Late 19th century Betsy Ross embroidery, courtesy The Women's Cooperative, Davistown Plantation,ME.

The McDaniel/Wilson family story and those of its imitators, appearing just when schoolteachers began searching for a creative way to teach Underground Railroad history, bears a remarkable resemblance to that of the descendants of Betsy Ross in 1870, when Philadelphia began planning celebrations for the nation’s Centennial. 

In that year, several Ross descendants suddenly filed affidavits claiming that Betsy had told them she had made the first American flag. These affidavits - made more than 90 years after the event, by people who were young children when Betsy died in 1836 - were the first mention of the flag story. No independent record exists of Betsy having anything to do with the first flag, and much evidence, including contemporary documents, completely refutes the Ross family claims. 

But donations were solicited nationwide (amid considerable controversy), and 1898 the building where Betsy might have rented a room was purchased and turned into the "Betsy Ross House" museum. Generations of American schoolchildren have been taught the Betsy Ross myth as historical fact, and more than a quarter million people visit the "Betsy Ross House" each year, where the myth is perpetuated.

Nell Irvin Painter, retired Edwards Professor of American History at Princeton University, points to another example of how tenacious pop-culture myths can be.  In 1971, screenwriter Ted Perry wrote the voiceover script for a film on pollution, based on a speech he had heard a 1970 Earth Day rally. Perry thought the speech had first been given by Chief Seattle in 1854, but in fact it was written 20 years after Seattle's death.  Perry's film was a hit, but to his horror his "Chief Seattle Speech" was universally misattributed to the long-dead chief.  Despite Perry's efforts, that of historians such as National Archives archivist Jerry L Clark, and even statements by members of Seattle's own tribe, in the 1990s both an award-winning "nonfiction" children's book and Al Gore's Earth in the Balance were quoting "Chief Seattle's" environmental wisdom.   The children's book is in its 12th printing and is often suggested as a Social Studies teaching tool.  The author, who specializes in self-help books, refuses to accept that Chief Seattle never said what her book claims he did. 

Eliot Singer calls such stories "fakelore".   A specialist in Native American oral history, he is often asked whether "what matters [is] providing children with interesting and pleasurable material to read that exposes them to other times and other cultures." Singer replies that such an argument 

beg[s] the ethical question. At the risk of sounding puerile, misrepresentation, false advertising, feeding children misinformation, is unethical, however ordinary in textbooks and commercials....Consistently, parents, teachers, and children accept fakelore as the real thing, for whatever purpose it is used....Fakelore makes a mockery of teaching diversity. 

Sources should always be cited, and sources that are secondary adaptations and undocumented claims that "I heard it from..." should not suffice. ...

It is time authors, parents, educators - even publishers - accept that you cannot teach about other cultures by assimilating them into a safe, homogenized curriculum or by substituting well-intentioned misconceptions for demeaning ones.

Reasonable people asked to accept the "Quilt Code" as historical fact deserve answers to three basic questions:

  • If "code" proponents so often disagree about how it originated, what blocks it included, what they meant, and how the quilts were used - what can we possibly say we know, or can even imagine, about this "code"?  

  • If we know nothing about the "Code," have no firsthand evidence of it, and historical research about quilts, slavery, and the Underground Railroad directly contradicts the claims made about the "code", on what basis can we be expected to believe it existed at all?  

  • Most important - why should a story for which no evidence exists be chosen to supplant the real, documented life stories and achievements of 19th century African-Americans, both slave and free?

In her biography of Harriet Tubman, author Catherine Clinton observes

[Earlier accounts of Tubman's life] are more folkloric than analytical, more riddled with inaccuracies than concerned with historical facts.  Much like Sally Hemmings before her, Harriet Tubman has been subjected to more fictional treatments than serious historical examinations, a reflection not of her place in the American past but a failing on the part of the academy.  This absence of scholarship must be recognized as a form of "disremembering".  While Tubman was alive in the imaginations of schoolchildren and within popular and underground culture, she was a mystery to professional historians, who consistenlty mentioned her but failed even to set the record straight about her role and contributions....Tubman's life demands more than pop culture projections....

Likewise, the story of all those who participated in the Underground Railroad deserves the care of scholarly research.  No matter how appealing the "Quilt Code" story may be, until such research uncovers significant, specific corroborating evidence from firsthand sources, people genuinely interested in quilt history, the history of the Underground Railroad, and that of African-Americans cannot take it any more seriously than the story of Betsy Ross: a modern-day symbol with no basis in fact.   But while the Betsy Ross myth involves only an historical footnote - the maker of one flag - the "Quilt Code" myth attempts to rewrite an entire, critical chapter of American history.


EPILOGUE - Selling slavery:  

"Quilt code" as marketing gimmick

Since the publication five years ago of Hidden in Plain View, a number of individuals (most of them white) have used the "Code" to market all sorts of questionable objects. Following are the stories of some of these  attempts.  (For more retailers, see also the new "Quilt Code" Hall of Shame.)

The "Underground Railroad Bed Rugg"

In early 2002 a retired antique dealer purchased a yarn hooked rug for $10 at a yard sale near Augusta, Georgia. Her son and daughter-in-law, who had started an archaeological survey company a few months before, arranged for a query about it to be posted on an astronomy website. In it they claimed to have discovered the rug contained an Underground Railroad "code" and asking for "additional historical information or comments": 

Although we realize that we are not experts on African American arts or the Underground Railroad, we believe that there is more to this piece than just meets the eye. At the least we believe it is a rare form of African American art. At the most, it is another clue into the Underground Railroad. Either way, we are excited at the priviledge [sic] of conducting research and sharing it with the real experts.

The owners of this rug say it contains an Underground Railroad "code". 


Three months later the owners, the rug and their claims about it were featured in the online newspaper in the area where the couple do business. They also placed the rug and their claims also appeared on their company website, where it is listed on the title page as a "recent project".

