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Artifact of the Month: The Most Precious Thing You Own, The Arcan Family Tablecloth
Posted by Marla on July 17, 2012
What is the most precious thing you own (not including your kids or cat)? If you had to choose only one item to keep, what would it be? For Abigail Arcan, the choice was easy: the family tablecloth.
Many of the artifacts in MAH’s collection come with amazing tales, but the Arcan family tablecloth has one of the most harrowing and poignant stories of all. The Arcan family was one of four families of 1849 pioneers who survived tragic conditions in Death Valley while in route to make their fortunes in California.
Of the thousands of people flocking westward to the California gold fields in 1849, many barely survived the rough terrain and dwindling supplies. For the pioneer parties descending into Death Valley, they were dismayed to see their course blocked by a high range of mountains.
Most of the parties found escape routes, but four families, including John and Abigail Arcan with their young son Charlie, could not leave due to their exhaustion, lack of provisions, and the added difficulty of traveling with a child (oh, and Abigail was pregnant too).
When the Arcans and other families were rescued from Death Valley by William Lewis Manly and John H. Rogers, the families were forced to leave most of their belongings behind. Abigail refused to leave the tablecloth she had woven prior to her marriage. She didn’t want to lose this nostalgic remnant of her past. Legend has it that Abigail wrapped the tablecloth around her shoulders before leaving the valley.
The Arcan tablecloth is shrouded in a bit of intrigue (just the type of artifact I like). I got an email in 2007 from someone who knew the whereabouts of the original Arcan family tablecloth. Did this mean there were fakes? Yes, and I was reassured that the one being donated to the MAH was the real deal. I received, however, one mysterious phone call after the donation. In a low voice the anonymous caller asked me simply, “Do you really have the true tablecloth?”
The tablecloth is made of fine cream linen. It’s not fancy, but it has a great backstory. Of course that often is the case when choosing the most precious thing you own. Nice job, Mrs. Arcan.