The Late Woodland people achieved a richness of culture that was unmatched to date. Sophisticated craftsmanship created a wide range of pottery forms, stone artifacts, and bone tools such as awls, fishhooks, needles, beamers, and turtle shell cups. Accoutrements for the rich, such as beads and pendants, were made from imported shell and copper. Ceremonial and symbolic objects of stone, copper, and shell were also manufactured.
Pamunkey Pottery Documenting the Past
Tucked away in a remote corner of the quiet county of King William in Virginia is a small but vital community of Powhatan Confederacy Indians, the Pamunkey. Entering the legal jurisdiction of the Pamunkey Reservation over the history-bound tracks of Southern Railway, visitors are nudged by a deep sense of historical importance. The crossroad is dominated by a modest monument dedicated to the memory of only one of many ancestors of note, Pocahontas. More interesting, perhaps because it is more readable is a red sign with yellow letters alerting the visitor to the fact that the community has been governed by a tribal council and a chief since 1677, and that its laws are expected to be obeyed. The road to the right leads to a modest mound, which may or may not hold the hallowed bones of still another regal ancestor, Powhatan. The vista from this point includes the Pamunkey River and the railroad bridge leading to White House. Again history looms large on the forest-edged horizon, for White House was the home of Martha Custis Washington and the scene of dramatic events during the Civil War.
The road straight ahead curves past the Pamunkey Indian Baptist Church, noticeable for its glistening white paint and crisp country lines. The founding date (1865) marks a joyful moment in Pamunkey Indian history. The little church seems to sound a note of tradition in a place where we are constantly taught lessons of history. If we continue on past the church through even fields of corn and soy beans, we come to a small complex of buildings. Obviously, the newest addition is the Pamunkey Indian Museum. Of quite recent vintage, this building attests to the miraculous tenacity of the Pamunkey Tribe. After more than 400 years of contact with non-Indian cultures, the Pamunkey Indians could still muster not only the cultural strength but the funds to build yet another monument to their place in history.
The other buildings in what might be called the Tribal Council complex include the Council Building on the right. Its function replaced by the meeting rooms in the museum, it looks and is unused. Between the Council Building and museum is a small white clapboard structure with generous traces of brightly colored paint. This modest building once housed the Pamunkey Indian School, which thrived from the end of the nineteenth century until it was formally closed and consolidated with the Mattaponi Indian School. Today the Indian children attend the public schools of King William County. One of the most important buildings in the complex and the least conspicuous is the Pottery School. Set off by itself at the edge of the woods, the school looks more like a summer cottage. It has been the home of the Pamunkey Indian Potter's Guild since the early 1930s.
The Pamunkey Indian potters who work in the Pottery School were for many years (at least until the museum was built in 1979) the major reason why anyone visited the reservation. This small group if Indian women, joined by an occasional man skilled in the craft, are yet another living link with a history that predated the founding of King William County by many centuries. The results of the potters' labors line the walls of the Museum Shop, which provides access to the museum itself.
The Pamunkey Museum Shop literally glitters with the crafts that attest to the industry of the cooperative's members. Cabinets are filled with brightly colored beadwork. An occasional stone war club or gourd dance rattle may be discovered and purchased by the alert, fortunate visitor. The room, however, is dominated by Pamunkey pottery, and the place is truly a feast for the eye. Clay objects offered for sale include inexpensive toys and novelties eagerly sought by groups of visiting boy and girl scouts and school children that are often restricted by limited resources. Other treasures include large, gaily painted Indian bowls and vases, some of which are decorated with the famed Pamunkey picture writing. An occasional "pipe of joy" may be discovered on the shelves, and the Pamunkey version of the Southwestern wedding jar is produced in limited numbers. The variety of vessels and effigies offered is astonishing. One cannot stop here, however, for the Pamunkey potters also produce a large variety of smoking pipes. A favorite is a pipe with a bowl in the shape of a bird's head. Coiled around the bird's neck and the stem of the pipe is a serpent. The potters also offer Indian head pipes, ax pipes, and a constantly changing variety of imaginative smoking utensils.
Visitors, particularly those who avidly collect examples of Native American arts and crafts, usually notice two distinct types of Pamunkey wares. The painted and glazed vessels are predominant, but there also is a wide assortment of gray and black mottled stone-polished ware that is more in keeping with what the experienced collector might expect from Native American craftsmen. Odd as it may seem, the Pamunkey Indian potters actually sustain two distinct pottery traditions: one probably as old as the community itself, and the other the product of the Great Depression. All the Pamunkey potters work in both modes.
