Catawba Pottery: A Living Tradition

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over nine years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” In this blog post, Duncan searches old newspapers to learn more about the Catawba Indian tribe in South Carolina and their traditional pottery.

A collection of online newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, is a great resource for researching your family history. While I often do this, I also sometimes search newspapers just for fun, learning more about something that interests me.

For example, I recently wanted to see how much I could learn about a somewhat obscure topic by reading old newspaper articles. I know a little about the Catawba Indian tribe in South Carolina. But I knew very little about their traditional pottery until I researched it in GenealogyBank’s newspapers.

photo of Rachel Brown, a Catawba potter, c. 1908

Photo: Rachel Brown, a Catawba potter, c. 1908. Credit: National Geographic; Wikimedia Commons.

The Catawba Indian Nation has been in existence for a very long time. The first European contact that can be verified was in 1540 by Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto. Sadly, the language died out in the 1950s (although currently there are attempts to revive it). However, despite many challenges, the tribe is federally recognized and, although small in number, still living in the Rock Hill area of South Carolina.

They have a long history of being allies to the Americans. As early as the Revolutionary War, when a group of Catawbas joined the Patriot cause, they have played a role in the formation of our country.

Among the other significant contributions they have made, the Catawba are well known for their impressive pottery skills. The pottery is distinctive in black and tan mottled patterns and the absence of any finish – it is never glazed or painted.

article about Catawba Indian pottery, Post and Courier newspaper article 23 November 1992

Post and Courier (Charleston, South Carolina), 23 November 1992, page 3

According to this article:

Catawba pottery is molded by hand. Rings of clay are stacked on top of each other while they dry. Tall vases have to be shaped and dried in stages so the piece won’t collapse. Then, the potter scrapes the clay.

Rubbing stones, found in creek bottoms and passed from generation to generation, are used to smooth the form for firing. Then the piece is placed in a pit and burned. The pots come out with unpredictable motley colors, ranging from brown to red to black, and a smooth, shiny finish.

The Catawba coil long ropes of clay into pipes and jars, as well as intricate shapes – including human-like faces and animal forms. They do not use potter’s wheels, making their pottery entirely by hand.

article about Catawba Indian pottery, Charleston News and Courier newspaper article 15 November 1977

Charleston News and Courier (Charleston, South Carolina), 15 November 1977, page 14

According to this article that was promoting a special exhibit of Catawba pottery made by the Catawba Cooperative:

Mystery and tradition surround Catawba Indian pottery, an art form many centuries old.

Created much the same way it has been for generations, the pottery is made by Catawba women on the tribe’s reservation near Rock Hill [South Carolina]. The clay used in the process is dug from secret locations along the banks of the Catawba River.

Pottery-making is generally a family business, with the men and some children collecting the clay and the women and children forming it into pottery – although the gender roles are not strictly exclusive. Often the pottery-making tools have been handed down for multiple generations and are prized possessions.

At the turn of the century, Catawba families sold their pottery at roadsides and in markets. Judging from the number of ads in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, it appears that Catawba pottery really hit a high note in the 1970s like many other traditional arts and crafts.

Several Catawba potters have been duly acknowledged as fine artists – the most notable being Sara Ayers, who won the South Carolina Folk Heritage Award.

Keeping an ancient tradition alive – such as the Catawba hand-made pottery – is hard work, especially in the context of an entire culture that is being threatened. Inevitably, the people involved encounter difficulties. For example, there was some bad blood between the Catawba Cooperative and Sara over the Catawba identity. Sara had left the reservation and the Catawba Cooperative seemed to feel she was a traitor.

article about Catawba Indian pottery, Charleston News and Courier newspaper article 25 November 1977

Charleston News and Courier (Charleston, South Carolina), 25 November 1977, page 15

According to this article:

Last week, the News and Courier told the story of the Charleston exhibitors, the 18 women of the Catawba Cooperative. Theirs is a good and proud story of people banding together to save part of a heritage and to help themselves commercially by it.

This week is the story of Sara Ayers. It also is a good story of a proud Indian woman, who, years ago and alone, created a small market for Catawba pottery. In the process, she made some money and a name for herself in crafts circles around the country.

The Catawba Cooperative and Sara Ayers do not like each other very much right now. Their combined stories tell us something quite sad about what happens to individuals when as a people, they lose a culture.

Another difficulty the Catawba potters faced was due to a land dispute, in which many of the Catawba were barred from entering the land (that used to be part of their reservation) where their traditional clay pits are located.

article about Catawba Indian pottery, Post and Courier newspaper article 26 December 1991

Post and Courier (Charleston, South Carolina), 26 December 1991, page 26

Despite these challenges, the Catawbas – and their distinctive pottery – have endured. According to the Catawba Indian Nation website:

Due to the importance of pottery in the Catawba culture the tribe is committed to making sure that there are always Catawba potters to teach this skill to others so that this 6,000 year old tradition can continue to be passed on to future generations.

