Sarah’s Quilt, 52 Ancestors #141

In 1870 in Kentucky, if a man died, the entire estate was presumed to be his, legally, with his wife having a “dower right” of 30% of the value of the estate.  By the way, this also included anything, including real estate, that the wife had inherited, from anyone, unless it was specified in the inheritance that she was to hold it separately from the husband.  So the old adage of, “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine” was true.

The only way to value that estate was to have an inventory taken, submitted to the court, then a sale of all of the property. Yes, a sale, of everything the “man” owned. Now that “everything” included plates, cups, forks, pans, skillets and kitchen utensils he had maybe never touched, except to eat, but were legally considered his. Nothing was “hers” or “theirs.” The only way for the widow to retain “her” things, aside from her clothes (literally) was to purchase those items from her husband’s estate sale.

So, let’s get this straight.  If a Jane’s mother had left Jane a plate that was a family heirloom, that plate immediately became Jane’s husband’s property, and if he died, Jane had to purchase her mother’s plate from her husband’s estate sale.  Got it.

If you think this was a barbaric practice, it was.

I can only imagine the sale day, not long after the widow had already suffered the loss of her husband, maybe just a couple weeks after hearing those clods of dirt fall against his wooden coffin. The grave, now with fresh dirt mounded over the top was within sight of the auction as neighbors arrived.  Perhaps they acknowledged their deceased neighbor as they passed by and family placed a few flowers before turning and walking towards the house.

The widow was left wondering how she was going to feed the family and get the crops in out of the field. Her, or legally, his belongings were now standing outside in the yard or perhaps in the barn for all to inspect before the sale.  The widow would have felt stripped bare-naked to the bone, exposed, with her entire life on display for all to evaluate and comment upon.  And rest assured, those comments weren’t all made in the spirit of love.

The grieving widow, hearing the auctioneer’s rhythmic incantations to bid, echoing through her mind forever like a terrible melody, watching her life indiscriminately and methodically being sold off piece by piece to family members, neighbors and strangers alike. Heirlooms were sold outside of the family, including items like the family Bible. Going…going…gone! Nothing was exempt.

Furthermore, given that the widow only had the “right” to one third, she had to be careful only to bid on what she desperately needed and could afford, no more than one third of the value of the estate. If she spent her entire one third recovering household and farm items, enough to at least attempt to farm, she would have no cash from the sale to purchase supplies or food she couldn’t grow, like sugar, or pay for labor. And who was going to give a widow woman credit? What a terrible quandry.

I hope, I really hope, that when other bidders saw the widow bidding on something, they just shut up.

William Chumley’s Estate

This past week, I was perusing the estate of my ancestor’s daughter’s husband, William Chumley, who died in 1870 in Russell County, Kentucky. There were three documents filed with the court. The first document I found was the actual estate sale. Like normal, I saw the widow’s name, Sarah Chumley, among the bidders, which always saddens me greatly.


Sarah Chumley bid on and purchased several inexpensive items.

  • 5 comforts – 1.00
  • Sett teas – .10
  • 7 plates – .10
  • 5 glass tumblers – .15
  • 1 clock – .25
  • 1 looking glass – .10
  • 1 small table – .25
  • 1 hoe – .15
  • 1 plow – .15
  • 1 plow – .15
  • Cavalry saddle – .15
  • 1 sythe and cradle – .50
  • 1 sucking colt – 5.00

The second document I came across was titled “Allotment to widow Chumley” with a list of items allotted to Sarah and values attached. In this case, these items were in addition to what she purchased at the sale. In other words, these items below seem to have been set aside for Sarah at the appraised value of the items. She never had to bid for them, but she had to accept whatever the appraisers estimated their values to be.

Sometimes this was fine, but other times, not so much. The appraised value could be more, or less, than what the item actually sold for. In William’s estate, an ox cart that was appraised at $12 only sold for $6.60. If the widow had wanted that cart, she would have “paid” $12 for it to keep it from being auctioned. Of course, had she waited to buy it at auction, she might not have been able to purchase it, and it might have cost more than the $12 that it appraised for.  The 5 bed comforters that appraised for $1 to $1.50 each were purchased together at auction by the widow for $1 total. So this “setting aside” practice could be a double edged sword.


The estate appraisal was the third document filed for William Chumley, although that normally was filed first. All of William’s estate documents were filed at once, on October 7, 1870, and the appraisal just happened to be the third one copied into the book.  It appears right after the final portion of the widow’s allotment.


