Monday, November 2, 2009

Mill Girls from Derry and Londonderry

Country Girls in the Big City

Eliza Adams and her sisters,
Forest Hill Cemetery, Derry, New Hampshire

The Eliza Adams Exhibit at the
Boarding House Museum, Lowell, Massachusetts
Years ago I took my Londonderry Girl Scout troop to Lowell National Park, to see how the mill girls lived and worked. The girls were about twelve years old, not much younger than some of the mill workers in the 1830s and 40s. We took a canal boat ride, and toured the noisy Boot Mill (a big hit for kids) and finally went into the boarding house. We earned a merit badge with some of our activities in Lowell, but the girls also learned that young ladies from Londonderry and Derry were some of the mill workers.

Inside the boarding house there was an interactive exhibit showing some of the girls who worked in the textile mills, including some personal items, photographs and silhouettes. Of all the exhibits, the one I remember most was Eliza Adams from Derry. Her trunk, letters and photograph were behind glass, but a recorded voice of an actress read her letters aloud. It was poignant, and even the little girls were amazed that a girl from Derry lived and worked in those big factories weaving cloth.

Eliza is one of the most famous of the Lowell mill girls, like Lucy Larcom, because her letters to her mother have survived through time. Tens of thousands of girls served in Lowell and other mill cities, but they remain silent witnesses to history. Very few mill girls ever left letters or journals. Through Eliza we learn her daily routine, her friendships, her homesickness, that she attended a reception held for President Tyler, and witnessed a strike.

At age 42 Eliza bought a farm in South Hadley, Massachusetts, where Mary Lyons had her college, Mount Holyoke, the first college for women in America. Years before, Mary Lyons had been an assistant teacher at the Adams Female Academy in Derry. Eliza had attended school in Derry with Mary Lyons, before going to work in Lowell. Eliza Adams adopted two little girls, and fostered several others, and grew prosperous on her farm as a single, independent woman.

Eliza, and her sisters, attended the Adams Female Academy in Derry, which had been founded by her uncle, Jacob Adams, who left a bequest to the school. Later, after working at the mills in Lowell, she went to Ipswich to work in another mill and also attend the Ipswich Female Seminary founded by Zilpah Grant, another teacher from Derry’s Female Academy. Letters from Eliza to both Zilpah and Mary Lyons survive in the archives at Mount Holyoke College. Zilpah Grant and Mary Lyons are some of the most famous educators mentioned in Feminist History courses.

What is amazing is that Eliza did nothing unusual by today’s standards. She went to school, educated herself with her own earnings, bought property and was a single mother. She did not go off to Lowell to work in the mills with the aim of finding a husband or man to help her in life. However, in the mid 1800s these were rare events, and probably considered quite odd. Letters do survive over time, but most letters we see from this time period are written by men. To read about Eliza’s accomplishments is wonderful, but it is also just as nice to read about her daily work life, and her homey remarks back to her mother back on the farm in Derry.

The Eliza Adams Lineage:

Gen. 1. Robert Adams was born in England in 1602; married to Eleanor Wilmot and resided in Newbury, Massachusetts. Robert Adams first came to Ipswich, Massachusetts in 1635, bringing his wife and his first two children. He resided in Salem and removed to Newbury in 1640. His first wife, Eleanor, died on 12 June 1677 and married second 6 February 1678 to Sarah (Glover) Short, the widow of Henry Short. He died on 12 October 1682, and his widow died on 24 October 1697 in Newbury.

Gen. 2. Sergeant Abraham Adams, born in 1639 in Salem, Massachusetts; married on 10 November 1670 to Mary Pettengill, daughter of Richard Pettengill and Joanna Ingersoll, born on 6 Jul 1652 and died on 19 September 1705. He was a corporal in the militia of 1685 to 1693, and became a sergeant in 1703. They resided in Newbury, Massachusetts. They had fourteen children. He died in August 1714 in Newbury.

Gen. 3. Richard Adams, born in Newbury on 22 November 1693; married on 12 December 1717 to Susannah Pike, daughter of John Pike and Lydia Little, born on 3 April 1697 and died on 17 October 1754. They resided in Newbury and had ten children

Gen. 4. Deacon Edmund Adams, youngest child of Richard, born 24 October 1740 in Newbury; married first on 22 November 1764 to Hannah Thurston, she died on 14 September 1807; he married second about 1811 to Mrs. Betsey Kimball of Hampstead, New Hampshire. Edmund Adams removed to Derry, New Hampshire and settled on the farm belonging to Deacon James Adams, a first comer to Nutfield. Deacon Edmund Adams had ten children by his first wife, and one by his second wife.

Gen. 5. Edmund Adams, eighth child of Deacon Edmund, born in Newbury on 3 April 1777; married in 1808 to Elizabeth Carr. She died on 2 May 1858 and he died on 8 September 1858. They resided in Derry and had eight children.
Edmund’s brother, Jacob Adams, the youngest child, was born 14 Jan 1785 in Newbury, and died unmarried. Jacob was the founder of the Derry Female Academy.

Gen. 6. Eliza Adams, fourth child of Edmund, born on 15 January 1815 in Derry; died unmarried in 12 November 1881. She is buried with her parents in Forest Hills Cemetery, Derry.


“A Genealogical History of Robert Adams of Newbury” by Andrew N. Adams, Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing Company, 1900

“The Story of an Industrial City: A guide to Lowell National Park” by Thomas Dublin, National Park Service, 1993

“The Belles of New England: The Women of the Textile Mills” by William Moran, St. Martin’s Griffin/ Thomas Dunne Books, 2004

Copyright 2009, Heather Wilkinson Rojo

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