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Quilt Query

Autumn Rivard, a graduate student in the Cultural Resource Management Program, researches Mid-Michigan diversity by analyzing Old Settler historic quilts. The Old Settlers were a primarily African American group that escaped slavery via The Underground Railroad and came to Michigan through Ohio and Canada. They settled in Isabella, Mecosta, and Montcalm counties where they began to develop the land given to them under the Homestead Act of 1862. Many of the Old Settlers married Native Americans, Caucasians, and people of other races and ethnicities to form a uniquely diverse group with a rich history. While some descendants have migrated to bigger cities, many still prevail in the Mid-Michigan area and come together for the annual Old Settler reunion that is held in August. Rivard will meet with various Old Settler descendants to learn more about the importance of quilting within their community.

Photo credit:  Dr. Jay Martin

Rivard chose to analyze Old Settler quilts for a couple of reasons. Quilts particularly piqued her interest because of their sentimental value. Within her own family, handmade blankets and quilts have been made and passed down for years. Rivard saw this as an opportunity to collaborate with the Old Settlers, helping them tell their stories, something she has wanted to do for a while, sharing, “They are a wonderful and unique group of people with an interesting history!” Rivard began by collecting background information about the history of quilts. Beyond providing warmth, quilts were also used to express ideas, emotions, and make political statements. For example, during the Civil War, women would use the “Radical Rose” quilt pattern, made up of a rose and black patch, to symbolize their support for the abolitionist movement. Background information is important in understanding the significance of the patterns and themes used in the Old Settler quilts.

Beyond the composition of the quilts, Rivard believes that the stories of those who made them will also reveal the community’s diversity. Oral interviews will be completed with descendants of the Old Settlers and knowledgeable members of the quilting community. She also plans to use local newspapers and museum collections as resources for information. Rivard’s goal is to expand existing quilt research and bring awareness to its role in documenting trends and attitudes in diverse communities throughout history. Once the research is completed, Rivard intends to illustrate her findings as part of an exhibit on Old Settler quilts at CMU’s Museum of Cultural and Natural History.


At CMU We Do Research, We Do Real World

Story by ORGS intern Hailey Nelson

December 2021