Each item that a deceased person owned was valued by, traditionally, 3 appraisers. The first appraiser being the person the deceased owed the most money to, the idea being that individual stood to benefit the most from the estate items being sold at the highest value possible so the debts of the deceased could be paid, in full, hopefully. The second appraiser was generally someone related to the wife to represent her interests. And the third appraiser was an entirely disinterested party, but with a working knowledge of prices in the area. Often you see the same people being appointed by the court over and over again in this third capacity.

Estate appraisals are wonderful documents for the genealogist, because in essence you’re peering into their house and barn from the distance of decades and sometimes centuries.

I was scanning down the inventory list, imagining what their life was like in rural Kentucky, based on what was and wasn’t present in the appraisal.

That’s when I saw it.

The Quilt

1 Quilt…..$15


A quilt.


This quilt isn’t Sarah’s quilt, but it is a quilt top (unquilted) made from Civil War era scrap fabrics from the same time and may have looked similar. The pieced blocks in this quilt appear to have been made from old clothes, complete with stains – a very common way to utilize remaining fabric after clothes were too damaged to wear any longer. Everything was salvaged and reused one way or another.

The quilt in William’s estate inventory was probably a quilt that Sarah had made with her own hands, often piecing and quilting with scraps from clothes, old and new, by candlelight in the evenings.

Maybe Sarah made that quilt from the scraps of the clothes she had made for her children. Sadly, those would be the children Sarah either never had, or that never lived long enough to be recorded in a census. The children Sarah longed for and hoped for, but were never born, or were born and died and were buried in the ever-expanding family cemetery behind the house where she could watch over their graves daily. The same cemetery where she would one day bury William.

Maybe eventually Sarah took the tiny clothes she made for those children she dreamed about apart and used the fabrics in the quilt she and William used to keep warm. Maybe this quilt got them through the Civil War.

It may have been the quilt Sarah sobbed into when her father, Lazarus Dodson, died in October 1861, just a month before the Confederates camped beside, or maybe on, her family land. Two months later, the Battle of Mill Springs (Logan’s Crossroads) took place a mile or so away – the Union forces advancing across the family land – perhaps through the cemetery where her father was buried.

Did Sarah huddle, wrapped in this quilt, with her step-mother and sister as the menfolk engaged in battle? Did the women hide a gun for protection in the folds of that quilt, praying they would never have to use it and hoping they could shoot straight if they did? They could surely hear the battle, the cannons, the shots and the cries, half a mile or a mile away, across the fields, past the cemetery.  Hundreds died that day and scores more were injured. Did this quilt comfort a wounded soldier?

Were Sarah and her sister huddled together with the quilt wrapped around them for warmth in front of the fireplace when they received word that Sarah’s sister, Mary Redmon’s step-son had been killed? His stone rests just down the road at the Mill Springs National Cemetery, but his body never came home.

And what about Mary’s husband, William “Billy” Redmon, who was fighting for the Confederacy?  He came home safe, but Sarah and Mary would have worried relentlessly until he did.  Did Billy know his son had been killed until he arrived home after the war?

Did Sarah shed tears of anxiety as she worried about her half-brother, Lazarus Dodson, named after her father, who fought for the Union in the war? And what about Sarah’s half-sister, Nancy’s husband, James Bray, also fighting for the Union?

How about Sarah’s half-sister Rutha’s husband, John Y. Estes who while fighting for the Confederacy was injured, captured and held prisoner of war? Did he stop at the cabin on his way walking back to Tennessee after his captors released him north of the Ohio River, injured and with no food or supplies? Did John find his way to his father-in-law’s land, knowing he would find food and shelter, only to discover Lazarus’s grave? Did John sleep beneath this quilt perhaps, or as a former Confederate, was he not welcome in Sarah’s home?

And then there was Sarah’s half brother, John Dodson, and his wife, Barthenia, who lived nearby and simply disappeared between the 1860 and 1870 census, with some of their children in 1870 found living among relatives and neighbors. Were John and Barthenia war casualties too?

Sarah probably wrapped up in that quilt for comfort when she buried her children, if she was able to conceive, then when she buried her father, Lazarus Dodson, her sister’s step-son, her brother, his wife and some of their children and then in 1870, when Sarah buried her husband as well. Life was difficult and there were probably many more burials, sorrows and trials that we know nothing about.

The quilt, valued at $15 was worth more than the brown heifer at $11, about the same as 8 shoats (young pigs) at $16 and the man’s saddle at $14, and more than the ox cart and a saddle with bridle, valued at $12, respectively. As far as household goods, nothing was worth more. The quilt was valued at exactly the same as 10 head of sheep, and animals were the most valuable items in this estate inventory except for a grouping of 2 beds, bedding and furniture for $30.

