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Lowell Stories: Women's History

Harriet S. Gridley 1792-1864

Image: Lowell Female Textile Workers, tintype,1860s. University of Massachusetts Lowell, Center for Lowell History, Photographic Collection.


The Not So Famous – We Were There

Harriet S. Gridley 1792-1864

Harriet Gridley, was born about 1792 in Boston, Massachusetts. Her parents were Oliver Gridley, Sr. (1767-1831) and Mary Scott (1770-1850). Shortly her father died in 1831, Harriet with her mother and nephew, Oliver Lethbridge Gridley (1817-1886) moved to Lowell, Massachusetts. For a number of years, her mother Mary ran a boardinghouse on Merrimack Street and her nephew Oliver worked as a clerk in a shop on Merrimack Street.

According to The Congressional Globe, 1838, page 72. Harriet S. Gridley and 1400 other women of Lowell, Massachusetts submitted a petition to Congress for the Abolition of Slavery in the District of Columbia, January 3, 1838. One of hundreds of Petitions urging Members of Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. Sent during the tenure of the “gag rule,” this petition was never considered by the House or referred to a committee.

Slavery in the District of Columbia

Created from land ceded by the slave states of Maryland and Virginia, the District of Columbia allowed the practice of slavery. For decades, the slave trade flourished in the same city where lawmakers gathered to discuss the controversial issue. Abolitionists repeatedly petitioned the government to end slavery in the nation’s capital, but struggled to have their arguments heard. The “gag rule,” first passed by the House of Representatives in 1836, largely blocked floor discussion about slavery. The “gag rule” remained in place until 1844, when the House rescinded it on a motion by Massachusetts Congressman John Quincy Adams.

During the Civil War, Charles Sumner, the senior senator from Massachusetts, and a vocal abolitionist, asked President Lincoln: “Do you know who is at this moment the largest slaveholder in the United States?” Sumner informed Lincoln that he was the largest slaveholder because the President “holds all the slaves of the District of Columbia.” Sumner was referring to the fact that the federal government was empowered in the US Constitution to “exercise exclusive legislation” over the federal district. Though this interpretation of the federal government’s constitutional power continues to be a source of conflict, abolitionists used it as a way to end slavery in the national capital.

In December 1861, Henry Wilson, the junior Massachusetts senator, introduced a bill in Congress to end slavery in Washington, DC. despite considerable opposition from slaveholding Congressmen, aldermen and residents, the bill passed. The Senate approved the bill on April 3, 1862 and the House of Representatives on April 12, 1862. President Lincoln signed the legislation on April 16, 1862.

Titled “An Act for the release for the release of certain persons held to service or labor in the District of Columbia," it freed the 3,100 women, men and children who were still enslaved in 1862. The act also allowed for slaveowners to be compensated up to $300 for each individual they had legally owned. In addition, newly-freed African Americans could receive up to $100 if they chose to emigrate to another country.

Emancipation Proclamation

After signing District of Columbia Emancipation Act, President Lincoln told his cabinet of his intention to threaten the Confederate states with freeing the enslaved people in their states if they did not rejoin the Union. This plan was not implemented until September 22, 1862, when President Lincoln signed the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which announced his deadline of January 1, 1863.


In the 1840s, Harriet S. Gridley moved with her brother, Hervey N. Gridley, and his family to Boston, Massachusetts and died June 26, 1864.