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Mary Anne Brownrigg Quilt

This project focuses on the quilt crafted by Mary Anne Brownrigg and explores the various aspects that support the significance of it. These aspects include the history of the prosperous Brownrigg Family, the prominent techniques utilized in the creation of the quilt, the 19th century textile industry, and the exploitation of enslaved people by 19th century textile industrialists. Drawing upon various legal and financial documents and other sources, speculations are formulated about the era in which the quilt was created and the possibility of contributions by enslaved people in its creation. 

Walking into the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, one may notice a quilt by Mary Anne Brownrigg. From a simple inspection, this quilt may not seem significant as a decorative bed cover, but financial and legal documents and various other sources suggest that this quilt does have significance due to its reminder of various things. This quilt gives a glance into the prosperous Brownrigg Family, who established and operated a fishing empire along the Albemarle Sound of North Carolina, and into the history of their estate Wingfield Plantation, which served as a safe haven for Confederate deserters, fugitive slaves, and Union supporters. This quilt demonstrates various 19th century quit-making techniques, such as applique and palampore. Lastly, this quilt displays the history of the 19th century textile industry and its exploitation of slave labor. 


Along with elaborate on these aspects of the quilt, the following research guide speculates about the era of creation of the quilt and the possibility of enslaved people contributing to its formation. Utilizing various financial and legal documents, the era of the creation of the quilt was narrowed down, and utilizing the same documents and other sources, possible unrecognized contributors of the quilt were discovered. Thus, this quilt also serves as an example of historical objects that have unrecognized contributors to their formation.

A Note on the Research Process

A portion of the presented information about the Brownrigg family and the possession of this quilt was drawn and speculated from financial and legal documents of the Brownrigg Family from The Louis Round Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. These documents contain information pertaining to Thomas Brownrigg, who was Mary Anne Brownrigg’s father. Some of these documents are the 1826 will of Thomas Brownrigg and the 1820 slave schedule of Thomas Brownrigg. With these documents, we were informed of the division of Thomas Brownrigg’s property and the possible slave influence on the creation of this quilt. We thank The Louis Round Wilson Library for cooperating with us and granting us access to these documents. 

As stated before, we speculated about much of the presented information due to the lack of information pertaining to the Brownrigg Family and this quilt. Although the information is speculated, we formulated these speculations from valid and insightful sources. That said, we do present information, especially information pertaining to the date of the quilt creation and the slave influence on the quilt creation, that might not have occurred, but rather, we present information that we believed most likely occurred. 

The Brownrigg Family & Wingfield Plantation

Richard Brownrigg, Mary Anne Brownrigg’s grandfather, was born in Wicklow County, Ireland in 1735. He immigrated to America as a young man, and settled in Bertie County, North Carolina, where he developed a fishery on the Chowan River (Michaelis). There, he caught, packed, and exported herring to various domestic and foreign customers. In 1760, Richard created his family estate of Wingfield Plantation on the Chowan River, where Richard and his wife Sarah Baker would raise their sons Thomas and John (Hinton 174). 

Thomas Brownrigg, who was born in 1767, would grow up to continue and expand his father’s business, opening a number of other fisheries in other locations along the Albemarle Sound (Hinton 175). He would also develop Wingfield Plantation and own 67 enslaved people who worked on it by the time of his death (Thomas Brownrigg 1820 Slave Schedule). Thomas and his wife Ruth Baker would have several children: Richard Brownrigg, Mary Anne Brownrigg, Priscilla Bailey, Thomas Brownrigg, John Brownrigg, and Elizabeth Brownrigg (Thomas Brownrigg 1826 Will, 1-2). One of these children, Mary Anne Brownrigg, was the creator of this quilt and was born in 1796 and died in 1838 (“Quilt”). At the time of Thomas’s death in 1826, his will mentions he left 300 acres of his estate to his daughter Mary Anne (Thomas Brownrigg 1826 Will, 1). Two years later she would marry Hardy Cross, and they would remain married until Mary Anne’s death in 1838 (North Carolina Marriage Bonds 1741-1868). Cross would later marry Caroline Jones in 1865 and then die in 1884 (North Carolina, U.S., Marriage Index 1741-2004). 

Mary’s share of the Wingfield Plantation would be passed down to her daughter Mary Louisa Cross Dillard and would eventually be owned by her and her husband, Dr. Richard Dillard. The “Buffaloes,” later took over the plantation and utilized it as a safe haven for Confederate deserters, fugitive slaves, and Union supporters. The Buffaloes were a group of Unionists in Eastern North Carolina that used various guerrilla warfare tactics in order to take over Confederate communities and plantations. Their name comes from how they would travel in bands, almost as if they were a herd of buffalo. During the winter of 1862 to 1863, there were various attacks by Confederates to take over Wingfield Plantation from the Buffaloes. Eventually, the plantation would be burned in 1863 as the Buffaloes were attacked by the confederates (“Wingfield Plantation”). 