History of Pottery Making
The location of historical documentation for the Pamunkey Indians throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is fraught with problems, because of both the remoteness of the reservation and the meager historical importance of King William County. Archeology, of course, attests to the fact that the potter's craft has been practiced by the Indians living in this area for many centuries. Also, pre-Columbian vessels and shards found on the reservation today are very similar to pieces made at the end of the nineteenth century, when collectors and anthropologists first began to take an active interest in the Indians of King William County, including the Pamunkey.
According to Dalyrimple and the testimonies of Indians who grew up on the reservation in the middle of the nineteenth century, the Pamunkey potters once had a thriving peddlers' trade throughout the Peninsula area. Many believed that this activity was ruined by the construction of the York and Richmond Railroad in 1854. Traumatic events surrounding the Civil War and the resulting disruption of life in King William also had a negative impact. Reconstruction, of course, took its toll. When life returned to normal in the 1870s, a sturdy utilitarian ware was readily available through dealers in Richmond, and the Indian potters were quickly reduced to filling the needs of an occasional curio hunter. Such was the case when J. G. Pollard and M. R. Harrington visited the reservation at the turn of the century. At this time, only a handful of potters remained, but all the senior members of the community could recall a day when their grandparents made a living, at least in part, from peddling their stewing pots, milk pans, and other pottery vessels throughout the country.
The traditional Pamunkey clay deposit provides a firm link with the past, for this clay deposit has been in documented use for at least 200 years, and it is most likely that clay has been dug here ever since the community was founded. Today, the place is called Lay Landing. According to Mr. Edward Bradby, who was born there at the turn of the century, the original name could have been Clay Landing, the contemporary name being merely a contracted form. When Pollard interviewed Terrill Bradby at the end of the nineteenth century, he recalled digging clay when he was a boy before the Civil War.
In former times the opening of a clay mine was a great feast day with the Pamunkey. The whole tribe, men, women and children were present, and each family took home a share of the clay (Chief Terrill Bradby).
By the time Frank G. Speck interviewed two traditional potters, Theodora Cook and Paul Miles, in the 1920s, the chore of digging the clay had been relegated to the children. Although the task had never been an easy one (the actual deposit is several feet beneath the surface), it must not have been too arduous for children to have been entrusted with this crucial necessity. In recent years the situation has become complicated. According to Mr. Edward Bradby, the riverbank has receded considerably since he was a boy, and today the deposit is only reached during low tide. The potters, therefore, usually employ one of the men to dig the clay: Kevin Brown, Herman Dennis, or Grover Miles to name a few. Once a suitable supply of the dull gray clay is obtained, the task of preparation begins. The clay is first dried and pounded into a powder; then the impurities are removed, either by picking them out, as was done earlier, or through the use of a sieve, a more recent method.
Clay and Shell Pottery
Old-style Pamunkey pottery is peculiar for its use of calcinated fresh water mussel shells as a tempering medium. Early in this century, children gathered the necessary shells from the feeding grounds of the raccoons. The potter then built a pile of alternating corn shucks and shells, which was covered with stalks and burned. At this point, the burned shells were soft enough to be pulverized and added to the clay. The amount of shell temper added to pure clay varied from potter to potter with a tendency to reduce the shell proportions over time. For instance, in 1877 the potters were reportedly using one-third shell to two-thirds clay; 1928, one-fourth shell to three-fourths clay; and in 1940, several years after the Pottery School had been in operation, the proportion had been reduced to one-sixteenth shell to fifteen-sixteenths clay.
The mixture of clay and shell was finally combined with water and handled in a fashion not unlike the kneading of bread. When the consistency was stiff enough, the potter was ready to work.
