WOONSOCKET - " They came to Woonsocket to work in the mills, and the mill owners welcomed them with open arms."
Thus began in the late 1800s what became an overwhelming invasion of French-Canadians, the majority of whom settled in the Blackstone Valley, and particularly in Woonsocket. In the middle of this wave of immigrants stood Mademoiselle Marie-Louise Bonier, who recorded, researched, and chronicled the entire movement from start to finish, all of which is accounted for in her book Debuts de la Colonie Franco-Americaine de Woonsocket, RI, published in 1920.
Although the book has been a main source of information for northern Rhode Island residents and historians alike who were interested in researching the area's past, as well as tracing family lineages, there have been two problems: difficulty finding existing copies of the book and the fact the book is written in the French language.
Now, two local residents, who have combined efforts with a French scholar, are working to not only remedy those problems, but update the book as well. Hopefully, it will be published and available by next fall, they say.
"It was a book that was really popular at one time. Now it's about impossible
to get," noted Sylvia D. Bartholomy, a Woonsocket resident and member of
the American-French Genealogical Society of Woonsocket.
Bartholomy, along with society member and genealogist Robert Pelland, have joined forces with Claire Quintal, director of the French Institute at Assumption College in Worcester, to translate the book into English, and bring the locations addressed in the book in line with contemporary historical landmarks.
Additionally, Bartholomy explained, they are busy updating the genealogical records listed in the book, beginning with the first 117 French-Canadian families who settled in the area.
"This will tell how we got here and what we did when we arrived," continued Bartholomy. "It opens up a window to the past, and not just for the French-Canadian families. This includes the history of the area right back to the early Indians who lived here. Translating this into English will be a gift to the people of this area."
The book itself is divided into three sections, including an early history of the Blackstone Valley relating stories about William Blackstone and even early Indian legends, which are connected to local landmarks which still exist. In it are legendary names such as Holly Springs, Elder Ballou, and the Butterfly Factory.
There are even ghost stories. One such legend revolves around the ghost of Holly Springs. According to the book, a strange couple settled near the spring on Elder Ballou Road in Woonsocket, described as not much more than a cart path through the woods at the time. It was a crude house, and apparently, the father who lived there was crude also, treating his wife and daughter cruelly.
Settlers and Indians who lived in the area noticed that he often yelled at both of them, never attended church, and was really cold and miserable to those who tried to be friendly to him. Ironically, when the wife and daughter went to the spring to draw water, the wife's sweet, melodious voice could be heard echoing through the nearby woods as she sang to her offspring, who sometimes accompanied her in song.
One day, the book states, shots were heard near the cabin. The wife and daughter were never seen again, and the husband moved away mysteriously and suddenly. Although the wife and child were never found, their voices could be heard singing on occasion near the spring, where the embedded footprint of the child was clearly evident in a large stone.
In addition to the early tales, the book also relates the history of the French-Canadian immigration, in general, and that same immigration, in particular, as it affected Woonsocket with a compilation of details about the city's early landmarks and families. While it relates many specific names and marriages, along with resulting offspring, some of the marriages are somewhat vague, including references which list phrases like "espouse une Irlandaire", meaning "married an Irishman".
"We'll follow up and fill in as much as we have until the 1920s," noted Bartholomy. "People can fill in their own connections from there on."
At first, noted Bartholomy, they even considered making two books of the one because there was so much information, but on second thought decided one book would be both more economical and appropriate. The third section of the book, she said, addresses the role of the French-Canadian populations and their influence on Woonsocket.
At one time, she said, the area had the highest French-Canadian population in the United States. In 1846, she said, the city's population was listed as 4,856, with only 332 residents of French-Canadian origin. By 1920, the population topped the 30,000 mark, and the major portion was now French-Canadian.
"They really did change Woonsocket," said Bartholomy.