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A Mission For Mr. Wedgwood

April 2024
13min read

The distance between Charleston, South Carolina, and Franklin, North Carolina, is just about three hundred miles—a comfortable day’s drive over well-paved, scenic highways. For Thomas Griffiths the journey was a good deal more arduous, and it took him a good deal longer to accomplish, particularly since he didn’t really know where he was going.

Thomas Griffiths was the brother of Ralph Griffiths, editor of the Monthly Review , a popular periodical in England in the middle eighteenth century. Ralph Griffiths, in turn, was a friend of Josiah Wedgwood ( 1730–1795), the great English potter. Wedgwood’s success as a manufacturer during the Industrial Revolution was due to many factors, not least to his ardent passion for improving his product by constant research and invention —the carrying out of a lifetime of experimentation not only in seeking new raw materials but also in mixing them in different proportions and firing them under different conditions of temperature and atmosphere.

In his search for new minerals, earths, and clays Wedgwood had his friends send him samples of likely materials from all over the world, including the American colonies. Sometime during the year 1766–67, one of his friends, a Mr. Vigor of Manchester, sent him a sample of white Cherokee clay, or “steatites,” which the Indians in South Carolina reputedly used to make their pipes.

With his customary energy Wedgwood set about to get all the information he could. To his partner Thomas Bentley he wrote in May, 1767: “I am in search of the Town where the Steatites grows, & I believe I shall learn every particular about it. One Dr. Mitchell has just published a map of N. A. which map I have purchased … I find the Town in his Map to be Ayoree, &… I am pretty certain it is the place.”

The location established, the question remained as to how to go about obtaining a bulk sample. Wedgwood’s friend and patron Francis Egerton, third Duke of Bridgwater, advised him not to apply to the Parliamentary Lords of Trades and Plantations for a sole franchise to import the clay because his competitors would hear about it and bring pressure on their members of Parliament to block such a monopoly. The wisest thing, the Duke felt, was for Wedgwood to find someone who knew the American colonies and might act as his agent. The ideal man for this assignment turned up in the person of Thomas Griffiths. To Bentley, Wedgwood wrote: “Our friend Mr. [Ralph] Griffiths has a Bro. who hath resided many years in N.A., & is seasoned to the S.C. climate by a severe fever he underwent at Chas. Town & has had many connections with the Indians. He had been a Proprietor of 3,000 acres near Crown point …” Griffiths gamely accepted Wedgwood’s challenge.

Like most travellers and tourists of that era Griffiths kept a journal during his mission. It is so full of adventure and so descriptive of the topography of the country and of the customs and mores of the population, colonists and Indians alike, that a major portion of it is published here, with Griffiths’ original spelling and grammar. —H. C. W.

London July ye 16—went on board the Ship America Capt. Raineer Comd, & bound to Chas. Town &… [we arrived] in Chas. Town Bay on the Twentyfirst of September, being a Miserable hot and Sickly time.

In this Port I remaind, till Sunday the fourth of October, and then went off for the Cherokec Nation: The first stage was Dorchester, Twenty five Miles from Charles Town: from thence to Beakons Bridg, then over the Cypress and four holes, being very deep and daingerous Roads, and exceeding Trublesome for Straingers: Then on to Walnuttree Creek and Parish end, fifty miles from Charles Town; here I saw the people Reaping fine Rice; the next stage was Capt Wm. Youngs; This is a middling good Tavern and a fine Rice plant[at]ion:

The weather was now very hot and fainty, and the people allmost all dying of the ague and feaver; here my horse fell lame which obligd me to send my Baggage by a Waggon, and also to Make very short Stages; the next place I came to, was Oringburg, which is a Considerable Large Neighbourhood, and afoards a Tavern, a Shop or Storekeeper and a Man that pretended to Preach; here my horse obliged me to stop two nights, and then Proceeded for Indian head; and after a hot days March was obliged to sleep under a Tree with my horse, very near the place where five people had been Robd and Murdered but two days before, by the Virgina Crackers and Rebells; a Sett of Thieves that were joind together to Rob Travillers and plunder and destroy the poar defenseless Inhabitants of the New Settlements—