Do you have any Native American ancestry in your family tree? If so, please tell us about it in the comments section.

Related Native American Genealogy Articles:

Researching Your Family Heirlooms: Gaudy Dutch Pottery

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary shows how old newspapers can help you better understand your family heirlooms, focusing on some Gaudy Dutch pottery she inherited from her grandmother.

The first step in compiling your family history begins in your home: gathering all the family documents, letters, photos, and heirlooms you can find. The goal of many genealogists is to go beyond the names and dates on their family tree; they want to get to know their ancestors as real people—the lives they led and the times they lived in.

Heirlooms help fill in some of your family’s stories—and in order to better understand these precious objects that have been passed down through the generations, research in old newspapers such as GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives can be really beneficial.

Pottery Heirloom from My Grandmother

Among the heirlooms from my grandmother’s estate were several items described as “Gaudy Dutch” pottery. There were several plates and an assortment of cups and saucers, each hand-painted and of a unique design.

photo of Gaudy Dutch pottery

Source: the Author’s personal collection

We divided these old pottery pieces among family members, without knowing their personal history.

Yes, we knew that they had passed from our great grandmother to her daughter, but nobody could ascertain how many generations of the family had owned them—much less used them to sip tea. At the time, I remember being impressed that these pieces had come all the way from the Netherlands.

History of Gaudy Dutch Pottery

However, after doing some newspaper research I realized that my assumption was incorrect: Gaudy Dutch pottery did not come from the Netherlands after all. Actually, this type of pottery was made in England for export to the American market, primarily between 1810-1820, with some examples made through 1842.

The style is known primarily as Gaudy Dutch, but similar styles can be found under other names, such as Gaudy Welsh and Gaudy Ironstone. Only 16 patterns of Gaudy Dutch were ever made: Butterfly, Carnation, Dahlia, Double Rose, Dove, Grape, Leaf, Oyster, Primrose, Single Rose, Strawflower, Sunflower, Urn, War Bonnet, Zinnia, and once called No Name. (Can you guess which pattern I have? See answer at bottom.)

You can view photos of Gaudy Dutch pottery and learn more here: Kovels Price Guides.

The descriptive term “gaudy” came from its Japanese Imari-style patterning, but the other half of the name, “Dutch,” derived its popularity from German settlers, known as Pennsylvania Dutch. Dutch did not indicate an origin from the Netherlands, but from Germany (as “Deutsch” means German). (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pennsylvania_Dutch.)

The Dutch Never Made Gaudy Dutch (Pottery), Oregonian newspaper article 19 November 1978

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 19 November 1978, page 228

Researching Heirlooms in Newspapers

How can you use historical newspapers to research your family heirlooms? Well, for one thing, early advertisements provide a uniquely interesting environment to explore the history of heirlooms.

Although I knew that the name of my pottery was not originally “Gaudy Dutch,” I still searched by that keyword in very early newspapers—and quickly discovered absolutely nothing.

For my next queries I incorporated descriptions, such as “painted tea cups,” and these search results were a little more fruitful. Although I’ll never know for certain, I suspect the painted cups and saucers of this 1817 Massachusetts newspaper advertisement were for my type of earthenware.

pottery ad, Boston Daily Advertiser newspaper advertisement 4 February 1817

Boston Daily Advertiser (Boston, Massachusetts), 4 February 1817, page 3

Further newspaper archive queries into later time periods turned up a number of helpful articles, such as this one.

article about Gaudy Dutch pottery, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 8 March 1965

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 8 March 1965, section 3, page 7

Tea Time and Our Ancestors

How many cups of tea have been poured into my Gaudy Dutch teacup, I’ll never know—but I do know that the custom of tea drinking will forever be entwined in the fabric of American history.

Yes, there was a time, during the Boston Tea Party (1773), when Patriots hurled tea into Boston Harbor. But our American ancestors returned to imbibing their favorite non-alcoholic drink: tea. I like to think that this cup kept someone company on a cold winter’s night, was there during extended birthing of children, and even during the best of times!

I hope you’ll consider researching your family heirlooms in newspapers. You never know what you’ll find! If you do learn something interesting, share it with us in the comments section. We’d love to hear your story, and see if it inspires others.

What Gaudy Dutch Pattern Is It?

It is “Single Rose”; follow this link from Google’s image search to see the diversity of the “Single Rose” pattern of Gaudy Dutch pottery. To see other samples, search images by their specific pattern names.

photo of Gaudy Dutch "Single Rose" pottery

Source: the Author’s personal collection

Do you have special pottery and dishes passed down from your ancestors? Share with us in the comments.