Going to the Sources: Researching the Esther Packard (1801) Bed Rug

Jul 06, 2017

By Dan Sousa
Decorative Arts Trust Curatorial Intern

As an institution that seeks to preserve and interpret the history and material culture of Deerfield, Massachusetts and the Connecticut River Valley, Historic Deerfield works to build its collection by acquiring objects with well-documented histories of local ownership.  Typically, before such an object is acquired by the museum, research must be completed to verify the object’s history. When Curator of Textiles, David E. Lazaro, was interested in acquiring a marked, early 19th-century bed rug with possible ties to Cummington, Hampshire County, Massachusetts, the staff was eager to have the object’s history confirmed (Fig. 1).  

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Figure 1: Esther Packard Bed Rug, HD 2017.6.  Museum Collections Fund.  Photo by Penny Leveritt.   

Composed primarily of wool, bed rugs were not an uncommon item found in late 18th and early 19th-century Massachusetts homes.  For example, references to bed rugs appear in the probate inventories of Deerfield, Massachusetts residents Ebenezer Nims (1687-1760), William Arms (1724-1794), Elijah Russell (1765-1811), and Joseph Stebbins (1782-1827).[1]  Those who produced them not only needed to be skilled at needlework but also constructing the covering to the size of the bed.  On occasion, bed rug makers might have also dyed their own yarns.[2]  Because of these factors, bed rugs were considered to be prized possessions, reserved for particular places in the home.  As Jessie Armstead Marshall explains, bed rugs and other bed coverings typically “…graced the top [of] the best beadstead in the best chamber, often on the first floor of their house.”[3] 

When I began research on the bed rug I was working to verify a story, and answer several questions.  The bed rug, marked “Esther Packard 1801,” was believed to be made by Esther (Porter) Packard (1733-1812)—a native of Abington, Plymouth County, Massachusetts—who married Abel Packard (1729-1804).  The two were said to have eventually settled in Cummington, Massachusetts.[4]  My first task was to verify and expand upon the above genealogical information, and assess the possibility that the bed rug was wrought by Esther in Cummington.  The answer to the latter question was crucial, as it would ultimately reveal whether the bed rug was created within the geographical confines of the Connecticut River Valley.   

A search of Massachusetts vital records verified that Esther Porter was born in Abington in 1733 to Jacob Porter and Esther Ford.[5]  She would marry her husband, Abel Packard—a native of nearby Bridgewater, Massachusetts—at Abington in 1751.[6]  The couple appears to have resided in Bridgewater for a time where a number of their children, including a son Abel, were born.[7]

Having located Esther and her husband residing in eastern Massachusetts, I was curious to know if, why, and when they relocated to Cummington.  Family histories and historical sketches proved to be of some help in answering these questions.  One Porter family genealogy noted that Esther and Abel moved to Cummington in June of 1774.[8]  As it turns out, this migration pattern from Bridgewater to Cummington was not unusual.  John Warner Barber in his Historical Collections notes that residents of Bridgewater and Abington represented some of Cummington’s earliest settlers.[9]

To support these initial findings, I looked for evidence of Abel and Esther selling land in Plymouth County, and purchasing land in Hampshire County in the mid 1770s.  While one Plymouth County deed does record an Abel and Esther Packard selling land in Bridgewater in 1773, my search of Hampshire County deeds did not produce evidence of an Abel and Esther Packard purchasing land in Cummington.[10]  The 1790 U.S. Federal Census along with a 1793 Hampshire County deed does, however, make reference to an Abel Packard and an Abel Packard, Jr. (likely father and son) both of Cummington.[11]  Abel Packard died and was buried at Cummington in 1804, followed by his wife Esther in 1812.[12]  Unfortunately, wills and estate inventories do not appear to exist for Abel and Esther, making it difficult to conclusively associate the bed rug with Esther.  Overall, the above information situates Esther and her husband in Cummington between 1790 and 1804, making it quite likely that Esther would have wrought her bed rug in Cummington in 1801.

While some secondary sources attribute the 1801 bed rug to an Esther Packard who was from Jericho, Chittenden County, Vermont—not Cummington, Massachusetts—I was unable to locate evidence to support this claim.[13]  A search of the 1800 and 1810 Federal Censuses did not produce evidence of an Abel Packard, Esther Packard, or Porter family residing in Jericho, Vermont.  Moreover, a search of Vermont vital records did not produce evidence of a marriage between Esther and Abel, or death records for Abel Packard and Esther Packard in Jericho or elsewhere in Vermont.  An initial search of Chittenden County, Vermont probate records also did not produce evidence of an Esther or Abel Packard.      

Another question which I sought to answer was whether Esther (Porter) Packard was the aunt of a Rachel (Porter) Packard (1765-1851).  Rachel (Porter) Packard is believed to have wrought a very similar bed rug (marked with the year 1805) currently in the possession of the Henry Ford Museum.  Allegedly, Rachel (Porter) Packard married Esther’s son, Abel Packard, Jr. (1754-1832), in 1807.[14]

Some additional digging revealed that Rachel (Porter) Packard was very likely the niece of Esther (Porter) Packard.  Abington vital records show that Esther Packard had a brother named Jacob Porter, who married Rachel Reed.[15]  Jacob and Rachel Porter had a daughter named Rachel who was born at Abington in 1765.[16]  The family appears to have later settled in Worthington, Massachusetts, located just south of Cummington.[17]  Cummington vital records list a marriage between a Rachel Porter of Worthington (very likely the daughter of Jacob Porter and Rachel Reed) and an Abel Packard of Cummington (very likely the son of Abel Packard and Esther Porter) in 1808.[18] 

In summary, the above analysis provides good circumstantial evidence that the maker of the 1801 bed rug was Esther (Porter) Packard, wife of Abel Packard, who was born and married in Abington, Massachusetts, and later resided in Cummington, Massachusetts.  Esther and her husband were likely residing in Cummington by 1790, and both died in Cummington within the first two decades of the 19th century.  Based on this evidence, the bed rug would have very likely been made during Esther’s residence in Cummington.   

