Six weeks ago, Seattle Art Museum announced they had acquired a "significant collection of early American art." The collection was a trove of 45 "early American" objects assembled by the interesting American collector Ruth J. Nutt, who died in 2013, according to a statement from the museum. Some of those objects had already been on display at SAM thanks to a long-term loan, including Raphaelle Peale's 1814 oil painting Still Life with Strawberries and Ostrich Egg Cup, and others were added, including an actual cup made out of an ostrich egg.

On page three of the announcement about the acquisition, the museum mentioned Nutt's "outstanding collection of needlework," among which "one sampler stands out." It described a needlework sampler made in 1831 "by a 10-year-old named Charlotte Turner, a liberated African slave who was resettled to the Bathurst settlement in Sierra Leone. This is the only known example produced within this population." There was no image of the needlework sampler in the press release, and the sampler wasn't going out on immediate display, but it intrigued me.

So SAM collections coordinator Sarah Berman let me into SAM's storage to see it.

It is a modest thing, measuring a foot high and 10 inches across, with silk words and design elements hand-stitched into wool fabric. The lettering includes the entire alphabet in upper case and lower case, two strings of numbers 1 through 10, a Christian hymn ("My Bible says that Jesus died/For sinners young and old;/I am a sinner though a child..."), and these words:

Liberated African
Charlotte Turner
Aged 10 years
Bathurst, Sierra Leone 1831 March 18th

I looked at it and wondered: Liberated African? What precisely does that mean? Liberated from where? African slaves in the United States weren't liberated until the 1860s. The idea of her having been liberated from American slavery and ending up in Sierra Leone in 1831 at the age of 10 seemed improbable. I wanted to take SAM's word for it that this was an "American object," but that seemed like a stretch. Which population was SAM referring to when they said, "This is the only known example produced within this population"? Had Charlotte Turner been enslaved in another country, then somehow returned to Sierra Leone?

I asked Berman for whatever other information the museum had, and she gave me two paragraphs of information on file, from Nutt. From those:

Throughout the first forty years of the 19th century, schoolgirls in English speaking countries, notably the United States and the British Isles, made needlework samplers. As missionary movements, both American and English, intensified their activities in outposts such as India and Africa, the tradition of samplermaking traveled with them, providing an opportunity to teach the English language and instill religious beliefs. ... The settlement of Bathurst included a school administered by the Church Missionary Society which was responsible for the education of thousands of children over the years.

Bathurst is a village six miles west of Freetown, Sierra Leone, and at the mission there, they gave all their students names. Why did they pick the name Charlotte Turner specifically? Did the young girl think of that as her name? How liberated was she? Did she believe in their God? The Church Missionary Society wrote its intentions in its 1830 log: "We are convinced that the instruction and right education of the Children of the African Race will do more to advance the cause of Universal Emancipation, than all other means put together. Whatever is achieved in this way, strikes at the root of the evils against which we are contending: it counteracts, and in measure abolishes, that prejudice against the Colour, which is the greatest barrier to Emancipation."

There was only one more clue about the object in the museum's possession, something I almost missed. Just before we left storage, I asked Berman to turn over the sampler—in a wooden frame and under glass—and on the back were written the words "M. Finkel and Daughter."

I didn't know what that meant, and Berman didn't know who that meant, but the internet did. M. Finkel and Daughter is an established dealer of samplers based in Philadelphia. When I called, Amy Finkel (the daughter of M.) told me she remembered Charlotte Turner's 1831 creation well. "I've never had one like it since then or before then," Finkel said.

When Finkel bought it, she had the collector Nutt in mind, and sure enough, Nutt purchased it for her collection. Finkel said the man who sold the sampler to her in 2004, for $10,000, was "a reliable source," but "he knew nothing" about the object's history or travels; he told her he'd bought it on eBay. Earlier that year, the auction house Bonhams has a record of the piece selling in London on January 20, 2004, for 293 British pounds, or $467, including the auction house's premium and "together with another embroidered picture.”

Finkel is the source of the claim that "this is the only known example produced within this population." She told me the same thing on the phone.

But it isn't.

As I wrote soon after that conversation on Slog, The Stranger's blog, a little googling revealed a dozen more specific African girls' samplers from mission schools in Sierra Leone. I found an essay called "African Girls' Samplers from Mission Schools in Sierra Leone (1820s to 1840s)," by a scholar named Silke Strickrodt at the German Historical Institute in London. The essay was published in the journal History in Africa in 2010. I e-mailed Strickrodt, and she sent me her essay, containing a small section about "Liberated African Charlotte Turner, Aged 10 years, Bathurst, Sierra Leone."

So Strickrodt knew exactly which piece I was talking about.