Because the owners claim its motifs relate to the song Follow the Drinking Gourd, the rug caught the interest of Joel Bresler, who has been researching the song's history and whose website, www.followthedrinkinggourd.org, is scheduled to debut in early 2007.  Although it is widely assumed to be a coded spiritual from the Underground Railroad period, Bresler has located no documentary evidence it dates any earlier than the very late 19th century. The first mention he has found dates to 1928, when it was published by H.B. Parks, a white man who claimed he first heard the song in 1912 (like the Quilt Code, only in the South rather than among northern blacks who might be descendants of successful fugitives). But Bresler notes that by that time, the abolitionist relatives Parks claimed had confirmed the song's coded meaning to him were likely long dead. Bresler has uncovered a number of other problems with the song's provenance and ostensible message of escape north; even the phrase "drinking gourd" as a term for "Big Dipper" seems not to be used until after the song was published. Tubman biographer Kate Clifford Larson also points out that no connection between Follow the Drinking Gourd and Harriet Tubman exists. Tubman worked along the east coast, while the song is supposed to concern the Tombigbee River watershed from lower Alabama to northeastern Mississippi.

To me, it appeared the rug is around a hundred years old, made from vegetable-dyed yarn in a central medallion design reminiscent of the Log Cabin quilt (introduced in the North in the mid-1860s).  The "drinking gourd" looked an awful lot like the flower between the "NB" at one end of the rug; what the owners describe as "trees" and a "river" strongly resemble the vining borders first popularized in 19th century applique quilts.  Neither I, nor my colleague, nor anybody else I asked saw a quail or a disembodied leg; nor could I imagine what messages they might convey on a map.  I also noted several problems with the owners' assessment, including a lack of any provenance that indicates the piece was made before the Civil War or even that it originated in the South, let alone that it was slave made.  I also noted that the materials used were not limited to the time period claimed, and wondered whether the technique were even possible during that era.   Meanwhile I contacted two respected experts in hooked rugs and bed rugs to be sure my conclusions were reasonable.

Bresler forwarded my opinion. The owners were not pleased, and responded to my colleague, CCing me and another person on their email, published verbatim here.

Tracy Jamar has been restoring 19th century hooked rugs in both private and museum collections for a quarter century, and for many years headed the restoration department at one of the nation's most highly-respected American primitives galleries. She has handled countless antique hooked rugs of every technique and type, is herself a rug hooking artist, and has written and taught extensively on the subject.  A summary of her comments after viewing the owners' pictures of the rug:

  • Since "to spin wool is to 'process' it", the yarn cannot be described as "unprocessed". In any case, the way it has worn, its uniformity, and loose twist indicate it was most probably not hand-spun.
  • Vegetable dyes are not a reliable indicator of age.
  • The foundation fabric does not appear to be feedsack, but some sort of linen or cotton yardage, possibly monk's cloth.
  • The foundation's not being the more fragile burlap, rather than the rug being used on a bed, may account for its being in generally good repair.
  • However, yarn is missing in "not an inconsequential amount", and the rug shows evidence of either regular wear, some sort of chemical instability, or aggressive cleaning with a brush (since it looks unusually clean, almost bleached). In her experience, this rug would not be described as being in "excellent" condition.
  • The term "hit and miss" refers to the practice of using up odds and ends of hooking materials. This rug is made with all the same yarn and the color palette is uniform throughout, so she does not consider it done in a "hit and miss" style.
  • The photos indicate the technique used is needle-punching, the tool for which was not developed until 1881. Thereafter, needlepunch was the method commonly used by cottage-industry rugmakers. She has never heard of a pre-1880s needlepunched rug.
  • The appearance of both the yarn and the foundation remind her of "the cottage rugs made by different industries from the late 1800's into the 1930's".

She found the rug "very appealing and interesting" with a "wonderful folkyness" typical of "a free and open expression of a technique". She recognizes this habit in her own work: "often I just start out and go where it takes me design-wise and colorwise. When I'm done with the latter ones I can see things I didn't know I was putting in and I had no intention to suggest, they just happened."  She also confirmed with another rug historian the date needlepunching was introduced.

I shared Jamar's comments and my own thoughts on the owners' most recent statements (summarized below) with the owners and the others to whom they had sent their email.  In the sections below, the owners' statements appear in block quotes.


Jamar's remarks on needlepunching are corroborated by Helene Von Rosenstiel in American Rugs and Carpets from the 16th Century to Modern Times (1978, William Morrow & Co., New York). Von Rosenstiel describes the first punch needle, developed by Ebenezer Ross, "...who had devised a new "Novelty Rug Machine"....This was the earliest of the punch-hooks, adapted to use either narrow-cut rags or yarns....In the early 20th century, the old craft of rug-hooking became a fairly widespread cottage industry throughout the eastern United States and Canada...."

The author includes pictures of ads for both Ross's first punch needle, patented on December 27, 1881, and for his second model, patented a decade later.

The US Patent Office database reaches back to 1795.  A search for needlepunch rugmaking tools revealed that no patents for such tools were issued before 1881, but dozens of such tools were patented thereafter. Most patents were issued between 1885-1890, suggesting inventors were capitalizing on a new trend in crafting.  If the technology used to produce it was not available until 1881, how can the owners' rug date to c.1850?

It is a well know [sic] fact that hooked rugs were quite difficult to translate into symbols visually on their surfaces. As a result, it is difficult to obtain the intended "picture" which often is blurry and questionable what was really intended in the designs. This is the designing flaw of these types of primitive rugs.

Jamar's article includes several examples of antique hooked rugs. Are the images "blurry"? Is it "questionable what was really intended in the designs"? 


The first needlepunch rugmaking tool.

(Click picture to see the patent.)



It might be believed that the vegetable-dyed yarns might have been introduced and reminiscent of similar items introduced in the North, has nothing to do with telling us about surfacing examples such as the rug in question. Especially if they happen to have originated in the South.

It is hard to discern what the owners are trying to say here, but as Ms. Jamar and many other textile historians have noted, vegetable-dyed wool was common in rural areas well into the 20th century, particularly in the South.

A common misconception is present here when an assumption is made that 19th Century African-Americans only may used [sic] cut strips from wool fabrics because they were probably deprived of socioeconomic access and time to use spun woolen yarn. This has little basis in reality and is simply not true. Not only were these items probably readily available but not uncommon even with slaves in the antebellum south. The idea of depriving slaves of common items such as these are now recognized as a belief rather than factual. (New Archeological studies have shed light much on this fact).

