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Laurel Thatcher Ulrich on Mormon Women, Quilts, and Identity in 1857

By: Ben P - April 15, 2010

For those of you who don’t subscribe to American Historical Review, you missed out on a wonderful treat in their first issue of this year. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, pulitzer-prize winning historian and professor at Harvard University, published some of the earliest fruits from her recent work on Mormon history in the nineteenth century (for more background on Ulrich, see here).

Titled, simply enough, “An American Album, 1857,” Ulrich demonstrates her keen insight and inquisitive approach. She opens thus: “Sometimes the best way to approach a big topic is to focus on a small one. I would like to address a very large topic—conflict over marriage in the nineteenth-century United States—by considering a single object, a quilt made in the Territory of Utah in 1857.” Sounds simple enough, right? She continues: “I would like to convince my fellow historians that focusing on a single artifact can yield unexpected insights. Like other forms of micro-history, an object-centered inquiry enlarges details, allowing us to see connections that might otherwise be invisible” (1).

She then goes on giving background to the tumultuous year of 1857, referred to today as the beginning of the Utah War. She touches on the conspiracies–both toward Utah and coming from Utah–the distrust, and the marching army.

Events played out in seemingly random ways. In May, near a rural courthouse in Arkansas, an aggrieved husband gunned down a Mormon apostle who he claimed had seduced his wife. In September, at Mountain Meadows, a lush grazing spot on the Old Spanish Trail through southern Utah, a group of Mormon settlers and their Paiute allies ambushed an emigrant wagon train bound for California and slaughtered most of its members. In early October, far to the north in Salt Lake City, sixty-three members of the Fourteenth Ward Female Relief Society won a prize for their “Album Quilt.” (3)

While the latter event at first seems disjointed from the first two, Ulrich tells us of some connections, including the fact that three of the women who contributed to the quilt were wives of Parley Pratt (the killed apostle), and that the Relief Society organization itself was created in connection to Mormon-Paiute relations. Further, and most importantly, this quilt “takes us beneath the headlines to unresolved issues about family, faith, marriage, and public authority, issues that mattered in 1857 and that matter today. It helps us to see that on both sides of the conflict, the issue was what it meant to be an American.” (3)

The bulk of the article goes through family by family, woman by woman, quilt piece by quilt piece, telling stories of marriage, patriarchy, racial relations, authority, belief, and identity. Ulrich tells us about the wives and daughters of Wilford Woodruff, and what their squares tell us about their cohesive family unit, as well as how young wives and older children handled such a complex family situation. She tells us of the family of Bishop Abraham Hoagland, whose strained relationship with his wife reveals a culture of intense patriarchy, marital struggle, and, at times, even sexual repression. Ulrich deals with Parley Pratt’s widows, including Keziah Pratt, a British convert, whose quilt square included not only an American eagle but the national slogan e pluribus unum, proclaiming allegiance to a nation that she likely believed had some responsibility for the death of her husband. In her conclusion, Ulrich writes the following:

The Fourteenth Ward quilt is an American album. It is American not only because it was made in a territory of the United States from materials and patterns common in other parts of the country, nor because it was displayed at an agricultural fair like those in other states, but because it portrays aspirations and contradictions embedded in the history of the American republic. The quilters stitched mottoes so familiar as to be virtually invisible: In God We Trust. By Industry We Thrive. United We Stand. The Tree Is Known by Its Fruit. But through their lives, they exemplified the fraught meanings of those words. Like other Americans, Latter-day Saints believed that righteous families were the bulwark of the nation. That their homes and families were under attack only reinforced their sense of mission. (24)

In short, whether this time period or topic is your interest, I strongly recommend the article. Ulrich is an amazing writer (really: I always read a chapter out of her Midwife’s Tale before working on my master’s thesis in hopes that her prose will rub off on me), and she has a knack for bringing out the human nature of our historical subjects. She is worthy of the many accolades historians attribute to her, and we are lucky that she has recently turned her attention to Mormon diaries. As Charles Cohen mentioned at an OIEAHC session in her honor last year: we all know what happens when she gets her hands on a diary.

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Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “An American Album, 1857,” American Historical Review 115 (February 2010): 1-25. This was Ulrich’s Presidential Address to the American Historical Association, and can be found in an online format here.



9 Comments

  1. Thanks, Ben. Sounds fascinating.

    Comment by David G. — April 15, 2010 @ 7:25 pm

  2. Carol Holindrake Nielson wrote a book “The Salt Lake City 14th Ward Album quilt,” 1857 published by the University of Utah Press in 2004. Her husband, Dan, inherited one half of the quilt and she found a relative with the other half. I wonder if Ulrich has new material that isn’t already in Carol’s book. Plus the book has full color illustrations of the quilt blocks as well as the stories of the women that made them. Fascinating story.

    Comment by Maude Norman — April 15, 2010 @ 9:55 pm

  3. Thanks for the heads up. I enjoyed the book on the same subject, I will go read Ulrich’s address. I heard her speak at Utah State a few years ago on memory and history. It was masterful.

    Comment by Katie — April 15, 2010 @ 9:58 pm

  4. Thanks for the review. Ulrich consistently puts out material I find interesting and useful.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — April 16, 2010 @ 12:08 am

  5. Maude: Ulrich leaned heavily on Nielson’s book, and even acknowledged her help in answering questions while writing the article. Basically, Ulrich built off of Nielson’s brilliant foundation by showing how these local events and women reflect the larger national issues. I think the only new “material” she added was much on the Utah War context as well as the larger national tensions. And, as always, the key to history is always framework.

    Also, Ulrich briefly shares the story of how Nielson inherited her half of the quilt and was able to find the other half. It sounds like a really fascinating story.

    Comment by Ben — April 16, 2010 @ 2:08 am

  6. I think this a brilliant post, thank you for sharing.

    Comment by Aaron R. — April 16, 2010 @ 4:32 am

  7. I love LTU! Not really much else to say, except that the few times I got to talk with her helped me stay strong with my master’s thesis paper where I wanted to pick apart just a few old photographs to try and find a bigger meaning. Using photographs as primary source evidence (not just as an illustration) is still a nascent idea and one I’d encourage everyone to try.

    I think taking courses in Art History can really help hone the skills to find evidence in the visual rather than in words only.

    Comment by Heidi — April 16, 2010 @ 1:02 pm

  8. Thanks Ben. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich happens to be one of my “sheroes”. Meeting her at AHA this year was the fulfillment of a dream. Thanks for sharing this review of a work by a great historian.

    Comment by Ardis S. — April 18, 2010 @ 1:21 am

  9. Been following you for years. You have made our hometown, Sugar City, a great place to raise intelligent and soon to be in their lifetime famous. Haven’t read all your books currently available but looking forward to that.

    I love and admire you, as well as, my classmate, and your sister Layle.

    Launa
    Smithfield Utah

    Comment by Launa Mae Lusk Lundberg — May 26, 2010 @ 8:02 pm