Since writing about the first known samplers by African girls in Sierra Leone mission schools, Strickrodt has been alerted to three more, she e-mailed, so now there are known to be 15 of them. Only two others are marked "Liberated African."

"Liberated African" was the term applied to people who were "rescued from 'illegal' slave ships on the West African coast by vessels of the British navy's anti-slave-trade patrol," Strickrodt wrote. In 1807, Britain's Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act, which abolished the slave trade, but not slavery itself (that wouldn't come until 1833). Ships were stopped on their way out of Africa, and people "rescued" were put into the British military or apprenticed, which could mean being sent out in service. The majority of the people rescued, Strickrodt writes, were Yoruba—a people native to the part of the African continent we now call Nigeria.

This means that Charlotte Turner was likely Yoruba. Her "liberation" most likely involved being kidnapped somewhere in the territory of present-day Nigeria, transported possibly hundreds of miles from her home to the coast of Nigeria, marched onto a slave ship, caught by the royal navy somewhere on the ocean, taken to Sierra Leone by the British, marched off the ship in Freetown, and delivered to the missionaries.

Why didn't the royal navy try to return people to their hometowns when they encountered slave ships on the high seas?

Aside from the basic British desire to assimilate Africans into good Christian royal subjects, there was the question of logistics. It would have been very difficult for the people themselves to know how to get back to where they belonged—and presumably, raiders were still lying in wait there. They became detached, floating. There is the famous example of a Yoruba man with a similar life story to the one we can imagine about Charlotte Turner named Samuel Ajayi Crowther. He, too, was freed from a slave ship as a young man and taken first to Bathurst, after which he went on to become the first-ever black Anglican bishop. He traveled the region teaching and preaching during the first half of the 1800s, when the long history of slavery began to come undone. He may well have encountered Charlotte Turner, though I couldn't find any specific documentation of him at Bathurst in 1831.

In her essay, Strickrodt explains that the samplers like the one with Charlotte Turner's name on it are special because they were "generated by a group of people for whom we do not usually have first-hand documentary material." But "these 'textile documents' present serious problems of interpretation."

"What," she asks, "do they express of the girls' own perspectives, as distinct from the European missionaries who directed the girls' work?" At Bathurst, teachers designed the samplers and the girls executed them. The girls spent most of their time making boys' clothes, and samplers were considered a treat. Samplers were meant to teach girls the "feminine" virtues of "perseverance, industry, and obedience," Strickrodt explained.

"That needle[work] is not stepping out of line, it is pretty disciplined, and at 10 years old to be doing that, you can imagine the rigorous disciplinary surroundings she was living in," said Pamela McClusky, SAM's curator of African and Oceanic art.

The samplers were fundraisers for the mission. If a sponsor back in Europe paid for a sampler, that sponsor got to name the girl who made it. So that's how Charlotte Turner got her name. The samplers "were missionary propaganda pieces that were sent to Europe to supporters to ensure their continued support," Strickrodt told me, "which, however, does not mean to say that the girls who stitched them did not enjoy making them."

Strickrodt believes Charlotte Turner was "probably one of 147 liberated African girls who in late January 1831 were returned by the colonial government to the care of the [Church Missionary Society] at Bathurst, following their withdrawal in the previous month, after it had been discovered that the local CMS missionary, the Rev. Thomas Davey, had a sexual relationship with a girl placed in his household for education."

Had Charlotte Turner known that girl? Had Charlotte Turner been that girl?

How did living conditions at the mission compare to where she'd been before she was "returned"?

McClusky, the SAM curator, has seen firsthand the kind of boardinghouses where Charlotte Turner probably lived in Bathurst. McClusky formerly lived in Sierra Leone, where some of those buildings still stand. They were made to look like Southern American plantations, with "big open porches," McClusky said—because missionaries relied on freed American slaves to build them, when the first waves arrived between roughly 1792 and 1804.

Often, samplers made by African girls in missionary schools bore European flora and fauna, not African: strawberry border, rose twigs, dovecots. There's none of that in Charlotte Turner's sampler. Strickrodt sees in it "baskets, crosses, peacocks, and a bird (a chicken?)."

The initials "C.B." at the bottom, Strickrodt guesses, probably referred to the sponsor in England, and given that the piece ended up in private hands rather than in the archives of the CMS in London, this sampler probably made it to its recipient. There's another haunting possibility: that Charlotte Turner did not exist at all, that she was the fabrication of a missionary to raise money. But whether she's real or made up, the object draws us back to the real forgotten lives of those "liberated" girls.

So should this sampler be part of an "early American" collection at all?