While it would be interesting to see how "new Archelogical studies" have "shed light much" on the standard of living of the average slave that contradicts first-person narratives, the question is moot: as has already been pointed out, the technique of yarn needlepunching with which the owners' rug is made has not been shown to date from before 1881.

Feed Sack is also a term that doesn't mean "Chicken Feed Sack" it was a fabric with many uses that started showing up more regularly in the 1850's and not just after the Civil War. It would have been more common near railroad routes of this time period.

Although 20th century housewives recycled feedsacks in many ways, the word "feedsack" describes not a "type of fabric with many uses" but a fabric sack.  Pat Nickols notes that sacks of the early and mid-19th century were often linen, which was supplanted by cotton as that crop grew in importance. Bemis Bag Company (founded 1858) claims to be the country's first producer of commercial sacks, but Bemis was preceded a decade earlier by the firm owned by Henry Chase, whose improvements to the Morley and Johnson chainstitch sewing machine quickly and inexpensively producing the strong seam a sack required. Both Bemis and Chase used cotton fabric, but during the Civil War, because of the interruption in cotton production, Bemis introduced jute sacks (commonly known as "gunny sacks") - what we now call burlap. Such sacks were used from everything from coffee to cotton, and were often recycled for use as the foundation for hooked rugs, although other fabrics continued to be used by those well-off enough to afford them. Since burlap, made from jute, was not in general use in the US until the middle of the 19th century, rugs made with a burlap foundation must date from after that date, but rugs (such as the one in question) with a foundation of another fabric may date from any time at all; the fabric could be decades old.

Bed Rugs

Also this was not a bedcovering!!!! A bed rug was a quite common item to travel with as an extra cloth for whatever might be needed (i.e. cover a draft on a window or on the feet). It was not the size of a bed!

Jessie Marshall, literally the woman who wrote the book on the history of bed rugs (Bed Rugs: 18th and Early 19th Century Embroidered Bed Covers), thinks otherwise. Ms. Marshall wrote me that based on the size, technique used (needlepunch rather than crewel embroidery) and design, the owner's textile does not appear to be a bed rug, and adds that "If you would recommend them reading my book on bed rugs they would realize that what they have is probably not a bed rug."

Such remarks - from people whose life work involves the study and restoration of hooked rugs and bedrugs, and documentary evidence of the history of the tool needed to make the owners' textile - raise significant doubts about the owners' claim that this is a bedrug dating from before the Civil War. 

African-American textiles

But here [sic] are so few examples of anything like this from the South, that it could be argued strongly that no one has a clear understanding of textile creation in the south as far as African-American items are concerned. (this is because of several economic factors in the deep south that can't be denied). My point is that the period examples that can be drawn from for comparisons are just not there. Maybe in the better document [sic] north, but not in the south.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Among other things, of 585 documented African American quilts in American museums, at least two dozen date before 1865, and more than a hundred from between 1865-1949. Almost all originated in, and remain in, the South. 

There is also a tremendous miscommunication and knowledge of many African-American crafts, symbols and textile creations. Anyone, "expert" or others, claiming anything to the contrary is just not facing facts or the lack thereof.

There is indeed much misunderstanding of African-American crafts - primarily in the subtly  racist presumption that an object's maker can easily be determined just by looking at it.  Studies of Southern and African-American textiles have shown that, despite the recent marketing of modern "Afrocentric" designs, before the 1960s a craftswoman's aesthetic is as much a product of socioeconomics and region as race. For example, the "plain" quilts made  before WWII by poor white women in the Ozarks are virtually indistinguishable from those made by blacks in Gee's Bend during the same period; "fancy" turn-of-the-century quilts made by better-off women of both races tend to be similar as well. 


If every item that surfaced was judged on provenances than [sic] we hardly have anything to study!

The very first question an historian or appraiser asks of an object - and the easiest to answer - is "Where was it found?" In any case, we are not talking about "every item," but this particular one.  It seems strange that the owners omit entirely from their website and query (the venues they control) any information about where and how it was acquired.  Did the family member (an antique dealer) who bought it at a yard sale not ask for the rug's history, or even notice the seller's race?  Could the owners not go back to that home and inquire?

None of the four books the owners cite discusses rugmaking.   

  • Their primary source appears to be Hidden in Plain View.  

  • Stitched from the Soul: Slave Quilts from the Antebellum South was written by a folklorist, not a textile historian.  Its only mention of the Underground Railroad and textile signals is a passing, unsourced reference to Log Cabin quilts, and the only rug in the book is braided. 

  • To my knowledge, no reference to any sort of "code" in quilts or rugs or any tangible object appears anywhere in Blockson's compilation of slave narratives, nor for that matter in any of the hundreds of known slave narratives.

  • Of John Michael Vlach's The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts, the publisher itself says it is "a survey...by no means the last word on the subject of traditional Afro-American art and craft. Rather, it will provide inspiration..." Vlach never mentions rugs.  Only three of the 18 quilts pictured date before the 1930s (Powers's two c.1890 Bible quilts and one c.1910 sampler, maker unknown); most date from after 1969. 

If I have learned one thing about this subject it is that a lot of people are not admitting the obvious....There is much to keep learning about and keeping our mind open about here....There is a lot of poorly based and learned knowledge out there so we have to take the"experts" with a grain of salt.

As for the textile expert and others we have shown it to, I would have to compile the list which I will not do presently in this email. I agree this is a critical point. It seems to have passed every test so far....Whatever the origin and date of this rug is, it will continued to be shown to a variety of the best individuals we can find around the country.

Since the very first textile experts people I asked found the owners' claims wanting, and more than one museum has turned the owners away, it would seem "every test" has not indeed been passed.   One wonders why the owners' first step was not to obtain a written appraisal from a reputable textile historian specializing in such articles, and why they are unable or unwilling to give the name of the person they say dated the rug to 1850.  If the rug cannot be shown to be from the period claimed, then any other assertion about its place of origin, the maker's race, the Underground Railroad, or whether it lay on a bed or a floor is moot.

