. Still, many of them—with the exception of those of North African origin—have maintained ties with their homeland by means of newspapers and television, and later also the internet and the quick and cheap travel.


Throughout the 18th, 19th, and half of the 20th century, California was a complex and fluid world of languages and cultures. In this environment, French was an important tool of international and intercultural communication, language of diplomacy and trade. But by the end of the 20th century Californians of French descent spoke English more frequently than French.



Bancroft, H. H. (n.d.) History of California. Volume 2.

Duflot de Mofras, Eugène (1844) Exploration du territoire de l’Orégon, des Californies et de la mer Vermeille, executée pendant les années 1840, 184 et 1842. Volume 2. Paris: Arthus Bertrand.

Foucrier, Annick (2005) Migrations et francophonie en Californie (XIXe- XXe siècles). In: Justin K. Bisanswa et Michel Tétu (eds.) Francophonie en Amérique. CIDE-AFI. Pp. 235-243.

Gontard, Jean (1922) À travers la Californie. Paris: P. Roger & Cie.

Lamontagne, Sophie-Laurence (2002) Canadiens français et Québécois en Californie. Montreal, Quebec: INRS.

Lemire, Maurice (1989) “La patrie ou l’exil”. Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada. Volume 1. Pp. 143-150.

Van Sicklen, Helen Putnam ed. (1945) A Sojourn in California by the King’s Orphan in 1842-1843. San Francisco: Grabhorn Press for the Book Club of California.

Previous Post
Next Post

Subscribe For Updates

It would be a pleasure to have you back on GeoCurrents in the future. You can sign up for email updates or follow our RSS Feed, Facebook, or Twitter for notifications of each new post:

Commenting Guidelines: GeoCurrents is a forum for the respectful exchange of ideas, and loaded political commentary can detract from that. We ask that you as a reader keep this in mind when sharing your thoughts in the comments below.

  • Canadian Pedant

    A fascinating and evocative article, needing just one small correction: although the place name was changed from Hudson’s Bay to Hudson Bay in the early 20th century, the company (generally called HBC these days, at least in Canada) retains the apostrophe and the “s”.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thanks for the correction!

  • Peter Rosa

    For purposes of these language surveys, are Haitians considered to speak French or Creole?

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      French creole, tabulated separately, as far as I know.

  • Verpadoro

    Très bel article !
    Est-ce qu’aujourd’hui, avec l’arrivée de migrants venant d’Afrique de l’Ouest, ou des Caraïbes, un changement de mentalités est perceptible ? S’intègrent-ils bien au niveau de la langue ?

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Merci beaucoup! That’s an interesting question and I don’t know the answer too it, as there aren’t many such immigrants in northern California. Perhaps some of our readers will know?

      • James T. Wilson

        Purely anecdotally, those I have met in the Chicago area seem to have adapted quite well.

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          Thanks, James!

  • Tim Upham

    Breton-speaking fishermen came to the eastern shores of the United States, but never established the communities in the New World, like the Gaelic-speakers on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. But the word “chowder” is a Breton word that got into the English language. The New England style chowder is based on the original Breton recipe, while the Manhattan variation is based on the Portuguese recipe. E Breizh emaon o chom.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Didn’t know about “chowder”—a topic for another linguo-culinary post, eh?

      • Tim Upham

        I am with the International Committee for the Defense of the Breton Language. They have a newsletter “Bro Nevez,” or “New Country.” So support the 250,000 speakers in Brittany or Breizh. The legend of King Arthur first appeared in Breton.

        • James T. Wilson

          When you say it is a Breton word, do you actually mean from the Breizh language? I had thought it was from the word “chaudiere,” cauldron. That would be a Romance word, derived from “caldarium,” I assume, and related to the standard French word “chaud” for hot. Would “chaudiere” have been a particularly Breton regionalism?

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            This is the etymology that I’ve heard too.

  • Jean-Pierre Got

    Merci pour cet article très détaillé !
    On lira aussi le livre de Claudine Chalmers “French San Francisco” aux Editions “Images of America”.
    Et saviez-vous qu’au XIXème siècle, tout l’Ouest américain, plutôt qu’au “Poker”, jouait au “Faro”, un jeu de cartes apporté par les chercheurs d’or français ?

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Merci beaucoup! This is fascinating!

  • Merlin

    The article states that New York has the most French speakers today, and the map shows many in Florida as well. I wonder if most of these are Haitian.
    There are many Canadians and ex-Canadians in the US; are they categorized by their primary language, or would they be considered French speakers if they are bilingual in English and French?

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Speakers of Haitian Creole are usually tabulated separately by the census; I am not sure whether the maps do as well. As for Canadians and other bilinguals, the question is “what language do you speak at home?”

  • Pingback: [LINK] “French speakers in California, Past and Present” | A Bit More Detail