Earthenware Potters Along the Great Road in Virginia and Tennessee
By: J. Roderick Moore, Director, Blue Ridge Institute and Museum
This article originally appeared in The Magazine Antiques, September 1983.
The Great Road was the name given to a section of the primary route from Philadelphia west to Tennessee or Kentucky (see Fig. 1). It followed the Indian trail known as the Great Warrior Path along river valleys and through mountain passes. From Philadelphia to Roanoke, Virginia, it was called the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road, and from Roanoke west it was known simply as the Great Road. It served people traveling by horse and on foot from 1770, and by 1796 it was open to wagons at least as far as Abingdon in Washington County, Virginia.
The land bordering the Great Road was settled by the first people to reach each new area and towns developed around stage stops, way stations, and inns. Among the early settlers were Pennsylvania Germans, Virginia Germans, Scots-Irish, English, Welsh, and both slaves and free blacks. Census records from 1800 to 1880 show that may stayed only for short periods before moving on. Other records, particularly estate inventories, contain convincing evidence that the frontier did not remain primitive for long. As early as 1780 there were silversmiths, gunsmiths, cabinetmakers, wagonmakers, portrait painters, clockmakers, and even boat builders in the counties along the Great Road. By 1780 in Abingdon and 1800 in Wytheville store inventories attest to the availability of delftware, queen’s ware, bolts of cloth, looking glasses, and toothbrushes. In fact, almost anything available on the coast of Virginia or in Richmond could be bought in the back country.
Estate inventories contain many references to earthenware pottery and some to stoneware, and census records list a large number of potters living in the region who presumably supplied most of the needs of their communities. Major pottery centers existed in Wythe and Washington counties in Virginia and Sullivan County in Tennessee.
The earliest potter recorded is Frederick Moore in Wythe County in 1779, and by 1840 seven potters are documented in Wythe and Washington counties. In the 1850 United States census thirteen potters were listed in Washington, Wythe, Russell, Smyth, Lee, and Scott counties in Virginia and Sullivan County, Tennessee. This number increased to eighteen in 1860, decreased to fifteen in 1870, and increased to nineteen in 1880. In some cases the same man is listed as a potter in one record and a farmer in another, indicating that many potted only part time. Since the United States census lists birthplaces, it can be determined that the potters came from Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Maryland, Tenessee, Germany, and Canada. These record also show the birthplaces of the potters’ children, thus revealing other places the families had lived before settling in southwest Virginia.
There were numerous marriages between members of potting families, which in effect created dynasties of potters and is probably one of the reasons why much of the pottery from this region is so homogeneous. records show concentration of potters near the towns of Abingdon and Wytheville in Firbinia, both of which were county seats along the Great Road. As such; they attracted many travelers as well a residents of the surrounding region. However, it was probably the large clay deposits near both towns that more than anything else influenced the potters choice of these sites.
Although there are many documentary references to potters and the pottery they produced, there are relatively few surviving examples that can definitely be attributed to this region, and even fewer signed examples. Those unfamiliar with this pottery often confuse it with moravian pottery from Salem (now Winston-Salem), North Carolina, because of the similarity of some of the shapes (see Pls. I, II and Fig. 2). Extensive research has not yet revealed the specific reason for this similarity, although as a whole the pottery made along the Great Road appears to be derived from both English and German for–not surprisingly, in view of the heritage of many of the potters.
Early inventories list earthenware honeypots, jugs, plates, sugar dishes, cream pots, cake molds, and a collander. Most of the pieces found are storage jars in the large bulbous shapes common to the region (see Pls. I-IV, VII), but a few pictures (see Pls. V, IX and Fig. 8), honeypots (perhaps Pl. VIII), jugs (see unusual in Great Road pottery (see Figs. 11-13) have also been found.