The "Code"

The drinking gourd is clearly present. (there is a flower type item on the rug which my be what Leigh is talking about). This is as good a depiction of the dipper as I have ever seen! A quail or a similar type item is also possibly present.

If more than one person says no such image can be seen, how can the owners describe it as "clearly present"? Is the quail a quail, or a "similar type item"? Is it there, or isn't it?

The rug in question is covered with all types of symbols whether you choose to see them or not. And they are definitely open to some debate....I was especially perplexed with the fact that some "experts" looked at this piece and claimed no African-American affiliation while other knowledgeable individuals were 100% sure that it was. Who is right?

In a single email, the owners insist the images are "clearly present"; a few sentences later they are visible only if the viewer "chooses" to see them.  The owners claim the rug has "passed every test", then say "some 'experts'" clearly disagree with their assessment.  Which is it?  Are the images plainly visible to all (presumably a basic requirement for a signal flag), or discernible only by those who "choose" to see them?   If they have been turned away by more than one museum, how has the rug "passed every test"?

How much does a desire for such symbols to exist, and for the maker to have been black, play into what the owners "see"? The owners say "several groups have offered to purchase" the rug, but that they want to find " a facility where it can be adequately preserved and made available for research and viewing". The rug's value, both monetarily and in professional prestige, is many times greater if it is an antebellum, slave made, "coded" rug than if it is just a nice common turn-of-the-century rug whose origin is unknown. Can what the owners "choose" to see remain unaffected by this? 

The owners sent me several more emails. None addressed even one of the questions raised, but all threatened to hold me "liable" - apparently for pointing others to their website.


A "Seat of Great Authority"

The Magazine: Antiques is a glossy, monthly publication filled with serious articles on high-ticket antiques and art objects; an air of legitimacy infuses every page.  Among the articles on "Nineteenth-century paintings" and "Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century silver" in the January 2005 issue appears a lavish, two-page advertisement; the magazine's standard charge for such space is around $10,000. The subject:  "A  SEAT OF GREAT AUTHORITY". 

Click on a photo to enlarge it. 

To supersize and see detail, click on a photo; then hold your cursor over the lower right corner of the enlargement to reveal the "yellow box" icon. Click on that icon.


Described as "perhaps the most important African American artifact yet discovered,"  the chair, says the text, displays

...an astounding fusion of West African and African American iconography suggesting an unbroken chain of noble Akan lineage, encoding their most sacred secrets: including a star map to freedom. Forensic evidence suggests a history of three separate and successive "enstoolments."  

(An "enstoolment" is the Akan version not of a chair or stool, but of the ceremony we would call a coronation.) A link to the dealer's website appeared in the magazine ad.  The site featured one item: the chair.

Click on the "Soul of a Nation" link (screenshot here) , and the website declares:

The Akan American Chair (Stool) achieves the remarkable transference of an entire body of West African culture, religion, cosmology, and the methods employed to safeguard these traditions within the hostile new world of American slavery. An understanding of the Akan-Ashanti sacred stools and their paramount importance in West African culture will assist in the comprehension of their only known American counterpart. The device, in its nearly untouched original condition, provides a treasure trove of forensic and interpretive data relative to the secret and forbidden underground webworks of early African American life.

The ad encouraged the viewer to check back for information on research and publication by "national and international institutions, scholars and journalists".

The chair was brought to my attention by a client with an extensive collection of American folk art. To her it looked like a nice, simple 19th century ladderback chair; she thought the cushion, which had a cat embroidered it, was "sort of cute", but was puzzled by the ad's claims.  I was puzzled too.  

Five Akan stools appear in this 1876 stereoview of the "Gold 

Coast" display at Philadelphia's Centennial Exposition. 

The chair's embroidered cat motif was remarkably similar to those seen in other household textiles from 1890-1920, particularly in Pennsylvania and New England. 

And everything I'd read about Akan stools indicated that each was carved from a single piece of wood, shared a common basic form (a slightly crescent-shaped, usually backless seat set on a column which rested on a stepped, platform base), and rarely incorporated textiles.  I also found that to the Akan, a stool is a very personal object, believed to contain the owner's soul - so personal, in fact, that when a man dies, his stool is retired to a special shrine.   The object in the magazine ad had four legs, no apparent symbolic carving, and a seat cushion, and was claimed to have been used in three separate "enstoolments."  And it did not have the carving and nailhead embellishment of the Akan four-legged chairs called asipim and konkromfi.  Who, we wondered, had determined that the chair in the ad was a royal Akan American "seat of great authority" - and how?

To find out more, I emailed the dealer, located on Virginia's "Delmarva" peninsula, and asked a colleague to do the same. Kate Clifford Larson also contacted him. Larson is the author of Bound for the Promised Land, a highly-acclaimed biography of Harriet Tubman, and is the consultant for the National Park Service’s Harriet Tubman Special Resource Study.  She also serves on the advisory board of the Historic Context on the Underground Railroad in Delaware for the Underground Railroad Coalition of Delaware - the very region where the chair is claimed to originate.  What follows is a compilation of our conversations and correspondence with the dealer.

The dealer (who may also have been the chair's owner - this was never quite clear) replied to my colleague with the following email:

I will refer you to The Magazine ANTIQUES (January 2005) for another concise description and more detailed photographs of the African American Chair (STOOL) As the info. on the website suggests one would need to appreciate the significance of West African sacred Stools to understand the multi-dimensional integrated communication involved. More strictly speaking the chair and all three of its needle worked coverings are a single documentary device, specific to time, person and place. The icons you see flashing on and off on the website are all on the second covering. The cat covering is the first and the third is not pictured on the site but you will see it in the magazine. A detailed presentation has been given at the National Geographic Society in Washington and a feature article will appear in that publication September 2005. Through the dimensions of form, color, number, texture and juxtaposition whole bodies of sacred esoteric information is being communicated. It is an ancient method of passing down sacred knowledge....

