The Tale of a Pioneer Quilt, Cut in Two

Here in Utah we’re celebrating Pioneer Day today.  Which is our State Holiday commemorating the arrival of the first non-native settlers in Utah in 1847.  I have a great tale to tell of a pioneer quilt made by some of these earliest settlers to our State that was cut in two. But luckily, both halves survived to tell a story of the lives of the many women who made it. Including one of particular interest to me.

The Tale of a Pioneer Quilt, Cut in Two by popular quilting blog, Diary of a Quilter: image of girls outside on the front porch of house dresses in pioneer period clothing with a hexagon block quilt.

But first, here’s a brief story about some other ancestral quilts…

Pioneer Quilts in Snowflake, Arizona

I’ve always loved Pioneer Day. Not just because it’s another chance to BBQ, light fireworks and take the day off. But because many of my forebears were some of those hardy pioneers crossing the continent for uncharted territory.
Volunteering as a recreation pioneer | The Tale of a Pioneer Quilt, Cut in Two by popular quilting blog, Diary of a Quilter: image of a girl sitting on a porch, dressed in pioneer era clothing and working a block quilt.

You may remember my summer as a Pioneer when my kids and I volunteered at the Heritage Park Deseret Village in Salt Lake City, a village recreating mid-19th century western settlements. We had so much fun doing that. Even though it was a lot of work to get us there at the time, I’ll be forever grateful for those memories with my kids – especially as they’re getting older now!

The Tale of a Pioneer Quilt, Cut in Two by popular quilting blog, Diary of a Quilter: image of a handmade quilt on an antique metal bed and a black and white image of two women.

A few years ago when we visited the Grand Canyon for fall break, we stopped in Snowflake, Arizona on the way home. Somewhere other ancestors of ours had settled later in the 19th-Century; and their home is still standing as a museum. Which is where I found multiple quilts made by three generations of my foremothers. Including my great-grandmother, who I met as a toddler before she died.

Even though I’m sure many of my foremothers made quilts (probably more out of necessity than as creative outlet, though I hope there was a dose of both), I don’t have any of those heirlooms in my possession. Nor do I really know what they made. So finding those quilts in Arizona was a treasure!

 Now let’s move one to the other personal pioneer-era story I wanted to share.

The Tale of a Pioneer Quilt Cut in Half and Pieced Back Together Again

This particular story is tied to my Grandma who passed away a few months ago. So it feels like a good time to record it.

The Tale of a Pioneer Quilt, Cut in Two by popular quilting blog, Diary of a Quilter: image of a street in Downham, England.

23 years ago, I was finishing my time as a missionary for my Church in northern England. (Which also feels a little extra poignant this year as my daughter just finished doing the same thing last week.) Anywho, my parents came to England to meet me and visit people and places with me before I went home. One place I really wanted to show them was a favorite little village in the Ribble River valley of Lancashire called Downham. 

The Tale of a Pioneer Quilt, Cut in Two by popular quilting blog, Diary of a Quilter: black and white image of a woman sitting and wearing 1800's period clothing.

My Dad had brought some information about our ancestors from England and the night before we visited Downham, I discovered that I had a Great-Great-Great Grandmother, Ellen Douglas Parker, who was born in Downham itself! No wonder I felt a connection to this place! Meet Ellen.

Well, fast-forward about 10 years and I was married with little ones and working in my local quilt shop. One day a customer started telling me about a book she was reading about an Album Quilt made in Salt Lake City in 1857, 10 years after the first settlers arrived in the Salt Lake valley. The husband of the author, Carol Holindrake Nielsen, had inherited half of the Album Quilt (yes, it was cut in half!), which she thought was so intriguing.

In 2004, after some sleuthing to find distant cousins, the quilt halves were reunited and Carol Nielsen felt that “the posterity of the women who sewed the quilt must see the needlework of their ancestral mothers. . . .” and the story of this quilt and it’s makers needed to be told.

The blocks on this quilt were made by individual members of the women’s Relief Society organization as a fundraiser.  There is a wide variety of skill shown in the various blocks – some very simple, others incredibly ornate and complex. Because each block was signed in the traditional album quilt style of the time,  the author was able to research each woman who contributed to the quilt and tell their stories.