Historic Deerfield is thrilled and honored to be able to preserve Esther’s skill and handiwork for future generations.  Her bed rug is, in fact, currently the only documented bed rug from the Connecticut River Valley in the museum’s collection.  The object is not only a decorative and functional masterpiece, but an important historical document whose story helps to shed light on the Packard and Porter Families of Massachusetts. 



[1] Inventory of the Estate of Ebenezer Nims, Hampshire County, Massachusetts, Probate Records, Vol. 10, Pg. 332, viewed at FamilySearch.org; Inventory of the Estate of William Arms, Hampshire County, Massachusetts, Probate Records, Vol. 19, Pg. 87, viewed at FamilySearch.org; Inventory of the Estate of Elijah Russell, Hampshire County, Massachusetts, Probate Records, Vol. 28, Pg. 152-153, viewed at FamilySearch.org; Inventory of the Estate of Joseph Stebbins, Franklin County, Massachusetts, Probate Files, Docket #4661, viewed at FamilySearch.org.  

[2] Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Lynne Zacek Bassett, Iona Lincoln, Jessie Marshall, “Four Perspectives on a Bed Rug,” in Textiles in New England: Four Centuries of Material Life: The Dublin Seminar of New England Folklife Annual Proceedings, 18 through 20 June 1999, ed. Peter Benes (Boston, MA: Boston University, 2001), 13-26.

[3] Jessie Armstead Marshall, Bed Rugs: 18th and Early 19th Century Embroidered Bed Covers: Expressions of the American Spirit (Storrs, CT: J.A. Marshall, 2000), 1.

[4] Cora Ginsberg, LLC and Titi Halle, A Catalogue of Exquisite and Rare Works of Arts Including 17th to 19th Century Costume Textiles and Needlework: 2017 (New York, NY: Cora Ginsberg, 2017), 20-21.

[5] Vital Records of Abington, Massachusetts to the Year 1850: Volume I: Births (Boston, MA: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1912), 172.

[6] Vital Records of Abington, Massachusetts to the Year 1850: Volume II: Marriages and Deaths (Boston, MA: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1912), 161.

[7] Joseph W. Porter, A Genealogy of the Descendants of Richard Porter who Settled at Weymouth, Mass., 1635, and Allied Families: Also, Some Account of the Descendants of John Porter, who Settled at Hingham, Mass., 1635, and Salem, (Danvers) Mass., 1644 (Bangor: Burr & Robinson, Printers, 1878), 43.

[8] Ibid., 43.

[9] John Warner Barber, Historical Collections: Being a General Collection of Interesting Facts, Traditions, Biographical Sketches, Anecdotes, &c., Relating to the History and Antiquities of Every Town in Massachusetts (1839; reprint, Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2014), 317.

[10] Plymouth County, Massachusetts Land Records, Vol. 57, Pg. 222 (1773), viewed at FamilySearch.org.

[11] Household of Ensn. Abel Packard, 1790 United States Federal Census, Cummington, Hampshire County, Massachusetts, United States; citing p. 131, NARA microfilm publication M637, (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.), roll 4; FHL microfilm 568,144; Hampshire County, Massachusetts Land Records, Vol. 6, Pg. 502 (1793), viewed at FamilySearch.org.

[12] William W. Streeter and Daphne H. Morris, The Vital Records of Cummington, Massachusetts, 1762-1900 (Cummington, MA: William Streeter, 1979), 214-215.

[13] See, for example, Janneken Smucker, “Early Nineteenth-Century Embroidered Bedcovers” Winterthur Portfolio: A Journal of American Material Culture 42, no. 4 (2008): 228-229.

[14] Cora Ginsberg, LLC and Titi Halle, A Catalogue of Exquisite and Rare Works of Arts Including 17th to 19th Century Costume Textiles and Needlework: 2017 (New York, NY: Cora Ginsberg, 2017), 20-21.

[15] Vital Records of Abington, Massachusetts to the Year 1850: Volume I: Births (Boston, MA: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1912), 172; Vital Records of Abington, Massachusetts to the Year 1850: Volume II: Marriages and Deaths (Boston, MA: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1912), 161.

[16] Vital Records of Abington, Massachusetts to the Year 1850: Volume I: Births (Boston, MA: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1912), 173.

[17] Porter, A Genealogy of the Descendants of Richard Porter, 47; Household of Jacob Porter, 1790 United States Federal Census, Worthington, Hampshire County, Massachusetts, citing p. 632, NARA microfilm publication M637, (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.), roll 4; FHL microfilm 568, 144.

[18] William W. Streeter and Daphne H. Morris, The Vital Records of Cummington, Massachusetts, 1762-1900 (Cummington, MA: William Streeter, 1979), 139.

 

 

 

 



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