Era of Quilt Creation

The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts’ archive of the Brownrigg quilt indicates that it was created sometime between the years of 1820 and 1835, but Brownrigg Family financial and legal documents suggest that the quilt was instead created between the years of 1826 - 1838. If the quilt was created while Thomas Brownrigg was alive, he would have had ownership of it since he had conservatorship over his daughter and her property, so the quilt would have been mentioned within his will; however, his 1826 will does not mention any quilts. His will reads, “I give to my daughter Mary Anne Brownrigg that part of my Pasquotank land commonly called the back land on the Gum bridge road containing about 300 acres, negro girl Rozetta (Sarah Child) and my silver spoons at Richard. T. Brownrigg in fee.” Mary did not inherit a quilt; however, the will does mention Mary’s share of the Wingfield plantation and Rozetta, which will be important to the quilt’s creation (Thomas Brownrigg 1826 Will, 1). 

The only terminology with Thomas Brownrigg’ 1826 Will that could include the quilt is “Beds and furniture,” which is inherited by multiple individuals (Thomas Brownrigg 1826 Will, 1). Hardy Cross’s 1884 will indicate that a decorative quilt, such as this one, would be specifically mentioned within Thomas Brownrigg’s will. Within Hardy Cross’s 1884 will, a “Bed Quilt No. 1” is mentioned and was sold for $2.00 to a W. Burke (Hardy Cross 1884 Will, 5). This suggests that there was no umbrella term, such as “Beds and furniture,” that quilts fell under within 19th century wills; thus, if the quilt was created during Thomas Brownrigg’s lifespan, the quilt would have been mentioned within his will, and it would have most likely been inherited by Mary Anne given that she is the accredited creator of it. Given this information, the quilt was most likely created after the death of Thomas Brownrigg in 1826 and before the death of Mary Anne Brownrigg in 1838. 

The Forms of the Quilt 

The Brownrigg quilt is made of chintz fabric, which is a painted or stained calico textile that is originally made from cotton (Horton). It originated in the sixteenth century and most commonly features floral designs or patterns on a light background. That idea holds true for the Brownrigg quilt, as it features a triple border, the outermost of which is filled with multicolored flowers that almost completely obscure a light brown background. The innermost border is also a chintz fabric with an unrecognizable design. The middle border contains appliqued multi-colored motifs on a white background. Applique is a technique that involves sewing or pasting pieces of fabric onto another (Phillips). 

The center of the quilt features a palampore design, which is a technique that involves hand painting onto the fabric (Carroll). The palampore design of this quilt contains a tree of life, which is a fitting name given it contains many branches on which many different types of flowers have bloomed and birds have perched. Patterns like this were common during the time period, and many of these patterns were able to be read and deciphered for their significance. Although, in the case of this quilt, there is no certainty of what the tree of life symbolizes. 

This quilt serves as somewhat of a standard quilt for the time of its creation. It contains various bird and floral motifs that were commonly seen in the quilts during the time, and it also contains a palampore design, which was also customary at the time. Where this quilt deviates from others made during the time is its use of the applique technique, which was only developed in the early 19th century (Carroll). Thus, this quilt is a model of both conventional 19th century quilt-making practices and unconventional quilt-making practices. 

The 19th Century Textile Industry

As discussed before, cotton is utilized in the creation of chintz fabric, which was used for various textiles in the 1800s, such as quilts. Cotton first had to grow and harvested, much of which was done on plantations that utilized slave labor (“The Cotton Economy and Slavery”). After such cotton was picked, it was deseeded. This process was facilitated by Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793 which  allowed for cotton fibers to be easily separated from seeds (Bailey 35). After this process, cotton was sent to cotton mills, in which it was spun and woven in order to create fabric. After the fabric was created, color was applied to it in order for it to become chintz fabric (Horton). 

Originally, Indians made chintz fabric by hand painting their block designs with different colors. However, as time progressed and the practice was advanced and popularized, chintz was made using a series of dyes, in a somewhat lengthy process that would ensure that the colors would not be washed out. First, the fabric would be completely bleached, and the maker would put down black outlines of the design. Then, the maker would add any red dye since it was the most sensitive to being washed out. The areas containing red would be treated with a mordant that would make sure the red only stuck there. The entire thing would be stuck in a dye bath and the red would only show up in the areas treated with mordant. In these cases, sometimes the cloth would be treated with mordant additional times, depending on how vibrant the maker wanted the color to appear. Then, the cloth would be bleached again and the process would be repeated with blue or indigo dye. Parts of the cloth that were not meant to be dyed would be covered in wax for protection, and the maker would boil the cloth any time they wanted to remove the wax. Lastly, yellow would be applied, since it was the least likely to be washed out. The red, yellow, and blue could be painted over one another in order to make colors like purple or green, but those colors were not often found in chintz fabrics. Orange or pink chintz was practically nonexistent. Pressure would be applied to the fabric to give it a glaze. This gave the chintz fabric a bit of a shine and a more elegant essence (“Chintz”). Many of the chintz fabric makers were able to make intricate designs during this process, and often, they made elaborate floral patterns, as is seen on the Brownrigg quilt. 

