An Ideal Place of Joy and Comfort: The Life of Lucy Griffin
Many of the homes of Greenfield Village are often admired for their architectural design and the historic furnishings displayed within them, but the really true connections are made when all of this can be combined with the stories of the people who actually lived there. The Noah Webster House, originally from New Haven, Connecticut, is no exception.
This was home to Noah Webster’s family, and their descendants for nearly 100 years. It was purchased by Henry Ford in 1936, dismantled and shipped to Dearborn to become part of his collection of historic buildings. Greenfield Village combines the homes and workplaces of both notable Americans and those that lead everyday lives. Most show life as it was before fame. In the case of the Webster House, the opposite is true.
By the time Noah had the house built in 1822, the American Revolution was nearly 50 years past and he was among the last of the old patriots. He was viewed as one of the great American scholars and intellectuals, and a true celebrity. The Websters' New Haven home, through the 1820s and well into the 1830s, was essentially an American salon, welcoming notables in the worlds of politics, art, education, and literature. According to recent biographer Harlow Giles Unger, during the early 1830s “the Webster home was a center of social activity-for the Yale faculty, for visiting clergymen, the old Federalists, and for noted figures.” In a letter written by Rebecca Webster to her daughter she states, “I have had a large party with as many of the faculty as we could cram in. The party went off well, for all seemed happy.” In addition to notable guests, a growing brood of Webster grandchildren (20 by 1836) came for frequent and extended visits. When the oldest grandsons attended Yale starting in the early 1830s, Rebecca entertained them and their friends with musical parties, “old-time frolics”, and at least one costume ball.
Over its lifetime in New Haven, the Webster House underwent both exterior and interior changes. The major changes, done in 1869, included a large two-story brick addition at the rear, a new front door treatment, and a series of bay windows. The interior was also heavily remodeled at this time, changing the light elegant Federal- style woodwork of the Websters' era, to dark, heavy Victorian walnut and marble.
Edward Cutler’s restoration of the house in Greenfield Village left much of the interior Victorian woodwork in place, while attempting over simplified reproductions of Federal-era mantles in some parts of the house. This left somewhat of an awkward combination. He seemed to concentrate more on returning the exterior to what he felt was the early 19th century appearance, though again, the Victorian entryway, 1869 rear brick addition, and at least one bay window were left in place. From the 1940s until the early 1960s, the house was used for in-residence, home economic training for the Edison Institute school girls, and in 1962, the home was installed with an array of Federal and Victorian-era period furnishings, and opened to the public. It was not until the mid-1980s that another restoration project was undertaken by the Henry Ford to return the home back to its appearance of the 1830s, both inside and out, with the brick addition being used as a contemporary exhibit space. This was completed in the summer of 1988.
In preparing for the work of returning the house to an earlier period, extensive research was done into its history, and all the people associated with it. This work reacquainted us with the Webster family history and shed light on new information about them and how they may have lived in the home at 58 Temple Street.
One person in particular is of special interest and from all accounts was one of the unsung heroes of the Webster Household. Her name was Lucy Griffin. She was a free woman of color who, starting sometime in the early 1830s, resided with the Webster family, kept house, and acted as caretaker for the Webster’s youngest and mentally disabled daughter Louisa. Now, 30 years later, in 2016, with access to new research, it’s time to get reacquainted with Lucy… again.
Many books and articles have been written about the life of Noah Webster over the past 150 years and as a result, we know much about his life. By default, bits and pieces about the lives of his family are often included and they give us clues about his family life. The most enlightening among these works is a two volume set, Notes on the Life of Noah Webster, written by one of Noah’s granddaughters, Emily Ellsworth Fowler Ford (1826-1893) in 1892, and privately published in 1912 by her daughter Emily Skeel. Emily Fowler Ford was the daughter of Harriet Webster Fowler (1795-1844), Noah’s middle daughter. This work shares many of the more intimate details of day to day life in New Haven through personal and previously unpublished letters from various family members. Emily lived with her grandparents toward the end of their lives in the late 1830s and early 1840s. Noah died in 1843 at the age of 84, and Rebecca in 1847 when she was 81. It is in this work where we are allowed glimpses of Lucy Griffin and the role she played within the Webster household. These few hints, combined with the vast amount of historical information now available at our fingertips has allowed for a bit more light to be shed on Lucy’s life.