The next day I went on for a place calld the Ridge, in this days journey I very Luckily joind company with a Trader, a thing very rare to see either Person or so much as a poar hutt for Twenty or Thirty Miles ride thro these woods; after we had Travild about six miles, and near sun sett, he told me he saw two fellows ahead that he did not very well Like, and prayd me to give him one of my Pistolls and keep the other in my hand ready cockd; and as my new companion expected, they soon gallopd up a Deer Track into our Road, with a “how do you do Gentlemen, how farr have you cum this Road? have you met any horse men?,” and then wishd us a good evening; but soon stoppd and asked if we had heard any News about the Robers, which we answered in the nagative & so on: my Companion then said, it was well we were together, and that we had fire arms, as he had some knowledge of one fellow and believed him to be concernd in the late Murder, which proved too true; as he was took in a few days after, and I saw him Executed at Chas.Town in february following:

By this time we were very near a place calld the Ridge, a small pleasant village and a Tavern, but frequently Visited by Thieves; here my fellow Traviler wishd me good night, but advised me only to refresh my Self and horse and not sleep there, Lest I might chance to want a horse next Morning, and perhaps that not the worst of it : I took my friends advice, and went five miles further and lay in the wood: but this proved not very lucky, as my Beast happened to break his hobble and stray a great way from me, which obligd me to hunt him for severall hours with the Sadle on my back; and it being a very dewy Morning, gave me a great Cold and much disordered me;

The next day I proceeded for Coffee Creek, a new neighbourhood lately inhabited near the Kings Road … the next day I Marchd on for Andrew Williamsons at White hall near a place calld hard Labour, about two hundred miles from Charles Town:

This is one of the finest plantations in South Carolina; abounding with fine Rich Red Loomy Land, famous for raising corn, hemp, flax, Cotton, Rice, Cattle, Hogs, fruits of all sort, and great plenty of Mulberries, white & black Gooseberries excepted; but Peachs inumerable: friend Williamson said, in the year Sixty Six his peach orchard yielded near Three Thousan Bushel Baskets; which proved of great use to the poar young inhabitants of that part of the province; besides feeding him a great number of hogs …

On the Seventeenth of October I left this place in Consort with an Indian Woman belonging to the Chiefs of the Cherokees, who had been long stole away by the Youghtanous, and afterwards Ransomd by our Indian deputy of the Illinois … on the Eighteenth we came to Capt. Aron Smiths; at this Tavern we found midling good Beds, but were obligd to sleep in the woods the two preceeding nights; and on the Twentieth we arrived at Fort Prince George calld old Keowee; which is the first settlement in the Nation, and about forty Miles from the Indian Line calld Jewetts corner:

At this Fort I deliverd up my Squaw and Letters to Ensign McKeough, the commanding officer of that place; who recd me with much politeness: here also I met with Capt. Cameron our deputy Commissary for Indian affairs; and likewise the great Prince of Chotee, … [and] most of the Chiefs of the Cherokee Nation;

All then, met at this Fort to call a Counsell and hold a grand Talk concerning a peace with the Norward Enemies; and to apoint proper persons to proceed to New York and the Mohawk Nation, for that purpose; after I had Eat, drank, Smokd and began to be familier with these Strainge Copper Collourd Gentry, I thought it a fair opportunity to request Leave to Travill through their Nation, in Search [of] anything that curiosity might lead me to; and in particular to Speculate on their Ayoree white Earth; and accordingly the Commanding Officer made the Motion, and the Linguist was desired to be very particular on the subject: This they granted, after a long hesitation, and severall debates among themselves; the Young Warier, gone more, seem’d to consent with some reluctance; Saying, they had been Troubled with some young Men long before, who made great holes in their Land, took away their fine White Clay, and gave ‘em only Promises for it: however as I came from their father and had behaved like a true Brother in taking care to conduct their Squaw safe home, they did not care to disapoint me for that time; but if I shod want more for the future, they must have some satisfaction; for they did not know what use that Mountain might be to them, or their Children; and if it would make fine punch Bowls, as they had been told, they hopd I wod let em drink out of one; and thus we Shoke hands and settled the matter …

