by Jo-Ann Roberts
“After all, a woman didn’t leave much behind in the world to show she’d been there. Even the children she bore and raised got their father’s name. But her quilts, now that was something she could pass on.”
- Sandra Dallas
While history books, almanacs, and memoirs chronicled the West as a man’s world full of adventure, clashes with nature and with man, it must be noted women also played a vital role in the migration and taming of the frontier. In addition to their diaries and journals, pioneer women stitched fabric blocks together to narrate the many hardships, challenges and joys depicting their life in the West. Whether on the westward trail, an Army post, or a frontier settlement, quilts offer physical as well as emotional comfort.
Prior to leaving for the arduous journey West, female friends in the East came together to work collaboratively, stitching a quilt for the departing woman. Ultimately, these “quiltings” became farewell gatherings, united in purpose as well as in friendship. Thus, “friendship quilts”, squares inscribed with names, dates, and heartfelt sentiments became popular. Early Western quilters didn’t limit their designs to just one type of quilt. They combined patchwork and applique to create a one-of-a-kind quilt.
As preparations for the journey progressed, the women gathered together all the quilts, blankets and tied comforters they could either make or acquire. While very special quilts were packed in a trunk or used to wrap fragile keepsakes, everyday quilts were left out for bedding. It wasn't long before women found this bedding to be necessary for many other uses. A folded quilt offered padding on the wagon seat for the person driving the oxen over the long rough trail. When winds rose up and blew across the dusty plains blankets, quilts and comforters were used to cover the cracks that let the dust inside the wagon.
Since the wagon ride was uncomfortable and jostling, the women and children often walked alongside the wagons. Needless to say, little quilting was done on the trail. A few women managed to piece some quilt blocks or perhaps a whole quilt top but more often women knitted or mended clothing during the short breaks and occasional layovers. The poor light of a campfire would not have been conducive to fine-stitching.
Many times quilts reflected the adventures of the family as they made their way West. The names assigned to these quilts are still popular today. “Road to California”, “Crossing the Plains”, “Flying Geese”, and “Log Cabin” often indicated memories of home and hearth, the trail looming up before them, the movement of the wind across the plains, and the flora and fauna seen along the way.
As the journey continued, quilts were needed for far more serious purposes than simply comfort and dust control. In some cases they became targets for arrows when they were hung on the exposed side of the wagons for protection during sattacks. Diseases like cholera and influenza were never-ending threats, resulting in lives lost on the trail. Death from sickness and injury was no stranger to the weary travelers. Since wood was scarce along the trail, building a proper coffin was nearly impossible, not to mention time consuming. Wrapping a beloved mother, child or husband in a quilt for burial gave the family comfort knowing that something symbolizing family and their love enfolded their dear one in that lonely grave along the trail.
Once a pioneer family reached their destination quilts and blankets were still needed for uses beyond bed coverings. Instead of keeping the elements out of the wagon they covered windows and doors of log cabins and dugouts. There was a need for emotional sustenance as well. Putting a favorite quilt on the bed gave a woman a sense of connection with her former way of life. Something of beauty was very much needed in her desolate home.
One pioneer woman in Texas recalled how she was left alone in the dugout during a dust storm. While her husband went to get firewood, a task that took a week, she passed the time quilting. "If I hadn't had the piecing, I don't know what I would have done". 1
Life in the West was far different from what they left behind. Quilting, knitting and hand sewing were popular topics when socializing. A Swedish woman settled in Kansas in the early 1850s and remembered an invitation to a sewing circle. Being new to the country and to the territory, she took this as an offer of friendship. In turn, she hosted a quilting party at her home. Pioneer quilting had come full circle from making quilts in anticipation of the journey to the opportunity to express creativity and cultivate friendships through quilting in the new land.
1. pp 23 & 24, "The Quilters: Women and Domestic Art, an Oral History", by Patricia Cooper and Norma Bradley Allen.
on the Overland Trails: Evidence from Women's Writing", by Barbara
Brackman, Uncoverings 1992.
"Treasures in the Trunk,: Quilts of the Oregon Trail", by Mary Bywater CrossLone Stars: A Legacy of Texas Quilts, 1836–1936 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986) Caroline Patterson Bresenhan and Nancy O’Bryant Puentes.
In Lessie-Brides of New Hope Book One , the hero, Eli MacKenzie has no memory of his marriage, yet he has a wife…a very beautiful wife! Here’s a snippet where Lessie’s quilts play a significant role in the story…
Eli sensed Lessie’s apprehension.
“You can’t possibly be cold,” she said. Holding the wrapper up to her chin like a shield of armor, she pointed to the quilts. “What do you intend to do with those?”
Taking the first quilt, Eli folded it lengthwise then rolled it into a soft cylinder. He wedged it between the two pillows then repeated the process with the remaining quilts, setting them end to end down the middle of the bed to disappear beneath the sheet.
“Beginning tonight, I intend to sleep with my wife, in our bed, every night. This”—he pointed to the line of quilts—“is your insurance policy that I will not exercise my husbandly rights until Owen Shepherd reunites us in marriage a week from Sunday. But be forewarned, Mrs. MacKenzie, I intend to court you every day and every night until that time.” He hooked his thumbs under his suspenders. They slid off his shoulders just before he pulled his shirt from his trousers.
In, Posey-Brides of New Hope Book Two, quilts again play a role in the interaction between the hero, Grayson Barrett and Posey Campbell. When Gray unwittingly makes a comment to Posey, he follows her, snagging a quilt as he goes…
She allowed Gray to adjust the quilt. He slipped one arm beneath her bent knee and the other around her shoulders then tugged her onto his lap. He had no right to be so familiar with her person. His actions went above and beyond what propriety dictated, and if anyone saw them in this compromising position, her reputation and self-worth would be damaged beyond repair. But in this moment, in this place, she needed his comfort.
After several minutes, he tucked a curly strand of hair behind her ear and asked a second time, “Do you still love him?”
“Any feelings I ever had for him died long before the ink dried on the divorce decree.” She took a shuddering breath.
Along with her resolve, she pushed herself off Gray’s lap and started for the door. “As I have accepted my fate to live the rest of my days as the spinster schoolteacher, you must accept the fact I am not the type of friend you want, Marshal Barrett.”
“I’m not buying it, Posey,” Gray countered, following her. “We are friends. We shook hands on it. It may not mean anything to you, but a handshake sure as heck means something to me.”
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