It’s important to put some context into the world in which Lucy was born, and lived. Connecticut has a long history with slavery and as early as 1644, slaves were mentioned in New Haven. By the time of the American Revolution, Connecticut had the largest number of slaves (6,464) in New England.
Coexisting within this climate was a small but steady population of free blacks who faced very challenging conditions. Over time, harsh codes were put in place that limited movement and many other aspects of daily life among them. By 1717 it was also illegal for blacks to own land. These laws remained on the books well into the 19th century but were very inconsistently enforced, really serving as a reminder to the free black population that their lives were very dependent on white tolerance and acted more than anything else as a deterrent to future black settlement in the colony.
In 1774, in reaction to numerous attempts to pass emancipation bills, the Connecticut legislature did pass a law to halt the importation of slaves into the colony. In 1784, after the American Revolution, a bill was passed providing for gradual emancipation. It provided that the black and mulatto children born to enslaved mothers would become free at the age of 25, later reduced to 21 in 1797. In 1818, Connecticut formally outlawed black voting rights, a practice long in place.
Slavery would not be fully abolished in Connecticut until 1848. In 1800 the census counted 951 slaves in Connecticut and was down to 25 in 1830, rose to 54 in 1840 and were no longer counted in 1850. Specifically in New Haven, in 1800 there were 82 slaves, 18 in 1810, 2 in 1820, and a rise to 25 in 1830, further increasing in 1840 to 43. Free black numbers were much larger. In 1800, there were 166, in 1810, 371, in 1820, 601, in 1830, it dropped to 169, and in 1840 it rose back to 869. The Nat Turner slave revolt that took place in South Carolina in 1831 made an impact across the entire country and New Haven was no exception. In that same year, Simon Jocelyn, a white abolitionist along with William Lloyd Garrison attempted to form a black college in New Haven, but was strongly opposed due in large part to reactions toward the Turner revolt. His home was actually attacked by a white mob. In 1839, Jocelyn was also very involved in the trial of the mutineeriing Mende tribesman that had been transported as slaves on the Spanish slaveship Amistad. This trial was held in the New Haven United States District Court and became a pivotal turning point in the abolition movement. For the record, Noah Webster was very much against the institution of slavery and wrote extensively about it, but by the 1820s, became critical and disillusioned with the radical abolitionists and the violence that often became associated with them.
This was the world in which Lucy Griffin lived and worked. Her origins remain a bit of a mystery. Emily Fowler Ford states that Lucy was raised in the household of her father’s parents Reuben Rose Fowler and his wife Catharine Chauncey Fowler, from a young age. We are not certain what is meant by “young age”. The Barbour Collection of Connecticut Vital Records is an index to and transcription of most towns' vital (birth, marriage, death) records from the inception of the town to about the year 1850. There are two parts to the collection; a statewide surname index and a bound volume for each town. These records were transcribed in the early 20th century, and a certain margin of error must be considered, but they are a wealth of information. Within these records we find the Griffin family. Listed are Lucy Leura, Teresa Eleonora, and Henry Augustus, the children of Jenny and John Griffin, all listed as “colored”, but most certainly free. The children were all born between 1800 and 1813 in Branford, Connecticut, about eight miles from New Haven. Later census records confirm that Lucy was indeed born in approximately 1810 and was native to Connecticut. (See image of 1820 United States Census) We know nothing about her parents aside from their names and the death of Lucy’s mother in 1847. On an interesting side note, Lucy’s brother, Henry Augustus Griffin, as a young adult, worked as a sailor and in 1820, was issued a sailor’s protection certificate in New Haven.
How Lucy came to be part of the Fowler household is unclear, but she clearly was well cared for and viewed the Fowlers as her family, considering their home, her home. She was well trained and became a very accomplished house keeper, seamstress, and cook. Emily Fowler Ford described her as “black and of the most pronounced African type”. The U.S. population census of 1820 shows the Fowler household included one free colored female under the age of 14 and according to Emily Fowler Ford’s recollections, this would most certainly be a 10 year old Lucy Griffin.