The tools commonly used by the Pamunkey potters are simple and easily obtained in or about the house. The piece is constructed on a square lap board, which enables the potter to turn the vessel and constantly inspect it. A ready supply of water is taken from any container at hand. The favored shaping and cutting tool is the mussel shell. The last utensil, the rubbing stone, is used to apply a burnish to the vessel's surface. According to Theodora Cook, "Rubbing stones were used exclusively here. . . . Some would be in the shape of your fingers where you held it for years. These stones were handed down in the family." Tools used for decorating the vessels include the finger nail; a cord-wrapped stick or paddle, a grooved paddle, fish net, cord, reed, thorn, and an end stamp or stick with a simple design carved into the end. Other occasional tools are drawn from the household, including combs, watch chains, buttons, muskrat teeth, and almost any object that can be used to press or incise a design into a vessel.
The basic Pamunkey vessel is flat-bottomed. The potter first takes a small quantity of clay and constructs a disk, which forms the bottom. Morsels of clay are then placed on this simple base, and the vessel's walls are formed with the assistance of a mussel shell. Once the desired height is reached, the final shape is given to the vessel. All is accomplished with the hands in concert with a mussel shell. Large vessels are commonly beaten with a cord-wrapped paddle until the walls reach the desired height and thinness. The newly constructed pot is then rubbed with a damp rag, the designs incised or impressed, and the vessel is then allowed to dry slowly. Through the use of this simple construction method, Pamunkey potters working before the advent of the school made a variety of bowls, pans, and cups, most of which were purchased by occasional visitors to the reservation. Along with tourist items, the potters always produced a number of kitchen utensils for their own use.
Manufacture of Pipes
A second ancient industry, one that also survives today, is the manufacture of pipes. These are either hand-molded or produced in a simple two-part squeeze mold. Common forms include the plain smoking pipe, bird effigy, Indian head pipe, the tomahawk, and the multi-stemmed "pipe of joy." As a rule, these pipes require a reed stem to be smoked.
When the vessels were considered dry and ready for the firs, a quantity of wood was collected. The potters were not particular about the variety but used as much pine bark as could be obtained. On a dry, calm day, a fire was constructed directly on the ground. The vessels to be burned were placed in a ring around the fire so they could complete the drying process. From time to time, the vessels were turned and moved closer to the fire. Eventually, when the vessels were too hot to handle and were considered ready for the fire, they were placed directly on the coals, covered with wood, and subjected to the full heat of the flames for several hours. On occasion, the potters would burn their vessels in the hearth. The method employed was similar in that the vessels were first dried before the fire and then introduced to the direct effects of the flames.
Renewal of Pottery Making
Before 1932, the Pamunkey pottery tradition was maintained by a small number of individuals who produced the old-style ware in a quantity limited by a small trickle of reservation visitors who expressed an interest in collecting Indian relics. This was the situation when Virginia searched for ways to assist the Pamunkey Indians in their effort to sustain the tribe during the Great Depression.
In 1932, D. N. Van Ot of the State Board of Education was a speaker at the spring closing exercise at the Pamunkey Indian School. When Van Ot mentioned the possibility of fostering arts and crafts in the community, the interest of the Pamunkey men was aroused. Van Ot was shown several examples of the traditional ware, and he was impressed enough to investigate the possibility of helping the Pamunkey Indians develop this craft into a source of income. He declared enthusiastically, "there's money on your doorsteps if you'll take advantage of it." The local clay was tested in a laboratory and found to be of good quality.
While the officials in Richmond were pondering the possibility of fostering the pottery tradition, the Tribal Council was also at work. Chief Paul Miles, who was an accomplished traditional potter, urged the men to accept Van Ot's proposal. In a nearly unanimous vote, they agreed to invite Van Ot to address the tribe again and outline his proposal. In brief, the agreement was that the state was to furnish the materials for a building to house the Pottery School. The Tribal Council was to furnish the labor. The state was then to provide a teacher at the state's expense, and the Indians would provide the students. The native clay was to come from Lay Landing.
Pamunkey Pottery Guild
The next step was taken by the women who formed a cooperative, called the Pamunkey Pottery Guild. The purpose of the guild was to regulate prices and help with the marketing of the wares. The list of Pamunkey Pottery Guild presidents is an impressive one. The current president of the guild is Mrs. Dora Cook Bradby.
William Ross was the first teacher sent to the reservation to assist the Pamunkey Indians in their effort. He was a highly competent potter in his own right and brought both a respect for Native American traditions and a feeling that the potters had to be realistic in their approach to the market. In short, Ross introduced changes that still influence the Pamunkey tradition, but he did not attempt to destroy what he found being done on the reservation. Ross merely helped the Indians enrich what they already had; hence, the School Tradition was born.