When Nutt bought the sampler from Finkel, she thought it was by a slave girl liberated in the United States. Julie Emerson, the recently retired Ruth J. Nutt Curator of Decorative Arts of Europe and America at SAM, feels especially close to Charlotte Turner's sampler. Emerson noticed back in 2004 when it was for sale at auction, and contacted Ruth Nutt in the hopes that Nutt would buy it—only to learn that Nutt already had. When it was donated to SAM in September, it was in Emerson's honor, for her many years as a SAM curator. When I reached her by phone recently, Emerson didn't want to let go of the possibility that Charlotte Turner could have been enslaved in the United States before she was freed and returned to Africa.

But McClusky and Strickrodt say that's highly unlikely. Charlotte Turner probably had no connection to the United States at all. "If I wasn't a historian, I would say 'categorically not,' but historians do not like to talk like that as there are always exceptions," Strickrodt wrote dutifully.

If Charlotte Turner was already freed at 10, she would have been freed on her way to servitude, not on her way out of servitude. Traders weren't looking for young children, and the journey across the ocean was long. She also wouldn't have been descended from earlier slaves returned from the Americas, because they and their children were referred to as "Settlers," while the term "Liberated African" specifically meant those from illegal ships in African waters. People freed on the American side of the Atlantic were usually taken to places on that side of the ocean, like Havana, rather than sent the distance to Africa.

Charlotte Turner, if she was Yoruba, probably spent about "a week and a half or two" on the intercepted slave ship traveling from coastal now-Nigeria to her missionary life in Sierra Leone, McClusky said. She must have been terrified, then bewildered.

A sampler like this represents less a single person—Charlotte Turner—and more the triangular relationship between the girl, her teacher, and the sponsor, Strickrodt explains. A little more is known about Charlotte Turner's probable teacher at Bathurst in March 1831, Sarah Warburton. She was an Englishwoman who came to Sierra Leone with her husband. He died there. Warburton went on to marry the man who replaced the lecherous Davey at the mission. Had Charlotte Turner survived into adulthood, she probably would have gone on to marry another member of the church, both of them maybe continuing to proselytize and participate in small trade activities, speculates Saheed Adejumobi, director of Global African Studies at Seattle University. The children and grandchildren of those marriages went on to sow the seeds of African independence movements.

SAM's collections are mostly arranged by geography. But like people and their stories, objects resist boundaries. History is messier than museums or maps would lead us to believe.

Recently, for example, Chiyo Ishikawa, SAM's chief curator and European art specialist, spent time reorganizing the art outside the museum's "Italian Room." It's not a gallery for Italian art, it's a whole wood-paneled room reconstructed and placed in the museum, dating from the 16th century. But there was no country called Italy until the 19th century, and the anachronism began to grate on Ishikawa, so she sent an e-mail asking Emerson whether the name could be changed to "The Chiavenna Room," referring to the town where it's from. Emerson must have smiled at the e-mail. Emerson had argued the same point some years ago but lost, because "it felt like nobody would know what [Chiavenna] was."

A museum that's considered "encyclopedic"—and there are only a few in the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York—has the luxury of being able to flirt with time travel by divvying its vast collections into very specific categories. But a "general" museum like Seattle's has a smaller and more limited collection. The collection looks better, and can tell better stories, when departments join forces. That's why "we actively seek out works that can be seen in multiple contexts," Ishikawa told me.

For a few years after the new and expanded SAM opened in 2007, the European and African departments shared a small gallery where they demonstrated the strengths that could come out of their weaknesses. It was located right between the European and African galleries on the fourth floor, and over time it brought together 20th-century African photography, 18th-century prints by the British satirist William Hogarth, 18th-century neoclassical French painting, and a work called Nuclear Family by the British Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare. Nuclear Family is two parents and two children, dressed in European designs made out of African-patterned fabric, creating a striking visual dissonance that speaks volumes about the separations and intimacies between cultures—at the site of the human body.

Charlotte Turner's sampler would be perfect for that little interstitial gallery.

But if it has to be classified geographically?

Ishikawa said she isn't sure. McClusky said it belongs in the African galleries.

If the sampler were made of tougher materials, the museum might want to keep it on near-constant display. But silk on wool is organic and delicate. Textiles fade and break down under bright museum lights. The rule is that textiles can be out for about six months before having to go back into the dark for at least two years, McClusky said. Some museums make exceptions for delicate pieces they display with black cloths over the frames that visitors can lift to see what's underneath, but SAM doesn't generally use those (it's just a style decision, the curators say; in the one textile gallery at SAM, the lights go on when a visitor enters and turn off when nobody's there).

Nothing is confirmed yet, but Ishikawa and McClusky are working on an interdepartmental textiles exhibition for 2016, to take place at the Asian Art Museum. That will be the first time Charlotte Turner's sampler comes out for display. There she'll be, and not be, under that name picked by a stranger. recommended