Saturday, March 9, 2019

Polly Shawvan's Eagle Quilt

This eagle medallion quilt on the cover of the 2001 Wisconsin Quilts book
sold recently at Skinner's Auctions.

The quilt is spectacular and it has a Civil War story ---
something that always increases a quilt's value.

When the Wisconsin project documented it the quilt was
still in the hands of family who gave them some information
about Mary (Polly) Bell Shawvan (1824-1900)

With internet genealogy and newspaper searches we can do some fact
checking twenty years later and find out a little more about her.

Mary Bell Shawvan, late 1870s?

Mary M. Bell was born in New Lisbon, Otsego County, New York and went west with some of her family in 1842 according to a biography of her brother John R. Bell (1826-1895), settling in the woods near what is now Milwaukee in the Wisconsin territory.

From her schoolgirl sampler stitched in New York, mid 1830s, 
sold with the quilt.

"When this you see remember me. A. Daniels" may
refer to Abigail Daniels who died at 30 in New Lisbon in
1840. Perhaps A. Daniels was Polly's teacher.

In 1844 Polly married John Shawvan in Wisconsin. Shawvan, spelled Schawvan in some publications, is an unusual name, perhaps a variation of Chauvin. The 1850 census found them in Trenton, Washington County in the state of Wisconsin. John, 38, is listed as being born in Canada; Mary, 25, from New York. Ten years later they are in New Berlin in Waukesha County.

Washington & Waukesha counties, southeastern Wisconsin

By 1860 they had seven children, one daughter Albina and six boys. The Shawvans gave several children unusual names. The second son was Sobieski Mckee Shawvan named perhaps for a 17th century King of Poland. Was John Murat, the eldest named for the Napoleonic King of Naples? Kerelio (Kirellio, Kerrellio) Shawvan seems to have been the only Kerelio ever. An unusual name is often a boon for the nosy genealogist but Shawvan and their first names are spelled so many different ways it can be confounding. Son Rinhard moved to Dennison, Iowa and spelled his name Shaw Van.

In October, 1861 John Shawvan joined the First Wisconsin Regiment Volunteers, leaving Polly at home on the farm with the seven children from baby Douglas to 15-year-old John. How women like her managed is a mystery. 

In February 1862 Color Sergeant Shawvan complained to the Wisconsin state treasurer that a $5 monthly bonus payable to soldiers' families had not been paid to his.
 "My wife at Milwaukee has never received one cent of pay from the State....I was enlisted in October last at Milwaukee in Co. "B" "1" Wis Infantry. Now, sir, my wife is very needy and I am unable to send her a cent, as our Regiment has not received one since Oct 8....By some cause my wife had been left to starve, while I, like a fool, trusted to the honor my State. Please do not let the case be longer aggravated. Her address is Mary Shawvan, Milwaukee County, Greenfield P.O."

Things got worse. In November, 1862 the Wood County reporter published John Shawvan in its list of  "sick and Wounded Wisconsin Volunteers." He was in Louisville, Kentucky at Hospital #11 with a shoulder problem. He recovered enough to return to the regiment, which went to northern Georgia hoping to take Chattanooga, Tennessee. In September, 1863 John was a casualty at the Battle of Chickamauga, described by the chaplain in the state's war history as "the brave color sergeant, John Sherman (sic)." Sergeant John Shawvan, carrying the flag, was killed in the charge.

The family believed Polly stitched this quilt during the first part of the war despite the time-consuming hardships of being a "very needy" single mother of seven.

Rinard, Albina, Douglas, Oscar, Mother, Kerellio
Late 1870s

The children grew; the boys becoming lawyers and traveling salesmen, relocating to Janesville, Wisconsin and Iowa and Illinois, Albina marrying Andrew Metz of Chicago. Eldest son John had died in the 1860s, perhaps another victim of the Civil War. The family recalled Polly receiving a welcome widow's pension. She seems to have held on to her farm in rural Milwaukee because when she died the deed became an object of contention among the boys.

She became quite ill while living alone there in late 1899 and looked for help from sons who moved her first to Janesville where she was not happy and continued to decline. The children fought over her house and lot with "boisterous and profane arguments." She died February 7, 1900.

We know all this because of a court case in the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Shavan v. Shawvan et al. details the fight between the youngest sons Douglas and Oscar with their siblings headed by Sobieski (perhaps called Beck.)
"A mother, about 77 years old, made a will 6 months before her death, disposing of her property among her children. Nine days before her death...two of her sons, by threats and artifice, persuaded her to destroy the will, and deed them the property....they prevented the other children, two of whom were attorneys at law, from seeing their mother in her last sickness." 
The court upheld the older boys suit and set aside the deed "on the ground of fraud and undue influence," characterizing Douglas's land grab as a "bold and disgraceful action." Each of the surviving children got a share of her estate.

So what about Polly's amazing quilt? Did she stitch it in 1861-1863 as the family was told?  It's hard to date from photographs. Flamboyant eagle quilts were a fashion in the 1840s and 1850s.

Here's one from the Illinois State Museum by
 Helen Ferris Gilchrist

New York quilt dated 1857

But  you see them into the 20th century, so the medallion eagle style is no clue to date.

The roses with their center detail and the scalloped applique
edge treatment are weak clues to a pre-1865 date.

The background is a small scale yellow-gold print.
Rather unusual for applique.

The pinks are a nondescript double pink, the reds, canary yellows and greens
are solids---no help.

The most distinctive applique is the grapes, done with great
detail in the tendrils and leaves.

Reminding me of one other spectacular quilt

The Metropolitan Museum's Branches & Vines quilt by
Ernestine Eberhardt Zaumseil ( 1828–1904), 
which they date as about 1875. Ernestine lived in Pekin Illinois, 
over 200 miles from Milwaukee.

Polly would probably tell us that it's not polite to talk about money but here's the gossip on the auction last week. Her quilt sold for $35,670 with the buyer's premium. The family first sold it in 2003 for $149,000. It was offered at auction a year ago with an estimate of $100,000-$150,000 and didn't sell. So now you know what high end quilts are going for this month.
(Lots less than they did 15 years ago.)

Enjoy more pictures:

"For wisdom early sought and gained
In age will Give thee rest
O then improve the morning of life
To make its evening blest."

Read about the lawsuit:

The letter from John Shawvan to the state treasurer is from a 2008 issue of The American Revenuer


Susie Q said...

The last 18 months I have become very involved with genealogy and reading your blog often makes me forget you are a quilter and not a genealogist. Love it!!

Wendy Caton Reed said...

I have loved this quilt from the first day I saw it. They chose another quilt for the cover of the revised edition of the Wisconsin book. Probably so people (like me) would by it again.