To me, he wrote only that there was "far too much going on regarding the chair (stool) to put it all in an e-mail" so asked me to phone him. Larson did so as well.  In both conversations he seemed at once reluctant to discuss the chair in detail and unable to resist the urge to do so.  After I identified myself, he told me he was good friends with the Keno Brothers (of Antiques Roadshow fame), lectured at Colonial Williamsburg, and owned "the biggest antiques restoration company in the country," "in business for four generations."  He asked what I knew on the subject, explaining that he didn't want to discuss things I couldn't understand. Then he began a remarkable one-hour description of the chair, asking early on whether I might have a buyer for it.  He variously said the chair is insured for $5 million or $6.2 million; because of its historical importance, he hopes the buyer would agree to make it available for at least a year for further study and documentation.  The dealer said that he knows Hidden in Plain View author Raymond Dobard personally, but while he thinks Dobard is "on to something", he believes that the chair will "prove some things about the [quilt] 'Code' and disprove others".  Ozella (Tobin's source for the "Code") is "too far removed" to know the "Code" accurately -  hence the importance of the chair.

"Authorities and universities"

In each conversation the dealer emphasized that the chair had been "vetted" through various "authorities and universities" which he declined to name.  He said a "detailed presentation" on the chair was given to the National Geographic Society in Washington, and that it will be featured in the September 2005 issue of National Geographic Magazine, which he said is presently doing a little follow-up research and taking photographs.  When I asked him to assign a date to the chair he declined, then said it "could be as early as 1788".  He later offered to Larson that it had been authenticated by Virginia's Chrysler Museum of Art as a typical c.1780-1840 ladderback chair from the Delmarva peninsula. He said that Colonial Williamsburg is doing the textile research and would soon present "an extensive writing on it" (although when asked later to confirm who was performing the fiber analysis or to detail exactly what Williamsburg was doing, he "didn't want to talk about that").  Since the chair is a post-Colonial, non-Williamsburg piece, I wondered why Colonial Williamsburg would be involved.  He explained it is because Colonial Williamsburg is so well-funded and because although the chair dates from the early 19th century its style classes it as "Colonial".  Most important, it would be a real tourist draw. African-American items are "hot" right now, he said, and Colonial Williamsburg does not have much in the way of such artifacts.

He became circumspect when I asked whether he knew anything about the original owner, and said he was "not going into that".  I clarified that my interest concerned not who had legal ownership of the chair but the chair's origins, and he answered that he knew nothing other than that it was bought not long ago by its previous owner (recently deceased at age 45) in a $2 boxlot at a local auction.  He has not asked the auction house where that lot originated. He told Larson, however, that the chair was acquired from an unknown black person.  Wherever it came from, and although he admits to having limited experience with antique textiles of any sort, as an "an expert in esoteric and underground" culture with "knowledge of ancient texts," as soon as he saw the chair, the dealer "knew what it was. You take what you believe and then pursue it." 

He said that when the previous owner acquired the chair, the cushion was covered with "13 layers of 19th century cotton calico," an indication, he says, of the chair's importance. The former owner was, he said, knowledgeable enough to have removed them with care. Inside those 13 layers were found three successive covers executed in needlework of various types.  He said that there is "nothing which suggests [the needlework cushion covers] couldn't be 18th century" although they "may not be", but finally stated he believes the newest of the 3 worked covers was made no later than 1840.  Proof that the "enstoolments" took place, he claims, is that each layer of fabric on the cushion was covered while it was still in good condition.  Why else would someone recover and refinish a chair in good condition, the dealer asks, unless it was for an "enstoolment"?

The dealer refused to answer any questions about dyes, yarn twists, or fibers used - the fundamentals of textile analysis.   Instead, he repeatedly referred to "testing the chair's DNA", giving great importance to chemically analyzing the smoke he says was used to darken the chair in order to identify the kind of wood used for the fire.  When asked whether he had shown the cushions to anyone in the quilt or textile history world and what their thoughts were, he said their opinions on it are "very diverse"  and refused to give the name of anyone he consulted, finally dismissing them with the remark that "that crowd's pre-bias is so strong."   He also said he was not interested in having the Smithsonian look at it because he "has a problem with them".

The cat cover

The oldest of the worked covers can be seen in pictures of the chair.  It depicts a cat (a "symbol of cleansing and purity") in what the dealer described as a "carefully-executed open X pattern" (which further questioning revealed to be counted cross-stitch), worked in black wool with red background on a base of "jute feedsack".  

The cat cover from the ad.  Click to enlarge.

When informed that jute ("gunny") sacks were not in general use in the US until the Civil War, he said he didn't really know if the fiber was jute, but was using the word for convenience because "that's what our upholsterer calls that kind of fabric".  He then said the fabric was stamped with the name of a town in England which had a textile mill for just 20 years in the late 18th century, helping to date the fabric.  He would not state the name of the town or the source of his information because "it took a long time to research,"  but "that's the only thing that stamp could indicate because it's an unusual name."   Compare the cat embroidery with c.1910-20 New England examples here.)  

The brickworks cover

The brickworks cover from the ad, containing the "snakes with eyes".  Click to enlarge.  See detail of "snakes" from the ad here.

The next-oldest layer is made from rectangles of dark wool suiting fabric in a brick-like pattern with seams embellished with featherstitching - identical to a type of quilt common in the 1900-20 period, when women collected tailor sample books for the purpose.  (The dealer said the "color juxtaposition" was significant and that a West African scholar had suggested that computer imaging be used to determine the original colors of the fabrics, which was critical to their analysis.) 


Also typical of quilts of that period and style are the embroideries on some blocks:  a spider web, a cross, an anchor and a dollar sign.  About this the owner promptly corrected me, saying that the dollar sign was "Masonic snakes with eyes," adding that he had carefully counted the "chain links" (chainstitches) from which they were made because the number of "links" is significant.

The anchor, he said, was not the common maritime symbol (also used by Christians to signify faith).  He would not say what the "snakes" or other symbols meant, but vaguely referred to Masonic symbols and black Masons in Delmarva, noting that "a major book release" about the symbols' meaning would soon take place. (I understand Tobin, author of Hidden in Plain View, is attempting to write a book on the "quilt code" and the Masons.)  He observed that the red paint, which he called "blood wash" and said was significant, had dripped onto this cover. To him this not only indicates the cover was contemporaneous with the chair being painted with "blood wash"; it is evidence of the chair's important ritual symbolism. Every time a new leader was "enstooled," he said, the chair was redone. (Strangely this is not the practice among the Akan.)

