Margaret Perkins' Quilt?
The Margaret Selena Perkins quilt is a chintz appliqué quilt, made of cut out motifs and images imported from English chintz. The quilt is estimated to have been made by Margaret between 1825 and 1835 in Burke County, NC. The quilt descended from Margaret to her son, Dr. Joseph Laxton, to his daughters. We will be taking you through the history of chintz, the people who may have come in contact with the Margaret Perkins quilt, and the history of the family responsible for the quilt.
Quilt History and Care of Quilt
Chintz became a popular quilting technique in Europe in the mid to late 18th century, inspired by the painted and printed cottons found by European settlers in India circa 1500. Due to trade imbalances and consumer demands, it became increasingly difficult to maintain the import of Indian chintz to Europe for the purpose of quilt making. As a result of trade imbalances, many European manufacturers began to master the dyeing methods used by Indians as a means of continuing the production of chintz material. As technology progressed in Europe, British manufacturers cornered the market and eliminated India from the trade because of their ability to mass produce chintz.
By the late 18th and early 19th century, Americans began to import British printed fabrics to continue the production of chintz quilts overseas. Due to slave labor, with locally sourced cotton materials, America became a leader in the cotton printing industry which increased the popularity of chintz quilts in the United States. These chintz appliqué quilts quickly became a marker of wealth and status in the United States, indicative of families who had the money and slaves to produce such eloquent quilts. Women made many of the chintz appliqué quilts that were produced in the United States to demonstrate their needlework and abundance of free time. As women reached their adolescent years, they began to pursue more complex projects to create household items and textiles in preparation for their marriage.
American chintz quilts were often found in the homes and bedrooms of young women who had sewn the quilts. There is very limited information about who may have come in direct contact with the Margaret Perkins quilt, but due to the history of slave labor in the home during the 19th century, when the quilt was made, it is safe to infer that many of the Perkins family’s slaves were responsible for caring for the quilt while it was in Margaret’s posession.
John Perkins, also known as "Gentleman" John Perkins, was the father of Joseph Perkins and the grandfather of Margaret Selena Perkins. He was born in 1733 and died in 1804. Along with Joseph, John had four other sons - Elisha, Ephraim, John, and Alexander - and two daughters - Mary and one other daughter whose name is unknown. John became a prolific member of his community after receiving land grants for thousands of acres in Catawba County and on John's River, located in Burke County, North Carolina.
At age 19, John associated with a group of German-speaking Protestants called Moravians, eventually guiding a group of them on an expedition headed by Bishop Spangenberg. Following this incident, the Earl of Granville granted John a section of his land through land grants. John eventually gave portions of his land to all his male children. Elisha and Ephraim inherited their father's land in Catawba county, while John, Alexander, and Joseph inherited the land on John's River.
Joseph Perkins was born in North Carolina. Joseph's family was the most prolific of any family related to John Perkins, according to a biography of John Perkins. He married Melissa Lavender, a woman of French descent. Together they had three sons - Dr. Joseph Harvey, Osiborne, and William - and four daughters - Elizabeth, Myra, Mary, and Selena, also known as Margaret. From his father John Perkins, Joseph inherited a nice farm adjacent to and to the south of "Old Oaks" and "Valley Farm", both located in Burke County. Joseph ended up dividing his inherited portion of the land among his children, with some of these divisions being sold out of the family.
Joseph seemed to be an elusive man, with little record being kept of his life. According to 1830 United States Federal Census data, Joseph housed no enslaved people and had seven free, white people living in his house. This is the time during which Margaret would have made the quilt, so it is possible that no enslaved people were involved in the making of the quilt. Joseph could own more property, however, where he housed enslaved people.
Margaret Salena Perkins
Margaret Salena Perkins is the daughter of Joseph Perkins and Melissa Lavender, and she is the granddaughter of John Perkins. She was born March 7, 1808 and died December 22, 1883, aged 75 years old. She is buried in the Forest Hill Cemetery with her husband, Levi Laxton, and some other members of her family. The cemetery is located in Morganton, which is a small town in Burke County, North Carolina. She had four children: Joseph Lavender Laxton, Melissa Laxton, David Levi Laxton, and Romulus Perkins Laxton.