Isn’t it interesting how some of the blocks were cut down to create the side-setting blocks? (I wonder how those makers felt…)

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately?) the raffle was won by a 12 year old boy, lol. (Which I guess makes me laugh because my youngest was just recently a 12-year-old-boy and I don’t see him getting too excited about winning a quilt.)

But he took good care of that quilt (his mother was one of the makers, which probably helped). At the end of his life, rather than have to choose which of his two daughters to give the quilt to, he cut the quilt in half. Fortunately both girls passed their respective halves of this pioneer quilt down to multiple generations. 

The Tale of a Pioneer Quilt, Cut in Two by popular quilting blog, Diary of a Quilter: image of the book "The Salt Lake City 14th Ward Album Quilt, 1857".

Hearing this fascinating intro and being a lover of pioneers, history, quilts and antiques, I had to read the book. I loved learning about the various women who contributed and as I’m reading along, lo and behold, who is one of the contributors?

Ellen Parker!

It was so fun to find out that this foremother of mine was also a talented quilter! I don’t think I could have known any other way; as I don’t know of any quilts of hers that survived.

The Tale of a Pioneer Quilt, Cut in Two by popular quilting blog, Diary of a Quilter: image of an antique quilt block with hand stitched strawberries.

I also learned that Ellen is no ordinary quilter! Ellen’s block in particular is one of the most stunning in the quilt. And how do I know this? A short time after reading the book, my mom heard that the author was giving a lecture and bringing her half of the quilt with her! So I took my grandmother, the great-great-granddaughter of Ellen, to hear the lecture and see the quilt. Fortunately Ellen’s block was included in the half the author had.  So we were able see her work up close.

And it blew. my. mind. Honestly, I’ve never seen applique like it! I wish I had a good photo of that block! It was the most delicate, intricate applique I’ve ever seen! Particularly those strawberry stems and the tiny yellow stitching to create the strawberry seeds.  I wish so badly I’d taken a picture, but sadly, this was before I owned a smartphone or heard of a blog for which I’d want to post pictures on. 

The Tale of a Pioneer Quilt, Cut in Two by popular quilting blog, Diary of a Quilter: image of a framed silk quilt block with wool felt strawberries stitched on it.

My grandma also enjoyed this connection to her past.  Which made me decide right there that it would be fun to somehow recreate that quilt block. I knew that there was no chance in you-know-where that I would be able to recreate that intricate needle-turn applique. So I made my reproduction block using wool felt. (I love applique with wool – you can leave the raw edges and it’s so much easier to manipulate.) I appliqued the wool on a background of woven raw silk which has great texture and a homespun look/feel. Then I made this wall hanging for her for Christmas in 2005.

After my Grandma’s passing a couple months ago, I brought this back home to my house. It’s been fun to have it with me again.  Especially because it reminds me not only of great-great-great-great grandma Ellen Douglas, but also my grandma that I grew up with.

With those kinds of skills, I’m sure Ellen made many quilts in her lifetime. I’m not aware of any that survive. Nor am I aware of any quilts made by the majority of my foremothers. So I’m incredibly grateful, not only that this block survives and that I got to see it, but I’m grateful to 12-year-old Richard Horne for passing along that quilt and for Carol Holidrake Nielsen feeling the urgency and providing the opportunity for this posterity of one of the women who sewed the quilt to “see the needlework of [her] ancestral mother. . . .”

Here’s the rest of the story…

A postscript about Ellen: Ellen emigrated to the US in the 1840’s. In the 1850’s she made her way west to Utah with the Pioneer Migration by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. By 1860 she and her husband had been asked to help establish a new settlement named after the Virgin River outside what is now Zion National Park in southern Utah. Having been to the place of Ellen’s birth, I wanted to find her grave in the town where she lived the last 20+ years of her life.

