Quilting on the Oregon Trail
As surely as pens were used to write great works of literature and brushes to paint great works of art, needles were used to create great works of artistic endeavor and tell personal stories of hardship, love, perseverance, and family. One of the most intriguing and popular areas of quilting is the study and celebration of the quilts made along the Oregon Trail. And the past decades have seen passionate efforts to retrieve and preserve those antique quilts, many of them found forgotten in trunk attics or at estate sales, some passed down lovingly from generation to generation, along with the family lore that went with them. That any quilts survived the arduous trip across a continent in a covered wagon and the rigors of daily use is testament to their craft of their makers and the loving care with which they were used.
Oregon Trail quilts were made mostly during the great western migration between 1840 and 1870. Those mere 30 years marked one of the largest migrations of human beings in history across 2,000 miles of mountains, dessert, prairie, and danger.
The famous writer, Willa Cather, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her works capturing so poignantly life on the frontier in “O Pioneers!” and “My Antonia,” wrote of women quilters on the trail. She called quilts “good bye hugs in cloth” and “broken Hallelujahs” when they swaddled dead children and loved ones for burial on the trail. She added: “People live through such pain only once. Pain comes again—but finds a tougher surface.” Quilts meander through her writing like stitchery.
Quilts were “good-bye hugs in cloth” for many women, when they went West, were given friendship quilts by their dear friends, who worked together to create a lasting gesture in stitchery that would last her lifetime and remind her of those she had left behind. For most who parted to go West, they knew they would never see their family and friends again back East.
Lodisa Frizzel wrote in her diary upon leaving home for Oregon in 1852 about the sadness of leaving her friends and family, then later passing the graves of those pioneers who had died before them: "Who does not recollect their first night when started on a long journey. The well-known voices of our friends still ringing in our ears. The parting kiss still warm upon our lips and the last separating word 'farewell!' sinks deeply into the heart."
In the 1800s, women and girls across all ages, classes and cultures quilted. It was a fundamental ritual of womanhood, provided warmth and cover for her family, utilized all scraps of cloth, for nothing should be wasted, and also served as a source of pride and creativity. And, since time was precious, quilting bees provided a way for women to meet and socialize and still do their needlecraft
Quilt-making was an important task before, during and after the trek West. The need for bedding and warmth during the trip was fundamental. And quilts carried with them visual and tactile links to the past as well as links to their future life on the frontier. Oregon Trail quilt motifs reflected especially the terrain, wildlife, hopes and dreams of the West. Flower themes were extremely popular and certain flowers symbolized certain sentiments. Roses meant love, tulips meant renewal, peonies healing, and daisies farewell. In addition, oak leaves represented strength and vines meant abundance.
Celestial bodies, birds, the moon, sun and stars were all popular motifs. And one pattern, called “Delectable Mountains,” came from a reference from “Pilgrims Progress” and represented a goal on the trail, for the first site of the mountains by a wagon train was a glorious thing and celebrated, for it meant that, just beyond the mountains was Oregon. Patterns named “Wagon Wheel,” “Wandering Foot” and “Snail’s Trail” referenced the long, slow journey of creaking wheels and trudging feet. Some patterns even referred to specific trails: Rocky Road to Kansas, Arkansas Traveler, Road to California, Road to Oklahoma, Path in the Wilderness, Endless Trail, and Oregon Trail. (see last photo.)
The trials and hardships along the way were many. Diseases, such as cholera and typhus were rampant. One westering pioneer, Jane D. Kellogg wrote in 1852: "There was an epidemic of cholera, I think it was caused from drinking water from the holes dug by campers. All along was a graveyard most any time of day you could see people burying their dead. Some places five or six graves in a row. It was a sad sight. No one could realize it unless they had seen it."
Because death was common and there was not time for mourning, or materials to build coffins, lost loved ones were often buried in quilts as the only way to honor them and leave them with a tangible part of the family.
But, there was joy and hope, too, on the trail. Some quilts expressed those dreams and anticipation: “Wedding Dress,” “Steps to the Alter,” “Crib Quilt,” “Log Cabin,” “Tree of Life,” “Jacob’s Ladder,” and “Morning Star.”
Quilts also celebrated pioneer arrivals to their “promised land” and helped make homey even the most crude frontier abode. Pioneer Susan McCord had embroidered on her beautiful red and white quilt of meandering vines: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, The desert shall rejoice and blossom, Like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. – Isaiah 35:1.”
Lenore Gale Barett, too, wrote joyfully in her diary in 1853 upon arriving in Oregon territory: “The gay colored quilts which came across in a big chest, and which had been used as wrapping for a few cherished dishes and other treasures were unpacked.... Other bits from the old home three thousand miles away were placed on the crude shelves: a picture of grandmother; a few books, the family Bible...Our quilts laid across the beds. We were now home.”
Read these related posts:
-Frontier Quilts: From Home to Revolution
-What Pioneers Packed
-The First Wagon Trains West
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