Death Quilts

This Friday, we look at change in the 1870s.  The change is so drastic, it’s made poor Violet Spinrad avoid a sacred pastime for women.

Patricia Woolsey had a sewing get-together, today.

My heart wasn’t in it.  I didn’t go.

The last sewing bee I attended was at home in Nebraska.  All my neighbors gathered and helped me stitch like wildfire to make jackets and clothes for my family’s trip across the Oregon Trail.

They also sewed a Friendship quilt.  Each woman made a square with a sentiment. My best friends wrote:

Always in my heart and Prayers. Margaret

            Friends through the miles. Ada Powell

            Elspeth appliqued a bent tree on her square—she always was a little strange in the head.

Over the lonely miles, that quilt was like having a thread connecting my heart to theirs.

We wrapped Mom in that quilt. Buried her on the trail.  The cholera took her so fast we’d hardly said goodbye. There wasn’t time for a proper burying, the wagons had to keep moving. So we wrapped her tight in the quilt she’d sweated and messed and put her in a shallow grave. I watched them pile rocks on top.  The wagon leader read from a Bible.  The wind kept turning the pages as though it were in a hurry for us to leave this place.

For miles,  we’d come upon piles of clothing and quilts lying on either side of the path.  Abandoned—if they weren’t buried with the loved one. No emmigrant or Indian would touch them for fear of the cholera and typhoid.

by "KidDoc*One*

They’ll stay there until they become rags—blown away by a wind erasing the last shred of our passing.

Violet Spinrad

NOTE: More than a half million travelers passed over the Oregon Trail. Each day they traveled 15 miles, and each day they passed 250 graves—totaling 30,000 souls that never reached their intended destination.

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About Barb

I escaped from a hardscrabble farm in Oklahoma. I'm not sure why people think I have an accent. I miss the sunshine, but not the fried foods.
This entry was posted in A Laugh, Change, Life, Pioneer Friday in Two Pan and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

40 Responses to Death Quilts

  1. Red says:

    Excellent. I love the touching back story.

    I have recently buried my daughter’s grandmother. She made some quilts, totally from love and not skill, which will be put away with those her grandmother made. I also have one my great-grandmother made. I recently decided to start one for my children. It will be my first, but I am also writing a book to go along with it. That way they will know the story behind each of the fabrics…I do not like a million squares, so it will all be done in rhombuses.

    Thank you for bringing the reality to our attention. Burying and leaving behind the memories is tough, even today.
    Red.

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  2. Lisa Nowak says:

    Love this line: “The wind kept turning the pages as though it were in a hurry for us to leave this place.”

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  3. I loved reading this Barb. How courageous women have been throughout the centuries. I particularly liked..
    ‘ Elspeth appliqued a bent tree on her square—she always was a little strange in the head.’
    I would have done something like that, and am repeatedly being told I’m ‘a little strange in the head…’
    🙂

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  4. Beth says:

    Most of the women who came out here on those wagon trains never wanted to do it. They knew it would be hard, but I doubt they had any inkiling how hard. My folks came by train in the 1890’s. Much better.

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    • Barb says:

      Thanks for sharing “Voices From the Trail” where it stunned me to learn the truth and depth of what you said. The women had no legal choice. If their husband said, “We’re going to Oregon.” She had to pack up and go or be left sitting on a rock.

      Like

  5. raggz2baggz says:

    I really am happy you found my site because I love yours. the wealth of information, heart tugging and laughter your posts gave me I look forward to reading more.
    I quilt and I did not know about the burial quilts though I have taken care of many hospice clients who loved to be wrapped in the quilts made by loved ones.
    Great post I felt like I was there on the trail and feeling the tears of the narrator.
    Looking forward to more great reading experiences!
    Ta Ta For now Cathy the Bagg Lady

    Like

  6. Helen says:

    What a beautiful piece. I’ve often thought about how terrible it would be to leave your family and freinds and know you’d never see them again, but I have never seen it written so elegantly. Thanks!

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    • Barb says:

      Helen, you’re so kind. I too wonder about the ache of of walking down the trail, knowing you’d probably never pass by the grave again. There’s a lovely story of burying a child on the trail. A relative happened to be returning across country several years later and discovered that a town had sprung up near the gravesite. They’d put a marker on the grave “Unknown. The traveler told them about the child and family. When he happened to pass by the town months later on his way back to Oregon, the townsfolk had erected a marker with the girl’s name, Susan. What a loving tribute to those who passed before.

      Like

  7. mj monaghan says:

    Wow, 30,000 died. That’s amazing. I don’t think I would have made it as a pioneer. They were tough and determined. I probably would have killed someone or said something to get me killed! 🙂
    VERY interesting time in history, though for sure. And I love the quilt part as well.

    Did you know the Univ. of Nebraska at Lincoln has a HUGE depository of quilts stored in a special place and they’re curated like the masterpieces of history that they are.

