Thankful Union, the minute I first saw that name I just knew there had to be a special story associated with it. Thankful Union is a departed soul who is buried in the “potter’s field” section of Elm Grove Cemetery. As detailed in Althea McAleer’s book on the cemetery, all that is known about her is that she was “a colored mute” who died in 1881 at the age of 95 years old. Thankful’s name and circumstances have intrigued me; and I have felt compelled to find out what she, and her life, was all about. I must say though, that this was a difficult task. Few records were kept concerning the births, lives, and deaths of African-Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries; in this regard, they lived in a shadow world, leaving little concrete evidence of their very existence behind. This is truly frustrating for the historical researcher, but in a large sense it is a sad statement about America and the times. But Thankful and her extended family were different, and through, what I can only consider an act of divine Providence, I have been able to piece together something of her life. I must add here, that as the facts are few, only the long dead players in this fascinating tale know for certain if I have got it 100% correct, but I do feel confident that I have gotten the gist of her story right.
To understand the journey which brought Thankful to her inevitable end in the paupers’ section of our fair town’s major burial ground, you have to go back two generations, and you must know that Thankful Union was not her given name; she was born with the same slave name as the man with whom we begin this tale, her grandfather Johnny Onion. John Onyun (he spelled it in this phonetic fashion) first shows up in the permanent record on a tattered and burnt piece of paper in the vault in the North Kingstown Town Hall, proclaiming his marriage to a woman of color from Jamestown known as Jemima. No other reference to John and Jemima Onion seem to have been recorded and the story now continues with their children and their children’s families. It would appear that John and Jemima had at least three children. The record shows two sons named Cezar and Frazee, and a daughter named Freelove, and perhaps a daughter or daughter-in-law named Sarah. Cezar and Frazee, upon reaching adulthood, moved to Exeter and married, respectively, Jane and Eunica (surnames unrecorded). They lived long lives in Exeter and were active members of the Exeter Baptist Church. Cezar’s wife, Jane, died in 1827 and he remarried a woman from the church named Nancy. Nancy was known as Nannie Onion and was probably a long-serving nanny to the family of James Sheldon, as she is mentioned in his will. But our story is about John and Jemima’s daughter and granddaughters, so we will leave Frazee and Cezar for now, although not for good.
Freelove had five children that I know of, a son Nathaniel, and daughters Freelove, Margaret, Sarah, and Eunice. Our story now turns to two of those daughters, Margaret and Sarah. Margaret and Sarah Onion must have been remarkable women. They lived in a fairly affluent village, as Wickford was at the time, and probably held domestic positions in some of the prominent homes. The facts seem to support, as you will soon see, that Margaret worked for the Gardiner family, but there is no way of knowing for whom Sarah worked. It appears that they raised families as single mothers, the records clearly and undeniably show that Margaret’s two sons were fathered by a man named Richard Gardiner and no mention of a husband can be found for Sarah, although considering the condition of North Kingstown’s records there is a chance that she was married. I tend to doubt this, though, as three separate references to Sarah and her three children, Nathaniel, Ishmael, and Thankful, can be found with no corresponding mention of a husband/father. The birth date that I have for Sarah’s youngest, Thankful, I can only infer a year from her death information, 1786. Sadly, in August of 1803, Sarah Onion died, leaving her three children, all under the age of 21, parentless. The North Kingstown probate court appointed a guardian for them, one Benjamin Davis, but his job was only to see that they got placed in an appropriate home; and the records indicate that Margaret’s family was where they ended up. Where Margaret housed this large family of one woman and five children prior to 1817 is unknown. But, in 1817, a remarkable turn of events changed the lives of Margaret and her, by then, mostly adult children forever. First, Richard Gardiner, the father of Margaret’s two sons, died without a will, and secondly, Margaret Onion, an African-American domestic, living quietly in the world of 19th century Wickford, put up a bid of $21 on a piece of property being auctioned off from Gardiner’s estate to settle his debts, and, against all odds, won the bid. Margaret Onion, a single black woman in a decidedly white man’s world, was the lawful owner of a house on one-sixteenth of an acre on an unnamed side street in Wickford. One can only image the wonderment and celebration which must have reigned across the extended Onion family in both Wickford and Exeter on that day. Nearly two hundred years later I swear I could still feel pride as I read the real estate record in the dusty ledgers of the town hall.
Time marched on for the Onion family, but it did so in such a fashion as to not have left a single footprint in the permanent record, that is until the 1850s. By now, Margaret has apparently joined her sister, brothers, and parents in the next world and no record of the fate of her little home can be found. It was either demolished or most probably the real estate records detailing its fate were lost in the fire that damaged so many of North Kingstown’s archived records. Nathaniel Onion Gardiner and his sister Thankful were now living in another home on Washington Street, purchased by Nathaniel through a real estate exchange that went unrecorded at that time or was lost in the same blaze that may have destroyed the records relating to their aunt’s home.
Nathaniel Gardiner was born Nathaniel Onion, the son of Sarah Onion and an unknown father in 1803. Sarah Onion died suddenly and Nathaniel and his sister Thankful became the wards of their Aunt Margaret Onion and her common law husband Richard Gardiner, who was most likely descended from the slaves of Narragansett planter Ezekial Gardiner. When Nathaniel came of age, he took the last name of his adopted father and began a life as a merchant seaman under the name of Nathaniel Gardiner. Nat Gardiner died at sea onboard the 89-foot barque Hector and was buried at sea in 1851. His family was not notified of his death until years later when the Hector returned to the Narragansett Bay. The house and Nathaniel’s worldly possessions were left to his sister Thankful Onion, who by that time was working as a domestic for Allen Mason Thomas. To allow the probate transfer to occur, A.M. Thomas, acting as the agent for the estate of Nat Gardiner, arranged for the official recording of the real estate transaction between the Case family, in the persons of John P. Case’s grandchildren Elizabeth Brenton Shaw and John Peck Case Shaw, and Nathaniel Onion Gardiner. This transaction, in which the house was described as the “Sambo place,” allowed legal ownership of the home to be transferred to Thankful Onion. Thankful lived in the home until 1870 when she sold the home to John P. and Mercy Lewis. Thankful lived out most of the rest of her days in the home of Allen Mason Thomas; spending only her last year at the Town Farm where she died in 1881. At sometime she changed her last name from Onion to Union, more than likely in celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation. I have no idea when and why she became a mute, although no one could ever blame her if she just chose never to speak again, but that is, until now, the only thing we knew of her. That was her epitaph for more than 100 years—Thankful Union, a colored mute. The irony of her name and her last years continued to haunt me. I can think of only two things I can do to make it up to here; one, I have done by telling her story, and the other, well, somewhere out there under the thick grass which covers the potter’s field at Elm Grove, sadly she was not even buried with all her family out in the graveyard on Cezar’s land in Exeter, is a small marble stone erected by the town in 1881 to mark yet another of the graves of one of the folks who lived their last days out at the poor farm. It may take me awhile but I plan to stand it up to face the sun.