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Old Quilt Provides a Glimpse of History

Heirlooms often hold clues for genealogy researchers

Tracee Hamilton in front of a depression-era quilt that was mailed to her by a stranger, who traced one of the signatures to Hamilton's grandparents. — Charlie Archambault

Sometimes the best genealogical finds are not in public records but in old objects — an address book, a box of surveyor's tools, a set of military dog tags. In my case, I discovered a great deal about my family's history buried in a box at an estate sale halfway across the country.

See also: What's your family story?

A woman named Kate Johnson emailed me one day, saying she'd just bought an unfinished quilt at an auction in Julesburg, Colo. My grandparents' names — "Mr. and Mrs. Alvin Lewick" — were embroidered on one block. Kate, a genealogist in Denver, had found me because I had posted my grandparents' obituaries online, along with my email address. She was willing to sell me the half-made quilt and the unused fabric for her cost, plus postage — $14. What a deal!

closeuTracee Hamilton of Vienna VA with a closeup of family quilt that hangs in the stairwell.p of Tracee Hamilton's family quilt

A block of an old signature quilt with the author's family name embroidered on it. — Charlie Archambault

When the quilt arrived, I quickly became obsessed with figuring out exactly when it was made, for whom and by whom.

Based on my knowledge of quilting, I knew this was a friendship or signature quilt, traditionally used to describe one made by a group of women. As I studied the names embroidered on the back, I wondered how those women were connected. Were they members of the same church? Did they live in the same neighborhood?

I recognized the surnames as being from the rural Pleasant Valley neighborhood where my grandparents had begun married life. So I started researching the obituaries for the couples' whose names were on the quilt. An obituary, especially from a small-town newspaper, can be a treasure trove because it typically has all the important dates, plus religious affiliation, educational background, causes of death — in genealogical terms, the works.

Of the couples on the quilt blocks, the most recent marriage had taken place in 1929. The earliest death among those named was 1943. That narrowed the time frame to 14 years. The unused fabric appeared to be what I would call Depression-area material. Because it was irreplaceable, I decided to hand it over to the Vienna (Va.) Quilt Shop, whose experts finished it for me.

That left me to continue the research. Through the obituaries, I was fairly certain I could eliminate the quilt as a church project — the families belonged to several different denominations.

The next clue was the one lone block belonging to a single woman, Miss Eva Whiteside, amid all those married couples. In the most recent federal census available, 1930, Eva was living in the city of Lincoln with her parents, who never farmed in the Pleasant Valley area, as far as I could tell.

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