The Tale of a Pioneer Quilt, Cut in Two by popular quilting blog, Diary of a Quilter: image of a woman standing in a cemetery in Virgin, Utah.

visiting Virgin, Utah in 2016

One fall break on the way home from a trip to Zion National Park, we stopped so that I could find Ellen’s grave in the Virgin City Cemetery. I can’t think of a bigger contrast of landscape than between the cemeteries of Downham, England and Virgin, Utah. (Personally, I think I prefer Downham.)

I’m grateful for these tough foremothers who pioneered some tough territory. Some of which still looks a little God-forsaken, if you ask me. Even so, I’m proud to say I inherited a sliver of their quilting talents; and I hope I inherited a sliver of their tough, pioneer spirit too. 

Do you have any ancestors who were quilters or special quilts in your family story?  Share in a comment below! 

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  • Reply
    July 24, 2019 at 6:33 pm

    Wow! Such an amazing story- I think that these things make us feel closer to our ancestors. Somehow, they become people, not just names. Thanks for sharing this, I enjoyed it.

  • Reply
    July 24, 2019 at 8:12 pm

    Great story, thanks for sharing! I grew up in Southern Utah and know the town named after the Virgin River. Legend has it that the town sign was always getting stolen because who doesn’t want a sign in their bedroom that says VIRGIN?

    • Reply
      July 29, 2019 at 11:00 am

      Yep! That’s the one!

  • Reply
    Quilt Crossing
    July 24, 2019 at 8:30 pm

    What a fascinating story! Your are so very blessed to know so much about your ancestors.

  • Reply
    The Joyful Quilter
    July 24, 2019 at 9:03 pm

    Incredible!! Thanks SEW much for sharing your story with us.

  • Reply
    July 24, 2019 at 10:36 pm

    That is such a fascinating story. It makes me think about how important it is for us to label our quilts when we make them. I am so glad that you got to make this connection to your family. Thanks for sharing.

    • Reply
      July 29, 2019 at 11:01 am

      So true! I need to get better about labeling my quilts. You’d think I would have learned that by now.

  • Reply
    Mary Ann O'Brien
    July 24, 2019 at 11:28 pm

    What a wonderful story. So many serendipity moments. Thanks so much for sharing, Amy.

  • Reply
    Sara Blasingame
    July 24, 2019 at 11:36 pm

    I thought the story of the ancestors and quilt that was cut in half was really fascinating I love doing genealogy sewing of all types so this is really fascinating.

  • Reply
    July 25, 2019 at 12:28 am

    Loved reading about your family history and seeing the beautiful pictures. That had to be so hard to cut that quilt in half. Don’t think I could have done that.

  • Reply
    July 25, 2019 at 12:50 am

    This is a beautiful story, it was especially moving to read that you felt already a connection to Downham before you knew that it was her birthplace. I love that you replicated her special block. x

  • Reply
    Laurel Lee Pedersen
    July 25, 2019 at 2:48 am

    Thanks so much for sharing! My maternal grandmother’s only quilt I ever saw was in rough shape when I was a child! It had been “recovered” by my grandmother with a mostly blue yardage, and then tied with crochet thread. Inside, the batting was sheep wool. Some of her 10 children were kept warm with that quilt in Grace, Idaho where they homesteaded on some of the last land put up for the Homestead Act at the turn of the 20th century. She brought it with her to eastern Oregon when they started over again in the Depression in 1933. I wish I had kept at least a piece of it now.

    • Reply
      July 29, 2019 at 11:02 am

      Oh wow. Sounds like that quilt gave a lot of love!

  • Reply
    Carlie Holdredge
    July 25, 2019 at 4:31 am

    I love hearing about family quilters. I remember the quilt hanging from my Mamaw’s living room ceiling and playing under it as the ladies quilted. It is great how we can still feel the spirit of the quilters when we look at their quilts.

    • Reply
      July 29, 2019 at 11:03 am

      What a sweet memory!

  • Reply
    Pat Demharter
    July 25, 2019 at 4:57 am

    If you think about it, our family roots are like a quilt. Many pieces sewn together to form a beautiful eternal bond. Both of my grandmothers, whom I didn’t know, were avid quilters. Now, I have picked up where they left off. Why was I chosen? I don’t know. I think in every family there is an inquisitive person that wants to know about their past that keeps our ancestors souls alive. In that, we make the proud.