She left the Fowler household to “take high wages” in the family of a Captain Cook in Lynn, Massachusetts sometime in the late 1820s. Here she “proved such an excellent cook, superior laundress, and complete waitress and chambermaid that little by little the whole of the household work was transferred to her shoulders.” According to Emily Fowler Ford, in the Cook household, “there was one daughter, a recluse in her chamber, said to have retired from society because of a disappointment in love, who would eat nothing that Lucy did not cook, and the laundering and fluting of her ruffled dressing gowns was also handed over to the same Lucy.” It was said that the Father “having broken off the love affair” wished to indulge this “petted creature” in all other ways, and required that every wish of hers should be gratified. Once a week, she left her bed, and sat up in full dress to receive a formal visit from him.
Emily Fowler Ford also states that, “at the time Lucy went to live with the Hart family, the household was full of beautiful daughters, and was kept up with luxury for those days”. The full burden of providing this “luxury” fell on Lucy and it all eventually became too much for her. Ford further writes that “in consequence of those varied labors, she lost her health and returned home to the Fowlers to recuperate.” Emily Ford’s father, William Fowler, the son of Reuben and Catherine, had married Noah’s middle daughter Harriet in 1825. It was William who “knowing Lucy’s kindness” and the “great system and simplicity of the Webster’s household” proposed to bring Lucy on trial at a time when the family was without a servant.
Mentions of Lucy Griffin begin to appear in Webster family letters in 1831, and she is among the household members in the census of 1840, along with one other free black woman. Lucy would have been 30 years old at this time. In New Haven, during the 1830s and into the 1840s, free people of color, especially women, found work mostly as domestic servants. By the mid-1840s, half of the black population worked as servants and one out of four lived within their employer’s household as Lucy did.
Lucy greatly impressed the Webster family and they in turn became very devoted to her and welcomed her into the folds of the family. It does appear that she did suffer a variety of illnesses, occasionally requiring extra care and nursing by Rebecca. During these periods of illness it seems she was moved up into one of the family bedrooms to be cared for. In a letter from 1832 sent to Noah, Rebecca states that she was “sitting with Lucy who is now quite comfortable. She came downstairs for good last Saturday and helped me a little about my baking.” In a follow-up letter Rebecca writes, “She has had a relapse, she fainted and is now so weak that she cannot sit up. She has had no fits and I hope she escapes them if she keeps quiet. It is very painful to her to sit by and see me hard at work. Lucy will go home and spend a few weeks to recruit her strength when I can get someone to supply her place.” Some years later, in a letter dated April 5, 1839, Noah remarks about how the Lucy’s illness has impacted the household, he writes “our Lucy is sick and infirmed with rheumatic afflictions which we are afraid will be of long duration. We have another girl, but not as good as Lucy.” His fears were confirmed as by April 18, Lucy had been “confined for more than a fortnight” and “we are obliged to have a woman extra to supply Lucy’s place.”
It’s not exactly clear where in the house Lucy lived. It does seem that her room was somehow attached or adjacent to the kitchen. Early descriptions speak of the kitchen as a room likely off the dining room with windows that faced south. The chimney that supplied the dining room fireplace, likely also supplied a large kitchen fireplace on the opposite side of the wall. The 1860s addition added to the rear of the house obliterated virtually all the evidence of the original Webster kitchen. In a letter dated 1833, to son-in-law William Fowler, Noah writes of the improvements he has undertaken to that part of the house. The kitchen was enlarged, “taking it into the old pantry and made a new and larger pantry where the old woodhouse was”. He also writes “these changes please me and what is more, they please the females of the family”. No doubt that Lucy was included in this group of “females”, though she nor her living quarters were mentioned.
In a probate inventory taken at the time of Noah’s death in May of 1843, the “kitchen furniture” is the heading for “Luceys” room. The furnishings included; 1 bedstead and bedding, valued at $5.00, 1 bureau valued at $1.25, 1 table valued at $1.00, 4 chairs valued at .60, the looking glass valued at .50, and carpet matting valued at .50. Two years later in 1845, these items were called out more specifically in Rebecca’s will, specifically a maple bureau, a Pembroke table, now 6 Windsor chairs, a straw carpet, and the addition of 6 German silver spoons. All these furnishings were to be left to Lucy.
Lucy’s cooking skills were greatly valued by the Webster family. Noah especially enjoyed her preserves and jams which she prepared in the “nicest way”. As a child, Emily Fowler Ford had fond memories of Lucy’s kitchen and described her “pantry of goodies, always of the best and most delicate preparation, were free to our hands.”
