Region’s kaolin history is nearly forgottenWritten by George Ellison
One of the more interesting stories concerning this region is that of the kaolin mining industry. It began more than 200 years ago in Macon County when Thomas Griffith, a representative of the noted English pottery firm headed by Josiah Wedgwood, journeyed into the Cherokee heartland to secure samples of the “white burning” clay. And it continued almost into our own time with the extensive mining of kaolin from the late 1880s to about 1950 of quarries that still dot the landscape in Jackson, Macon, and Swain counties. Now it’s mostly a forgotten saga in the economic and social history of the region. Here’s the Wedgwood part of the story.
Kaolin, or “China clay,” is an essential ingredient in the manufacture of fine china and porcelain. It has also been widely used in the making of paper, rubber, paint, and heat-resistant products. Fine chinaware is, of course, associated with the nation that first refined the process, and the name kaolin arises from the Chinese for Kau-ling (“high ridge”) — the designation for a hill in China where the earliest pure clay samples were obtained by a Jesuit missionary about 1700.
The Europeans quickly recognized that kaolin retains intended forms and characteristics when fired at high temperatures; it is the only clay from which a translucent-glassy hard white ceramic can be made. For commercial purposes, they required a source closer to home, and after the “white burning” clay was discovered in the early 18th century in France, Germany and at Cornwall, England, they began producing their own porcelains and chinaware.
As the Europeans explored the New World, they sought out natural products that could be utilized in colonial industries or shipped back home. Sure enough, the white clay materialized in feldspar deposits throughout the southeastern region of what became the United States.
Some of the finest deposits were located in the middle Cherokee homeland in the far southwestern tip of North Carolina. Although it is now mostly a forgotten industry and topic, recalled mainly by old-timers — some of whom went down into the clay pits to earn a living — it’s not difficult to locate the quarries and imagine the toil which went into excavating them.
Thomas Griffith arrived at Charleston, S.C. in September 1767 and reached the clay mine area at Iotla just south of the Indian town of Cowee on the Little Tennessee in November. By the time he embarked for England the following spring, he had dug five or more tons for Wedgwood, the famous British pottery manufacturer renowned for artistic and scientific approaches that revolutionized the porcelain industry. His family had been potters since the 17th century. After an apprenticeship with his elder brother, he formed a partnership with another potter and finally went into business for himself. He took a scientific approach to pottery making and was so successful that the other makers of fine porcelain found their trade affected.
An excellent account of Wedgwood’s interest in and use of the clay is provided by Bill Anderson — a retired Western Carolina University historian — in an article titled “Cherokee Clay, from Duche to Wedgewood: The Journal of Thomas Griffiths, 1767-1768.” Published in “The North Carolina Historical Review” (1976), Anderson relates that Andrew Duche — a Philadelphia Quaker who had established himself in Savannah in 1737 — was the first potter in the English-speaking world to make porcelain, and that “Moreover, he was making it from clay secured from the Cherokee Indians.”
From this source and others, Wedgwood became aware of superior kaolin deposits in the “Ayoree Mountains” deep in the Cherokee backcountry. The Cherokee may have used the clay — which they called “unaker” (for white) — to some extent in their own pottery, but were more interested in mining mica as a ritual and trade item.
Anderson details the Wedgwood-Griffith pursuit of kaolin in a lively fashion and reproduces Griffith’s journal with annotations. What did Wedgwood make of the stuff once he had five or six tons in hand back in England? In 1769, he took out a patent for a painting process called “encaustic ornamentation” using the clay, and in the 1770s he used it to prepare gems and cameos, as well as for making jasper, a porcelaneous stoneware. But, Anderson concludes, “No further attempts were made to secure additional clay from the Cherokee because of the cost and the difficulties involved.”
In his book The Southern Appalachian Region (vol. II, 1966), Highlands author T.W. Reynolds recounts his efforts to relocate the mines in Macon County that Griffith had worked. He explored the region and decided it probably did not come from the Snow Hill Road area where a state highway historical marker citing the incident was situated. In the company of a kaolin producer, and relying on “local inquiry and guide lines of the Journal,” he felt that they “located Griffith’s clay pit, and if not the precise one, then mighty close to it, and the best white clay around … three miles from Franklin by Highway 28 (where) Rt. 1372 takes off left towards Burningtown, whereon at 1.5 mile before the bridge at Iotla Creek, Rt. 1385 turns off left 0.6 miles, and then turns over a bridge where the road forks right.”
“Mr. Boyd Jones,” Reynolds continued, “refers to the mine as the old Gurney mine for one Gurney who is said locally to have come from Wedgwood in England. Two or three men lost their lives in the mine in about 1912.”
Because of the remoteness of the white clay in the Smokies region and its availability elsewhere farther east in this state, as well as in Georgia and Florida, kaolin mining was not an important industry in this area for over a century after Griffith’s exploration. But from 1888 up until about 1950, it became very significant in both Jackson and Swain counties, providing an alternative to agricultural subsistence for many residents.