The Pamunkey Indians immediately approached the school with enthusiasm. A large number of people either learned the craft under Ross and subsequent teachers or increased their production of a traditional ware they had been making for many years. The following were among the first students. Those individuals marked with an asterisk learned to make traditional pottery at some time before 1932 and wholeheartedly supported the efforts of the school and became guild members:
- Luzelia Allmond Bradby
- Daisy Stewart Bradby*
- Dora Cook Bradby*
- Lucy Allmond Page
- Hattie Collins Stewart*
- Pocahontas Cook*
- Capitola Cook*
- Rhodesa Page Dennis
- Alberta Mary Page
- Bradby Paul Miles*
- Nannie Miles Miles*
- Louzelia Bradby Dennis
- Martha Bradby Goldstein
- Ruth Bradby Cook
- Catherine Langston Page
- Ada Bradly Bush
- Bernice Bradby Langston
- Elmira Page Bradby
- Douglas Miles Martin
Although Theodora Cook, suffering from failing eyesight, was no longer active, she taught all her daughters how to work in clay, and she supported the school effort.
These students were adults seeking to supplement their family's incomes. From time to time, they were joined by some of the men who dabbled in clay. These included Willie Bradby and James Page. Also, on occasion the schoolteacher, Julia Kyle, would send her young wards across the field to the Pottery School for an afternoon's instruction. Among these children were Willis Allmond (Bradly), Irma Allmond (Page), and Mildred Miles (Moore). These individuals would join the guild many years later.
The school almost immediately brought the full impact of modern ceramic technology to the Pamunkey potters. Many of these innovations were done to increase the speed of manufacture. For instance, the second instructor, Frank Lutz, introduced the squeeze mold:
"See, he told us if we made something we liked we could make a mold. That's what we did. We could make many more things, and they are actually made by hand. You made your own piece in the mold." (Mrs. Dora Cook Bradby)
Over the years several of the potters have become quite proficient in the making of molds, and the shelves of the Pottery School are lined with hundreds produced by these industrious women. The earliest molds, some of which might pre-date the school, were made from native clay, but the potters soon turned to the more easily obtainable plaster of paris. The advantages of the molds were several. The potters still feel that they are making the vessels by hand, and the molds give them the ability to quickly reproduce the same vessel hundreds of times. An added attraction is that the prices of such pieces are naturally low, and the potters can meet the price requirements of a wide audience of reservation visitors.
A second innovation introduced by the instructors was the kiln. The first one was fueled by kerosene and required an attendant:
"We had a kerosene kiln that had to be pumped. Instead of turning a switch on, you had to pump it to keep the temperature up. Junius Miles, Paul Miles' brother worked the kiln. It took a man to work the pump. It was pretty hard. You had to pump it up like you pump a tire on a car." (Mrs. Daisy Stewart Bradby)
Later the potters obtained a downdraft, wood-burning kiln.
The most obvious advantage of the kiln was that it reduced breakage the potters had always experienced while firing their pottery on the ground in an open bonfire. These primitive methods of firing were highly susceptible to drafts and inclement weather, resulting in damaged pieces that could not be sold. The Pamunkey potters welcomed the efficiency of the kiln. The kiln, however, did not leave the usual attractive patterns of carbon that only the flames of a fire and disintegrating wood can affect. The pottery that emerged from the kiln was of a uniform color.
The solution to this problem was paint, and the potters began to apply color to their bisque ware. In the words of Mrs. Daisy Bradby: "We found out the pottery would sell better in color. People like color. Especially tourists like color." As a result of this innovation, the Pamunkey potters developed a new skill. They have always approached decorating their pottery vessels with enthusiasm. Since there was no Southeastern tradition that exhibited a painted ware, the potters turned to the Southwest for inspiration. Over the years, however, they have shown a tendency to adapt pan-Indian motifs to meet the unique historical perspectives of the Pamunkey Tribe. For instance, it is not unusual for vases, bowls, and plates to be decorated with a combination of aquatic motifs drawn from the Pamunkey River and Southwestern Indian patterns.
An even more interesting feature of the School Tradition are the pictographs. These apparently were also introduced by Ross from a volume on Indian sign language. The Pamunkey potters immediately saw the storytelling possibilities in the picture writing and began to decorate their vessels with entire stories taken from Pamunkey Indian history. Included is the story of Pocahontas and her royal father, Powhatan.
