Salome Lincoln Mowry

By William F. Hanna

It was midnight by the time the funeral procession reached Pleasant View Cemetery in Tiverton, Rhode Island. On a path lit only by lanterns, the mourners had come to bury Salome Lincoln Mowry, 33-years old, who had died on July 21, 1841. Although death had found her at home in Warwick, she had asked to be buried in Tiverton, next to her daughter, Mary Elizabeth, whose passing in 1839 had come not long after the child’s first birthday. Mrs. Mowry’s last request meant a boat journey for the funeral party, and low tides and a contrary wind had delayed their arrival at Tiverton until this wretched hour.

Salome Lincoln was just 14-years old when she left her father’s farm to become a mill girl. Born in Raynham, Massachusetts in 1807, she had found work in the labor-hungry textile mills of nearby Taunton. By 1829, she was working as a weaver in the Hopewell Mill, one of four factories owned by Samuel Crocker and his son-in-law, Charles Richmond. We don’t know how long Lincoln had worked in that particular mill, but we’d especially like to know just when her supervisors at Crocker & Richmond labeled her a troublemaker. Because that’s what she was.

Salome had come of age in one of the most dynamic periods in U.S. history. The nation’s population — both white and black — increased rapidly as America approached the so-called Age of the Common Man. Most whites agreed that hard work could open the door to unlimited possibility, even though most blacks lived in slavery. Religion was likewise infused with optimism and energy. The period embraced the so-called Second Great Awakening, an age exemplified by joyful religious enthusiasm and emotional revival meetings, where the faithful were urged to commit themselves to being “born again” in Christ.

That religious fervor was a mainstay in Salome Lincoln’s life. In 1823, when she was 16-years old, she and eight others were baptized in the waters of Watson Pond by the pastor of the Free Will Baptist Church in Taunton. Her lifelong religious commitment grew as the years passed, and while the mill may have claimed her on six days a week, on the seventh she practiced her faith. In a memoir written by a Providence clergyman and published by her husband shortly after her death, the author noted that Lincoln had preached her first sermon in October 1827, and she had often been invited to take the pulpit in area churches thereafter. A large woman with black hair and dark eyes, her “deep toned and heavy voice commanded attention,” and thus held the interest of the large crowds that turned out to hear her preach. In those times it was highly unusual for a woman to address an entire congregation, but it’s been written that even standing room was often unavailable when it became known that she would be speaking.

Salome Lincoln Mowry, 1807–1841

Although Lincoln found satisfaction in the church, she earned her meager salary in the mill. The work was difficult and dangerous, and in the absence of labor unions or meaningful government oversight, mill hands were the first to feel the effects of economic distress. In late April 1829, Crocker & Richmond announced that their weavers would have to take a pay cut. This came to a mill population — where women outnumbered men four to one — that worked 12-hour days, six days a week. The women’s salaries averaged 30¢ per day.

On the first of May, the women showed up at the Crocker & Richmond buildings but did not go inside. Something was up, and it’s here that we wish we had more information. When a signal was given, a group numbering between 60 and 100 women set out, not for their machines, but for Taunton Green, a short distance away. Each woman wore a black silk dress, red shawl and green bonnet. Salome Lincoln led the strikers as they marched.

This was a time in our history when many Americans, especially women, supported reform movements of one sort or another. Temperance, abolition and women’s rights all had their adherents, but it’s doubtful that Lincoln thought she was mounting the ramparts for widespread societal change. As she and her colleagues marched downtown it’s likely that they were intent only on protesting a specific and outrageous injustice.

The demonstrators moved quietly, without banners or music. The local press reported that the men lining the streets doffed their beaver hats as the women passed, and when the procession reached the Court House business was suspended so that those inside could witness the spectacle unfolding on the street.

Arriving downtown, the striking weavers filed into a public hall and held a private meeting. Salome Lincoln presided and delivered a lengthy address summarizing the workers’ grievances, but we have no verbatim account of what she said because women had been placed at the door to keep intruders out. It is known that she ended her remarks with a prayer asking the “Great Adjudicator” to take the weavers’ side in the labor dispute. The women pledged their solidarity and promised not to return to work until the order for the pay cut was rescinded.

This goes down in American history as one of the earliest job actions carried out by and on behalf of women. But the strike failed. Crocker & Richmond immediately placed advertisements in the Columbian Reporter, the local newspaper, calling for fifteen weavers and promising wages of from $12 to $14 per month. An editorial in the same paper labeled the strike “a revolt,” and urged the women to understand that when a company’s profits decreased so must wages. Almost a decade and a half later, Lincoln’s biographer wrote that “for one inducement, then another, nearly all [of the strikers] who had turned out at this time, returned to the factory again.” We don’t know what the company promised the women if they returned, but certainly one of the “inducements” was a place on a blacklist if they didn’t. The newspaper reported that although the factories had been shut “for a few days,” business was almost back to normal within two weeks.

Ruins of the Hopewell Mill, late 19th century

There’s no evidence that Salome Lincoln ever returned to mill work. She continued to preach whenever possible, and in December 1835 she married Reverend Junia S. Mowry, a Free Will Baptist minister then serving in Raynham. The couple shortly thereafter moved to a church in Rhode Island, and there, in November 1837, Salome gave birth to Mary Elizabeth. Two years after her first child’s death, she delivered a second, a daughter named Ann. The baby was healthy, but her mother never recovered from the ordeal of childbirth. It was her death in July 1841 that had led to the lamplit funeral in Tiverton.

These days, as we re-examine our national character, we debate which historical figures deserve monuments. We ask, who among our heroes has passed the test of time. In 1829 it took great courage and strong character for a young woman to lead other young women away from the machines that exploited their labor. There are no monuments to Salome Lincoln Mowry in Taunton, but there should be; and if there were, no one would be demanding that they be taken down.

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We are a local history museum in Taunton, MA and this is our blog! Visit us online at www.oldcolonyhistorymuseum.org to learn even more. Enjoy!

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Old Colony History Museum

We are a local history museum in Taunton, MA and this is our blog! Visit us online at www.oldcolonyhistorymuseum.org to learn even more. Enjoy!