    • Reply
      July 29, 2019 at 11:04 am

      I love that analogy of family roots like quilters! And I think it’s so true about family traits keeping the connections alive. We just watched the movie Coco again last night and it always make me tear up thinking about that!

  • Reply
    Little Quiltsong
    July 25, 2019 at 5:21 am

    What a special piece of history – and to see what one of your foremothers had made – so, so special – such a beautiful block!! I often have to look at their work-worn hands, and wonder at all the work they did – makes tears come to my eyes.

  • Reply
    July 25, 2019 at 6:40 am

    Amy, I enjoyed this story. How fun and meaningful for you to have so much family history, quilt history and those photos. You have most certainly have inherited a lot talent.

  • Reply
    shaunna b.
    July 25, 2019 at 7:07 am

    This was such a beautiful story Amy! Thank you for sharing! I can’t imagine how it must feel to have such a close connection to your ancestors. (And know so much of their history!)

  • Reply
    charlotte m.
    July 25, 2019 at 7:25 am

    What a great story. Such cool family history you have.

  • Reply
    July 25, 2019 at 7:26 am

    How exciting to learn this family history! Thank you for sharing this woman’s incredible journey and her quilt square!

  • Reply
    elin pittman
    July 25, 2019 at 8:12 am

    Once you study your family’s history on the whole you can’t help but think of the legacy you want to leave for your own family. Photos are fine but I think quilts say so much more. Thank you for sharing your story! 🙂

  • Reply
    Bambi Pearson
    July 25, 2019 at 8:21 am

    Awesome history. Thanks for sharing.

  • Reply
    July 25, 2019 at 8:56 am

    What a great story and read! Thank you for sharing.

  • Reply
    July 25, 2019 at 9:08 am

    Thank you so much for this posting about your ancestors and that beautiful quilt. It was very enjoyable reading and a good history lesson.

  • Reply
    July 25, 2019 at 9:17 am

    That’s a great history – and how wonderful to see your great great etc grandmother’s work. Terrific post, thank you.

  • Reply
    Liz Childers
    July 25, 2019 at 9:24 am

    Fascinating story.

  • Reply
    July 25, 2019 at 11:07 am

    What a wonderful story and connection to your past. And to be able to see a part of that quilt — and your ancestor’s block! Fantastic!

  • Reply
    Elana Goldberg
    July 25, 2019 at 2:06 pm

    What a great tale of a quilt and your ancestor. I think it’s wonderful to learn about our past. Seeing her handiwork up close must give you goosebumps!! Thank you so much for sharing this terrific story. Clearly you come from artistic hands!!

  • Reply
    Judy Dobbins
    July 25, 2019 at 3:25 pm

    Great story Amy, enjoyed reading about how the generations connect. I loved how you recreated the strawberry block for your Grandmother to enjoy.

  • Reply
    Rosemary B
    July 26, 2019 at 11:02 am

    Amy, your story is incredible. There are not many people that have such a rich story.
    My father has traced our family back to the 1600’s Both on my mothers side (Straaijer) and on his side (DeLeeuw) Information today is inconsistent and tricky. We find a lot of mistakes.
    I am very grateful that my dad, when he was 15 and 16 wrote many many letters to various churches in Holland in the 1940’s to track down his family generations. This was the most accurate records available. Later in the 60’s all of us went to Holland yearly and visited various places, churches for records, and even the place where my dad was held as a POW of the Nazi;s He was just a guy, they needed men for labor and went to towns in Holland and performed razzia’s and gathered up healthy men to bring to northern Germany

    I love the information and stories you have to share about the actual things your foremothers did. I do not know if any of my ancestors (except my mom, her sister, and a little by my dad’s sister) made any beautiful crafts. Oh my mom’s mom made doll clothes. My mom made lace and just about everything imaginable. She was born with only a left hand bc God knew she would be amaazing

    • Reply
      July 29, 2019 at 11:07 am

      Oh my goodness, Rosemary! What amazing parents you have! How wonderful that you’ve made those connections to your Dutch heritage!

