Ceramics on the Frontier

by Scott K. Parker
Director of Research, Little Antietam Creek, Inc.

The stories and accounts of the “Black Boys Rebellion” are of intrepid frontiersmen defending their homes against Indian attack and the apparent intentions of the Pennsylvania legislature and the Crown.  The stories are of rugged individuals using their back woods savvy to mete out their own form of frontier justice, by force if necessary, conjuring up images of small communities, isolated in the wilderness.  It is true that the region in which Mercersburg, Pennsylvania is located was deemed too remote and indefensible by England during Pontiac’s War and suffered from Indian raids and massacres.  But it was never completely isolated.  In fact, it was linked by the very transportation route that made the events leading up to the Black Boys rebellion possible.  People did not come to this area to scratch out a living subsistence farming.  They came for the opportunity to be successful farmers, artisans and entrepreneurs and to live and worship as they saw fit.  A key to being successful was to have access to goods and services that would aid in their endeavors and also to goods that would make their lives easier, more refined and would allow them to show off wealth.  In the mid 18th century the majority of household items such as cooking and eating utensils, pewter plates and other table ware and virtually all glass and ceramic vessels would have been acquired from England, and all status items, with the possible exception of some silver and furniture, would have come from overseas.

Since the people that settled throughout the Cumberland Valley did so for economic opportunities for themselves and their families, mainly through farming and related service industries (milling, smithing, distilling), accessibility to markets was a key factor in a successful community.  The same transportation routes that allowed this access also provided access to needed goods not locally available.  A farmer could haul his grain, flour or distilled spirits to market and return with the latest styles in tableware fresh from Staffordshire England potteries, or even fine “china” from the Orient.  Generally, what was available and fashionable in England could be obtained in America as well.  This included Chinese porcelain, the most expensive ceramic.  

Fast forward to modern times and the effort to identify and preserve the residence of Justice William Smith.  While recent research has discovered documents that describe and clarify the “Black Boys Rebellion” and Justice Smith’s role in it they do not describe or clarify the exact whereabouts of William Smith’s house or the Cunningham Tavern where the Black Boys’ plot was apparently hatched.  Consequently, the search for these buildings has turned to physical evidence both in and around the building thought to be William Smith’s house in Mercersburg.  The first task was to determine if possible, through architectural and archaeological evidence, if the building did indeed date to the time of William Smith and the Black Boys Rebellion, essentially the 1760s.  Initial archaeological excavations were conducted in the basement of the building (referred to as the Smith house for the remainder of the article) in the winter of 2010 by the Cumberland Valley Chapter #27 of the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology and local volunteers.  All should be commended for their efforts.  Despite time constraints and less than ideal conditions, the Chapter conducted quality excavations that recovered information essential to the effort to save the Smith house.  Particularly important to this discussion was the recovery of a sufficient assemblage of artifacts to allow for analysis of the time of occupation and function of the Smith house.  Significant artifacts include glass trade beads, copper alloy buttons, kaolin pipe stem fragments, and a relatively large assortment of fragments from ceramic vessels.

Analysis of ceramics at historic sites can provide a great deal of information concerning the period(s) of occupation, function(s) and relative wealth of the occupants of the site.  Manufacturing changes and often frequent style changes provide temporal markers and ceramics, like today, came in a variety of types, some more expensive and valued than others.  Without getting into ceramics 101 too much here a little explanation is in order.  The term “ceramics” is a catch-all term for most anything made of tempered and fired clay (pottery) but generally refers to cooking, serving and eating vessels like plates, cups, saucers, bowls and platters for serving and eating off of and pots, jugs and bottles for food storage or cooking.  As such, it refers to a variety of styles and manufacturing techniques of varying quality and value.  Earthenware, stoneware and porcelain are the three basic types of ceramic based on clay type, tempering and firing temperature.  Earthenware is fired at the lowest temperature and, consequently is the coarsest of the three, porcelain is fired the hottest and is the most refined and most expensive (Diagnostic Artifacts in Maryland, Colonial Ceramics).  Earthenware is divided into coarse and refined earthenware and porcelain into hard and soft paste porcelain. 

