shanks’ mare

noun – used to refer to one’s own legs and the action of walking as a means of conveyance.

In the spring of 1845, my 19-year-old great-great-great-grandfather left his home in Canada and walked nearly 200 miles to Biddeford, Maine.  He was looking for work and Biddeford was booming. Two mills started production that year and new buildings and roads were transforming downtown. He found work as a brick maker, and several months later walked back to Canada to convince his parents to move the family to Maine.  They did in 1846. My ancestor’s name is Israel Shevenell and he is recognized as Biddeford’s first permanent French Canadian settler and first French voter.

My father grew up hearing the story of his great-great-grandfather’s pioneering trek, and in 2015, at the age of 74, he retraced the journey, walking from Compton to Biddeford. I followed him with a camera and made my first documentary film about their stories.

The Home Road documentary film was broadcast on Maine Public Television in 2018 and 2019 and is the subject of an upcoming episode on the French Canadian Legacy Podcast. (Note: Scheduled for release on Tuesday, August 27, 2019).

Although my ancestor was one of the first French Canadians to be naturalized, the process of putting down roots in Maine took many years. Living in Biddeford, “the busiest place he’d ever seen,” was much different than living in the rural village of Compton. He missed friends and there was no Catholic parish in Biddeford, an important part of his culture and identity. 

Unlike immigrants who crossed an ocean to find work, Israel and fellow Canadians could return to their homeland more easily for short or extended visits. The Grand Trunk Railroad enabled faster travel between Canadian and New England towns, but even before the route home opened in 1853, Israel made frequent trips back and forth to Compton on foot or by horse and buggy. Crossing the border itself was a non-event. The United States didn’t start documenting crossings until 1895.

Access to home in Canada made settling in Maine a gradual process. On an extended trip to Compton in 1848, Israel married a childhood friend, Marie-Louise Belanger. Their first three children were born and baptized in Canada.  Israel and his young family were back and forth for years until a pastor was ordained and started serving Biddeford’s Catholic community in 1855. That year, the town of Biddeford incorporated as a City and the family was living there for the celebration. My great-great-grandfather was born in Biddeford in 1858, and two years later, Israel voted in the 1860 election, casting his first ballot for Abraham Lincoln.

To learn more about the story of Israel Shevenell’s pioneering trek in 1845 and Ray Shevenell’s journey to honor his great-great-grandfather in 2015, please visit The Home Road film’s website at www.thehomeroad.com or take a look at the film trailer below.


The Home Road documentary film by Tonya Shevenell