Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Early Carolina Quilting Frolics and Camden Gossip

Women quilting in a 1797 watercolor by Isak Kiolstrom
Location? Source?
In French:
"Wreata Viloster's Party"
Not much has changed.

James Kershaw (1764- after 1825) of Camden, Kershaw County, South Carolina left a concise diary now in the collection of the University of South Carolina Libraries. In it he mentions quilting frolics in the last decade of the 18th century.

The Kershaw mansion finished about 1783 has been reconstructed
in Camden, South Carolina.

Let's hope it was all more fun than this retrospective look at 
"A Country Quilting Bee by F. A. Chapman"

In September 1794 Kershaw noted that Mary attended Mrs. Lang's quilting. Two years later M.K. perhaps the same Mary "began quilt." In 1800 "S.K. went to quilt for Becky."

Mary may have been his sister who lived from 1771 to 1848 and thus was 23 at the time, the right age for a quilting frolic. S.K.---another sister Sarah (1775-1824) who was 25 in 1800 married Benjamin Perkins. The Becky she was quilting for was probably a third sister Rebecca (1779-1811) who might have been preparing for marriage to Camden lawyer John Brown.

The Kershaw brothers settled on Pine Tree Hill in
South Carolina's upcountry

They were the founders of Kershaw County, coming to the colony from Yorkshire, England in 1758 where they began a store on Pine Tree Hill in what became Camden. Joseph Kershaw and Company was named for James's father. 

Mary, Sarah and Rebecca Kershaw probably
lived here in the 1780's & '90s.

The Kershaws prospered and Joseph built this mansion on Camden's south side. Before it was finished British troops under Cornwallis commandeered it as headquarters, occupying it for a year. 
The store and the house (if not their fortune) survived the Revolution. Joseph's death in 1791 and his debts forced the family to sell the home. The Camden Orphan Society was located there in the 1820s. By the time of the Civil War when the photo above was probably shot the building was uninhabited but it was used a storehouse. When Sherman's troops approached in February, 1865 Camdenites burned it to prevent Yankees from confiscating items inside.

Northern view of Southern plantation life

Colonial South Carolina was populated with European refugees fleeing religious persecution, political problems and poverty but a few decades later those circumstances were forgotten as families proclaimed themselves the state's aristocracy.

Elijah Viers White of Virginia and Confederate friends,

Southern gentlemen

Thomas Balch Library

Hierarchy requires a pecking order and in Camden many families vied to be top dog. The Kershaws with their name on the county and their record as first storekeepers aimed for that spot, vying with Boykins, Chesnuts and other children of immigrants to the state.

The Boykins and the Chesnuts had an effective spokesperson in Mary Boykin Chesnut who also left a diary. When the first of the someday-to-be very wealthy Chesnuts came into the area Mary Chesnut recorded he was "a lad [who] arrived after leaving his land in Virginia; and being without fortune otherwise, he went into Joseph Kershaw's grocery shop as a clerk" 

Colonel John Chestnut  (1743 - 1813) portrait by Gilbert Stuart,
Denver Art Museum collection. There's some confusion over
how to spell Chesnut but this end-of-the-century portrait 
depicts the former grocery clerk. Stuart seems to have had George
Washington on his mind.

The painting was shown at the Brooklyn Museum in 1917 with this information:
"John Chestnut was born in the Valley of Virginia. He was brought to South Carolina by his mother and step-father (Jasper Sutton) when he was thirteen years old. At the outbreak of the Revolution he became attached to the Third South Carolina Regiment and served as paymaster with the rank of captain. He later obtained command in the militia and served during the Georgia campaign. He was taken prisoner on the evacuation of Charleston in 1780, and paroled to his plantation at Knight's Hill. Refusing the demand of Lord Rawdon to take up arms against his countrymen in August 1780, he was thrown in prison and chained to the floor, and bore to his grave the marks of the irons upon his ankles."
Apparently the Kershaws lorded it over the far-richer Chesnuts that their patriarch John was a mere clerk in the out-back grocery store, while Kershaw brothers ran it (a subtle difference when we are talking aristocracies.)
John Chesnut (1837-1868)
Mary's husband's nephew and heir

Right after the Civil War Mary Chesnut and her favorite nephew Johnny Chesnut had a chat about the Kershaws on a carriage ride past the Quaker Cemetery. 

Camden's Quaker Cemetery

Camden's first families had sons who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, including Johnny. The Kershaws took pride in another Joseph Kershaw: General J.B. Kershaw.

Mary's 1905 published diary placed Generals Kershaw and Chesnut
next to each other. Mary, dead for thirty year, had nothing to do with that.

Mary and Johnny joked about this Kershaw's distinguished career with Johnny hoping the General's reputation might encourage Kershaws to...
"Let the shop of a hundred years ago rest for a while. Upon my soul, I have a desire to go in there and look at the Kershaw tombstones. I am sure they have put it on their marble tablets that we had an ancestor one day a hundred years ago who was a clerk in their shop." 
Johnny expected to see the last line on Joseph's tombstone
recall when he'd hired the poor John Chesnut in his grocery store.

Mary went on in her memoir recalling the post-Revolution fortunes of the Kershaw family:
"In the second generation the shop had so far sunk that the John Chesnut of that day refused to let his daughter marry a handsome, dissipated Kershaw, and she, [Mary's husband's Great Aunt Harriet Chesnut] a spoiled beauty, who could not endure to obey orders when they were disagreeable to her, went up to her room and therein remained, never once coming out of it for forty years. Her father let her have her own way in that; he provided servants to wait upon her and every conceivable luxury that she desired, but neither party would give in."

Camden's history tells part of the tale.
A ruined life.

Camden in the early 20th century.
Small turf; large turf war.

Mary was apparently quite irritated with the Kershaws because she continued about a Kershaw/
Chesnut lawsuit over an estate, in which her father lawyer Stephen Decatur Miller had some interest. She quoted the letter begging her father-in-law not to pursue the claim as it would "beggar Miss Mary Kershaw [who] still owned a few negroes and some land and was highly respected by all the Camden world." This must have been in the 1830s or earlier as Mary's father died in 1838.

James Chesnut dropped the suit. Mary thought that it was because James's Chesnut's father had "been kindly treated" as a clerk in the pre-Revolutionary grocery shop, "He would never allow anything to be done when the family lost their prosperity which could in any way annoy them."

Young Johnny: "Barring marrying them."

By then the Chesnuts were paupers too, but the hostilities probably went on. Let's hope nobody  invited any Kershaws and  Chesnuts to the same quilting party.

Sentimental look at an early quilting party. Looks like more fun.

I've been reading Mary Chesnut's diaries and memoirs, working on an applique BOM for 2020 on the theme of her Civil War memories. Cassandra's Circle will begin on the Civil War Quilts blog at the end of January 2020. That Mary---what a gossip!


  1. How very entertaining, thanks for sharing this historical tale...

  2. A good read, although I don't think one of those fellows is a gentleman - he has a little wandering hand problem. On the other hand perhaps the lady is no lady! LOL!
    I rather like the sound of a quilting frolic! Cheers Barbara :D

  3. Here's a good read about the absence of smiles in old portraits and photos