  • Reply
    Margo Yang
    July 26, 2019 at 11:07 am

    What an amazing story this is!!! I got goosebumps reading it. Your recreated block look great too. What a great treasured memory for you.

  • Reply
    Mary Ann Scanlon
    July 26, 2019 at 11:39 am

    Such a wonderful story Amy. Thank you for sharing. I have one quilt which was machine pieced by my Great Grandmother in the 50s I think and then later finished by my Mother in the 70s with a sheet. I love it because it was made with their hands.

  • Reply
    July 26, 2019 at 2:17 pm

    Thanks so much for sharing some family history with us. It’s lovely to see the connections we can make with our fore-bearers. My ancestors were great dressmakers but no quilters to be seen. My maternal grandmother started to make an English paper pieced quilt but it was not finished (how many of us are the same) my mother now has that quilt top and I hope she will add some of her fabrics to it. alas she is not a quilter too.
    Many thanks Amy for sharing!

    • Reply
      July 29, 2019 at 11:09 am

      Oh wow – what a treasure that quilt top must be! My grandmothers weren’t quilters either. One grandmother was a seamstress – she made clothes and knit beautifully. She did make one quilt before she got married – a Grandmother’s Flower Garden quilt during the Depression, but that’s the only one. The other Grandmother did not sew at all. When she’d see my quilts she’d laugh and say, “Well, you didn’t get it from me!’ 🙂

  • Reply
    July 26, 2019 at 2:52 pm

    That was beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

  • Reply
    Tricia Clayton
    July 27, 2019 at 9:30 pm

    I love Pioneer day and pioneers and quilts and beautiful cemetaries! I love this story Amy! So a couple of things that caught my attention…did you serve in the Manchester England mission? It is easy to see where your talent comes from! And those desert cemetaries leave lots to be desired….We live in the desert and I just don’t understand the rocks….Guess it is better than dirt and you can’t afford to water the grass! Anyway just loved this whole post!

    • Reply
      July 29, 2019 at 11:11 am

      I did serve in the Manchester, England mission! And you’re right about those poor desert cemeteries. Not always the most beautiful place to honor the amazing people who are buried there.

  • Reply
    Karen Seitz
    July 30, 2019 at 5:42 pm

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful history.

  • Reply
    August 1, 2019 at 8:19 pm

    What an amazing story! All the family we have in Colorado misses the greeness of the East.

  • Reply
    August 2, 2019 at 6:13 am

    Such a great story, combining two of my favorite things: ancestry and quilting. Just imagine all of the stars that had to align for you to learn of Ellen’s connection to this quilt. Just amazing, thanks for sharing!

  • Reply
    Power Tools With Thread
    August 3, 2019 at 5:22 pm

    Fabulous and amazing story! I’m a member of Daughters of the American Revolution so I fully appreciate digging for ancestral family and stories. I loved the read. Thank you!

  • Reply
    August 3, 2019 at 6:35 pm

    Thanks for sharing this amazing story! So interesting.

  • Reply
    Sheila Hill
    August 4, 2019 at 7:37 am

    Oh my what a beautiful history lesson, the church of the Latter Day Saints in Preston is a beautiful building and ‘the North’ is a great place to live, everyone is friendly and is brought up to love they neighbour. God bless

    • Reply
      August 4, 2019 at 1:49 pm

      Oh my goodness! Yes, I love ‘the North!’ So many wonderful people! That’s so wonderful that you’ve seen the Temple in Preston. It was being built while I lived in that area, but I’ve come back a couple of times since to see it. A little piece of my heart still lives in the northwest of England.

  • Reply
    Brenda Irwin
    August 4, 2019 at 11:15 am

    Loved the story! Thanks for sharing.

  • Reply
    Julie Edwards
    August 4, 2019 at 2:31 pm

    Thanks for the wonderful story! Quilting & Genealogy – what an awesome combo!

  • Reply
    August 4, 2019 at 9:53 pm

    I saw her lecture twice – one of the times I got to help her fold the quilt. It was such a great story and the book is interesting. I was hoping I to find a relative that had contributed to the quilt. My aunt was a quilter and always had a quilt on the frames. I wish I would have been more interested in quilting while she was alive.

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