Margaret has two chintz appliqué quilts, both of which came into the MESDA collection at the same time. From the details and the process of making the quilt, one can infer that Margaret would have been a woman with means and money. Both her grandfather and father seemed to be wealthy, considering the amount of land they owned and the nature of the quilt itself. Margaret made this specific quilt between the years 1825 and 1835 , making her between the ages of 17 and 27. One of her quilts has the initials 'MSP', meaning she created the quilt while she was unmarried and likely created the quilts to bring with her into her marriage to Levi Laxton.
It is important to note that much of the information surrounding Margaret Selena Perkins comes directly from data about her husband, father, or grandfather. Women did not have many rights or much written about them during the early 1800s, so more indirect forms of information were used to learn about Margaret and her life.
Marriage to Levi Laxton
Levi Laxton Jr. was the son of Levi Laxton Sr. and Nancy Laxton. His father, Levi Laxton Sr., was a Revolutionary War Veteran. During the Battle of Kings Mountain, his father was involved as a sword-bearer to Colonial Cleveland. After the war, he married Nancy Tilley and moved to modern-day Caldwell County, where they began to raise a family. In 1819 Laxton Sr. was issued 100 acres of land in Wilkes County. It is presumed that it was used to cultivate crops on that land because the Laxton families were also farmers. According to the 1820 census, Levi Laxton Jr. had three enslaved people that could have potentially assisted him with farming and other tasks. In the 1840’s census, Levi Laxton Jr. acquired six more enslaved people, totaling nine enslaved people. Those enslaved people would have potentially participated in household management and farming tasks. Levi Laxton Jr. grew up on this land with enslaved people surrounding him. The date of his marriage to Margaret Selena Perkins is unknown. However, they had four children: Joseph Lavender Laxton, Melissa Laxton, David Levi Laxton, and Romulus Perkins Laxton. At the time of his mother’s death, Levi Laxton Jr obtained an enslaved person named Joe. He was four years old and Laxton bought him for 332 dollars. The enslaved boy was presumed to be in Levi Laxton’s possession until the emancipation proclamation freed him. The enslaved boy could have potentially been involved with household tasks and tending to the quilt.
History of Slavery in Burke County
Since we were unable to find specific information about the enslaved peoples that would have been in contact with Margaret Perkins and the quilt itself, we aimed to give some general context and information that we could find about slavery in Burke County, NC at the time. One important thing to note at the start is the erasure of history that most certainly led to the lack of information available about the enslaved individuals working in proximity with Margaret Perkins. Enslaved people were considered and treated as property, a fact that is incomprehensible at this point in history but something that needs to be given as context for the understanding of this mass injustice—they had no rights to personal stories, record keeping, and their history. Therefore, in giving a general overview we do not aim to ignore this fact or act as if this is a perfect representation of the specific lives involved in the creation, maintenance and care of this quilt.
To start, in Burke County in 1830 there were 2,520 enslaved people recorded which would have made up about 14% of the population of the county at the time. Most of the enslaved people in Burke County were dispersed amongst the land of around 98 families. A lot of the enslaved people at the time would have lived on the larger and more prominent land holdings which were generally located in the deltas of rivers and creeks in the area such as the Linville River, Johns River, Upper Creek, Lower Creek, Canoe Creek, etc. This would have been the case for the Perkins’ family’s enslaved people as their plantation was located on Johns River. On these plantations, most of the enslaved people would have been forced to work in agriculture on the farm; however there would have been a number of enslaved peoples forced to work in the houses of the enslavers (mainly women and children). Additionally, it's important to note that even though Burke County was not known to have as many enslaved people as in other parts of the country, the climate around slavery was no better. Manumissions were extremely uncommon with only 1 being recorded between the years of 1796-1830. Additionally, slavery and slaveholdings increased steadily in the county up until the 1860s.
With this information and what we know about the Laxton family, it appears that early on in Levi Laxton’s marriage to Margaret, they would have enslaved a considerable number of people who would have been forced to give their labor and skills to the benefit of the enslavers’ family. However, later in life this most likely would have shifted such that by the 1850s, they would have most likely only enslaved 2 individuals that would have been forced to work in the house most often.