Coarse earthenware and many stoneware vessels were made for utilitarian purposes (storage and general containers) and consequently were the least refined and least expensive ceramic types.  Utilitarian coarse earthenware and stoneware were made in Europe and England essentially throughout the history of pottery making and by the early 19th century were being manufactured in Pennsylvania (John Bell pottery in Waynesboro for example).  These wares changed little over time and as such are not reliable for dating purposes.  However, there are types of both stoneware and coarse earthenware significant to this investigation.  Slip-glazed earthenware was a highly decorated coarse earthenware manufactured in Germany and England through the first three quarters of the 18th century and used as table and tavern ware.  Rhenish stoneware is a refined gray salt glazed stoneware, often with cobalt blue decoration, made by German potters in the first half of the 18th century.  Pennsylvania potters, like John Bell, made a similar type of stoneware in the mid to late 19th century.  A very popular refined white salt glazed stoneware, generally with molded, rather than painted decoration, was produced as tableware in England from around 1715 to the end of the 18th century (Diagnostic Artifacts in Maryland, 2002: Colonial Ceramics).

Porcelain originated in East Asia and was imported to Europe as early as the 16th century.  By the beginning of the 18th century, porcelain from China was a common commodity in the European and English ceramic market.  Referred to as Chinese export porcelain, this highly decorated, often blue and white hard paste porcelain was produced specifically for export to the west and tended to be the most expensive and sought after ware in western markets.  The pottery business in the last half of the 18th century and into the 19th century, especially in England was a time of expansion and innovation and much of this was prompted by attempts to either reproduce or mimic Chinese export porcelain and, of course, the Chinese were not revealing their secrets.  By the 1740s, English potters were producing a high quality porcelain generally hand painted in various colors.  Known as soft paste porcelain, this ceramic was fired at a lower temperature using slightly different base materials than the Chinese hard paste and, consequently, did not exhibit the same qualities as Chinese export porcelain (Diagnostic Artifacts in Maryland, 2002, Colonial Ceramics, Porcelain).  Also, the English potters at the time had not perfected the use of the blue pigments that the Chinese used and as a result, could not copy Chinese export porcelain.  They eventually did figure out how to successfully apply cobalt blue pigment, but, as it turns out, not on porcelain (Miller, et. al., 1989: 6).

The English ceramic industry took a different path, largely lead by Josiah Wedgwood and his development and marketing of refined earthenware.  While still earthenware, alterations in tempering and glazing and an increase in firing temperature produced a much more refined ceramic body that could be more easily and intricately decorated.  The most popular and available refined earthenwares of the last half of the 18th and 19th centuries were what are referred to by archaeologists and collectors today as creamware, pearlware and whiteware.    These were essentially styles that graded from one to the other over a period of about 150 years starting in the 1750s with the invention of creamware and its subsequent perfection by Wedgwood around 1760.  Called Queen’s Ware or Royal Ware at the time, creamware filled the niche between the delicate, expensive “fine china” and the thick, coarse, cheaper utilitarian wares (Mankowitz, 1992: 17-18).  “As a finely enameled painted ware, it could serve the royal and wealthy families of the world, while undecorated, it was cheap enough for the common man” (Miller, et. al., 1989: 2) and, unlike its predecessor tin glazed earthenware, sturdy enough to withstand repeated use and cleaning and inexpensive enough to produce in large quantities and in sets (Diagnostic Artifacts in Maryland,   2002, Colonial Ceramics, Creamware).  In fact,  “. . . the success of Josiah Wedgwood’s creamware undercut the porcelain market . . . ”  in the mid 18th century and launched him into the forefront of the pottery industry (Miller, et. al. 1989: 2).