In addition to her other domestic duties, Lucy also played an important role in the care of the many Webster grandchildren who were frequent visitors during the 1830s. Mary Webster Southgate, the adopted granddaughter of Noah and Rebecca was raised from infancy in their home following the death of her mother in 1818. Mary would have been a young teenager during this time and there is no doubt she would have relied on Lucy’s help. Lucy would have been in her mid-twenties, and was likely a confident to young Mary. The youngest Webster daughter was Louisa, and from all accounts she suffered from some level of mental impairment from birth. She seemed to have child- like abilities and mental capacities. Noah made special provisions for her in his will and following Rebecca’s death in 1847, she lived first with her brother William’s family, and then with members of the Goodrich family (sister Julia’s family) until her death in 1874. Legal guardianship was provided for her in 1855. Lucy and Louisa would have been fairly close in age and Louisa’s care would certainly have been a major part of Lucy’s work.
Lucy would remain with the Websters until the household broke up following Rebecca’s death in July of 1847, nearly 20 years. Following Noah’s death in 1843, it was found that in addition to Lucy’s weekly wage of one dollar, he was “regularly putting twenty dollars a year in a bank to her account.” He also left her a sum of an additional $200 for “her faithful services”. From 1843 until Rebecca’s death in 1847, following Rebecca’s long period as a bed-ridden invalid, Lucy cared for both Rebecca and Louisa.
It seems that Lucy’s long relationship with Louisa and her occupation as a servant changed after Rebecca’s death. It does seem that Lucy maintained a relationship with her sister. The Federal Census of 1850 lists Lucy living in New Haven as head of household along with 37 year old Teresa Griffin, and 75 year old Elizabeth Dowlin. No occupation or personal wealth is listed and Lucy is 40 years old. (See image of 1850 United States Census) The records indicate that Lucy lived in a two-family dwelling. Her inheritance from Noah Webster actually left Lucy a wealthy woman and as described by Emily Fowler Ford, “wealthy in her church and society.” She had taken a little house in the outskirts of New Haven, and for years made all the fine pastry for the Tontine Hotel, a fine and well respected establishment in town. She also made additional earnings from “doing up” fine muslins, dresses, and embroideries. She was “of much consideration for years among her race.” Unless it took place much later in life, it appears that Lucy never married and never had children of her own.
Emily Fowler Ford’s last description of Lucy’s life is troubling, she states “at the very last she learned to drink and became poor in consequence.” But, leaving us with some hope, Emily also writes “the branches of the Webster family residing in New Haven cared most kindly for her until the end came. We all loved and respected her and her kitchen was an ideal place of joy and comfort for the grandchildren. “Her bright respectful, “Good morning Miss Emily, how does Miss Emily find herself this morning?” was a mixture kindness and politeness that made me respect myself. Her heart was full of love, and her hands of faithful service.”
We don’t know when Lucy died, and we don’t know the details of the circumstances that Emily describes. What we do know is that during the time that Lucy lived, daily life was challenging at best for African Americans. Both enslaved and free people of color faced unspeakable adversity in the periods before, and after the Civil War in both the North and the South. Despite what appears to be a tragic demise for Lucy, in the end it is gratifying to know that for both the Fowler and Webster families, Lucy’s life did matter and even to the end, she was loved.
Research will continue to learn more about Lucy Griffin. Her story adds even more depth and richness to what is an already amazing group of personalities who bring history to life for our guests in Greenfield Village every day.
Jim Johnson is Director of Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford.
- An Ethnic History of New Haven, The Ethnic Heritage Center, New Haven, CT. 2010.
- Ford, Emily Ellsworth Fowler, Notes on the Life of Noah Webster Volumes I & II, Privately Printed, New York, 1912.
- Harper, Douglas, Slavery in the North, slaverynorth.com, 2003.
- Hinks, Peter P., Gradual Emancipation Reflected the Struggle of Some to Envision Black Freedom, ConnecticutHistory.org, 2012.
- Unger, Howard Giles, Noah Webster The Life and Times of an American Patriot, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. New York, 1998.
- Warfel, Harry R. Letters of Noah Webster, Library Publishers, New York, 1953.
- The United States Federal Census, 1820-1850.
- Connecticut Wills and Probate Records 1609-1999, Will and Probate for Noah Webster, data base on line.
Connecticut, women's history, Noah Webster Home, home life, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, by Jim Johnson, African American history, 19th century