Where is the Quilt Today?
Given all of the above information, the next logical question is: where did the quilt end up? After her marriage to Levi Laxton and bringing the quilt along with her into her new home, Margaret passed the quilt down to her son Dr. Joseph Lavender Laxton. Joseph Laxton lived in Morganton County where he worked as a physician. After his life, he passed the quilt down to his unmarried daughters. The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts acquired the quilt in 1965.
Research Process and Roadblocks
Throughout the research process, we faced many challenges in finding information about the enslaved people that may have aided in the creation and care of Margaret's quilt. In order to best represent the extent of the history erasure of enslaved people and their lives, we have decided to give context for our extensive research process here.
Since there is not much written information on Margaret herself, we turned to information on her grandfather, father, and husband. While researching her grandfather John Perkins, we discovered a book entitled "Gentleman" John Perkins that provided information on the life of John, the land he owned, his children and their families, and the land he eventually gave to his children. Through this information, we discovered that one of John's sons, Joseph Perkins, received a considerable amount of land from his father, which he turned into a farm. From here, we chose to focus on finding how many enslaved people her grandfather, father, and husband would have kept on their land. Through finding a number or gender of enslaved individuals, we were hoping to quantify the families wealth and get leads about the specific enslaved people on their properties. To do so, we went to ancestry.com, a website that has many documents from land grants, to bills of sale, to slave schedules, to census data. First, we looked at census data, hoping that this would tell us how many enslaved people were on the grandfather's, father's, and husband's estates. We did eventually find some information on the enslaved people on her husband's estates. This information, however, led to a roadblock because the census data only provided a number and the gender of the enslaved person. Additionally, we only found census data from one of the years that Margaret would have been living with Levi Laxton and therefore were unable to get an accurate portrayal and understanding of the number and identities of the enslaved peoples.
After finding this information, we turned to focus on her husband. There was very little information provided for her grandfather and father, so we were unable to discover who may have helped Margaret make the quilt. When we researched her husband, we came across an important collection of documents called the "Levi Laxton Papers". These papers included bills of sale of enslaved people, which we thought would tell us exactly the information we needed to figure out who helped care for the quilt during her marriage to Levi Laxton. Unfortunately, these bills of sale gave us very little information besides a first name, age, and date of sale of the enslaved person. Additionally, these documents gave us very little information on the actual number of enslaved people on Levi Laxton's property, since only three bills were discovered. Though the bills of sale included a first name for the individuals, we were unable to follow these as leads for information as an enslaved individual’s first name was liable to change at any point that their enslaver decided to change it so record keeping of their lives was even more difficult.
After going through these avenues for research that we were familiar with, we reached out to a research librarian at Wake Forest University, Dr. Kathy Shields. We wanted to ensure that we had looked in every possible window to find the information about these enslaved individuals before making any claims that we were unable to find information on their lives. During our conversation with Dr. Kathy Shields, she first suggested that we look through all of the resources we had found already (ie: the “Levi Laxton Papers” and the ancestry website). Following that, she suggested that we include the section on the general history of slavery in Burke County and the history of Chintz Applique quilting in general. She also affirmed our struggle in finding out any more information than we already had in that the history of enslaved peoples has been erased to the point that the information may just not exist in any means accessible to us on the internet. Given her recommendations we included the sections on history erasure and the period of enslavement itself and finally decided that it may be time to focus on the lack of available history and information rather than continue a potentially impossible search.
These struggles helped us learn the nuances that come with studying history. Often, we are given incomplete information and stories about what actually happened, which diminishes our knowledge of important events in history. For the era of enslavement, enslaved people were seen as property. As a result, most white people did not care nor write about the stories of enslaved people. These people were effectively erased from history simply because their existence was deemed insignificant by American society.
Although we cannot know much about the specific lives of enslaved people - for example the people who worked on Margaret's grandfather's, father's, and husband's estates - it is important to recognize and understand the impacts of their forced labor. Enslaved labor built the foundations of society during the 1700s and 1800s and that history is something integral to understanding this piece of amazingly preserved textile art.