The Exploitation of Enslaved People in 19th Textile Production

In the early 19th century, there was an increase in textile production due to Eli Whitney’s cotton gin allowing for a quicker de-seeding process. Due to this increase in production, textile industrialists required a higher amount of slave labor in both picking the cotton and developing it into chintz frabric. With a higher demand for cotton, southern cotton plantations grew larger, and the work of enslaved people became crueler and more tiresome. Textile industrialists were known to be involved in the business of commercial slave trading in order to increase the amount of textile enslaved labor. Enslaved people from the northern United States were forced to go work in the South. From 1790 to 1860, the southern slave population grew an average of 28.7% (Bailey 35-36). This is recognized as the “Second Middle Passage,” and it is the largest forced migration on United States soil in United States history (“The Cotton Economy and Slavery”). 

Textile mills were heavily present in New England, and although the cruelty of slavery was less prominent there, many free African Americans and enslaved individuals operated the textile mills to create chintz fabric. Female slave labor was commonly utilized in the needlework of specific textiles, such as quilts. With the prevalence of enslaved labor within the textile industry, many individuals adopted the view that, “cotton and slavery were so complementary as to seem to be made for each other” (Bailey 48). 

Slave Labor & The Brownrigg Quilt 

Although this quilt is attributed to Mary Anne Brownrigg, it is unlikely that she was the sole contributor to the creation of this quilt. Mary Anne, being a woman from a prosperous family in the 1800s, would have played a role in the final design and stitch work of the chintz fabric on the quilt. Quilt-making was part of a young woman’s needlework in the 1800s, and it was usually only done by women who lived in prosperous households because of the amount of leisure time they had to do the needlework (Carroll). As stated before though, needlework was only one piece of the quilt-making process. In order for there to have been chintz fabric for Mary Anne to utilize, cotton must have been grown, picked, de-seeded, spun, woven, and dyed. Within these elements of the quilt-making process, slave labor was utilized.

As can be observed in Thomas Brownrigg’s 1826 will, the remaining 500 acres of land that was not inherited by Mary was to be sold, but the will indicates that Thomas’s enslaved people were not sold. Near the end of his will, he states, “I wish my executors to sell the residue of my estate including my house and lots in Edenton, The Harlem farm with the Five hundred acres I bought of John Popelton, except the negroes and as many of them as will pay my lawful debts” (Thomas Brownrigg 1826 Will, 3). This means that Mary Anne inherited roughly sixty to seventy enslaved people from her father and had their labor abilities at her disposal. 

These enslaved people were possibly responsible for growing, picking, and processing the cotton on her plantation. This is safe to assume because it is what was common in North Carolina during that time period. Plantations were very large, and their owners would try to accumulate as many enslaved people as possible. They mostly grew cash crops like cotton, tobacco and rice, and did so in very harsh conditions. These conditions included being overworked, not being sufficiently fed, and constantly being subject to cruel punishments. No matter how successful the plantation was, the living conditions for enslaved people did not improve. Plantation owners traditionally used their profits to buy more enslaved people and land, instead of trying to improve their machinery or diversify their business to other industries (Watson). The former in this scenario is considered growth while the latter is considered development, and the repeated choice of growth in the South is credited with being the reason for economic hardship in comparison to the North, which was wealthier during the time period. 

Mary Anne Brownrigg fit right into this stencil, and her family owned over 60 enslaved people and over 300 acres of land. Given Mary Anne’s circumstances, it is almost certain that she did not grow and pick the cotton necessary for the quilt herself, and it is likely that she did not do the weaving and coloring herself either. It is worth mentioning that many white women in the South led busy lives and had to care for their families. It was not common for a woman to have large amounts of time to spend hand crafting things like quilts, and it is likely that Mary Brownrigg did not have this kind of time either (Carroll). She did, however, have an enslaved person that was left to her personally in her father’s will, a girl named Rozetta. It is possible that Rozetta, or another enslaved person, is responsible for the needlework of this quilt. Given all this information, accrediting Mary Anne Brownrigg as the creator of this quilt is insufficient as there were possibly various enslaved people that contributed to the textile.