The clay used had a dense body and, being rich in iron, fired to a deep reddish orange. In many cases, undergalzed decoration in manganese, iron oxides, or copper oxide was brushed, daubed, thrown, or, on one example (Fig. 9), combined with slip and trailed on. The transparent lead glaze usually extends to within an inch or two of the base and sometimes to the base, but never onto the bottom. Other decoration includes stamps and coggle imprints (see Pls. I, V) and the more common incising found on the majority of the pieces.
Most of the pottery attributable to the region was found in the Wythe (see Fig. 3), Washington (see Pl. VII), and Sullivan counties (see Pls. I, II, VII, IX and Fig. 13), and these pieces most closely resemble the Moravian pottery from Salem, North Carolina. However, close examination reveals slight differences in the glazes, decoration, and handles. The dated pieces of Virginia and Tennessee pottery show that the same forms were being produced fifty to one hundred years after the Moravian examples. It appears, therefore, that a still unidentified potter moved from Salem to southwestern Virginia or Tennesee about 1800, bringing with him the pottery styles popular in North Carolina at the time. These styles were then passed from generation to generation within the potty dynasties of southwestern Virginia and eastern Tennessee.
Until several years ago the exciting pottery of this region was not recognized as indigenous, and the occasional pieces that were found were attributed to potters in other parts of the country. However, as more and more pieces were discovered a pattern emerged, leading to the recognition of an entirely new school of Southern pottery.
I would like to thank the following for their help with the research for this article: Sally Moore, Mary Kegley, Steve Rogers, Marc King, Jon and Emily Salmon, Margaret R. Davis, Carol Tutwiler, and the staff of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts and the Rocky Mount Historical Museum.
Check list of potters along the Great Road in Virginia and Tennessee, 1776-1880
To search for a particular potter or county please utilize the Edit->Find on this page function of your browser. You can scroll down the page to view all entries.
This list comprises potters of both earthenware and stoneware in Bland, Lee, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Washington, and Wythe counties in Virginia, and Sullivan County, Tennessee. The earliest date that each individual worked as a potter has been recorded. Also listed are the districts of the counties in which each potter lived, as well as proven relationships with other potters through birth or marriage. There are certainly potters who were not documented or recorded and obvious relationships not yet proven. In compiling the list the following sources were used: For Lee, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Washington, and Wythe counties in Virginia: United states Census, 1800-1880; deed books; registers of marriages, births, and deaths; wills and inventories through 1851. Virginia State Library, Richmond
For Lee, Russell, Scott, Washington, and Wythe counties; United States personal-property tax records for 1815. Private collection
Bland County, Virginia, wills and inventories through 1870. Virginia State Library
For Sullivan County, Tennessee: United States Census, 1820-1880. Tennessee State Library, Nashville
United States Manufacturers’ Census, 1820 and 1850-1880. Virginia State Library
Research files of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
CAIN, ABRAHAM B. (b. Sullivan Co., 1825). Brother of ELI CAIN of Wythe Co., Virginia, and uncle of MARTIN A. CAIN. Living and w. near Immanuel Lutheran Churth, 1850 and 1880
CAIN, MARTIN A. (b. Sullivan Co., 1850). Nephew of ELI CAIN of wythe Co., Virginia, and ABRAHAM B. CAIN. Living and w. near Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1870
HANCHER, JESSEE. See HENSHAW or HANCHER, JESSEE.
HANCHER, WILLIAM. See HENSHAW or HANCHER, WILLIAM.
HENSHAW or HANCHER, JESSEE (b. North Carolina, 1802). Father of WILLIAM HANCHER. W. 1850-1860. Living next door to ABRAHAM B. CAIN, 1860. The Henshaw and CAIN families were related by marriage (Samuel D. Smith and Stephen T. Rogers, A Survey of Historic Pottery Making in Tennessee [Nashville, 1979], p. 56).