Object biography by Cerrin Crawford, Katie Hess, Cat Smith, and Wesley Tucker Spring 2022.
Land Grant from John Perkins
Women's Rights and Coverture Laws
When Margaret Perkins allegedly "made" this quilt women did not have the legal rights they have today. Instead they were subjected to coverture laws:
"By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in the law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing."
You can learn about coverture laws and women's rights in antebellum America here.
University of North Carolina
“One important thing to note at the start is the erasure of history that most certainly led to the lack of information available about the enslaved individuals working in proximity with Margaret Perkins. Enslaved people were considered and treated as property, a fact that is incomprehensible at this point in history but something that needs to be given as context for the understanding of this mass injustice—they had no rights to personal stories, record keeping, and their history.”
You can learn more about the history of quilting in the enslaved community from Stitched from the Soul.
The collection guide entry at MESDA will point you to the quilt's current location.
"Ancestry Library.Com - Joseph L Laxton in the U.S., Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles, 1861=1865." Accessed April 20, 2022. https://www.ancestrylibrary.com/discoveryui-content/view/641109:1555
"AncestryLibrary.Com - Joseph Perkins in the 1830 United States Federal Census." Accessed April 10, 2022. https://www.ancestrylibrary.com/discoveryui-content/view/174772:8058?_phsrc=dYE9&_phstart=successSource&gsfn=Joseph&gsln=Perkins&ml_rpos=1&queryId=891401122c4883ca00eec40e18fcd9da
"AncestryLibrary.Com - Levi Lantow in the 1820 United States Federal Census." Accessed April 19, 2022. https://www.ancestrylibrary.com/discoveryui-content/view/1478647:7734?tid=&pid=&queryId=a4c35864f96179be2c2650f620410583&_phsrc=iiC5&_phstart=successSource
"AncestryLibrary.Com - Levy Laxton in the 1840 United States Federal Census." Accessed April 19, 2022. https://www.ancestrylibrary.com/discoveryui-content/view/2575728:8057?tid=&pid=&queryId=a4c35864f96179be2c2650f620410583&_phsrc=iiC6&_phstart=successSource
“AncestryLibrary.Com - 1850 U.S. Federal Census - Slave Schedules.” Accessed April 8, 2022. https://www.ancestrylibrary.com/imageviewer/collections/8055/images/NCM432_650-0433?treeid=&personid=&hintid=&usePUB=true&usePUBJs=true&pId=91463897.
“Chintz Appliqué: From Imitation to Icon | International Quilt Museum - Lincoln, NE.” Accessed April 30, 2022. https://www.internationalquiltmuseum.org/exhibition/chintz-appliqu%C3%A9-imitation-icon.
“History of Caldwell County.” Accessed April 30, 2022. https://www.caldwellcountync.org/history-of-caldwell-county.
“Levi Laxton (1763-1845) | WikiTree FREE Family Tree.” Accessed April 30, 2022. https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Laxton-38#_note-3.
“Levi Laxton Papers, 1828-1890.” Text. Accessed April 30, 2022. https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/00416/#folder_1#1.
“Margaret Salena Perkins Laxton (1808-1883) - Find...” Accessed April 30, 2022. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/20695951/margaret-salena-laxton.
“PERKINS FAMILY of MD 6th Generation.” Accessed April 30, 2022. https://littlecalamity.tripod.com/Genealogy/Perkins2B.html.
Phifer, Edward W. “Slavery in Microcosm: Burke County, North Carolina.” The Journal of Southern History 28, no. 2 (1962): 137–65. https://doi.org/10.2307/2205185.
Mesda. “Quilt.” Accessed April 30, 2022. https://mesda.org/item/collections/quilt/619/.
“Quilting Part I: 18th Century - Antebellum | NCpedia.” Accessed April 30, 2022. https://www.ncpedia.org/quilting-part-i-18th-century.
Scott, W. W. . “Gentleman” John Perkins. Lenoir, North Carolina: The Lenoir News-Topic, n.d. https://ia904501.us.archive.org/cors_get.php?path=/31/items/gentlemanjohnper00scot/gentlemanjohnper00scot.pdf.