Eliza’s impressive needlework is highlighted by a distinctive Irish (flame) stitched band at the top along with an imposing seven bay architectural structure at the bottom. Unique among early Georgia samplers, this work encompasses not only decorative influences seen in Southside Virginia samplers, but it is the only documented Georgia needlework depicting an actual school building, which we can now identify.
The Blunt family came to Georgia from Southampton County, Virginia, and settled first in Columbia County before being awarded land in the 1805 Lottery. After claiming their land in Putnam County, they planted crops, including cotton. The 1820 census records the Blunt family household consisting of seven family members plus ten enslaved people and one free person of color, a boy under fourteen years old.
In style and design, Eliza Blunt’s sampler reflects her family’s Southside Virginia roots and the advancement of education in a growing and prosperous Georgia. After the establishment of homes, farms, and local government, providing education for sons and daughters was the next step in cultural refinement.
Navigating the complex history of education in places like Putnam County in the early 19th century can be challenging. Schools came and went and changed names with frequency. However, by closely following schools as they advertised changes in administration and location, one begins to unravel the web.
The first school chartered in Putnam County was in 1809. It was located in the newly established county seat of Eatonton and called Union Academy. The school continued under that name until1816, when Alonzo Church became the headmaster and changed its name to Eatonton Academy. While Eatonton Academy continued to operate, a second school was established in 1819 about nine miles northeast of Eatonton, near Lick Creek and the Edmund Blunt family. It too was called Union Academy.
The first advertisement for the new school appeared in The Georgia Journal on March 23, 1819, stating that it had been “established in the neighborhood of Major William Alexander, Mr. William Walker, and Col. William E. Adams…on a site obtained from Francis Ward, esq. not far from the Garners Ferry.” When the academy was incorporated in 1821, the Trustees were Dr. Iddo Ellis, William Walker, William Alexander, William Turner, William E. Adams, Zaccheus Butler and Hardy Pace. Like Edmund Blunt, many of these men were Southside Virginia transplants and all of them lived in either Capt. William Jernigan’s or Capt. John H. Butt’s militia districts in northeastern Putnam County.
The 1819 advertisement offers clues to the size, scale, and appearance of the Union Academy building. It stated that “The Academy edifice…will be spacious and commodious, adapted to the accommodation of 80 to 100 scholars, in two schools.” The “edifice” stitched onto Eliza Blunt’s sampler would have accommodated the specified number of students and is separated by multiple entrances for the male and female departments. The noticeable lack of chimneys supports the notion of a public school building that would have been heated by stoves instead of fireplaces.
By comparison, another advertisement appearing a few months later in the same newspaper, described a similar, two-story frame academic structure that was to be built in nearby Washington County. It described, “A two story building, 68 by 30 feet, divided into two apartments, above and below, 24 by 30 feet each, with an entry 20 by 30 feet, with two pair of stairs…with an appropriate number of doors & windows….” Thus, Eliza’s sampler appears to depict the new norm for Georgia school buildings.
Union Academy was best remembered by its well-known first rector, William H. Seward, who later gained prominence as Secretary of State to President Abraham Lincoln. In his autobiography, published in 1877, Seward recalled his first experience as a teacher. Arriving in Georgia directly from college, the seventeen-year-old William described his interactions with many of the Trustees and residents of the area, including Iddo Ellis, William Turner, a Mr. Ward, a Mr. Walker, and a Mr. Alexander. The school opened on April 19, 1819, with 65 students – 34 boys and 31 girls – and within a month there were more than 70. Seward remembered the region as primarily populated by Virginians and Carolinians, and his students as “well advanced in years, but quite uninstructed.”
In addition to Seward, the 1819 Advertisement assured parents that “arrangements had been made for securing the aid of a Female Teacher, well qualified to conduct the Female Department”. Martha Spaulding was briefly Seward’s assistant, before her move to Baldwin Academy. By December of that year, an announcement in the Milledgeville newspaper after Seward’s departure revealed that the new rector, P.D. Woodruff, was aided by a “male and a female assistant; the latter assistant from the state of Connecticut.” The Georgia Journal unveiled her identity in 1820 when it announced that “Miss Mary Stillman, who has taught with credit to herself and the Institution, will remain the female assistant.”
Mary Stillman (1796-1868) was born in New Haven, Connecticut to John P. (1772-1805) and Esther (Johnson) Stillman (1772-1848). The MESDA Craftsman Database documented Miss Mary Ann Stillman when she advertised opening a school in Louisville, Kentucky in 1817, and Kim Ivey documented her teaching in Southampton County and Isle of Wight County, Virginia, in the 1820s. This Virginia connection may help to explain the Irish (flame) stitch featured prominently in Eliza’s sampler. Combined with the depiction of buildings, this technique and design appear on many Virginia samplers, particularly from the Isle of Wight and Southampton County areas.
The estate papers of Edmund Blunt show correspondence and numerous receipts for payment between Eliza’s mother, Mary Blunt, and Dr. Iddo Ellis (1779-1848), the Union Academy trustee who hosted William Seward in his home and offered to board young ladies for the Academy. After the death of Ellis’s first wife, Lucy Randolph Phelps, in 1824, the widower traveled to Petersburg, Virginia, to wed the former Union Academy teacher, Mary Stillman. At that time Mary Stillman lived in Petersburg with her widowed mother and a married sister. In December 1824, Mary wed Iddo Ellis and they returned to Putnam County, Georgia. By February of the next year, 1825, Dr. Ellis is documented receiving payments from Mary Blunt.
After Edmund Blunt’s death in April of 1825, an inventory and appraisal of his estate was conducted. Thirteen enslaved men, women and children along with household and agricultural goods were appraised and certified by Blunt’s neighbors William Walker and Zaccheus Butler, who were also Union Academy trustees.
The Blunt family’s close connections to the Lick Creek community and their close proximity to Union Academy make it the obvious choice for Eliza’s education, and Mary Stillman as her likely teacher. The size and scale of the academy building would have accommodated many local children, including Eliza Blunt and her siblings. Connections to Southside Virginia abounded within their neighborhood and among many of the Trustees of the Academy. Employing a qualified teacher with Virginia associations emphasized their attachment to longstanding Virginia traditions while expanding their world in the Georgia frontier.
DESCRIPTION: Two-ply twisted silk thread on balanced plain weave linen; edges turned under and hemmed. Stitches: counted cross over 2 x 2 threads; queen over 4 x 4 threads; square eyelet over 4 x 4 threads; irish.