Especially with the advent of transfer print decoration and a slightly altered firing and glazing process, mass producing sets of painted ceramics became possible and cost effective, spawning what we now call pearlware.  Unlike creamware, pearlware was rarely undecorated.  In fact, it has been said that, “‘pearlware’ did not replace ‘creamware’; it was decoration that replaced ‘creamware’” (Diagnostic Artifacts in Maryland, 2002, Post Colonial Ceramics) (Miller, et. al, 1989: 5-6).  According to Miller, refinement of cobalt for blue pigment was introduced to English potters in the early 1770s (Miller, 1987; Miller, et. al., 1989; Mankowitz, 1992: 45).  Once the blue tinted glazes were introduced, English potters could manufacture a relatively inexpensive ware that mimicked Chinese export porcelain, but it seems the intent was never to pass pearlware off as Chinese export porcelain, but to provide an affordable alternative that looked something like it.   The transition from pearlware to whiteware, beginning in the early 19th century, was more subtle and gradual than from creamware to pearlware (Diagnostic Artifacts in Maryland, 2002, Post Colonial Ceramics).  

So what was found in the Smith house basement?  In total 291 pieces of ceramic were recovered.  The major categories are (numbers of fragments are in parentheses):  Chinese Porcelain (6); Coarse Earthenware (107); Other Hard Paste Porcelain (1); Soft Paste Porcelain (9); Refined Earthenware (161); English White Salt Glazed Stoneware (7).  These categories essentially represent the range of available ceramics during the last half of the 18th century.  Typical of archaeological assemblages, the majority (82%) of the recovered ceramics are of types that were made for utilitarian purposes (cooking, serving, everyday tableware).  This includes Coarse Earthenware (36% of the entire assemblage) and undecorated and shell edged Refined Earthenware that make up 83% of the recovered Refined Earthenwares.  The rest (51 fragments, almost 20% of the assemblage) are of more refined, expensive ware types, including Chinese Export Porcelain.

What does the assemblage tell us about when the building was occupied?  A sufficient number of ceramics were diagnostic so that a good idea of the periods of occupation could be determined.  The chronology of the ceramic assemblage was discerned by devising relevant periods of occupation for the Smith house, based on information obtained from the savesmithhouse.com website.  These are: William (Squire) Smith period (1759 – 1775); Robert Smith period (1776 – c. 1800) and post Smith period after 1800.  Robert Smith was William Smith’s eldest son and inherited his father’s property when he died in 1775.  The death date for Robert Smith could not be found on the website, nor was there mention of whether he lived in the house until he died, so the end date for the Robert Smith period is a best guess.

Ceramics from Squire Smith period: 

Ceramics that were produced during the Squire Smith period:  creamware (c. 1760 – c. 1820); English white salt-glazed stoneware (1715 – c. 1790); Chinese export porcelain (prevalent throughout the 18th century); English soft paste porcelain (c. 1740 – 1800); slip glazed coarse earthenware (1700 – 1770s); tin glazed earthenware (1700 – 1770s) along with the ubiquitous generic coarse earthenware (mostly redware) produced throughout most of American history and not counted in any time period.  Sixty nine total fragments (23.71% of all ceramics; 59.50% of diagnostics) of “Squire Smith period” ceramic types are included in the assemblage.  The generally agreed upon inception of Pearlware in the 1770s may correspond to the end of the Squire Smith period but for the purposes of this analysis all Pearlware was designated as from the Robert Smith period. 

Ceramics from the Robert Smith period:

Essentially all ceramic types recovered were produced during Robert Smith’s tenure, with the exception of tin glazed earthenware and slip glazed coarse earthenware.  Pearlware was most prevalent at that time.  Forty two total fragments were categorized as Robert Smith period (14.43% of all ceramics; 36.21% of diagnostics). 

