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OBJECT SPOTLIGHT: Amanda E. Graves Sampler

by Nathan Jones

Needlework samplers as an art tended to be a personal rather than a professional achievement in the 19th century.The young girls who executed such work were usually unmarried and considered needlework an educational activity. Documentation of their lives as artisans is rare, as few of these women developed such talents for market consumption. Young women of this period present a broad set of research challenges, but their textile creations prove valuable historic records in and of themselves. One such example is the Amanda E. Graves Sampler, donated by a descendant to the Texas Memorial Museum Collection, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.

Amanda Elizabeth Graves was born to John and Eliza Graves in Mississippi in 1822. The elder Graves' were born in 1790s Georgia, and probably made the move to Mississippi after their marriage in the 1810s.1 In May of 1834, the Graves moved to Harrison County Texas.2 The Graves were exceptionally wealthy for their area, in 1850 their total property was worth $15,000 dollars. Records indicate that at age 19 Amanda was married to a John B. Smith in Harrison County. The Smiths were well placed, the two households of that name (both of whom are aged 60 and thus candidates for being John Smith's father), owned around 30 slaves and several hundred improved acres in Harrison County planted with cotton in 1850.3 The marriage ended with Smith's death.4 Sometime between 1850 and 1860, Amanda married prominent local doctor and landholder, William A. Starnes. It was both partners' second marriage. William's property was valued at $5,600 in 1850, making him one of the wealthiest men in the area.5 The pair moved to Limestone County in 1860, and by the dawn of the civil war Amanda commanded an impressive household. The family's total recorded property was $56,222. Both Amanda and William Starnes are buried in a family plot in Harrison County.6

Amanda was 14 when she made this sampler. Her family was in a new location, and the land they had settled was in the midst of a violent revolt against Mexico. Her father might have been absent, serving in the Texican Army at San Jacinto.7 Amanda's sampler doesn't give us insight into a world of revolution though. Missing a central house or human figures, Amanda created a glimpse into a newly settled land, where pine forests and birds provided the most regular company. Even in an unsettled area, Amanda Graves needed to have the ability to read, write with her needles, and mark her family's private property. The American ideals of independence and individualism are thereby intrinsic to her use of needlework. Equally important is the possibility that needlework was used to establish feminine networks through gift exchange.8 Unfortunately Amanda Graves left no written diary, and no other material culture has been identified as associated with her family.9

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1 Seventh Census of the United States, 1850; (National Archives Microfilm Publication M432, 1009 rolls); Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29; National Archives, Washington, D.C. Accessed via ; John Graves and Eliza ------ of GA, MS & TX,
2 Texas General Land Office Land Grant Search, Harrison County, File 000118, Grantee John Graves,
3 Randolph Campbell. "Planters and Plain Folk: Harrison County, Texas, as a Test Case, 1850-1860," The Journal of Southern History 40, no. 3 (August, 1974), 394.
4 Texas, Marriage Collection, 1814-1909 and 1966-2011 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc., 2005.
5 1860 U.S. census, population schedule. NARA microfilm publication M653, 1,438 rolls. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d. Accessed via
6 U.S., Find A Grave Index, 1600s-Current [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2012.
7 Only the Graves last name appears on the rolls however, so this is impossible to determine this with any certainty, Index to Military Rolls of the Republic of Texas 1835-1845, Name Index,
8 Amy Boyce Osaki. "A 'Truly Feminine Employment': Sewing and the Early Nineteenth-Century Woman." Winterthur Portfolio 23, no. 4 (Winter, 1988), 241.
9 Information on Amanda and the world that her sampler opened to her, is sparse. All information associated with the Graves sampler is contained in a three page object file at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, and the only known history, beyond that stitched on it, was that a Mrs. C. C. Smith who was the great niece of Amanda, had donated it to Austin's O. Henry Museum in 1940. Because of the initials C. C. and the probability that Smith was not the donor's maiden name, along with the fact that tracing a direct line to one of Amanda's nieces or nephews has been difficult, there is no way to prove that this Amanda E. Graves is the same one that made the sampler. The best candidates for a possible Mrs. C. C. Smith, appear to be the grandchildren of Amanda's brother Samuel. Unfortunately the 1870 and 1880 censuses list the children of his only daughter, Isabella, as Tena, and Addie. These two names are diminutives and as such are difficult to trace once the girls married and transitioned into womanhood. It is also possible that William Starnes' children from his previous marriage or even the relatives of John B. Smith, Amanda's first husband, and their descendants could have viewed Amanda as a great aunt: 1870 & 1880 U.S. census, population schedule. NARA microfilm publication M653, 1,438 rolls. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d. Accessed via

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