This post was revised and expanded on March 30, 2018.
I have spent the last six years researching and writing about the five women in my family tree who were mentally ill and committed to state hospitals. Along the way, I learned that they were descended from French-Canadians who immigrated to the U.S. in the late nineteenth century. Throughout the preceding fifty-five years of my life, I knew very little about my Quebecois heritage.
The Quinebaug Mill in Danielson, Connecticut is where several of my French-Canadian ancestors worked, after leaving their Quebec villages. These photos, from the collections of the Killingly Historical and Genealogical Society, offered me a window into what my great-grandparents’ working lives were like.
My French-Canadian Heritage
It was no secret to me that my maternal grandmother, Beatrice, was of French-Canadian descent. She was born in Connecticut in 1901, but was surrounded by an extended family who had been born in Quebec and who maintained many of their French Catholic customs. Until I began researching the family tree, I didn’t know much at all about her cultural heritage. This is not surprising, given the disintegration of my mother’s family. While Mom was growing up, Beatrice was committed to Norwich State Hospital, diagnosed with schizophrenia. Mom was put in the county home because her Anglo-American father couldn’t take care of her. No relative from her mother’s family offered Mom a place in their home, effectively cutting her off from French-Canadian culture and traditions.
When I finally got around to tackling the family history, one of the first things I learned was why my French-Canadian ancestors ended up in Danielson, Connecticut. I had always thought that it was an individual decision on their part to leave Quebec. I was surprised to learn that they were swept up in a mass migration of French-Canadians who came to New England, mostly seeking work in textile mills — 900,000 between 1840 and 1930.
These numbers represent a staggering population shift, one that was never mentioned in any American history course I ever took. This omission may have been more of a factor in my not knowing about my heritage than Mom’s estrangement from her French-Canadian relatives. Writer and researcher David Vermette goes in great detail on this subject in his blog French North America, in particular his post entitled, “Why Are Franco-Americans So Invisible?” Among the several good points he made, is the fact that many Americans are indifferent to Canada, its culture, and its history.
My Immigrant Ancestors
In 1879, my great-great-parents, David and Rosalie Metthe immigrated to the U.S. They left the village of Saint-Sébastien for Danielson, Connecticut with two small children. One of them was my great-grandfather, Philippe.
In 1885, my other French-Canadian great-great grandparents, Pierre and Azilda Bonneau, left Quebec and settled in Danielson as well. They brought with them four young daughters, including Graziella, my great-grandmother.
Before they left Canada, the Metthe and Bonneau families had lived in rural villages not far from the U.S.-Vermont border. David was a farm worker and Pierre was a butcher. I think both of them would have been happy to stay in Quebec, were it not for an agricultural economic crisis that threatened their livelihoods and their families’ well-being. They followed the stream of Quebecois to New England, hoping for a better life.
Graziella’s Mental Breakdown
My great-grandmother Graziella was the first of my ancestors to be committed to Norwich State Hospital. As I learned more about the family history, I could see that she’d had to adapt to significant changes in her circumstances. She had come from an insular community populated by people sharing the same customs, language, and Roman Catholic faith. By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, she was living in Danielson, where Anglo-American customs prevailed, the predominant language was English, and many of their neighbors attended a Protestant church. Her ancestors had farmed in Quebec for decades, but at the end of the nineteenth century, she and her parents were in the U.S., working in a textile mill.
In 1899, Philippe Metthe married Graziella Bonneau, when they were in their early twenties. According to the 1900 U.S. Census, both of them worked in a textile mill, probably the Quinebaug Mill Company. If they were typical mill employees, they would have worked twelve- or thirteen-hour days, six days a week. If they were lucky, Saturday might have been only half-day, although a half-day in 1900 would almost be as long as what we would consider a full day of work in the twenty-first century.
Philippe Metthe worked as a spinner, tending the machines on which wool or cotton fibers were converted into thread. Dozens of whirling bobbins gathered up the thread under his watchful eye. Whenever a bobbin became full, Philippe would have to snatch it from the running machine and rapidly replace it with an empty one. Depending on the number of spinning machines he was responsible for at any one time, he might have had to rely on young boys known as “doffers” to exchange the bobbins for him. Once a new bobbin was in place, a doffer would start the thread on it, and the process would begin anew. Philippe may have been on his feet all day, except for his lunch break.
Meanwhile, his wife Graziella sat at a machine that knitted hosiery, hour after hour, performing the same repetitive motions to produce ordinary black socks. In the early twentieth century, immigrant workers such as Philippe and Graziella fueled the textile industry, and were rewarded with long hours, low pay, and the feeling that they were only nameless cogs in an enormous machine.
I don’t know for sure why Graziella became mentally ill. Maybe she was emotionally ill-equipped to deal with the grind of working in a textile mill. Although she probably stopped working at the mill once she started having children, this may have caused her a different kind of stress. She gave birth five times in the space of seven years. She and Philippe were so poor that they had to move in with her parents. Pierre and Azilda had no room for their daughter’s family in their small house. The only accommodations they could offer Graziella, Philippe, and the children was the shed in the backyard.
Philippe the Prodigal Father
There was another possible contribution to Graziella’s deteriorating mental state: her husband Philippe was a rogue. By following up on clues in Graziella’s patient record from Norwich State Hospital and by searching digital newspapers, I learn about some of his activities — everything from his bowling scores, to his service on the board of the local Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste, to a scandal that caused him to be banished from my grandmother’s young life.
All Mom had ever told me about my great-grandfather was that he had deserted his wife and children and returned to Canada. What really happened was much more complicated. How my French-Canadian family handled the difficulties they faced were kept secret from me, my mother, and my grandmother. Being kept in the dark about the family history had repercussions from my grandmother’s generation down to mine. In Secrets of the Asylum, I not only reveal old secrets, but I show how their very existence affected the dynamics of my family. I also propose that exposing the family’s past trauma is a way of ensuring that it does not carry on to future generations.
Lavoie, Yolande. L’Émigration des Québécois aux États-Unis de 1840 à 1930. Québec : Éditeur officiel, c1979.
Vermette, David. “Why Are Franco-Americans So Invisible?” French North America [blog] http://frenchnorthamerica.blogspot.com/2016/03/why-are-franco-americans-so-invisible.html. Accessed 28 March 2018.
Belanger, Damien-Claude, and Claude Belanger. Readings in Quebec History. “French Canadian Emigration to the United States 1840-1930.” Last revised 23 August 2000. Accessed 24 March 2018. http://faculty.marianopolis.edu/c.belanger/quebechistory/readings/leaving.htm
Chartier, Armand. The Franco-Americans of New England: A History. Translated by Robert J. Lemieux and Claire Quintal. Revised and edited by Claire Quintal. Manchester, NH : ACA Assurance ; Worcester, MA : Institut français of Assumption College, 1999.
Dunwell, Steve. The Run of the Mill: A Pictorial Narrative of the Expansion, Dominion, Decline and Enduring Impact of the New England Textile Industry. Boston: David R. Godine, Publisher; 1978.
Moran, William. The Belles of New England: The Women of the Textile Mills and the Families Whose Wealth They Wove. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, 2002.