Friday, February 6, 2015

Quilts of the Oregon Trail

I received a lovely email from Anita Williams, quilter and fellow blogger. Anita commented on one of my entries that discussed quilts and which included a bit of history and several examples of the wide variety that have been created over time. Inspired by Ms. Williams, (thank you) and since this is a blog about female artists working in the West, I'd like to share what information I've found about Quilts of the Oregon Trail.

The 2,200 mile long Oregon Trail beginning in Independence Missouri and ending in the Columbia River Valley
During eight decades in the 1800s the Oregon Trail served as a natural corridor as the United States moved from the eastern half of the continent toward the west coast. The Oregon Trail ran approximately 2,000 miles west from Missouri toward the Rocky Mountains to the Willamette Valley. A trail to California branched off in southern Idaho and the Mormon Trail paralleled much of the Oregon Trail, connecting Council Bluffs to Salt Lake City.

The trail began as an unconnected series of trails used by Native Americans. Fur Traders expanded the route to transport pelts to trading posts and to meet other traders. In the 1830s, missionaries followed the still faint trail along the Platte River and the Snake to establish church connections in the Northwest. In the 1840s, a combination of economic and political events converged to start a large scale migration west on what was then known as "The Oregon Road." Joel Walker is credited as the first settler to make the complete trip with a family, in 1840. Large scale migration began in 1843, when a wagon train of over 800 people with 120 wagons and 5,000 cattle made the five-month journey.

Iconic Photograph of an unknown pioneer family
Caravan on the Oregon Trail
Then, in 1847, Mormons headed toward Salt Lake, and along with the discovery of gold in California in 1848, sent a wave of fortune seekers west. Military posts, trading posts, shortcuts, and spur roads emerged along the Oregon Trail over the next thirty years. The Central Pacific Railroad connected California to the rest of the continent in 1869, and the Oregon Short line completed a railroad from Portland, Oregon to the Union Pacific railroad in Wyoming in 1884. Modern transportation eclipsed travel by wagon train. The trail became a route for eastward cattle drives, but by the twentieth century, the Oregon Trail was considered part of a historic past, and the image of covered wagons and the pioneers had become a historical footnote.

We know that quilts were precious to pioneer women for a variety of reasons. They were indeed practical and comforting, but the quilts also kept them emotionally connected to their past. Women sometimes received them from friends and family as a friendship quilt that provided a memento of loved ones left behind. Leaving home for Oregon in 1852, Lodisa Frizzel wrote in her diary about the sadness of leaving home and 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." (1852). Women also made quilts in anticipation of the journey. Names of quilt patterns can relate to the journey and/or to their faith. There are names that refer directly to the pioneer experience such as Rocky Road to Kansas, Road to California, and, of course, Oregon Trail.
Wandering Foot, Made on the Oregon Trail
Courtesy Douglas County Museum of History
Roseburg, Oregon
Quilts made by and for women who traveled the Trail between 1840 and 1870 are known as Oregon Trail quilts. Often made over the life of the journey which could last four to nine months, they can be considered quilts of migration. Many Oregon Trail quilts were meant to be kept as heirlooms; as narratives or visual records of their experiences on the journey. Those traditional quilts were made or given to acknowledge major events such as births, educational accomplishments, marriages, community involvement, and even death.
Wagon Wheels
Quilt made while traveling the Trail
The quilts that were brought on the trail were a comfort in times of anxiety and grief as there was so much loss during the course of the journey. We typically think of disease as being the primary cause of death during that time, but accidents were also a significant danger. Death could come by any means such as wagon mishaps, livestock stampedes, gunshot and unexpected encounters with snakes, wild animals, or encounters with Native Americans, in addition to storms, and tornadoes. Demise from disease like smallpox and cholera increased as the routes west became more crowded, and clean water in areas that received little rain became scarce. Jane D. Kellogg wrote, "There was an epidemic of cholera, 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." (1852)
Peony, Quilt made to accompany travelers
Courtesy Douglas County Museum of History
Roseburg, Oregon
Oregon Trail quilts reflected the influence of the West, the direct exposure to outdoor living, the elements of weather, and the impressions the women had of western landscape. Other themes were the reliance on equipment and divine guidance to see them safely through their journeys.
Piecing the trail to Kansas
Zeralda Carpenter Bones Stone, known as "Grandma Stone"
"Snail's Trail Quilt" made at age of 95 in 1908.
Stitched Signature
Willamette Heritage Center, Oregon

Zeralda Carpenter Bones Stone, known as "Grandma Stone"
"Snail's Trail Quilt" made at age of 95 in 1908.
Willamette Heritage Center, Oregon
The ruts of the Oregon Trail were up to six feet deep in some places along the trail and have been preserved as State Historic Sites. The land over which families traveled was incredibly unforgiving.

Oregon Trail, North Platte River, Gurnsey, Wyoming
A lonely stretch of the Oregon Trail
 For more tales of women and their experiences on the Oregon Trail, here are several books that will fascinate and educate:
Women's Voices from the Oregon Trail by Susan G. Butruille
Wagon Wheel Kitchens, Food on the Oregon Trail by Jacqueline Williams
Wagon Wheels and Wild Roses, Heirloom recipes and Oregon trail stories from the McCaw family, 1847-1995 by Naomi Stanley Kulp
Treasures in the Trunk, Quilts of the Oregon Trail by Mary Bywater Cross
Judy Ann Johnson Brenman,, Quilt Notes,
Mary Bywater Cross, Quilts of the Oregon Trail, Schiffer Books, 2007. Retrieved February 5, 2015.
The Oregon Encyclopedia, Oregon Trail Quilts, Mary Bywater Cross, Retrieved February 5, 2015.
Anita Williams, Granny Anita's Quilting Diary,
Kansas Troubles Quilters,, Retrieved February 5, 2015.
Triumph and Tragedy, Women's Voices from the Oregon Trail, Oregon Public Radio,, Retrieved February 6, 2015.
U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, Basic Facts about the Oregon Trail,, Retrieved February 6, 2015.

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