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Nancy Graves Sampler

Historic Arkansas Museum - Wednesday, April 29, 2020

By Victoria Chandler, Arkansas Made Researcher

This rare example of Arkansas Made needlework is the earliest definitively dated Native American-made sampler known to exist anywhere in the United States. Nancy Graves’s Cherokee name was Ku-To-Yi, and she was eleven years old when she made this sampler. Born in 1817, she was one of dozens of young Cherokee girls who attended the Presbyterian school known as Dwight Mission, located on the banks of the Arkansas River near present-day Russellville. There they learned “the three Rs” and the various aspects of domestic economy, which included needlework and the making of samplers. Most samplers were constructed with three major components—the alphabet, numbers, and verse. As a result, the student was taught to sew, spell, read, and count.

Cherokee Sampler, Nancy Graves (Ku-To-Yi), silk crewels on linen cross stitch, 1828, Cherokee Mission, Dwight (Pope County), 14 x 14 in., Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council Grant Purchase, 2013.16.1

In 1818, Tahlonteskee, the Principal Chief of the Western Cherokees, requested a Christian mission school be established in Arkansas after visiting the Brainerd Mission in Chattanooga, TN. However, some tribal members were apprehensive about this new educational endeavor and felt that efforts to Christianize their children might strip them of their Cherokee heritage. One of the mission’s stated purposes was to serve as a school to educate and Christianize the Cherokee moving west with their families from their homes in Tennessee and Georgia. On January 22, 1818, the House Committee on Indian Affairs recommended that the government should “put into the hands of their children the primer and the hoe, and they will naturally, in time, take hold of the plough; and, as their minds become enlightened and expand, the Bible will be their book, and they will grow up in habits of morality and industry, leave the chase to those whose minds are less cultivated, and become useful members of society.” By 1819, the “Civilization Fund” was enacted by Congress, which appropriated $10,000 annually to be used for the education and instruction of “friendly” tribes. Missionary societies competed for these “civilization funds” and raised additional money through donations from local congregations.

The mission school was established in 1820 by the Reverends Cephas Washburn and Alfred Finney. As “Superintendants of the Missionary Family to the Cherokee Nation of Indians on the Arkansas River,” Washburn and Finney were part of the missionary effort of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Dwight Mission, like most of the schools set up for the education of Native American children, imitated the academic programs taught in New England schools. Many of the teachers and preachers originated from the East Coast. There was an extreme emphasis on puritanical morals, which included memorizing the scriptures, learning English, industriousness, and personal cleanliness. For the girls attending these mission schools, plain and fancy needlework were essential skills.

Nancy attended school here from 1826 to 1829. The schoolmistress who supervised the work on this sampler was missionary Ellen Stetson (b. 1783). Young women created samplers to practice a variety of complex embroidery stitches, border patterns, and design motifs that they could later use to add moments of beauty to household items and clothing.

This sampler begins in a typical marking fashion, with the alphabet embroidered using cross stitches. The verse Nancy transcribed through silk crewels demands good behavior of herself and the viewer. The biblical text featured on Nancy’s sampler symbolized a genteel way of life, and the delicate handwork demonstrated mastery of an essential feminine skillset. The “Mr. Kingsbury” Nancy dedicated her sampler to was most likely Cyrus Kingsbury, who founded the Brainerd Mission in Chattanooga, TN.

The 1828 treaty between the United States and Cherokee Nation demanded the removal of the tribe to present day Oklahoma. Dwight Mission relocated along Sallisaw Creek, in Sequoyah County, OK, in May of 1829, where it continued to educate Cherokee children in Western ways. The “Americanization” of Native Americans ultimately resulted in the wholesale loss of language and culture for tens of thousands of American Indians.

Transcription of sampler:

Let western girls This sampler view / And viewing let them copy too / Learn well to mark the way that’s / good / The path to glory and to God
Whatsoever / thy handfinde / th to do do it with / thy might Eccl / Remember thy / Creator in the / days of thy / youth Eccl 12
Wrought by / Nancy Graves / Cherokee Mission School Dwight / Arkansas july. 9. / for Mr. Kingsbury, 1828.