Nisbet Clay Holes

The preferred primary pipe clay source and that of most historical importance is located on the east side of the Catawba River near the village of Van Wyck. The place is central to the Waxhaw Old Fields, and the Catawba have a long attachment to it. The Treaty of Pine Tree Hill (1760) provides a clue to the solution of this contemporary attitude to-

Catawba Indian Men
Figure 4. Evelyn Brown George picking clay in Nisbet Bottoms. (Photo by Thomas J. Blumer)

ward the river bottoms where the Catawba clay is found. The Treaty called for the Catawba to remove from Pine Tree Hill, formerly called Cofitachiqui or Canos (Waddell 2001) and called Yupaha by the Catawba (Blair Rudes, interview, 2001, BC). Today the place is known as Camden.

The new location called for by the Treaty, centered around modern-day Rock Hill, was acceptable to the Indians for one basic reason. When they moved near the clay holes, they were removing to the graves of their ancestors (Treaty of Augusta, 1763) located in the heart of the Waxhaw Old Fields. Following the Treaty, the Catawba villages were clustered as close as possible to the most sacred ground.

The clay holes in this area are of paramount importance to the production of Catawba pottery, but these bottoms contain the most frequently threatened clay source. The Indian paranoia concerning this site has been heightened several times during the last century.

In 1905, an alarm went up among the Indian potters who had learned that Wedgwood Pottery was visiting the bottoms in search of clay (Rock Hill Herald, 25 October 1905^3). In reality this plan never materialized, yet it left a lasting impression on the potters. While it made them ever more keenly aware of the quality of their clay, the episode made them realize that others knew of their clay's fine quality. Why would foreigners cross the ocean in search of clay? If foreigners would do this, so would others (Doris Blue, interview, 21 January 1977, BC). Also during this period, the Ashe Brick Company began operations in the bottoms not far from the clay holes (Lindsay Pettus, interview, 8 January 2003, BC). This commercial operation dug more clay in an hour than the Indians took in years. Almost a century later, this commercial effort continues to thrive and is a constant reminder to the potters that their clay resource could be exhausted in a short time.

In the 1940s, yet another threat to the clay holes materialized. Soon after the Cherokee educated a number of Cherokee potters in the art of making Catawba wares, the Cherokee reservation clay source located at the Macedonia Church was exhausted. The tourist trade and the pottery business were at their height, and in response to a need for clay, the Cherokee acted with speed. A team of men obtained a truck and visited Lancaster County with the intent to carry as much Catawba clay home to North Carolina as possible. The Catawba potters learned of this Cherokee goal and petitioned the landowner, Beulah Nisbet. She ended the entire matter when she proudly declared that the clay was for "her" Catawba Indians only. The Cherokee were turned away. The Cherokee potters have resorted to commercial clay ever since (Doris Blue, interview, 21 January 1977, BC).

Another factor that contributes to Catawba fears concerning the pipe clay holes is that the Indians have not owned the bottoms since 1840. The Indians trespass to obtain their clay. The informal agreement between the Indians and a succession of landowners has been honored except for a brief period during the land suit. From 1979 to 1993, the Catawba land suit caused stressful relationships between the Indians and many of the landowners in the claim area, especially those who had large holdings. The Catawba potters lived with a fear that the clay holes might become an issue and they would be turned away. Depending on the feelings of the moment, access to the clay holes became increasingly difficult. At times the potters were forced to wait for as long as a year for tempers to cool before they were permitted to trespass and dig clay. In 1990, the long-feared landowner reaction occurred. The Catawba were barred from their most ancient clay resources in Nisbet Bottoms for almost three years. The governor of South Carolina turned a deaf ear to the Indians' pleas. Those concerned about the survival of South Carolina's most valuable folk art treasures were rendered ineffectual (Blumer 1993b). Few South Carolina employees tried to help the potters.

The Indians met this crisis with positive action. The Catawba Cultural Preservation Project organized expeditions to locate clay pits on the reservation. The Catawba Potters' Association, under the leadership of Frances Wade, searched for clay. Individual potters intensified their efforts to find alternate clay sources. Sympathetic landowners brought clay samples from their farms for the Indians to test. The Ca-tawba met with some success. During this period, the Robbins family located an alternate pan clay source near Camden, South Carolina, and Fred Sanders located a promising pipe clay source on the reservation. The McKissick Museum provided funding for the elder potters to employ men to go with them and dig for clay in likely places. Staff from both the Schiele Museum and the York County Museum encouraged the potters to keep looking for clay and often accompanied them on clay-hunting expeditions. Only one archaeologist in the employ of South Carolina, Chris Judge, dared to come forward in defense of this ancient art form.

