Thursday 12 February 2015

A stitch in time

One of the beautiful things about an artifact is the way it can carry the story of those that held it first.
Many items in our collection hold just a whisper of their original owners – a set of initials embroidered in a lace handkerchief, a single name carved into the handle of a wooden tool. Today’s artifact, however, carries a complete family history.
In 1844, eleven-year-old Mary McGowan used needle and thread to capture her family’s New Brunswick story. On a fine piece of linen, encircled by a delicate border of flowers and birds, Mary stitched the details of her father’s emigration from Ireland:

Samuel McGowan born in the parish of Loughgilly in the county of Armagh Ireland 2’d of August AD 1800. Emigrated to New Brunswick British America in the year of our Lord 1823.

Samuel was one of thousands of Irish immigrants to arrive in New Brunswick at this period, seeking a new life and new opportunities to grow. Mary’s fine handwork goes on to show how just five years after his arrival part of that dream was realized as Samuel was married in St. David, New Brunswick to:

Jane Seccond Daughter of Mr. Moses Clindinnin of St. D---s [St. David’s?] on the 28th of April in the year 1828.

As the sampler attests, the marriage was soon blessed with four children: Robert McGowan born 2nd July 1829; Moses McGowan born 3rd June 1831; Mary McGowan born 18th January 1833; and James McGowan born 30th April 1835.

But for Samuel, this joyful start to his new life in New Brunswick would soon change. Mary’s sampler next quotes the funeral hymn:
Hark from the Tomb a Doleful Sound
Mine Ears attend the cry
Ye living men come View the ground
Where you must shortly lie.

The quote would be terribly prophetic for the McGowan family. It was added to the sampler in reference to Mary’s mother who had already died when the sampler was created:
Jane McGowan Died May 23rd 1836 in the 27th Year of her Age.

What the sampler does not tell us is that the ‘doleful sound’ of the tomb would continue to call out to the members of the McGowan family. Samuel and his hopes for a new life in New Brunswick would meet with tragedy again and again. His wife was already lost to him after eight short years of marriage. And of his four children, three would soon lie next to their mother in St. David Ridge Cemetery; sons Robert & James and daughter Mary, the artist of this piece, would all die in their 22nd year. Only Moses would survive to marry and have a family of his own.

Samuel McGowan immigrated to New Brunswick in hope and expectation of a better life but the promise of those early days was met with many sorrows. Would his choice have been different if he had known what would come to pass? It’s impossible to say. What we do know is that his daughter’s sampler is a beautiful testament to one family’s history in early New Brunswick, capturing both the hope and sorrow that would make up their lives.

A poignant stitch in time.


  1. What a wonderful story. My grandfather Hugh McElroy came over from Ireland around that time, but I can't find anything out about him. Hoping to go to Ireland and would like to have a little background on how to research him. Any suggestions? Tried the usual ones, found one McElroy but not my grandfather.

    1. Hi Stella,
      Have you tried the Irish Portal Database on the Provincial Archives website? If you would like to send us any info you currently have on Hugh we would be happy to do a search in our archives! Just email

  2. This is a wonderful sampler and a great addition to KCM artifacts.