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ᏣᎳᎩ ᎦᏓᏆᎵ ᎠᎴ ᎩᎵᏏ Cherokee Clay and the English

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Josiah Wedgwood created some of the most beautiful, distinctive dinnerware in the world, desired and admired by royalty and the everyday collector . Even today the name Wedgwood conjures images of elegance and perfection. What most people don’t know is that he used Cherokee clay to achieve it.

Early European Pottery in North America

Georgia potter Andrew Duche first attempted porcelain in the colonies in 1738 after discovering the essential ingredients for porcelain, kaolin (he called “Unaker”, likely mispronouncing unega, the Cherokee word for white) and petunse (a fine-grained feldspar stone), in the clay found in Cherokee country near present-day Franklin, North Carolina. It’s unclear if he ever made porcelain, but he convinced Georgia Governor Oglethorpe to sponsor a trip to England to secure backers for his porcelain endeavor.

By the 1740s, people in England and across the American colonies knew of the valuable white clay deposits in the Cherokee region of North Carolina. Bow Pottery, near London, agreed to use the “unaker” clay in their experiments, resulting in England’s first true porcelain in 1744. That same year a British patent was filed on December 06, 1744 “for the production of porcelain from an earthy mixture produced by the Cherokees.”  The Cherokee themselves used the mixture of clay, mica and stone, to make pipes, clay tiles and to stucco their homes.

English potter Josiah Wedgwood learned of the so-called Cherokee clay and requested a sample in 1766. Unsuccessful in his request, Wedgwood commissioned Thomas Griffiths, a planter from South Carolina, to obtain some of the clay. He found the best kaolin clay came from a Cherokee mine in Ayoree, which would later become, Franklin, NC. It revolutionized Wedgwood pottery.

The Wedgwood Story

The Wedgwood story began in 1759, when Josiah Wedgwood, only twenty-nine at the time, started as a potter in England. He began to experiment with clay to produce dinnerware and serve ware for the middle class market.  Eventually his reputation grew, not to mention he was quite the marketer. In 1765 Wedgwood presented a gift to British Queen Charlotte. She soon thereafter ordered a set of cream-colored earthenware that pleased her so much that Josiah Wedgwood was granted permission to style himself ‘Potter to Her Majesty’ and call his cream ware ‘Queen’s Ware’.  In 1773, Empress Catherine the Great of Russia ordered a set of Queen’s Ware for a palace she had not yet built. Today this service is kept in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Jasperware: The journey from Cherokee country to England

Jasperware, the most famous of Josiah’s inventions, first appeared in 1774, about 5 years after Wedgwood received the white Cherokee clay and after thousands of experiments.  Jasperware is unglazed vitreous stoneware made in blue, green, lilac, yellow, black or white. On these colored backdrops, pure white reliefs, made from a clay formula containing Cherokee clay, were applied to create stunning scenes of incredible intricacy. The iconic light blue jasper gave rise to the expression “Wedgwood Blue” and remains a recognizable Wedgwood symbol.

Before he could begin his experimentation, Wedgwood needed white clay. He commissioned Griffiths to find a way to buy, then transport 5 tons of Unaker clay from North Carolina to his factory in England.  Griffiths kept a journal. In it he wrote:

“The Indians set a high value on their white earth: however I sent for a linguist, and after strong talk which lasted near four hours, we settled matters….” Thomas Griffiths, 1767   

On December 18, 1767, Griffiths finished extracting several tons of fine white clay from the North Carolina mountains. The clay was carried down the mountains by pack horses and loaded onto wagons.  He delivered the Cherokee clay to Josiah Wedgwood in April 1768.

Because of the expenses incurred, Wedgwood never pursued additional shipments of the clay. His supply lasted at least 15 years. In 1783, he wrote that Cherokee clay was the basis of his newly manufactured biscuit porcelain. The discovery of suitable clay in Cornwall, England, ended the demand for more Cherokee clay. However, in the summer of 1985, the Wedgwood firm in England received additional Cherokee clay from western North Carolina to cast limited edition bowls and plates commemorating the 400th anniversary of English colonization efforts in North America.