Rebecca Cole

A clipping of an old newspaper describing a piece of land for sale.
This newspaper clipping describes a piece of land for sale. The adjoining lands are owned by Moses Brown and Rebecca Cole.

In 1795, a middle-aged woman named Rebecca arrived in a small village north of Providence. Here, a new way of life was beginning to take shape against the backdrop of rushing waterfalls and the hum of busy craftsmen. Rebecca found children rising with the sun to attend to machines that moved with a different rhythm, powered by water instead of people or animals. She had arrived at the beginning of the American age of industry.

Rebecca Cole (1748-1824) came to Pawtucket, RI, in 1795 in search of work. She would become one of many people to make a living under the management of Samuel Slater. Just two years earlier, Slater had launched the first successful water-powered cotton mill with William Almy and Moses Brown. Their employees tended to be young people living close to the mill. Many were around the age of ten. Somehow, Cole heard of Slater’s new mill and traveled to the village. According to historian Gary Kulik, four of Cole’s children would be hired to work in Pawtucket mills. Her daughter Hannah Cole even became a mule spinner, which was highly unusual for a girl or woman of her time.

At one point early in their time in Pawtucket, Cole fell ill. This must have been cause for concern. Just months after coming to Pawtucket, Slater wrote that Cole “talks of moving back, at least she wished she had not come.” But Cole did not return to wherever she had recently moved from. She decided to negotiate more firmly with her employers instead. Slater also recorded this request from the widow: “She now wants Wood, Corn, Meat, and Butter.” This was in response to slow payment schedules and other inconsistences. Perhaps to better explain to his investors, Almy and Brown, why the widow would need such support, Slater wrote: ‘she is a stranger here…’

Eventually, Rebecca Cole – also known as the Widow Cole, or Mother Cole, did become a valued member of the community. It appears that after the rocky summer and fall of 1795, she never left the area. Within a few years, Cole found more stable and apparently lucrative work with Slater. In addition to tending to a home, Cole ran a bleaching meadow. This was a place where children took yarn made in nearby mills, perhaps by her own children, and bleached it white in the sun. This work allowed the Coles to buy a home and piece of land to call their own. This was unusual for the time. Most mill workers were tenants who rented housing from investors or mill owners.

In February 1824, the Widow Cole died at the age of 76. At the end of her life, Cole had reached at least some level of comfort. In her home, Cole had a number of looking glasses, carpets, a maple table, and six Windsor chairs, perhaps for gatherings with her five children. Her land and estate were divided between her four daughters, now grown women, and her son Edward Cole received her “great Bible.” From a position of great vulnerability and uncertainty, the Coles—with Rebecca as their head of household—had made a living, and more than that, claimed a corner of this once strange village all for themselves.

For more information, see: Gary Kulik, “The beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in America : Pawtucket, Rhode Island, 1672-1829,” (Ph.D. Dissertation, Brown University, 1980).

Last updated: February 15, 2024

Park footer

Contact Info

Mailing Address:

67 Roosevelt Ave
Pawtucket, RI 02860



Contact Us