The intersection of my various hobbies provides a nice tangential benefit for the Twelve Mile Circle, a steady stream of curiosities and article ideas. I like to look through census records and use Street View to see if I can spy on the former homes of ancestors and distant relatives. Many of the census records from the first part of the 20th Century included street addresses. Frequently those have remained unchanged (as in the case with my Great Grandparents’ home in 1940) and it can provide a window into their lives. More often streets changed names or numbering schemes over the years, or the houses have been demolished. Sometime that can still lead to interesting if unrelated discoveries. Like today. That’s how I found Little Canada.
The census record said a family lived on Canada Street in Ramsey County, Minnesota, in a suburb near St. Paul. Canada Street doesn’t exist on a modern map as far as I could tell, however Google suggested Little Canada Road in the City of Little Canada. That seemed like a name with a story. I put down genealogy for awhile and redirected my investigative energies to geography.
View Little Canada in a larger map
Certainly there are places much farther east, say within the St. Lawrence River watershed and along the Atlantic coast where a blended population occupied a space with little regard for an international border. Add to that Acadian exiles from the Canadian Maritime provinces who settled in Louisiana in the mid 18th Century and its obvious that many people in the U.S. trace a portion of their ancestry back to Canada. The Little Canada community felt somehow different though, resembling a more traditional ethnic enclave instead of a broader mix and meld of Canadian and U.S. populations directly along the border or a mass migration to Louisiana’s Nouvelle-France.
Let’s begin with a definition that I’ll steal from Wikipedia since it seems to get the point across succinctly and I’m not sure I could write it any better:
An ethnic enclave is a physical space with high ethnic concentration; thus these spaces are culturally distinct from the larger receiving society. Their success and growth depends on self-sufficiency, and is coupled with economic prosperity. Therefore, the general definition of an ethnic enclave is a geographically defined space with characteristic cultural identity and economic activity.
I can think of numerous prominent ethnic enclaves in the United States, historic and current. Chinatown in San Francisco, Little Italy in New York City, Little Havana in Miami, Koreatown in Los Angeles, and Irish "Southie" in Boston all come to mind. Add to that, Little Canada in Minnesota?
Ethnic enclaves don’t last forever. They assimilate into broader communities over time. That’s largely the story of Little Canada albeit the assimilation didn’t appear to have presented much of a challenge. The cultural distinction between its French Canadian settlers and the Minnesota population as a whole were pretty similar despite the language difference. The state absorbed numerous ethnic groups during the latter 19th Century, reflecting a large swath of northern European cultures in addition to French Canadians. Immigration and ethnicity were common features across Minnesota’s population during its formative years.
Little Canada described its history in typical terms for that particular place and time:
The Mdewakanton Dakota from Little Crow’s Village or Kaposia (seasonal home) made their summer home in the area that is today Little Canada because of the abundant fishing and hunting resources. The first white settlers in the region were French/Canadians. Many of the descendents of these settlers still reside in Little Canada. The city’s largest lake, Lake Gervais, was named after Benjamin Gervais. He was the first white man to claim land here in 1844. In 1850, the first school was established and classes were taught in French… In 1858, Little Canada became a township, a village in 1953, and in 1974 a city.
This city of 10,000 residents continues to cling to its Canadian heritage in a number of ways, most visibly through its flag.
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons in the public domain
The sentiment carries forward through a long-standing Sister Cities relationship with Thunder Bay, Ontario, a six hours drive by automobile (map). There might be better ways to select Sister Cities however it’s hard to discount the convenience factor.
That also makes it easy for Canadian delegations to participate in Little Canada’s annual community festival, "Canadian Days." It’s held the first weekend every August to coincide with Canada’s August Civic Holiday. Canadian visitors can participate in the festivities and drive home on Monday without missing any work.
View Larger Map
Canadian heritage has also been stamped upon the town’s geographic features and landmarks. Benjamin Gervais is recognized by the previously-mentioned lake and by the location of his pioneer grist mill which is now a park (map). The theme carries forward with Thunder Bay park, situated between Thunder Bay and Ontario Roads, as well as through several French-language roads sprinkled throughout the city.
The citizens of Little Canada continue to recognize their heritage, albeit largely shifting from French-Canadian culture specifically to a relationship with Canada more broadly as a nation.
The same family I researched also had a connection with a nearby neighborhood called "South of Maryland" (map). Like SoHo (South of Houston) in NYC and SoMa (South of Market) in San Francisco, this one derived its name from a street; south of Maryland Avenue in St. Paul, MN in this instance. It came to mind solely because I thought of my own home in Virginia as more appropriately south of Maryland, along with West Virginia and the District of Columbia. There’s even an anomaly along the Maryland border where a small part of Delaware is south of Maryland (map). I’m not sure where I’m going with that other than I found it interesting.