The majority of the decorated pearlware in the Smith house assemblage was hand painted (annular banded, shell edged and hand painted polychrome designs) (16 out of 20 decorated fragments) with only 4 fragments transfer printed.  While pearlware was hand painted throughout its existence, hand painting was more prevalent in early pearlware.  Furthermore, the designs and decorative styles of the recovered fragments appear more like early pearlware.  The shell edged fragments all have incised lines and scalloped rims, both early styles, and one fragment appears to have a rococo rim which was the earliest style.  Based on this, the majority of decorated pearlware likely was produced in the last quarter of the 18th century rather than in the 19th century. 

Ceramics from post Smith period:

The only ceramic types that could have been made after the Smith periods are the generic coarse eathenware (made throughout all the relevant periods); some of the later pearlwares (especially transfer printed pearlware) and whiteware.  Only one fragment of whiteware and eight that may have been whiteware were analyzed.

Archaeological investigations have been conducted outside the Smith house as well, by Axis Research.  The author has not seen their report or the artifacts they recovered first hand, but from personal communication with two of their volunteer excavators and a look at the photographs posted on this website it seems that Axis recovered similar types of artifacts, including ceramics, as the SPA did in the basement.


The ceramic assemblage from the Smith house basement excavations definitely places the building in the Squire Smith period.   It was not unexpected to find ceramics dating to when the house was occupied by Robert Smith as well.  Somewhat surprising, however, is that there are very few fragments of post Smith period ceramic, even though the building has been occupied until very recently.  It would be interesting to see if that trend holds up outside the building.  The range of ceramic types from utilitarian coarse earthenware and undecorated refined earthenware to “fine china”, including Chinese export porcelain is in keeping with the interpretation that the house belonged to the Smiths.  Squire Smith, in particular was a prominent and influential citizen who lived along the major thoroughfare from Baltimore to Pittsburgh and, to a large extent controlled the flow of goods through Mercersburg.  As a result, he would have had access to any type of merchandise he desired and he likely had the wealth to purchase it as well.

Also of note is that some of the ceramics, slip glazed earthenware and one piece of 18th century yellowware, were made specifically for tavern use.  William Smith’s house was supposed to have been next door to the Cunningham Tavern and both were used in plotting the Black Boys uprising.  It would not be surprising if William Smith, a prominent entrepreneur in town, had an interest in the tavern.  It is also possible that the property in question may contain both the house and tavern.  The detached chimney and fireplace in the yard is very similar to one on the original part of the house.  The detached chimney may have been part of the tavern or, perhaps even part of the Smith house.  In any case, combined with the historical evidence compiled recently, the archaeological evidence, particularly the ceramic assemblage, strongly supports the contention that the property in question was indeed once owned and occupied by Justice William Smith at the time of the Black Boys uprising.

The story of William and James Smith and the Black Boys is not simply of frontiersmen and back woods justice, but of colonial citizens establishing communities where they could embrace the opportunities of the Cumberland Valley.  Much can be learned about these people and the stories told about them from the things they left behind; the buildings they lived in and the remains of things, like ceramic vessels, they used in the buildings.  As a result of the recent efforts to find and interpret this information the property is beginning to reveal its secrets, but so far only in a faint whisper.  Much more needs to be done before the house and grounds will talk and even more before it will sing of its past.  The murmurings of a time of war and fear of Indian attacks and the hope of a new beginning without such conflict can be heard in the assemblage of slip glazed earthenware, white salt glazed stoneware and English trade beads.  Whether these are the faint whisperings of Justice William Smith we do not yet know but it is looking more and more likely all the time.


Diagnostic Artifacts in Maryland

2002 Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab, Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum.  www.jefpat.org/diagnostic

Mankowitz, Wolf

1992  Wedgwood.  third edition, Magna Books, Wigston, Leicester, England.

Miller, George L.

1987  Origins of Josiah Wedgwood’s “Pearlware”. Northeast Historical Archaeology. Vol. 16: 83-95).

Miller, George L., Ann Smart Martin, and Nancy S. Dickinson

1989  Changing Consumption Patterns, English Ceramics and the American Market from 1770 to 1840. unpublished manuscript from the 29th Winterthur Conference.