HENSHAW or HANCHER, WILLIAM (b. Tennessee, 1830). Son of JESSEE HENSHAW. Living and w. with his father, 1850; w. in Greene Co., 1860
WOLFORD, E. D. Owned a pottery near Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1881. The Wolford and CAIN families were related by marriage (Smith and Rogers, Historic Pottery Making, p. 57).
CAMPBELL, HOSEN (b. North Carolina, 1855). W. 1880. Living in Rocky Gap district, 1880
BURGAN, WILLIAM (b. Virginia, 1797). Pipe maker, w. 1850
SIMS, E. K. W. Jonesville, 1870
WOLFE, WILLIAM (b. North Carolina, 1826). Son of PETER WOLFE of Washington Co. Living in Washington Co., 1839-1847; w. Lee Co. (the section that later became Wise Co.), 1850; w. Richmond district, Wise Co., 1880
DOUGHERTY, EZEKIEL, T. (b. Baltimore, Maryland, 1791). Living in Claiborne Co., Tennessee, 1831; Grainger Co., Tennessee, 1844; w. Russell Co., 1850
RUSSELL, WILLIAM (b. Virginia, 1813). W. 1850
CAMPBELL, WILLIAM (b. Tennessee, 1810). W. Rich Valley Township, 1880
HICKS, JOHN (b. 1826). Father of JOHN HICKS JR. W. Rich Valley Township, 1870
HICKS, JOHN JR. (b. 1852). Son of JOHN HICKS. Living at home and w. with his father, 1870
MYERS, THOMAS J. (b. Virginia, 1807). W. 1850 and 1870
BARLOW, J. M. (b. Virginia, 1856). W. Abingdon district, 1880. Later he had stoneware shops in Alum Wells and Ocala. Marks: J. M. BARLOW, ALUM WELLS and J. M. BARLOW OCALA, VA.
DAVIS, JAMES H. (b. Pennsylvania, 1844). W. Abingdon Township, 1870, probably for CHARLES F. DECKER. Living a few doors away from Decker, Washington Co., Tennessee, 1880
DECKER, CHARLES F. (b. Baden, Germany, 1832). Father of CHARLES F. DECKER JR. W. Abingdon Township, 1870. Had lived and worked in Pennsylvania and Delaware. W. Washington Co., Tennessee, 1880. See MALLICOLE,________, AND DECKER, CHARLES F.
DECKER, CHARLES F. JR. (b. Pennsylvania, 1856). Son of CHARLES F. DECKER. Living at home and w. at the family pottery, Abingdon Tonwship, 1870.
GARDNER, J. W. (b. Virginia). W. Craigs Mill, 1870. Mark: J.W. GARDNER, CRAIGSMILL, VA. (Klell Bayne Napps, “Traditional Pottery in Washington County, Virginia and Sullivan County, Tennessee,” Historical Society of Washington County, Virginia, publications, ser. 11, no. 10, p.10)
GLENN, JAMES (d. 1793). Turning lathe and kiln listed in estate inventory
HAMILTON, _______. See HAMILTON, _______, AND STUART, _______.
HAMILTON, _______, AND STUART, _______. W. in Abingdoon, 1870. One worker produced 3,600 gallons of stoneware.
HARRIS, ALEXANDER M. (b. Virginia, 1825). Father of SAMUEL HARRIS, brother-in-law of SIMON VESTAL. W. 1870 and 1880, probably in the WOOTEN POTTERY SHOP, Kinderhood district (near Zenobia)
HARRIS, SAMUEL (b. Virginia, 1861). Son of ALEXANDER M. HARRIS, nephew of SIMON VESTAL. W. WOOTEN POTTERY SHOP, 1880
KEYS, ROBERT. Living in Glade Spring section, 1860 and 1870. In 1860 he had two male helpers and produced 15,000 gallons of stoneware; in 1870 he had three male helpers and produced 3,600 gallons of stoneware.
