CHRISTIANSBURG — A story and a handwoven coverlet are all that bear witness to the life of an unnamed woman who lived as a slave on a Montgomery County plantation sometime about 1850.
Her meticulous work will represent the lives of African Americans before emancipation in an exhibit set to open this month at the Montgomery Museum of Art and History. Titled “Montgomery County in 45 Objects,” the exhibit will feature a range of artifacts from the county’s 245-year history.
But the pre–Civil War coverlet could have implications far beyond the county.
Appalachian textiles historian Kathleen Curtis Wilson has examined detailed photographs of the piece from her home in California. Because of the pandemic, she has been unable to evaluate it in person, but she said she’s found nothing so far that would disqualify it as made by an enslaved weaver for a white family.
“I really think it has all the earmarks,” Wilson said. “Not only is it the right colors and the right kind of thing for the time and place, it also has great oral history with it. It stayed in the family of origin, which is so unusual.”
Although enslaved people worked in every aspect of the textile industry in antebellum America, individual pieces made by them are rarely verified and very few exist in museum collections today.
“It might be, really the only one I’ve ever seen,” Wilson said. “And certainly, the only one I’ve ever seen in Virginia.”
It’s not the first time a textile artifact presumed to have been “made on the farm by the slaves” has been brought to Wilson in her 35-year career, she said. But they’re often easily debunked.
“Usually, it doesn’t look like it’s hand spun. It looks commercially dyed, or it’s a style of weaving that wasn’t done on a hand loom,” Wilson said. “I’ve never seen one that fit all the pieces.”
The coverlet came to the museum in 2018 and was donated by the descendants of Catherine Montague Trigg and her husband, Thomas, who owned a large plantation near what is today downtown Christiansburg.
Although much of the family has moved away, the descendants have passed the story down for generations and have preserved the artifact for more than 160 years.
“It’s a powerful connection to the past,” Montgomery Museum curator Sherry Wyatt said.
With only one female slave narrative from the county known to exist, Wyatt said gaining insight into this group of women becomes even more important.
Woven from hand-spun cotton and hand-dyed wool in a variation of the Pine Cone Bloom pattern, the bedspread was probably made on what’s known as a barn loom by a woman owned by Catherine Montague Trigg sometime between 1850 and the end of the Civil War.
It was, according to family oral history made for Montague Trigg’s stepdaughter, Catherine Trigg Mosby.
The piece shows some wear and an ink stain from the 20th century, Wyatt said. It has a decorative fringe border that was added in the 1930s.
Despite its detailed history, one piece of crucial information is missing: the name of its maker.
Wyatt has combed records looking for clues. She found four female slaves sold by the Triggs between 1852 and 1853, named Amy, Maria, Jane and Margaret. Another slave, a 50-year-old woman, continued to be owned by Catherine Montague Trigg in 1860, but records do not list her name, Wyatt said. Any of them could have been the weaver or been involved in the spinning and dying process.
Wyatt continues to search records of freed people compiled after emancipation, hoping to pick up the weaver’s trail.
“There’s still hope that we will find her name,” Wyatt said. “Once you figure out how to start looking in the right place, you can find some of this African American history. It’s still frustrating how much has been lost, but there are tidbits.”
Wilson said so often descendants have information of which they’re not aware.
“There are bits and pieces people keep, and they just don’t think anybody but the family cares,” Wilson said. “But researchers like me care a great deal.”
In this case, it could be a photo taken on the Trigg plantation that has weaving or spinning going on in the background. It could be a tool left over from a loom, like a shuttle or a hook that sits on a bookshelf. Or it could be some detail in an old letter or ledger stuck in a drawer or trunk.
“To maintain the important history of Virginia, to bring African American history to life, we need more evidence,” Wilson said. “We need more knowledge about the African Americans that were there then and are there now, and their history and their contribution.”
Anyone with information related to the Trigg plantation in Montgomery County or the enslaved people who lived and worked there is asked to contact the museum through its website, www.montgomerymuseum.org.