As usual, the Cherokee got all the credit. Since 1540, when swine flu carried by pigs of Hernan DeSoto’s expedition erased the entire Mississippian Mound Building culture in the blink of an eye, the Cherokee had dominated the Little Tennessee River Valley. They were Britain’s top trading partner in the area (until after the French Indian War, when they became the colonists’ main target for expansion). And when pottery history came knocking at the door in 1768, who got the glory? The Cherokee.
Josiah Wedgwood had heard of a fabled pure white clay deep in the interior of North Carolina. He contracted Thomas Griffiths to collect samples. Griffiths traveled from Charleston, SC to Fort Prince George, NC, the furthest colonial outpost. There, he was asked to escort home a Cherokee woman recently rescued from the clutches of a rival tribe. Lucky for Griffiths, as the Cherokee soon captured him. What were they to make of this lone white boy in the middle of a free fire zone claiming to be ‘just out looking for clay?’
The squaw saved Griffiths. But those “Strainge Copper Collour’d Gentry” drove a hard bargain. It took plenty of eating, drinking, smoking, and “Strong Talk” (and 500 pounds sterling) to get at the “unaker” clay pits. Griffiths shipped out enough material for Wedgwood to create the exact clay body needed for his masterpiece, the Portland Vase, and to kick off his fabulously successful Queen’s Ware. Bow Pottery also used this clay, still called “unaker” in Mitchell County, NC, to make England’s first true porcelain.
In the shadow of the Cherokee, the Catawba, a small neighboring tribe, existed for generations. But the Catawba had one main distinction; their pottery. Other tribes made pots. The Catawba, specifically their women, were veritable ‘Pottery Indians.’ Pottery was their primary occupation. Pottery held the tribe together. And continues to do so. Cherokee families with Catawba wives became pottery families as well.
Was it possible the Catawba had a hand (even a minor one) in Griffiths’ saga? It’s clear Griffiths dealt with the proud, powerful Cherokee. But Fort Prince George, the Little Tennessee River and Mitchell County roughly formed the border between Cherokee and Catawba lands. Who would best know the value of the unaker clay pits? A family married into the Catawba tradition might. The historical record falls silent.
Any recognition the Catawba have garnered in recent years has been well deserved. But if they did play a part in the creation of the Portland Vase, Queen’s Ware, and England’s first porcelain, I for one would like to see that acknowledged.
Catawba Indian Pottery. Thomas John Blumer. University of Alabama Press/Tuscaloosa AL. 2004.
The Pottery and Porcelain of the United States. Edwin Atlee Barber. G.P. Putnam’s Sons/New York. 1909.
The Art of the Potter. Diana and J. Garrison Stradling. Main Street-Universe Books/New York. 1977).
Early New England Potters and Their Wares. Lura Woodside Watkins. Harvard Univ Press/Cambridge MA. 1968.
A New Face on the Countryside. Indians, Colonists, and Slaves in South Atlantic Forests, 500-1800. Timothy Silver. Cambridge University Press. 1990.