LEWIS, NATHAN. Paid tax oon 24-by-20-foot frame dwelling and kiln, 1815
McGEE, FRED (b. Maryland, 1866). Son of JOHN B. McGEE. Living with his parents and w. Abingdon district, 1880
McGEE, JOHN B. (b. Canada, 1813). Father of FRED McGEE. W. Abingdon district, 1880. Had lived in New York and Maryland. Mark: J. B. McGEE
MALLICOLE, _______. See MALLICOLE, _______, AND DECKER, Charles F.
MALLICOLE, _______, AND DECKER, CHARLES F. W. Abingdon, 1870. Used 14,000 pounds of clay to produce 144,000 gallons of stoneware. See DECKER, CHARLES F.
MILLER, JACOB (b. Virginia 1803). W. Glade Spring section 1860. Three male workers produced 15,000 gallons of ware.
MILLER AND SONS. Pottery shop with three male workers. Glade Spring section, 1880. Probably JACOB MILLER with any or all three of his sons, James, Robert, and William
MORT, EDWARD WILLIAM (b. Virginia 1853). Boarding with Dr. Edward Lancaster, Kinderhood district, 1880, probably w. WOOTEN POTTERY SHOP. Later established a stoneware pottery in Alum Wells. Sometime after 1893 he gave up the pottery business and became a Methodist minister. Mark: E. W. MORT, ALUM WELLS, VIRGINIA
NORTHCUT, THOMAS (b. Virginia, 1864). Living at SAMUEL HARRIS’ house and w. WOOTEN POTTERY SHOP, 1880.
ROBERTS, GRANDISON (b. Virginia, 1825). W. 1860, probably at WOOTEN POTTERY SHOP, after moving from Tennessee
RUHL, PETER (b. Hesse-Cassel, Germany, 1821). Living in Goodson (now Bristol) and w. WOOTEN POTTERY SHOP, 1880
SAUL, SAMUEL (b. Virginia, 1825). W. 1860. Living in Tennessee, 1839 and 1848
SHERMAN, L. S. (b. Virginia, 1843). W. Kinderhood district 1870
STOCKTON, C. W. Two males in his shop in Abingdon, 1880
STUART, _______. See HAMILTON, _______, AND STUART, _______.
VESTAL, JAMES F. (b. Virginia, 1856). Son of JESSEE VESTAL. W. 1889
VESTAL, JESSEE (b. Virginia 1829). Son of THOMAS VESTAL; father of JAMES F. VESTAL. W. 1854
VESTAL, SIMON (b. Virginia 1831). Borther-in-law of ALEXANDER M. HARRIS; uncle of SAMUEL HARRIS. W. 1853
VESTAL, THOMAS (b. Virginia, 1810). Father of JESSEE VESTAL; father-in-law of JAMES ALEXANDER WOOTEN. Used 30 cords of wood and had three males working in his pottery, 1850
WOLFE, PETER (b. North Carolina, d. 1846). Father of WILLIAM WOLFE of Lee Co. M. in Person Co., North Carolina, 1825; living in Mecklenburg Co., North Carolina, 1830; Washington Co., 1839-1846. At his death a lien on his personal property included a glazing mill and potter’s supplies.
