Ever since I was young I have felt intrigued by people who traveled across the United States in covered wagons looking to start a new life. As I grew there were times I wished I could do that! What an adventure, although dangerous and frightening.
In the past several years I have driven to Washington state many times as one of my daughters, her husband, and my 2 grand kids live there. I live in New Mexico so the trip takes me through Salt Lake City and then up north into the land of the Oregon Trail. I have stopped at a wonderful museum in Baker City Oregon a few times and am still intrigued and amazed! The museum sits high atop rolling hills where, if one looks closely, the ruts from the wagons can still be spotted down in the flat land.
Driving those long roads through Idaho and Oregon, with so many hills and valleys, really gives one an appreciation for what it must have been like to travel in a wagon. What is over the next hill? Where is the Snake River? In addition you will see many old decayed farms dotting the landscape for hundreds of miles which always makes me curious about their history. I share this with you because I came across something I did not know existed; Oregon Trail Quilts! I thought I would share with you what I have learned about these quilts.
The migration of people, via the Oregon Trail, took place approx between 1840 and 1870. After that the railroad became possible as a means of travel across the country. Many families brought quilts with them and according to Dr. Viki Sonstegard “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.” In addition Sonstegard states that some women made quilts in preparation of the journey they would embark on. In addition, friends would sometimes make quilts for those who were leaving them.
These quilts would also serve as blankets, protection from the elements, and often be used to wrap the dead before burial along the trail. According to Notes From the Frontier, “Willa Cather, the famous Pulitzer Prize winning writer who captured 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.” I cannot help but envision the hardships and the inherently nurturing nature of quilts when reading such history..
While all this illustrates quilts, in general, as it involves those on the Oregon Trail, one aspect of these quilts involves the quilts made along the trail! Sonstegard indicates how “Women had a thousand miles to create friendship quilts for dear friends on the trail, since they most likely would never see them again once they’d gone their separate ways.” Womenfolk.com, however, states, “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” due to the inherently jostling nature of riding in a wagon. I kind of cling to the notion that women DID make quilts, even if not a lot of them.
Once these families who did arrive safely at their destination the quilts became equally as important. They covered windows in cabins, separated a room for privacy, and clearly allowed the woman, or entire family, to feel a sense of normalcy, especially remembering their journey and their family far to the East. Quilts played so many roles during this time period in American history which was only a few decades. These quilts, and their makers, truly lived very full lives worth learning about!