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McGill Family papers

Identifier: IWA0543

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Scope and Contents

The McGill Family papers date from 1885 to 2005 and measure 10 linear inches. The papers are arranged in five series: Eliza and James McGill, Ada McGill Smith, Pearl McGill, Family histories and writings, and Photographs. The bulk of the collection is made up of the correspondence of Pearl McGill, Eliza Cromer Law McGill, and Ada McGill Smith. The letters written to Pearl McGill from her mother and siblings are included in the Pearl McGill series.

The Eliza and James McGill series (1885-1922) includes letters written between Eliza Cromer Law and James McGill prior to their marriage in 1889. The letters discuss arrangements to be made for the care of the Eliza Law's four children from her previous marriage, her opinion on drinking, as well as local news.

The Ada McGill Smith series (1908-1932) correspondence includes letters written home from Marked Tree, Arkansas, between 1910 and 1912 describing the cotton fields, farming practices and living conditions. Other correspondence includes letters written home by Ada Smith during the trips she made to California.

The Pearl McGill series (1902-1924) consists of correspondence, postcards, and newspaper clippings. The correspondence includes the letters Pearl McGill wrote to her family in Grandview, Iowa, between 1911 and 1923. The letters are written from Muscatine, Chicago, St. Louis, Boston, Lawrence, and New York City on a variety of letterheads including the Women's Trade Union League of Chicago, the Button Workers' Protective Union, United Mine Workers of America, and the Hotel Needham in Lawrence, Massachusetts. McGill's letters discuss details of the Muscatine button workers' strike of 1911-1912 as well as the speeches she gave and the money she raised in support of the Muscatine button workers during the lockout and ensuing strike.

The letters encompass a variety of issues including class, socialism, union organizing, and working conditions as well as the day-to-day matters of family life back home in Iowa. The folder titled "Letters from Acquaintances," includes a photocopy of a letter written from Helen Keller to Pearl McGill dated February 19. Although the year is not given it was most likely 1914, a year that Helen Keller is known to have visited Cedar Falls, Iowa. The letter refers to a meeting between the two women at the station in Cedar Falls and Helen Keller offers support and encouragement to Pearl McGill in her efforts to become a teacher.

Several of the postcards depict strike scenes and parades in Muscatine, Iowa, in 1911 and in Lawrence and Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1912. The bulk of the newspaper clippings relate to the death of Pearl McGill in 1924.

The Family histories and writings series (1970-2005) includes booklets and tapes discussing family life, country schools, and farming as well as the booklet Pearl 'And this is why I love the Fight', which was compiled by Pearl McGill's niece, Jean Burns.

The Photographs series (1911-2005) includes a portrait of Pearl McGill which was taken in Boston, Massachusetts in 1911


  • Creation: 1885-2005


Conditions Governing Access

The papers are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright held by the donor has been transferred to the University of Iowa.

However, copyright status for some collection materials may be unknown. Transmission or reproduction of materials protected by U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S.C.) beyond that allowed by fair use requires the written permission of the copyright owner. Works not in the public domain cannot be commercially exploited without permission of the copyright owners. Responsibility and potential liability based on copyright infringement for any use rests exclusively and solely with the user. Users must properly acknowledge the Iowa Women’s Archives, The University of Iowa Libraries, as the source of the material. For further information, visit

Biographical / Historical

Muscatine button worker, early twentieth century labor activist, and teacher, Ora Pearl McGill, was born on June 14, 1894 on a small farm in Louisa County, Iowa. Known as Pearl, she was the second of James and Eliza Cromer Law McGill's seven children. Pearl McGill left her home near Grandview, Iowa, at the age of sixteen to work at a Muscatine button factory intending to save her wages and become a school teacher. She quickly became involved in a union organizing drive that was underway in the Muscatine button factories and served as recording secretary of the Button Workers Protective Union (BWPU) No. 12854, an affiliate of the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

Following the lockout of 2500 Muscatine button workers, which began in February 1911, Pearl McGill went to Chicago with the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL). She became a strike worker for the BWPU making countless speeches to local unions in industrial cities across the country, including St. Louis, New York City and Boston, to raise money to support the striking button workers in Muscatine. Later she joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and was an outspoken activist and organizer during the Lawrence textile strike of 1912.

In 1913 Pearl McGill enrolled in the normal training course in Cedar Falls, Iowa. On completion of her teaching certification she taught at a rural school in Lone Tree, Iowa. Discouraged by the low wages, she returned to Boston for the summer of 1914 but was back in Iowa by the fall to take up a teaching position in Moscow. In 1917 she married Ed Vance and, after a one-year break from teaching, resumed her career in Buffalo, Iowa, where she taught until her death in 1924. Pearl McGill obtained a divorce from her husband in August 1923. On April 30, 1924, she was murdered by Ed Vance following his release from a Mount Pleasant mental institution. Pearl McGill was inducted into the Iowa Labor Hall of Fame at the 2006 convention of the Iowa Federation of Labor.

Eliza Cromer Law McGill, the mother of Pearl McGill, was born in Iowa in 1861 to pioneers Hyram Cromer and Lydia Darr Cromer. The family settled on a farm near Moscow, Iowa. In 1876 Eliza Cromer married Irving Law and four children were born to this union. In 1881 Irving Law died in a sawmill accident. Eight years later, in 1889, Eliza Cromer Law married James McGill, a widower with two children. Eliza and James McGill lived and farmed in Louisa County, Iowa, where they raised seven children -- Ada Lee, Ora Pearl, William Hiram, Earlin Floyd, Marion Fay, Edna Blanche, and Donald Sherman. Eliza McGill died in 1922.

Ada Lee McGill, the older sister of Pearl McGill, was born in 1891, the oldest of James and Eliza McGill's seven children. She attended Leverich Normal School in Muscatine, Iowa, and taught at the North Prairie School in Moscow Township from 1908 until her marriage to Grant Smith in 1911 when the couple moved to Marked Tree, Arkansas, to take up farming near members of Grant Smith's family. The following year they were forced to return to Iowa due to extensive flooding in Arkansas. Ada and Grant Smith spent several years on rented farms including Tyce Bridge Farms where they raised four children -- Curtis (born 1911), Zella (born 1915), Charles (born 1924), and Jean (born 1930). Ada Smith died in 1974.


10.00 linear inches

Photographs in boxes 1 and 2. boxes

Language of Materials



The collection consists mainly of correspondence and includes the papers of early twentieth century labor activist, IWW member, and Buffalo school teacher, Pearl McGill.

Method of Acquisition

The papers (donor no. 949) were donated by Jean I. Burns in 2005 and 2006.

Existence and Location of Originals

Iowa Women's Archives Images

Janet Weaver, 2006.
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the Iowa Women's Archives Repository

100 Main Library
University of Iowa Libraries
Iowa City IA 52242 IaU
319-335-5900 (Fax)