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A Unique Resource for Discovering the Lives of Early American Women

What records document female ancestors in early America? The standard answer is “not many” but it’s important that we go beyond the records that we are most familiar with and closely analyze those that we assume have no genealogical value.

It makes sense to seek out items that women themselves left behind. These items that they had a hand in creating often tell their story in the same ways that the standard genealogical documents that we rely on do. One of the items that women left behind were needlework samplers.

American Samplers cover

Recently I was looking through one of my bookcases and came across the book American Samplers by Ethel Stanwood Bolton and Eva Johnston Coe. As I went through the book, I realized what a fabulous genealogical treasure it was. The introduction begins by noting that “In preserving the memory of our ancestors, their domestic virtues have been scantily recorded, a neglect which demands attention.”{pg. v}

American Samplers page example

You might be asking yourself, why needlework samplers? Samplers were used to teach young girls the alphabet and sewing skills. Their work can include the maker’s name, age, year, as well as inscriptions and artwork. The one nice thing about them is they record the lives of girls and young women.[1] The American Sampler states that the average age of sampler makers after the 17th century was thirteen years of age.[2] The popularity of the needlework sampler covers centuries where finding records for women is difficult at best. Consider this list of years for earliest known samplers:

  • 1630 Massachusetts
  • 1720 New York
  • 1719 New Hampshire
  • 1721 Connecticut
  • 1724 Pennsylvania
  • 1725 Rhode Island
  • 1728 Vermont
  • 1734 South Carolina
  • 1740 New Jersey
  • 1747 Delaware
  • 1750 Maine
  • 1763 Georgia
  • 1765 Virginia
  • 1766 Maryland
  • 1786 North Carolina
  • 1800 Kentucky
  • 1807 Ohio[3]

 

Sampler homepage

This book is based on 2500 sampler descriptions. While there are those without names, the majority of the entries include a name and a date. The earliest sampler dates to the 1600s and the last to the 1830s.

Lucky for us this book is also an online database, the Sampler Survey Project from The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America and it has grown to include 5,000 samplers from 176 libraries, museums, and historical societies. You can learn more about the project from their website including what repositories participate.

 

Basic search

To search the database, you can either conduct a basic or advanced search. For the basic search, enter a keyword and choose a category. In this example I looked for Content Brayton. The results show information about her sampler including her age and the date it was made as well as the inscription. Note however, that not all entries include an image of the actual sampler.

Content sampler

For the advanced search you can enter a keyword in more than two categories including the maker's name, the inscription, owner and more.

Advanced search

Searching the online database is an opportunity to discover information about early American women. If you would like to look at a copy of the American Samplers book, it is available on Internet Archive.

Genealogical sources are found in all kinds of places and this is one example of how the work of passionate volunteers provides us with content we would not normally know existed.

 

[1] Just like with many record sets, only some girls and women are represented in this collection. Needlework samplers document largely the lives of some white women and girls.

[2] Bolton, Ethel Stanwood and Coe Eva Johnston. American Samplers. New York: Dover Publications, 1973.

[3] Ibid, p. 28

 

Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.

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