Treasures from the Oregon Vault: Pinafore Made on the Oregon Trail

November 24, 2020

By Helen Fedchak

This pinafore, handmade on the Oregon Trail in 1846, is one of over 75,000 objects the Oregon Historical Society’s museum safeguards. OHS Museum 2009-51.1. Photographs by Robert Warren

The Oregon Historical Society is dedicated to making Oregon’s long, rich history visible and accessible to all. For more than a century, OHS has served as the state’s collective memory, gathering and preserving a vast collection of objects, photographs, films, manuscripts, books, and oral histories. Those collections, cared for by museum and library staff, are held in a 100,000 square foot facility sometimes referred to as the Oregon Vault.

In this series, “Treasures from the Oregon Vault,” museum staff highlight their favorites from the over 75,000 objects they safeguard, including costumes and textiles, Native American belongings, artworks, and everyday items. Some are powerful, some are ordinary, and some are totally bizarre.

Rachel (Goodrich) Owens made this girl’s pinafore (apron-like dress) during her wagon train journey to Oregon. Rachel Owens was married to William Owens, an elderly widower, when her daughter Nancy Ann was born in Missouri on October 27, 1844. William died soon after Nancy Ann’s birth. In 1845, Rachel married Andrew Davidson, with whom she traveled to the Oregon Territory in 1846 as part of a wagon train using Applegate’s Cut-off. Davidson had many children when they began traveling to Oregon; Herbert Lang’s History of the Willamette Valley lists his children at the time as: Mary J., Nancy, Sabrina, Margaret, Joseph, Ellen, Martha, Rachel, H.D., Dollie, and James (p. 654). As this dress is for a girl older than her daughter Nancy would have been at the time, it is likely that Rachel made it for one of the other children in the family. On arriving in Oregon, the family settled in Ballston, Polk County, where Andrew farmed for a living. 

Girl’s pinafore front. OHS Museum 2009-51.1

Rachel Goodrich Owens made this girl’s pinafore for one of her husband’s children while traveling to Oregon. OHS Museum 2009-51.1.

Pinafore cotton print fabric. OHS Museum 2009-51.1

This detail of the pinafore’s cotton print fabric features a floral vine print. OHS Museum 2009-51.1.

The pinafore is made of a very lightweight blue-green colored cotton (mostly faded to a pale green), with a stylized continuous floral vine print in pink, white, yellow, and green, with black outlines. The bodice is sleeveless with a straight top edge and a narrow shallow-pointed yoke. The bodice is gathered in the front between the yoke and the waist and there is one row of cotton lace in off-white at the edge of the yoke. Underneath this is a gathered self-fabric ruffle edged with a different lace trim. The top edges and straps of the bodice are made of a darker green bias tape, tied into bows on the shoulders. The back of the bodice is slightly higher than the front and has the same lace and ruffle decoration. The skirt is full and tightly gathered to the waist. There is a gathered ruffle at the bottom of the skirt, with green bias tape near the top and lace trim at the bottom. The bodice is lined with off-white cotton, and the skirt is unlined.

As is expected of the period and circumstances, the dress is hand-sewn, with evidence of skilled hand-stitching. The green bias trim, however, is most likely a later addition, as it is machine-sewn. The back closure of the dress is certainly a much later replacement from the original, as it has large white plastic buttons and elastic button loops. This dress, handmade on the Oregon Trail, was probably reused within the family for many years.

Skirt ruffle and later bias tape addition. OHS Museum 2009-51.1

This detail of the tightly-gathered ruffle at the bottom of the skirt shows the later stitching on the green bias tape. OHS Museum 2009-51.1.

Back view of the pinafore. OHS Museum 2009-51.1

Back closure of the pinafore, showing the much later addition of white plastic buttons and elastic button loops. OHS Museum 2009-51.1.

Rachel’s daughter, Nancy Ann Owens, grew up in Ballston and in 1860 married Jesse Swope Newbill, who had also crossed the Oregon Trail in 1846. They settled in Ballston and Grizzly Butte, and Thomas Jefferson Newbill, Sr., their eighth child, was born in Grizzly in an abandoned log cabin the family found. They lived there only a few years before Nancy Ann insisted on moving back to Ballston. In addition to this dress, the donation included a quilt top partially sewn by Thomas when he was seven years old and a tiny wooden mallet that he made from the remains of the mantelpiece of the abandoned cabin at Grizzly Butte that he gathered when he returned there at the age of twenty-five.

OHS has a large collection of clothing and accessories, totaling more than 9,500 individual objects.  About five hundred of those are from the Oregon Trail period, including clothes, hats, shoes, collars, shawls, and objects such as individual buttons. Of these, however, only about twenty are specifically documented as being brought across the Trail. As far as we know, this pinafore is the only clothing item in the collection that was actually made on the Trail.

Categories: Collection HighlightsAudience(s): Visitors

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