A final innovation introduced through the Pottery School was the use of glazes and sand as a tempering medium. Although the potters do, on occasion, resort to the use of calcinated mussel shells to temper their vessels, this time-consuming method has generally been abandoned. In the case of glazing the pottery, the paints are enriched, and water will not penetrate the walls of the pot. Hence, the buyer has a more versatile product to carry home.
Sale of Pottery
Once the Pottery School had the Pamunkey Indians busy working in clay, the problem of marketing had to be solved. Tradition has it that the craft was nearly dealt a death blow by the construction of the York and Richmond Railroad in 1854. The tracks still pass through the reservation. Once this market was destroyed by cheap kitchen crockery shipped in by rail from Richmond, the Indians lost an outlet for large quantities of pottery.
At first, the potters sold from their homes. According to Mrs. Daisy Bradby, a canoe went for a mere 15 cents, and visitors began coming to buy pottery almost as soon as the Pottery School began to hold classes. Each potter solved the problem of sales independently. Mrs. Daisy Bradby painted a sign for the front of her house, "Handicrafts for Sale." Soon the number of visitors were so many that the guild members found home sales to be inadequate. The next step was to contract the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to have a log cabin built as a sales shop. It was placed at the crossroads near the entrance to the reservation. The work was done by the Pamunkey men. Today, only the chimney stands as a silent monument to the maiden efforts of the Pamunkey potters. The construction of this cabin is recalled nearly 50 years after the fact:
The shop was built under the WPA. The men in here worked on it, and they made money. The WPA paid them to do the work, but I don't know who furnished the materials. It just looked like an ordinary log cabin. The front of it had a window and a door. There was another window on the side. It had a fireplace, and it was a pretty little place (Mrs. Daisy Stewart Bradby).
The log cabin served its intended purpose for at least part of the late 1930s. Then it fell into disrepair; when the log cabin was abandoned, the potters were once again forced to sell their wares from their homes.
The members of the Pamunkey Potters' Guild also agreed to visit schools to promote both their pottery and the history of the tribe. On one occasion, a group of them demonstrated pottery making at the Colonial Theater in Richmond. At the time, the theater was showing an Indian movie, and the potters came to the city as part of a promotional effort. On another occasion, during the late 1950s, the potters demonstrated pottery making at the King William Court House for a historical festival. For many years the Pamunkey potters regularly attended the Fredericksburg Dog Mart and sold pottery there. Then in 1959 the guild took over the old Pamunkey Indian School and sold pottery from that building until the Pamunkey Indian Museum was opened in 1979.
In recent years, the Pamunkey potters, through their keen appreciation for their long history, have made an effort to revive the wares produced before the Pottery School changed Pamunkey pottery so profoundly. This movement was partly initiated under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA). When constructing these vessels, the potters once again resorted to the methods learned from their grandmothers. The molds were dispensed with for hand-construction by the coil method. No two vessels produced according to these ancient ways are alike.
The newly constructed vessels are first polished with a stone, then decorated in the old way with tools found in the home, such as reeds, knives, and cord-wrapped sticks and paddles. Rather than resort to the safety of the draft-free kiln, the potters turn to the open fire, as was customary with their ancestors and in the tradition as it existed before the advent of the Pottery School. The results are dramatic and several potters are producing a very fine, thin ware that traditionalists such as Theorora Cook, Chief Paul Miles, and Ellen Frances Page, would delight to see. When visiting the Museum Shop, one can easily pick the traditional, stone-polished, carbon-mottled wares from the glazed and painted vessels produced in the Pottery School.
Today, the Pamunkey pottery tradition survives despite the trauma of a changing culture. In the last 60 years, the Pamunkey tradition has undergone three radical changes. When the Pottery School was proposed by Van Ot and encouraged by Chief Paul Miles in 1932, the Pamunkey pottery tradition was in grave danger of extinction. Although the school brought change, it insured the survival of the craft. Over the years, its products have become traditional in their own right. Then, after nearly 50 years of following the dictates of the school, these energetic potters made a totally unexpected shift toward a revival of their aboriginal craft. The results again are dramatic and often well worth the attention of collectors of Native American arts and crafts.
Pamunkey Indian Museum
Route 1, Box 2011
King William, VA 23086