At this place there runs a fine Valley between the hills a Considerable way down the Savanah River, and exceeding fine rich land; but I had not the pleasure to enjoy much of it, as at that time, it was very daingerous to go from the reach of the Fort guns; however on Sunday the Twentyfifth, I venturd to ride so far as Keowee new Town, and Sugar Town, which is about four Miles from the Fort; but I must own I was a little in fear of every Leaf that rattled: at these Towns I saw but few Indians for they were all gone out a hunting, excepting the old Squaws and young naked Vipers; besides a few old beloved Men and Conjurers, who Behaved with some Civility and gathered me fine Grapes and May Aples: here likewise I visited my old Consort the Queen, who acording to the Indian Custom, was obligd to undergoe Eight days of Confinement in the Town house, after returning from, or being a Prisoner to any Enemy whatsoever, and after that to be Stripd, dipd, well washd and Conducted home to their Husband, wife or friends…

On the Thirtyeth of October I took leave of this Fort, and proceeded for the Midle Settlement and Mountains, Crossing the Chattoga River at the Warwomans Creek; allso the Six deviders, besides a great Number of small Brooks and fine springs that have their Course between the Mountains; but the Savanahs are in some places very Rotten and daingerous for Strange Travillers; in severall parts a Man and his horse may sink in fifteen or Twenty foot and must unavoidable perish … it was then the Miserablist weather I ever was exposed too; haveing the Wind strong at N.E. with Cold and heavy rain or sleet, from five in the morning, till nine at night; when I arrived at an Indian hutt which was the first shelter I could cum at; and by that time there was scarce Life in me or my poar horse; and when I advanced near the fire, it overcame me and I fell down: and unluckily the Master was gon out, so that I had no other refreshment than Potatoes bread & Water and Indian Corn for my horse; but the poar Squaw dryed my Cloaths as well as she could and wrapd me in a Blanket and Bear Skin, and the next Morning Mr. Downy came home, for that was my Landlords name, who stewed me some Fowls, which made me a glorious Repast: This being Sunday the first of November I set off for Patrick Gallihorn, at [illegible] Town on the Tenassee River, which runs into the Massisipy, and is five Miles from the Ayoree Mountain: here I remaind a few days, and furnished my self with a Servant, Tools, Blankets and Bear Skins; and on the Third of november we retired to the ayoree Mountain, where we remaind ’till the Twentythird of decemr;

Here we labourd hard for 3 days in Clearing away the rubish out of the old pitt, which could not be less than Twelve or fifteen Ton; but on the fourth day, when the pitt was well cleand out, and the Clay appeard fine; to my great surprise, the Chief Men of Ayoree came and Took me prisoner, telling me I was a Tresspaser on their land and that they had reed instructions from Fort George, not to suffer their pitt to be opened on any account; and as to any consent of the head men of the Nation, they minded not, nor would they let any clay be dug under five hundred weight of Leather for every Ton: they also showd me a string of white Beads that the Young Warier had brought from the fort, as a firm Token of a faithfull and True Talk—This was a Mistake of some of the Gentle’n at fort George, which confounded me greatly, and I never yet had it cleard up; and have great reason to think there was some deceipt at the bottom; and proved of very ill Consequence to me, as it made the Indians set a high Value on their white Earth: however I sent for a Linguist and after a Strong Talk which lasted near four hours, we settld matters on such conditions, as I might obtain what I wanted without any further Molestation …

In four days from this, I had a Ton of fine clay ready for the pack horses, when very unfortunately the weather chainged, and such heavy rains fell in the night, that a perfect Torent flowd from the uper Mountains with such rapidity, that not only filld my pitt, but meltd, staind and spoild near all I had dug and even beat thro our wigwam and put out our fire, so that we were nearly perished with wet and cold: this weather provd of bad consequence another way, as it washed the Stratums of red earth that run Skirting thro the pitt, which staind and spoild a vast deal of white clay.

I have nothing more materiall to mention dureing the whole process of this work: the Indians were often paying me troublesome visits, indeed they would sometimes bring me a Little provision for good pay, and would often steal Trifles from me: however I Invited ‘em Together and heated ’em with rum and such Musick as I was capable of, which made ’em dance with great agility, especially when the Bottle had gon about well; which is the only way to make friendship with any Indians, provided they are not made drunk: by this means matters went on very smooth between us, and they held me fast by the hand, Crowning and calling me great George’s Warier &c the old beloved man allso consented I shod have his best Bow and case of arrows, and also the old Princes pipe and Town house sanktion. Thus we continued and parted very good friends, but withall, they hoped I shod want but a few horse Loads of white clay, and prayd I would not forget the promise I made ’em, but perform it so soon as possible