Part of our audiovisual presentation involves giving every student a blank canvas for them to draw their own quilt.  We hope for as much creativity and individual designs as possible, allowing each student to truly feel like they are participating in the quilt-making process.  However, after they are done and have made the quilt that they wanted, they will be taken from them and introduced as the work of someone else. They are then asked the following questions, “Given that you contributed labor to this quilt, do you think it is fair to say that we are the creators and not you?”, and, “How is this similar to the enslaved people who were not recognized for their contributions to the textile industry in the 1800s?”. 

Our purpose in doing this exercise is to try and create some sympathy towards enslaved people who put a lot of time and effort into creating something, only to have it be taken from you and presented as someone else’s. There is no way for anyone nowadays to be able to feel as if they can feel what the enslaved people of the 1800s felt, and nor are we going to try and say that anyone should.  It is very important to try and have a better understanding of the conditions that enslaved people would have to live through, including a lack of personal identity.  This is a small exercise for the students, but we believe it can serve as a powerful one all the same.  


This quilt by Mary Anne Brownrigg, like hundreds of other objects from the past, is proof that there is always more than meets the eye. At first glance, it would be easy to think that this is simply just another old household item that has no significance; however, in reality, this quilt serves as glance into the past of the prosperous Brownrigg Family and a historical location, a model of quilt-making techniques, a remnant of 19th century textile production, and a reminder of the unrecognized enslaved people who contributed to 19th century textile production.

Through this research guide of the quilt by Mary Anne Brownrigg, possible misconceptions about artifacts were presented. According to the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA), this quilt was created by Mary Anne Brownrigg in the years 1820 - 1835, but the presented research begs to differ. Legal and financial documents from the Brownrigg Family suggest that the quilt was instead created between the years of 1826 to 1838, and these documents, along with various other sources, suggest that Mary Anne Brownrigg was not the sole contributor to this quilt. Enslaved people, whether working on Wingfield Plantation, other plantations, or cotton mills, most likely contributed to the creation of the chintz fabric that the quilt is composed of and to the needlework of the quilt itself. 

This quilt by Mary Anne Brownrigg is not the only object in which some of the contributors are unrecognized. Various objects, some of which are located in MESDA, are only accredited to some of the many individuals that contributed to their formation. This presented research on the quilt by Mary Anne Brownrigg serves as an impetus for researchers to further investigate whether historical objects have contributors that are unrecognized. 

Object biography by PJ Balfour, Andrew Castro, Isabella Fiorentino, and Michael Walsh.  Spring 2022.

Mary Anne Brownrigg Quilt.jpg
The following research guide speculates about the era of creation of the quilt and the possibility of enslaved people contributing to its formation. Utilizing various financial and legal documents, the era of the creation of the quilt was narrowed down, and utilizing the same documents and other sources, possible unrecognized contributors of the quilt were discovered.

The Brownrigg Family Papers can be accessed here or at Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina. Some of this material has been digitized. 

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Thomas Brownrigg's Slave Schedule.

(A slave schedule offers population information.)

Thomas Brownrigg's Will

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Mary Anne Brownrigg Quilt.jpg
Mary Anne Brownrigg Quilt.jpg

You can learn more about the Cotton Gin here.

Mary Anne inherited roughly sixty to seventy enslaved people from her father and had their labor abilities at her disposal. 

Works Cited


Bailey, Ronald. “The Other Side of Slavery: Black Labor, Cotton, and Textile Industrialization in Great Britain and the United States.” Agricultural History 68, no. 2 (1994): 35–50. 

Brownrigg, Thomas. “Thomas Brownrigg 1820 Slave Schedule,” 1820. 

Brownrigg, Thomas. “Thomas Brownrigg 1826 Will,” 1826. 

Carroll, Laurette. “American Quilts of the Nineteenth Century.” Antique Quilt History, December 19, 2015. 


“Chintz.” Atelier Nostalgia, July 30, 2020.

Cross, Hardy. “Hardy Cross 1884 Will,” 1884.

Cross, Hardy. “North Carolina, U.S., Marriage Index 1741-2004,” 2004.

Hinton, Mary Hillard, editor. The North Carolina Booklet Vol. XIV, The North Carolina Society, July, North Carolina, 1914, pp. 174–175. 

Horton, Laurel. “Reading History from Quilts and Museum Detectives Use Solid Evidence.” Reading History from Quilts and Museum Detectives Use Solid Evidence | NC Museum of History. 


Michaelis, Kathryn. “Brownrigg Family Papers, 1736-1986.” UNC. Chapel Hill, November 2010.  

Phipps, Elena. “The Materials and Techniques of American Quilts and Coverlets.” The Met. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, August 2009. 

“Quilt.” MESDA. Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts. 

The Cotton Economy and Slavery, PBS, Oct. 2013, 

Watson, Harry L. “1830-1850: Antebellum NC Begins.” NCpedia, 1996. 

“Wingfield Plantation.” Wingfield Plantation, Chowan Co, NC. NCpedia, 2016. 

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