During this period, the Indians gained many new non-Indian friends and learned of numerous alternative clay resources. Still, they longed to return to the clay used by the old Indians located in Nisbet Bottoms. Eventually, Earl Robbins and his sons, Bradley and Frank, located a new pipe clay resource on Bowater Company land in Lancaster County and successfully obtained permission to dig there. It was tested by the master potters and pronounced better than adequate. Some felt it was superior to the clay found in King's Bottoms, but it was not the same. Others did not agree. Any clay not coming from Nisbet Bottoms was inferior. Although the Indians were not totally satisfied with the situation, pottery production resumed once again, and the young potters continued their learning process. In 1993, after the Catawba reached a settlement of the land issue and the U.S. Congress passed the Catawba Settlement Bill, the pressure was off and tensions were eased in the claim area. The potters were soon welcome to return to their ancient clay holes. Today they gain access to the bottoms by appointments made with the Nisbet family. The Catawba seem comfortable with returning to their ancient clay holes in King's Bottoms under a new, yet traditional, informal agreement.

In March 1992, at the very time the Catawba were the most concerned about their clay holes, the Katawba Valley Land Trust was founded. This organization was established by a charter under the laws of South Carolina. Its purpose is to protect lands adjacent to the Catawba River, including the Nisbet Bottoms. Today the Trust has 3,000 acres under some form of protection (Lindsay Pettus, interview,

8 January 2003, BC). If the clay holes are ever threatened again, the Trust may become a much-needed ally for the Indians in their efforts to protect their clay holes.

In 2000, the Catawba potters were startled to find that the tribe's administrator, Chief Gilbert Blue, and his Executive Committee, not outsiders, threatened their clay holes. These latter individuals had been elected to look after the tribe's best interests. This new problem came from a Catawba-sponsored sewer line project that was to run from Charlotte to a location south of the reservation. If it became a reality, it promised to lay a huge sewer pipe through the entire length of the Waxhaw Old Fields. Nisbet Bottoms was on the list of places slated for destruction ("Alert" originally published on the South Carolina Traditional Arts Network, 28 September 2000, BC; "Nisbet Bottoms: A Catawba Treasure Trove," October 2000, BC). State archaeologist Jonathan Leader, referred to the Waxhaw Old Fields as containing the most valuable archaeological sites in South Carolina. At one meeting, he posted an archaeological map for his audience to see and declared that the map might be the closest thing to a pinup an archaeologist could imagine (Donna Lisenby, interview, 2000, BC). Fortunately, for the survival of the ancient Catawba pottery tradition, this sewer line proposal failed. At the moment, the Catawba clay holes located in Nis-bet Bottoms appear to be safe.

Perhaps the greatest threat to Catawba clay resources comes from urban sprawl from nearby Rock Hill and Charlotte. The Katawba Valley Land Trust was formed as a reaction to urbanization. Every time a development becomes a reality, possible clay sources are lost to the potters.

The Blue Clay Hole or Pan Clay Hole

For many years, the Blue Clay Hole was the most important resource for the only contemporary tempering medium used by the Catawba potters. This type of clay must be used if the potter is to make vessels larger than pipes and if the vessel is to remain erect during the building and early drying process. Blue clay has no elasticity and would be discarded as worthless grit by anyone not knowledgeable of clay and pottery making. It is often a rich gray color. Blue Clay Hole is located on the east side of the Catawba River, down river from Van Wyck, in Lancaster County. From testimony provided by the Indians, the hole has been in use for at least a century, but it may be much older.

The Blue Clay Hole is not far from the ferry landing once manned by John Brown. Indeed, even if the site is recent, it may have originally been found by the Indians who ran the nearby ferry. The mine itself is on a bend of a creek trapped in a gully, and the clay has apparently

Catawba Indian Pottery
Figure 5. Larry Brown sitting inside the Blue Clay Hole, Lancaster County, South Carolina. (Photo by Thomas J. Blumer)

always been removed from the gully wall. The roof of the resulting shallow cave has occasionally collapsed. As a result, before the cave's entrance is a small shelf corresponding to the turn in the creek bed. For much of the year the creek is dry. When the roof of the cave is obviously weakened to the danger point, the Catawba dig a new secondary hole on either side of the cave's mouth. This new excavation is then used until the cave becomes dangerously unstable again.

Following Hurricane Hugo in 1989, the potters found it difficult to gain access to the Blue Clay Hole. The hurricane caused great damage to the forest in which the clay hole is located, and the potters looked for a source with easier access. This clay hole has perhaps been abandoned.

Camden/Robbins Pan Clay Hole

This clay was found by Bradley Robbins during the land suit, as an alternative to that taken from the Blue Clay Hole. It gained importance following Hurricane Hugo and today may be the potters' major source for pan clay. Since Bradley's family is deeply involved in pottery making, he is ever on the lookout for new clay sources. This was particularly true during the 1990-1993 crisis precipitated by the land suit. He found the clay, brought a sample to his parents, and they approved its quality. Today many of the potters resort to this source located not far from Camden (Earl Robbins, interview, 1993, BC).

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  • Jo
    Why pottery has a hole?
    9 years ago
  • berengario
    Where is waxhaw old fields located?
    9 years ago
  • outi
    Where is nisbet bottom located?
    8 years ago
  • JENNIFER
    Where is nisbet bottoms located on the catawba river?
    7 years ago
  • Jessica
    How old is catawba clay?
    2 years ago

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