1842 Nancy Ward Butler's "Tombstone" Quilt

Nancy Ward Butler made this quilt to commemorate the death of her granddaughter in 1842. Named for her grandmother, Nancy Adelaide Butler was born May 22 1840. She was the daughter of Calvin Butler (1818-1857), the quilt maker's son, and Mary A. Storey (1822-1909) whom he married in 1839. Nancy A. Butler died in February 1842 in Jamestown, N.Y. of scarlatina or scarlet fever, a serious and often fatal childhood disease at the time. In the nineteenth century, expressions of mourning were often part of the designs found on needlework and may have provided a way of working through grief as well as a memorial to a loved one.
"NANCY A. BUTLER. DIED. FEB. 3 * 1842 * AGED 20 mo" is appliquéd on this quilt with roller and discharge printed blue and white cotton. The two sawtooth borders are pieced. The ground and lining are white plain woven cotton and the filling is cotton. The center section is quilted in parallel diagonal lines ½ to ¾ inches apart, in the border is a flowering vine; both quilted 6 stitches to the inch. A similar quilt in the McClurg Museum Chautauqua County Historical Society was possibly also made by Nancy. It memorializes her youngest son, James Butler who died of typhus at the age of 20 in 1844 and a granddaughter, Cynthia Smith Sage, who died in 1845 of consumption at the age of 23. Both are buried in the Laona Cemetery.
Nancy Ward was born in 1779, daughter of Josiah Ward (1747/48-1825). Nancy Ward married James Butler (1780-1853) in 1802 in Buckland, Massachusetts. They settled in Chautauqua County, New York and raised their family, nine children, near Laona, New York. In 1855 Nancy Ward Butler was living in Jamestown, New York with her daughter Nancy Turner (1803-1889). They were both widowed. Nancy died in 1863.
Nancy A. Butler Werdell, the donor, writes; "I am the namesake of the child, 'Nancy A. Butler,' memorialized on the quilt made by my ancestor [great-great grandmother], Nancy Ward Butler."
She also commented about the quilt in Modern Maturity magazine in 1990; "Nancy was my great aunt! I inherited [the] quilt a number of years ago and donated it to the Smithsonian [1976]. I am so pleased that I have added to the folk history of our country in a small way. A quilt (or any prized treasure) preserved in the bottom of a trunk is a waste. Let's open our trunks and share our treasures." With the quilt, is a carefully printed, undated award; "Second Prize for the most Beautiful Quilt."
Currently not on view
Object Name
Object Type
Date made
Butler, Nancy Ward
Physical Description
fabric, cotton (overall material)
thread, cotton (overall material)
filling, cotton (overall material)
overall: 80 in x 81 in; 202 cm x 205 cm
Place Made
United States: New York, Jamestown
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Family & Social Life
See more items in
Home and Community Life: Textiles
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Credit Line
Gift of Nancy A. Butler Werdell
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