The "star map"

One of the last two layers ( it was never clear which) contains what the dealer called a "star map". This is not pictured in the ad or on the website.  The dealer stated in two separate conversations that when carefully studied the "map" points right to where Harriet Tubman lived in central New York.  When he was told by Dr. Larson that  Tubman did not live in the house until 1861 - more than two decades after he says the cushion was made - the dealer backpedaled, saying that he did not mean to imply that is what the signs show.  In a later conversation, the dealer claimed it was "just coincidental" that the "map" pointed to where Tubman lived.  When asked why he then would mention Tubman's name at all in connection with the chair, he said that Tubman "came from the same culture".  He also explained that the "map" contains the North Star because to escape from the peninsula "you can't just go due north, you have to follow the North Star"  (except for satellite purposes, the North star is "due north") and that this path is the only way for slaves to escape the peninsula (which Dr. Larson says is known to be untrue).  I asked why an escaping slave would have to be told by a map that to go north, he should follow the North Star.  The dealer replied that the map had different levels of meaning and that because it was on what in effect was a royal throne, it was at least in part symbolic.  

The crazy cover

To the textile or quilt historian, the outer, newest layer looks like typical late 19th-early 20th century, mainstream American crazy piecing in wool with decorative embroidery on the seams. Not so, says the dealer; it is "absolutely African-American," and he has documented that the shapes are not random but have "deep roots in West African meaning". 

Since this layer, he says, dates to 1840 or before, this "revolutionizes the whole idea of crazy quilts."  Moreover, describing himself as an "expert in ancient texts," the dealer says he has determined that the embroidered seams of the crazy-patch cushion cover are in fact Akan (or Adinkra) writing, which he said he confirmed with an unnamed person who is " the only expert in Akan writing in the US."  (This seems surprising.  Akan is the native language of 44% of Ghanaians, more than 43,000 of whom immigrated to the US since 1980.)   

Click to enlarge

The chair's crazy quilt cover (above) is identical to early 20th century crazy quilts such as one known to have been made by a white woman in 1930 (left).  But the dealer claims the chair's cover was made before 1840, and that the embroidery is 

actually readable Adinkra/Akan writing.


When asked how Akan writing could appear on a 19th century Virginia object, the dealer claimed that significant numbers of Akan slaves had been transported to the Chesapeake during that period.  Dr. Larson has researched this subject extensively, and states that while ships of enslaved Akan  from Africa did drop anchor in the Chesapeake Bay, the region already had a surplus of slaves, so they were immediately transported to the deep south. No evidence exists of an Akan presence of any note in the region where the chair was located.  

Even more astonishing:  the dealer claims his expert can read the "Akan writing".  (He would not tell me what the writing says.)    

The "experts"

Rachel Malcolm-Woods    One of just two "experts" Smith would name is Rachel Malcolm-Woods, a Virginia abstract painter and self-described "Africanist" who at the time was a visiting assistant professor in the Cinema & Photography department at Southern Illinois University.   Smith told Larson that Malcolm-Woods is the "expert" he consulted on the "writing," but although Malcolm-Woods was among the names he gave to me, he told me she is not his "writing" expert - only that she "has seen things like this before."  Malcolm-Woods neither confirmed or denied Smith's claim.

Malcolm-Woods claims to have found "a system of graphics that to the outsider looks like a decorative design....in African American quilts as early as 1750". (italics mine) But she is best known for her 2005 doctoral dissertation claiming to have found an African-American cemetery in northern Virginia whose  engravings were nsibidi writing used by African secret societies - in her words , "the only examples of an unadulterated cultural link to Africa."

The main marking on the gravestones is a rectangular symbol with two circles that Malcolm- Woods thinks signifies a journey. Other inscribed symbols on the slates are a star-like design that she believes means unity and a flower image that may signify two men loving the same woman. Several stones are blank. Two have words inscribed.

Such a discovery would have been the first of its kind. But it appears Malcolm-Woods simply presumed the dead were African-American despite serious doubts expressed by the archaeologists she consulted and even though the stones bear an uncanny resemblance to parts of a late 19th century slate mantlepiece.  (In fact, she observes that a factory making such mantlepieces operated in the area.)  

Malcolm-Woods transcribes only one of the two headstones inscribed with names and dates, concluding that the interred is the wife of a white man named Samuel Downey and stating that although he appears in census records, his wife is nowhere to be found.  Ignoring information to the contrary from a variety of sources, Malcolm-Woods decides Mrs. Downey must have been black. 

But Samuel's wife Susan does indeed appear in census records, right below his name.  Those same records confirm her birth and death dates, and describe her and her children as white. Census records also suggest, as Malcolm-Woods was told by a Downey descendant, that Susan was related to the farmer/laborer Wood family, who for generations owned the land where the cemetery is located. The Wood family also is white.  

Malcolm-Woods's antebellum Igbo graveyard with Nsibidi engravings is most probably the late 19th century burial ground of the Wood family, and whose headstones were fashioned from parts of a locally-manufactured slate mantlepiece.  For an expanded discussion of Malcolm-Woods's "Igbo"cemetery, click here.


Hugh Nibley  The only other "expert" Smith named is Hugh Nibley, whom he described as "a teacher of Comparative Studies." Nibley, who died in 2005 at the age of 94, was for many years the Mormon Church's chief expert in ancient writing, but is criticized not only by other Biblical scholars but even by his fellow Mormon academics for methodology so poor one Mormon scholar describes it as "work[ing] from the conclusions to the evidence".  

In 1980 Nibley was brought in by church elders to examine the "Anthon transcript", a document covered with hieroglyphics which its owner, dealer Mark Hofmann, said was Mormon founder Joseph Smith's own copy of the characters found on the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated. After examining it, Nibley stated that "This offers as good a test as we'll ever get as to the authenticity of the Book of Mormon...Of course it's translatable." According to the Provo Herald, "Nibley also said he counted at least two dozen out of 47 characters in the Demotic alphabet that could be given phonetic value. 'This offers as good a test as we'll ever get. Nobody could have faked those characters. It would take 10 minutes to see that this is fake.' "  The Herald checked with Nibley again to see if he remained confident.  Said Nibley, "I still say just what I said before. It can be translated.'  The LDS bought the document for $20K.

