by Tim Cranston

A young girl's sewing project reveals a woman's life.

The following article, under the title "Light shed on sampler and its maker," originally appeared in the June 8, 2000, edition of the North-East Independent; this shorter version is from the Fall 2001 issue of the Castle Chronicle, the newsletter of the Cocumscussoc Association. Used with permission.

Photo courtesy of the Cocumscussoc Association.

For me this story started out a mystery, a challenging piece of detective work. It ended up a revealing glimpse into the life of a typical woman born in the early 1800s. Initially an enigma, Lucy was another faceless name amongst the many who braved the challenges of life in early Rhode Island. She became an old friend, revealing her trials and tribulations through clues left behind through not only a paper trail buried in the dusty ledgers of archives and town halls across the state but also a tangible legacy in the form of the crowning achievement of her childhood—a sampler. This brings us to the start of the sleuthing—to Lucy Wall Reynolds' sampler—sewed in meticulous detail when she was but eleven years old and now hanging in Smith's Castle. How this little swatch of history came to the wall of the Castle some one hundred years later is a mystery I intend to pursue. But I was able to bring Lucy out of the shadows to be remembered as the remarkable woman she must have been.

Lucy Wall Reynolds was born in 1816 to Thomas and Elizabeth (Howland), who lived in East Greenwich somewhere near the North Kingstown border. They were a fairly affluent family of builders, and Lucy's early years were probably good. Both Lucy's mother and father came from families with long Rhode Island histories, having arrived in the new world in the mid-1600s. She likely received some sort of education, although it was surely the abbreviated type deemed appropriate for a girl. Little evidence remains of her early years; only the sampler lends testimony to that time. The intricate piece shows Lucy to have been a serious student in the study of the "womanly" skills then taught to young ladies. Some suggest that Lucy made the sampler while attending the Wickford Young Ladies School, but I was unable to confirm that intriguing possibility. Lucy, thankfully, told us in her creation, that it was done in 1827.

Records show that Lucy married Albert Clark Gardner of North Kingstown, who was ten years younger, making Lucy about thirty years old when she accepted his proposal. Possibly her mother died young, and Lucy was left to assist her father in raising her siblings as this is an advanced age for a first marriage in the early 1800s. It was not uncommon at that time for husbands to lose their wives to the rigors of childbirth. Also, this may have been Albert's second marriage.

Lucy's union with Albert brought them two children, John Albert and later Sarah Adeline. Albert was a machinist by trade, working in the flourishing North Kingstown fabric industry. He eventually left the mills of North Kingstown for a presumably better opportunity at a Providence mill. Real estate records show that he was successful enough to purchase his own home at 31 Wilson Street in the city.

Although their life was likely hard, Lucy probably felt that she was doing well, with a happy family and a home of her own. But fate dealt Lucy a bad turn on April 18, 1874, when forty-eight year old Albert succumbed to a tuberculosis-like condition caused by nearly thirty years of breathing cotton and wool dust in the mills. Fifty-seven year old Lucy sold her Providence home and eventually moved back to North Kingstown. She then fades into the background of permanent record. She most certainly lived with a relative, probably one of her children, and spent her days with grandchildren and day-to-day housekeeping responsibilities. Nearly eighty and outliving her husband by twenty-one years, she succumbed to heart failure on April 4, 1895, following a long bout with uterine cancer. Lucy's will was recorded and probated in North Kingstown. John, her eldest, was the executor. She evidently had very little, as her will states only that personal effects should be divided equally between her two children. But among those meager possessions was a nearly seventy-year-old sampler which, I'm sure, John and Sarah cherished above all else.

The next time you're in the Castle, stop and examine Lucy's handiwork. Think of her. In doing so, you will bring her back to life along with other hardworking women who helped shape their world and our future.

Tim Cranston is a local history writer, weekly columnist for the North-East Independent, historic preservation activist, and Smith's Castle member. Cranston is proud to claim that his great, great, great, great, great grandfather's brother was Caleb Cranston, Lodowick Updike's horse trainer.

This article last edited July 9, 2015

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