WOOTEN, JAMES ALEXANDER (b. Virginia, 1850). Son of JAMES L. WOOTEN; father of JOEPHUS J. WOOTEN; son-in-law of THOMAS VESTAL. W. WOOTEN POTTERY SHOP, Kinderhood district (near Zenobia), 1870
WOOTEN, JAMES L. (b. North Carolina, 1828), Son of JOHN WOOTEN; father of JAMES ALEXANDER WOOTEN and WILLIAM T. WOOTEN. W. WOOTEN POTTERY SHOP, 1850
WOOTEN, JOEPHUS, J. (b. Virginia, 1874). Son of JAMES ALEXANDER WOOTEN. W. WOOTEN POTTERY SHOP until it closed in 1918 (Napps, “Traditional Pottery,” p. 9)
WOOTEN, JOHN (b. Iredell Co., North Carolina, 1803). Father of JAMES L. WOOTEN and JOHN T. WOOTEN. Living in Virginia, 1833; w. WOOTEN POTTERY SHOP, 1850-1860
WOOTEN, JOHN T. (b. Virginia, 1840). Son of JOHN WOOTEN; father of THOMAS C. WOOTEN. W. WOOTEN POTTERY SHOP, 1860-1880
WOOTEN, THOMAS C. (b. Virginia, 1870). Son of JOHN T. WOOTEN. Living with his parents, w. WOOTEN POTTERY SHOP, 1880
WOOTEN, WILLIAM T. (b. Virginia, 1866). Son of JAMES L. WOOTEN. Living with his brother JAMES ALEXANDER WOOTEN and w. WOOTEN POTTERY SHOP, 1880
WOOTEN POTTERY SHOP, Kinderhood district (near Zenobia), c. 1850-1918. Family pottery founded by JOHN WOOTEN. See HARRIS, ALEXANDER L.; HARRIS, SAMUEL; MORT, EDWARD WILLIAM; NORTHCUT, THOMAS; ROBERTS, GRANDISON; and RUHL, PETER.
BUCK, ABRAHAM (b. Virginia, 1798). Son of JOHN CHRISTIAN BUCK. W. Rural Retreat section before 1864
BUCK EPHRAM (b. Virginia 1833). Son of JOHN C. BUCK. Purchased a turning lathe (potter’s wheel) from ABRAHAM BUCK’s estate 1864
BUCK, FELIX (b. Virginia 1828). Son of JOHN C. BUCK. W. Rural Retreat section 1850 and 1860. Purchased a glazing mill from ABRAHAM BUCK’S estate 1864
BUCK, JOHN C. (b. Virginia 1802). Son of JOHN CHRISTIAN BUCK; father of FELIX and EPHRAM BUCK. W. Rural Retreat section 1860
BUCK, JOHN CHRISTIAN (b. Virginia 1767). Father of ABRAHAM, JOHN. C., PETER, and Mary BUCK (see CAIN, ELI). Paid tax on a kiln at the head of the South Fork, Reed Creek, 1815
BUCK, PETER (b. Virginia, 1811). Son of JOHN CHRISTIAN BUCK. Purchased a pipe mold from ABRAHAM BUCK’S estate, 1864
CAIN, ELI (b. Virginia, 1815). Brother of ABRAHAM B. CAIN of Sullivan Co., Tennessee; uncle of MARTIN A. CAIN of Sullivan Co., Tennessee; m. Mary Buck (see BUCK, JOHN CHRISTIAN). W. Rural Retreat section, 1837-1850
MOORE, FREDERICK (b. Lancaster Co., Pennsylvania, 1752). W. Rural Retreat section, 1779. He left Wythe Co. before 1800
MOYERS, JOHN (b. Virginia, 1844). W. 1860
MOYERS or MOTER, PETER. W. 1812
MOYERS, RICHARD (b. Virginia, 1822). W. 1860
SPEAGLE, ANDREW F. (b. North Carolina, 1858). W. Rural Retreat section, 1880, possibly with or for members of the BUCK family, since he lived next door to EPHRAM BUCK
WAMPLER, ISAAC (b. 1800). Listed as a potter in 1880, although his residence was listed as the Wythe County Jail
WAMPLER, ISAAC A. T. (b. Virginia, 1819). Son of JACOB WAMPLER. Purchased a clay mill at his mother’s estate sale, Rural Retreat section, 1860.
WAMPLER, JACOB (b. Lebanon Township, Lancaster Co., Pennsylvania, 1778; d. Wythe Co., February 1840). Father of ISAAC A. T. WAMPLER. Living in Wythe Co. 1810-1830. He was possibly a potter, since a clay mill was sold at the estate sale of his wife, Esther Anderson Wampler, Rural Retreat section, 1860