The Anthon transcript was the first of many such rare documents which the LDS bought over the next few years from Hofmann, culminating in an 1830 letter from Mormon witness Martin Harris stating that Joseph Smith claimed when he went to get the gold plates for the Book of Mormon, a 'white salamander' in the bottom of the hole 'transfigured himself' into a 'spirit' and 'struck me 3 times.'  Commonly referred to as the "white salamander letter", the document's controversial statements caused a flutter in the Mormon hierarchy, who arranged to buy it from the dealer.  Then things went awry; two people who had raised suspicions about Hofmann ended up brutally murdered.  

Hofmann was convicted of the murders in 1986.  He has since admitted to them, confirming that his motive was to keep anyone from finding out that all the documents he had sold the LDS were forgeries - including the Anthon transcript, whose writing Nibley had said "nobody could have faked".  Hofmann had written the "hieroglyphics" on an endpaper torn from an old book he found in the LDS library, then aged the paper with peroxide and a hot iron.   Authors Jerald and Sandra Tanner observed, "That Dr. Nibley could see ancient Egyptian characters on a document that actually contained the doodlings of Mark Hofmann throws a cloud of doubt over all his work."  

Smith holds Nibley's expertise in high regard.


Responses from the Chrysler Museum, Colonial Williamsburg, and National Geographic

I contacted Gary Baker, Decorative Arts curator of the Chrysler Museum, who told me the museum does not authenticate objects, but does provide opinions.  To prevent such opinions from later being misrepresented, the museum keeps a copy of the opinion with the recipient's signature on it.   Bauer said he personally did not see the chair, had never heard of Smith, and could not find anybody else at the museum who had.  I phoned Smith for an explanation.  He told me Larson is "a liar", insisting that he had instead told her that the authenticator was Gordon Lohr, who wrote a book on 18th century furniture published by the Chrysler Museum.  Later in that same conversation he said Lohr did not in fact authenticate it, but that after personally inspecting the chair had only given his "opinion" that it was a typical ladderback chair from the Delmarva Peninsula, c.1780-1840.  A few minutes later Smith said there was no difference between "authentication" and an "opinion", and that my attempt to clarify which he meant showed my complete ignorance of antiques.  Gordon Lohr wrote me that he had "only seen photographs" of the chair, which to him "appears to relate to other ladderback chairs from the Eastern Shore, circa 1820-70."  He added that "It's an interesting chair; however, at his price, I don't know where you would go with it."

Larson spoke with Linda Baumgarten, the Curator of Textiles at Colonial Williamsburg, who stated that Williamsburg is not interested in the chair, and that they had voted to decline doing any chemical analysis of the fabrics because they all agreed that not only the fabrics, but the stitching and pattern, were probably 1880 and later - certainly post-Civil War.  Baumgarten was very skeptical of Smith's claims.  She said one of her assistants may decide to do the analysis privately, but that Williamsburg would not be involved, and that Smith had been informed of their decision.  When asked for an explanation why his claims about Williamsburg's interest and participation differed from what the museum's own textiles curator had stated, Smith again said  Larson was lying; "obviously" nobody had talked to Linda Baumgarten.  

Larson contacted National Geographic, and was told that nobody in the Research Department had heard of the chair or Smith.  A Research Department member than called Larson to obtain more information; Patrick McGeehan, a research correspondent for the magazine, then phoned to confirm they could not find anyone who knew anything about the story.  When asked for an explanation, Smith said it was obvious I was lying,  because "you cannot just up and call National Geographic".  He reasserted his claims, still refusing to give the name of any NG staffer because "you'll harrass them".  Finally he revealed his contact was Shelley Sperry, whose title he did not know, explaining that "everybody there wears a lot of hats".  He "didn't want to give details," but it appeared he or others initially contacted the magazine about the chair, and Sperry eventually returned the call.  What he described as a "presentation to the National Geographic Society" turned out to be the dealer's presentation to Ms. Sperry alone.  Smith said this "was the same thing" because "do you know how big the National Geographic Society is?"  

Before Larson could call National Geographic again, she received a call from Sperry herself, who said she is on the magazine's research staff.  Sperry said that while Smith had discussed an article on the chair with her, nothing firm had ever been established; she was still checking his story.  She had not been informed of Colonial Williamsburg's decision or of Lohr's opinion.  It was her impression Smith had no background in textiles, Akan stools, or the history of slavery, escape, and the Underground Railroad in the region the chair is supposed to be from, and that his claims might be the product of wishful thinking.

Epilogue: The $5 Million "Enstoolment" Goes to Auction

In January 2006 Smith consigned the chair with Brunk Auctions, a North Carolina auctioneer, who listed it on Ebay Live with 20 detailed photographs and an opening bid of $15,000. It also appears in the Brunk online catalog. All but one of the other auction descriptions are about 200 words long and contain nothing more than dimensions, condition, and provenance.  The description for the chair is nearly three times longer, and very detailed:

Lot # 392 -- Maple ladder-back side chair, retaining its original three-layer patchwork seat cover over a rush seat and a dry, old surface, probably African-American, Delmarva Peninsula, 19th century, 37-1/2 x 18 x 13-3/4 in. Surface accretion of early pigments and finishes, wear and minor abrasions to surface, seat covering with stains, repairs, loose stitches and wear, top two layers detached. Estimate: $30,000 - $60,000 Literature: The Magazine Antiques, January 2005, two-page color advertisement. 