    Like

    • Barb says:

      Who knew? But you’re right. Quilts tell a story and most often it’s history.
      I put a link here for those who’d like to check out the International Quilt Study Center and Museum http://www.quiltstudy.org/index.html

      It’s looks very cool. Worth a trip to Lincoln. If you live nearby, we’ll stop for a fried-chicken dinner. Thank-you-very-much.

      Like

  8. Spectra says:

    I had never given any thought to the lives lost on the trail westward. And being buried in a quilt…must’ve left warming memories for those who had to leave the loved one behind. I’ve never had a quilt, but I do love my fleecy throws and robes. Warmth Rocks!

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  9. And quilting is still an expression of love, though I suspect that few of us are buried in them. A few years ago a quilt made by convicts on the ship that was taking them from England to Australia was exhibited in our National Library. It still had blood stains from needle pricks and the odd wonky stitch. Who aboard a ship, shackled and with no electric light, could avoid occasional mistakes? The quilt moved me to tears. As did this post.

    Like

  10. Wow. Powerful stuff. As hard as I try, I can’t imagine how hard life was for those folks, and many like them on this earth today.

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  11. Jon says:

    You do well at taking me from silly to solemn with just a few keystrokes. It is a good moment.

    Like

  12. millodello says:

    Loved this one.

    Like

  13. moma escriva says:

    A piece of the olden days wrapped up in a quilt. I was going to write something funny until I read on about the many folk that never made it to Northwest. Nicely done Barb.

    Like

  14. marjulo says:

    Excellent post! The sacrifices of our forebears are unimaginable.

    Like

  15. digipicsphotography says:

    A jolt of reality. We really do have it easy today. I don’t think I would have survived back then.

    Like

  16. souldipper says:

    Barb, this is a fabulous piece of writing. You managed to throw me into hysteria over your description of Elspeth and then into despair over the realities these folks faced with each mile of that trail.

    I found myself saying, “Thank God you remembered the messages your best friends sewed into the quilt!!” I marveled over the act of giving it up. It was that real, Barbara.

    Like

    • Barb says:

      You’re too kind. When I was little, I got to sit beneath the quilting frame while the LADIES (mom & her friends) stitched and gabbed. One woman always put weird stuff on her squares. The other ladies were snooty about it. I heard them talk about it from my hiding spot. The quirky woman had more of a child’s heart than adult. I loved her. She was just my style. The bent-tree is a tribute to that woman with the crooked smile, who waved at me in my hidey spot…and who had the courage to stitch her imagination (which I only realized years later).

      Like

  17. Rose L says:

    It was a difficult life.
    I have always wanted a quilt made just for me. My grandmother was going to make me one but she died before she had a chance. I was told she cut up pieces but they were never assembled. I can imagine how much she treasured her specially made quilt.

    Like

    • Barb says:

      I’m sorry for your grandmother’s passing. I’ve always been a believer in the creed: It’s never too late to have a happy childhood. Why not make your own quilt? I made a small one for myself. I’m kind of proud of it.

      Like

  18. Beautifully, starkly written and so sad.

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  19. El Guapo says:

    Great one. Wonderful peek into some of how the world was in those days…

    Like

  20. Tuff times back then. You captured the feeling beautifully Barb. Like the sentence about the wind blowing the pages. Margie

    Like

  21. Phil says:

    What a powerful punch of reality into the face of a romanticized, sentimental nostalgia of the Westward movement of pioneers! Well written, short in length, but all the more compelling and powerful as a result.

    Like

  22. Roxie Matthews says:

    When I did re-enactments, people used to ask me, “Wouldn’t you love to live in the good old days?” They would be surprised at my resounding “NO.” Then I would start noting modern conveniences like indoor plumbing, antibiotics, automatic central heating, refrigerators, washing machines, — oh I could go on for a long time. Then I would tell them that the average woman could expect to die before age 47, and she would have buried three children before that happened. I am SO glad to be alive now!

    Like

  23. Wow, what a powerful post. Great imagry, and very sad. You have a real talent for making those times come alive again.

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    • Barb says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Susan. Honestly, the truth of some of these stories are so wrenching they write themselves. It’s amazing the travelers didn’t die of heartbreak. Hardly a family made it through without harm.

      Like

  24. JSD says:

    Very sad and touching. Mom was wrapped in love for eternity.
    😦

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  25. Life and death were very hard. It’s a wonder the trail wasn’t called the Oregon graveyard.

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  26. magsx2 says:

    Hi,
    A very sad story. It must of been so hard back in those days when a disease spread, no way of stopping the disease at all. Not knowing what to do when a loved one got very sick, knowing you also could be infected if you tried to help.

    We are lucky in the sense that a lot of these diseases have either been wiped out completely or there are cures for them now.

    Like

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