This tells you that the quilt was not a tied comforter, but a beautifully hand crafted quilt. This quilt was clearly more than just “bedding,” given the appraised value, and since there was only one, it was likely an heirloom to Sarah – something she had poured her heart and soul into.

Maybe some of the fabrics in the quilt had even come from Sarah’s mother’s dresses. Sarah’s mother had died when Sarah was a child, sometime between Sarah’s sister Mary’s birth about 1833 and Sarah’s father’s remarriage in 1839. Was Sarah’s only memory of her mother through fabrics in the quilt?

At her husband’s estate sale, Sarah Chumley, the widow, bought “5 comforts” for $1.


But comforts aren’t quilts. For clarity, comforters are whole pieces of cloth, front and back, with some sort of cotton or wool “batting” layered in-between, and tied or “knotted” every few inches with thread or yarn to hold the layers together. Comforters were quick to make. Quilts weren’t and aren’t – taking months and sometimes years.  Not only was the quilt top hand pieced, but the top, batting and back were held together by millions of tiny stitches, every one lovingly placed by hand, about 10 stitches per linear inch of thread.

What happened to that quilt?

We don’t know.

It’s not listed on the bill of sale from the auction. It’s not listed in Sarah’s allotment. Let’s hope that someone, someplace had the good sense to simply let Sarah have her quilt and just “lost” it in the process.

Lord knows she needed it.

Ten days after Sarah’s husband died, on May 20, 1870, Sarah made her own will, at roughly 37 years of age, stating that she was “week of body but of good sound mind.” She left everything to a child she appeared to have raised, but with a different surname, and her sister’s children, her “neeces and neffu.”

On September 23rd, that same year, Sarah’s will was recorded with the court, indicating she had passed on.

Indeed, Sarah desperately needed that quilt, just for another 3 months or so, as she mourned the life she had, the family she had lost and the children that were never born, or were and died. Sarah needed comfort as she left this earthly world. When you wrap up in a quilt, those who made the quilt, or those who love you from the other side are hugging you – earthly caresses from the wings of angels to ease your way.

All things considered, I wondered if Sarah was perhaps wrapped in and buried with her quilt.

While Sarah couldn’t be spared the many griefs in her short lifetime, let’s pray that Sarah was at least spared her quilt.



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19 thoughts on “Sarah’s Quilt, 52 Ancestors #141

  1. What a lovely story! I echo what Gary (see above) said, beautiful writing and thank you for sharing this with us.

  2. The “dower right” came from English custom and had some unexpected and historic consequences. In the ancient English version, the widow did not receive the property, per se, but received 35% of the income generated by the estate, until her death. This provided for the needs of the widow without breaking up large landholdings. The system worked well until the Black Death of the 14th century. Men were more susceptible than women because their farm work put them in greater contact with the animals carrying the infected fleas. On some estates, the family patriarch would die, then his son would die, and then maybe the grandson would die. In such cases, the estate became subject to two or even three dower rights. Operation of the estate was unsustainable in such circumstances and the remaining heirs had no choice but to break them up and distribute the property. This had the effect of releasing the peasants who previously had been bound to the land, thus creating a mobile work force, paid by wages. In short, the dower right led to the early end of feudalism in England, and the creation of a free labor economy.

  3. Wonderful story. Additional resonances for me.
    Attended an estate auction as a child after my grandmother died. Some keepsakes (and all of the family photographs) had been taken by family already, but the rest all went under the hammer. What struck me at the time was even the family cutlery and crockery. Last was the house itself. So far as I recall, we did not have a tradition of elaborate quilting, but my father remembered the effort that went into providing the filling. The finer fillings took many young birds and consequently he valued that. Most of the family had to put up with large scratchy feathers from old boilers.

  4. There is an old Mexican legend that says there are three types of death: The first occurs when all bodily functions cease and the soul leaves the body; the second occurs when the body is interred, returning one’s physical shell to the earth; and the final, most definitive death, occurs when no one remembers you. Thanks to you, Sarah Chumley is still remembered.

    This is one of the reasons I love genealogy – so many ancestors being remembered.

  5. I am a quilter myself. I know most people nowadays “quilt” by machine, but I prefer to do it by hand. A friend gave me her grandmother’s quilt top which had been hand pieced in Ohio around 1929. I just finished it, and it took me two years to quilt it. When you say a comfort is not a quilt, that is so true. It’s not a quilt until it’s quilted. I hope Sarah got to keep her quilt, too.