Extensive research into the history, surface and symbolic devices of this chair suggest that it is an African-American secret society chair. The three successive needlework seat coverings, each loosely stitched or tied to the seat frame, possess both stylistic and forensic characteristics highly suggestive of a secret society function. This example presents an array of numerical, symbolic and interrelated design features associated with esoteric mnemonic devices. The predominant use of the esoteric number “three” is presented as follows: three seat coverings arranged on a three-stepped, three-rung ladder-back chair. The middle or central covering is arranged as follows: three sets of symbols with three icons in each set; three linear symbols utilize three lines each; three figurative icons; three twelve-pointed stars aligned up the middle with the third star hidden. The central covering is constructed with 26 patches and in presentation would conceal the 27th or primal covering. The number 27 (27=3 x 3 x 3) being highly important in esoteric numerology representing the greatest secret, i.e., “secrecy itself”. The outer covering, or so-called “crazy quilt”, represents the same function as the outer structure of esoteric groups, i.e., to cover, hide or give an otherwise meaningless front to the order. The final or third covering (the 27th square), is a black cat on a red background executed in an open-lattice relief pattern or an “X” pattern. This pattern is common in West African stools, granary doors, and particularly in royal robes and headdresses. The cat is associated with female purification societies and executed with the “X” relief pattern suggests at least a claim of royal connections. The three figurative icons on the central covering are the most blatantly West African. The spider (Ananse, the creator of the cosmos and dominant figure in Akan folk tales), the spider web (literally the cosmos itself), and the wheel (congress or authoritative gathering, also found on African-American gravestones). The three-lined symbols also have strong West African connections, the most obvious being that of primal male and female (the embedded sword and mother’s cradle). The most enigmatic is the three entwined snakes in the appearance of a dollar sign. The $ symbol was also used in early slave-holding account books to denote slave value. The chair surface was redecorated after the application of each covering with the final being a blackening in the West African tradition. The central covering seems to have been applied soon after the first covering (cat) with little evidence of fading to this primal covering. When the central covering was displayed, the wood surface was decorated in red (possibly a red blood wash). Given the chromatic and symbolic complexity of the central covering, this would have produced quite a stunning effect. Overall, the entire device displays a complexity of form, numerology, color, texture and iconographic juxtaposition which conveys a consistent spectrum of cosmology, religion, and specific organic esoteric information. Extensive research and technical analysis of the chair and its covering are available on request. 

(The 13 layers of "19th century calico" apparently were either not included in the auction, or not deemed worthy of mention.)  Auctioneer Andrew Brunk stated that while his firm "stand[s] behind our cataloging of the chair as a 19th century ladder back side chair [emphasis added] - as to its importance and interpretation, we leave that up to bidders."  Brunk said that Smith was "very forthright" that "opinions" about the chair "vary widely", and therefore before bidding started, it would be announced that "there is disagreement about the interpretation of the chair and its importance, and bidders can make their own assessments and conclusions."

The dealer's research 

Andrew Brunk graciously mailed me copies of the "extensive research" referred to in the auction description; I received it 1/9/2006.  It consists of the following (email me for scans):

An outline of what appears to be a presentation on the chair.

Photocopies of images of five African wood and bronze sculptures (unidentified as to source) in which the dealer says appear the "open xxx pattern," "embedded sword" and "spider web" motifs he finds on the chair; plus a photocopy of one of the gravestones Malcolm-Woods claims is African-American.

Copies of webpage articles: 

  • One on African art; the bottom of paragraph #11 is highlighted, and refers to the significance of blackening an Ashanti stool. 

  • One on African traditional religions; the bottom of the first paragraph of Section III (beginning "They grasp the cosmos) is highlighted, and refers to the African concept of the cosmos as "a three-tiered structure". 

  • One on "The Peoples of Africa"; the bottom of the first and the second paragraphs are highlighted, and describe how Akan stools are used. 

  • A section from another on "The Akan Group," in which the third paragraph of that section is highlighted, and refers to who owned the Akan stool and its importance. 

  • A short summary of textile history from a vintage clothing website.  Nothing highlighted.  

  • A portion of another paper concerning the Akan concept of libation.  The following is highlighted:

Generally the 'abusuapanyin' (the family head) performs libation for the family and the senior male member of the royal family officiates at the stool ceremonies.

Although the dealer refers to the chair's red color as a "blood wash," the author of this article explicitly states (in the paragraph right below the one highlighted by the dealer) that "Blood is never used in libation."

  • A short article from The Magazine:  Antiques (undated), on which the dealer has written "encoded decorative arts. The chain link symbol". The article concerns the meaning of the Latin motto on an 18th century Chinese export bowl; the author believes the motto refers to King George III. 

  • A Pediatric Aids Foundation webpage on "The Meaning of Colors".  The site's purpose is to encourage quilters to make quilts for children suffering from AIDS.  The site gives no source for the meanings it provides.  Nothing highlighted.

  • A list of Akan symbols and their meanings from the website of a company that manufactures doors. Nothing highlighted.

  • A page on the "Origin and history of the word 'dollar' and dollar sign".  The dealer has highlighted the section entitled "The Slave Theory," which reads:

There have been claims that the dollar symbol, $, is derived from the words for "slave" and "nail" in Spanish (or in Latin, according to one version of this theory that posits an earlier date for the invention of the symbol). The shackles worn by slaves could be locked by a nail which was passed through the rings or loops at the ends of the shackle and bent while it was still hot and malleable. The Spanish for slave is esclavo and for "nail" is clavo. Therefore the "S" with a nail, $, or S-clavo = esclavo or slave. Slaves constituted a store of wealth and as a result the abbreviation for slaves that slave-owners used in their account books came to represent money.

Smith has not highlighted the sentence that follows it, in which the author observes:

This seems like the kind of explanation that would be popular with conspiracy theorists.

The dollar sign can be drawn with one pillar or two. As one Freemason explained to me, thinking I was "a member of the craft": the two pillars represent pillars of Solomon's Temple; the S figure is "the snake of Solomon." In the case of the single pillar dollar sign, we are looking at the snake which is superimposed upon The Tree of Knowledge.

The author of the website then refers to the Bible as "the jew-book" and concludes with this statement:

The only people who benefit from debt-based currency are the jews and their Zionist stooges. No nation can tolerate such a money system and survive, for it means sacrificing self-rule in exchange for alien slavery.  OUR RACE IS OUR NATION!

On January 7, 2006 the chair sold for $1,700.

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