On the Eighteenth of December I had dug & dryd all the clay I intended to take, and as the pack horses were then at the fort I had a few days to hunt, fossil & Botanise which I improved as much as possible, but I found many things very short of my expectation; I had allmost forgot to aquaint the Reader, what a severe winter it proved in this part of the world; the River Tenassee tho shallow at this place, and a strong current yet twice I saw it frozen over in the Mornings and the pott ready to freeze on a slow fire … I was never more sensible of the Cold …

On the Twentythird of Decemr I took Leave of this cold and Mountainous Country, and went off with the pack horses for fort prince George; but the Frosty Weather breaking, and the mountain paths being very narrow and Slipery, we killd and spoild some of the best horses; and at last my own Slipt down and roled severall times over me; but I saved my self by laying hold of a young tree, and the poar Beast Tumbled into a Creek & was spoild: This was an unlucky Sircumstance, as I had then severall hundred Miles to Travill …

On the Twenty Seventh, I arrived once more at Fort George, which believe me, was, at that time a wellcome prospect; and when I came up to the parade I could gladly have kissed the Soldiers for Joy:

Nothing of Moment occurd dureing my stay here, till January the fourteenth when I loaded five Waggons with Five Ton of Clay and set off for Chas.Town; but light horse, bad roads, and sollid Loading, obligd us to Travill very Slow: on the Eighteenth I lay with Parson Hamerer at Little River, then to Capt. Aron Smith’s Tavern, and so on to Matthew Edward’s, at Long Cane and the next day to Whitehall, where I waited four days for the Waggons: and then on to Coffee Creek, and lodged in the woods, and the next night allso at Turkey Creek: on the Twenty Seventh I came to the Ridge, where I stayed two nights, and so on to Indian head, where I slept again in the woods, and happening a very heavy Night’s rain, gave me a great Cold and much disordered me; the next day’s march brot me to Oringburg and the next day to Capt Wm Young’s Tavern, and so on to the four holes and Cypress; the next day to Dorchester, and on the fourth of february I arrived once more at dear, and long wishd for, Charles Town—

Nothing Material happened dureing my stay in this Capital; I saw severall Thieves executed that were Lurking about in the Woods I had Travilld thro, after this I saw a farr pleasanter sight, which was some very good horse Raceing, when we consider boath breed and Country young: This is a very gay and compact Town, finely situated on a peninsula, between Ashley and Cooper Rivers; and an exceeding good harbour for Shiping; here is boath good religion & Salutary Laws; and their divine Service is performd with great order and regularity: The people are mostly True Patriots and dear Lovers of Liberty; a great many of ’em carefull and thrifty; severall Eminent Merchants who Transact their Business very quick and discreet, but withall, there reigns too great a spirit of gaming amongst ’em, and they are arrived to a great highth of pride; they sertainly do, and can afoard to live very well, as provision is boath plenty and cheap, but in truth they take care to make Straingers and Travilling people pay dear enough—

On the first of March I agreed for Freight and passage with Capt. Morgan Griffiths of the Rialto, Bound for London; and on the fourth we bid farewell to Chas. Town …

April the first we spoak the John and Ann Brig bound from London to Newfound Land in Latt 48-46W. Long 17-40 and on the fourteenth of Aprill we arrived in the Downs; and the Sixteenth Capt. Griffiths, Mr John Smith and my self Left the Ship in the Pilots charge at Graves End and came to London by Land.

Thus the great adventure was ended, and in due course the Cherokee clay reached its final destination. Considering the fact that its cost worked out at about £130 per ton, which was a considerable sum of money in those days, and the fact that the mining of white clays of equal or superior quality had been developed in Cornwall, it was a highly uneconomic proposition. But this didn’t faze Wedgwood one bit. “It might not be a bad idea,” he wrote to Bentley, “to give out that our Jaspers are made of the Cherokee clay which I sent an agent into that country on purpose to procure for me, & when this present parcel is out we have no hopes of obtaining more.”

There is no moral to this story, but it does reveal the extraordinary pioneering zeal that, indirectly, was so largely responsible for the Industrial Revolution and that characterized those hardy colonists who braved the elements and the Indians to open up a new country.

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