  6. Poor Sarah! Her story brought tears to my eyes. What a barbaric practice indeed, that the grieving widow had to watch in fear as all her belongings were auctioned off. And to think that in many places – such as Illinois – even until the end of the twentieth century anything a woman owned or inherited became her husband’s legal possession. I knew a woman who, in about 1970, wanted very much to sign away her share of an inherited house in Illinois to her much older widowed sister, who lived in the house; but the woman’s husband refused to allow it: he was the legal owner of that share of the inherited house, not his wife, who had inherited the share. Thus the older sister was kicked out of the house in order to sell it to pay off the younger sister’s husband. No wonder that Women’s Liberation happened!

  7. Thank you, Roberta, for remembering Sarah so eloquently. It infuriates me what women went thru just because they were female. I remember another of your blog posts on this general subject, and I don’t know if it was there, or from a distant cousin who works in the National Archives, that I learned this past year that even, for instance, a woman’s wedding ring, and any jewelry she might own, would go to auction unless her husband specifically made a will naming it and leaving it to her. Horrible injustice to so many women. This past year I also saw a gr-grandfather’s estate settlement paperwork from 1921, and I was so surprised to see so many household items being sold, though when I thought about it, she went to live with her daughter, my Grandma, after he died, so I guess she’d have had Grandma’s sewing machine and other household goods, but she no longer had her own because they went in the sale, and she did not buy them, and neither did Grandma or the other daughter. Even though things are not good for women now, and in many ways we seem to be going backwards, I’m still glad I live now rather than in any other time period.

  8. Beautifully written and well researched as always. I noticed you administer a few kits of one of my mom’s matches (Gloria Rader) on Gedmatch.

  9. This is a wonderful story & a great way to explain the many trials & tribulations a widow went through not so long ago. I’ve always said nothing beats a good will or probate when researching a family if you can locate all the pieces that go together. I’ll go back now & relook at some of those estate inventories & sales much closer after Sarah’s story. Another example is the widow of one of my ancestor’s husband a wealthy merchant in New Orleans died in 1833. He must have been really trusting of his business partner as he made a short declaration (not a will) naming him administrator of the business share for his wife & child. Women, even those with a bit of schooling were still treated as children themselves. When the husband died of an unidentified illness under the care of two doctors & an apothecary (they probably killed him trying to cure him)his estate was put in probate with the business partner in charge & the wife trying to retain some control of her life & her young son. Of course being a woman she had no chance, the business partner quickly moved her from her comfortable townhome into a cottage in a less fashionable area of town with only her teenage niece & one servant, & a little allowance. She must have started asking questions about what was happening to her business & why had she been moved to a cottage. Maybe he was afraid she might go to some of her late husband’s friends so he quickly moved her, her son & niece out of town to a small town in Mississippi where she knew no one. While she was out of sight he began by selling all property, house, land & slaves. He looted the company bank accounts. All of the paperwork, documents, checks, letters, lawsuits, etc. are on file in the probate records of the late husband’s estate going on for over 600 hundred pieces of microfilmed papers online. Somehow included in all the papers were two letters from the widow to the business partner. The first is a sad what is going on thing in which she says she has no money to pay the room & board for the boarding house he has put her in & is living on the kindness of strangers, they are living on coffee & rice. The baby is asking after you & she is too weak to write & is having her young niece do it for her. Send money by a kind ships captain. The Captain must have been also honest because he got her some money. In the second letter the tone is so different as she begins by saying she hopes he (ex business partner) doesn’t mind but shes gotten engaged & going to be married, & by the way her fiance is socially well connected & a lawyer. And hes coming to make your acquaintance & bring you to our wedding. & by the way bring me a new bonnet, some money & heres a list of food & drink for the wedding feast. Revenge is sweet. Husband number two becomes a state senator & eventually governor for one term before the civil war. The underhanded ex business partner is sued by everybody & dies by 1840 (but not in jail, drat). Who says wills & probates are boring.

  10. Just a note to thank you for your information about Settlement auctions. Until your blog, I wasn’t familiar with the practice. I had two Gr+ Grandfathers who died ( or deserted?) families in Hardin County KY in the early 1700s. I found both Settlements in the County Archives. Both died at a fairly young age. Like your Sarah, my Anne had a short list of about a dozen items; including a cradle for her young daughter, that she was able to buy. She married at 19 and was widowed at 24.

  11. Roberta, This is meant with the greatest respect. The quilt top you have as an example dates no earlier that 1890. Third row up from the bottom and 3rd block from the left is a claret. This color was not created until about 1890. All the other fabrics I can see are consistent with the 1890 – 1900 period. This doesn’t take anything away from your wonderful blog. However, as someone who values the truth, I fell the need to point this out to you, as someone who values the truth. Thanks for writing these.

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