Thursday, September 2, 2010

Julia Bissonnette, a child of the loom

The name "Julia" is a very traditional female name is our family line.  Among the nine Wills siblings, Julia Ann was the second oldest born in 1908.  She was named after her maternal aunt in the previous generation, Julia Bissonnette who this story is about.  Julia Bissonnette was named after her paternal grandmother, Julia Kagle who married Moise Bissonnette on 24 October 1842 in Iberville, Québec and emigrated to Cohoes, NY.  Julia Kagle was named after her mother, Julia Sylvestre born in 1804 in Québec. Before Julia Sylvestre, the previous Julia isn't clear but if you are in the Wills-Bissonnette family and are looking for a traditional name for your soon to be born girl, consider Julia.  The name "Julia" has been in the family for over two hundred years!

Julia Bissonnette was the older sister of my grandmother, Elizabeth "Libby" Bissonnette and oldest child of Joseph Bissonnette (Bisnett) and Celena Beauvais (Bova).  She never married but she did have a boyfriend who was in the US Army and fought in 'Indian Wars" in the west.  As you can see she was very fashionable.

The handwriting on the back of the photo is my mother's.  She believed Julia's romantic interest fought in a battle with Sitting Bull who was notable for his victory over Custer's 7th Calvary regiment at the Battle of Little Bighorn. That battle was on June 25th, 1876.  Julia would only have been  seven years old so I doubt her "beau" fought at that battle.  Maybe her beau was involved in the later skirmishes in the west....

Anyway, according to records at St Joseph's Church, Julia was born in Cohoes on March 24, 1869 and baptised on March 28th. She died in 1915 when she was just 45 years old.  I do not have much information about Julia but it is clear she was a "child of the loom" because in the 1880 census, she is just eleven years old and working in the "Woolen Mills".  Click on the image below to read the census:

Don't be mislead by the spelling of the family name...Bissonnette and Bisnette were both used and although this particular record states Julia was born in New York, other census records state she was born in Vermont.

It is hard to imagine a girl of eleven years working in the textile mills, but we know it was very common. According to Daniel J. Walkowitz, author of Worker City, Company Town:Iron and Cotton-Worker Protest in Troy and Cohoes, New York,1855-84. Published by University of Illinois Press 1978: "The typical unskilled cotton hand in 1880 was probably a young and unmarried Irish or French-Canadian woman.  Conversely, the Irish or French-Canadian girl growing up in Cohoes probably once worked, or would shortly work, in the Harmony Mills.  She started work at an earlier age in 1880 than she would have in 1860, especially if she was of French-Canadian extraction".

His footnote goes on to state that the percentage of female workers under fifteen increased from 6.6% in 1860 to 19.7% in 1880.  Undoubtedly, Julia Bissonnete, 11 years old, was one of the statistics captured in the 1880 census who contributed to the increase in child laborers.  Walkowitz makes other statements about the child laborers that are clearly evident in the census record for the Bisnette family.  When he writes "children worked the exhausting seventy-two-hour week at absurdly low salaries; but this meager income enabled their mothers to stay home with their youngest offspring" he may have been considering Julia Bissonnette and the benefits her younger siblings reaped from her labor.  In the census record above, Celena "keeps house" and is at home with Moses, 4 years old, and  Libby who is just six weeks old.

Moses Bissonnette would die in childhood. He lived until he was 7 years old, dying three years after this census data was taken.

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