My Grandfather’s Stories

I’ve  just finished hand quilting Winter Trees Wept, one of the quilts I’m entering into the Festival of Quilts in August.

This quilt has taken a really long time to complete.  This is a very personal quilt which tells a fragment of the story of the Removal of my ancestors, the Muscogee, from our ancestral homelands in what are now the states of Georgia and Alabama to what is now the state of Oklahoma.

I started it 2008 by piecing the front and constructing it with a pillowcase binding.  I had stopped the process in August two years ago.  My next step was going to be collaging some text onto the back of the quilt.  But I needed to work more on my collaging technique, continue my search for the right paper and frankly, give myself the time to become ready to commit the story to cloth.  I’m the first one in my family line to break the silence about our Muscogee history.

Flashback to January of this year.

Steve and I had gone to London for a few days and I bought some rice paper which was perfect for printing onto and acheiving translucency.  I had already typewritten some text on the Muscogee Removal from a textbook onto tissue paper, but wanted to add a personal recollection.  I found a website containing family stories from the Trail of Tears, including the following story:

Stephens, J. W., March 22, 1938

D. W. Wilson -Journalist

Interview with Mr. J. W. Stephens; Tallahassee, Oklahoma

J. W. Stephens is of Negro and Creek Indian blood and was born near the present town of Eufaula, Oklahoma, on the Canadian River, about the year 1858. His father and mother, John and Theba Stephens, were born in the Creek Nation of old Indian Territory, but their parents, his grandparents, came from Georgia at the time of the removal of the Creeks, out of the states of Georgia and Alabama, about the year 1833.

Migration of the Creeks

Of course I do not know personally but my grandparents have told me of their removal to the Indian Territory, and I can only tell you as it has been handed down to me.

This removal was nothing more than greed and injustice on the part of the Whites and suffering and hardship for the Creeks.

The Creek Indians held large tracts of land located partly in Georgia, partly in Alabama and partly in Mississippi. They at one time had owned considerable land but by treaties with the United States, at and before their removal, they had left only what they considered enough for their own needs.

The whites continued to encroach on the Creeks and insisted they move west, but they stood with a firm determination not to give up their lands. The entire tribe held council and at that meeting it was decided that they would not give up a single acre of their land or leave the home of their fathers they loved so well.

After this council meeting, a fellow named Colonel William McIntosh called another meeting for he favored removal. Only a few attended this meeting. McIntosh signed a treaty with the United States, saying at the council meeting they had decided to trade their land in the east, acre for acre, for land in the Indian Territory. Another council was held by the majority protesting, saying it was made by the minority and not the majority and they would die first.

The Creeks then began to shout Colonel McIntosh had sold out, accused him of treason and at last burned his home and shot him. The men of the McIntosh following were also killed.

The white people called the Creeks savages on account of this and all manner of ill things were said of them, but, in reality the ones killed were slain according to tribal laws.

A few years later the Government made a treaty with the majority to remove them west, giving them land in the Indian Territory along and between the Arkansas and Canadian Rivers. They were to move them and furnish them with food during the first year, allowing them to clear land and establish themselves.

Some of the Creeks left on this occasion: many, however, still refused to move and my grandparents were among those who were driven out like cattle and came to the Indian country by wagon trains and on foot. They suffered many hardships, were footsore and weary, tattered and torn. Sickness was among them and many died along the route.

My grandfather told me, he made the trip barefoot and often left bloody footprints in the snow. He carried a little bundle of clothing and an old flintlock rifle.

I printed the last sentences onto rice paper and was very happy with the result.

I chose a ‘handwritten’ schoolroom font for the words.  It hearkened back to the boarding school legacy that many Native American children were forced to endure.  I coloured lines onto the paper reminiscent of school paper.

Back of 'Winter Trees Wept'

Besides having the right paper and technique, I got a lot of support from SOMA, my online spiritual/artistic community.  I made this temporary altar a couple of weeks before I did the printing and collaging which mapped out my journey.

I still have a tiny bit more to do on the front of the quilt with some black feathers and some beads.  Steve and I are away on Tuesday to celebrate our birthday week and drop the quilts off in Birmingham.  I’ll try to post a couple of final photos when I’ve finished.

I will also write about the quilting process.  This is my first large (ish) hand quilted piece and I was taken by surprise at how engaged I became.


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