Great Road Pottery

Earthenware Potters Along the Great Road in Virginia and Tennessee--Featured on PBS's Antique Road Show on January 18.

By J. Roderick Moore, Director, Blue Ridge Institute

This article originally appeared in The Magazine Antiques, September 1983

Earthenware Potters Along the Great Road in Virginia and Tennessee


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The Great Road was the name given to a section of the primary route from Philadelphia west to Tennessee or Kentucky (see Fig. 1). It followed the Indian trail known as the Great Warrior Path along river valleys and through mountain passes. From Philadelphia to Roanoke, Virginia, it was called the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road, and from Roanoke west it was known simply as the Great Road. It served people traveling by horse and on foot from 1770, and by 1796 it was open to wagons at least as far as Abingdon in Washington County, Virginia.

The land bordering the Great Road was settled by the first people to reach each new area and towns developed around stage stops, way stations, and inns. Among the early settlers were Pennsylvania Germans, Virginia Germans, Scots-Irish, English, Welsh, and both slaves and free blacks. Census records from 1800 to 1880 show that many stayed only for short periods before moving on. Other records, particularly estate inventories, contain convincing evidence that the frontier did not remain primitive for long. As early as 1780 there were silversmiths, gunsmiths, cabinetmakers, wagonmakers, portrait painters, clockmakers, and even boat builders in the counties along the Great Road. By 1780 in Abingdon and 1800 in Wytheville, store inventories attest to the availability of delftware, queen's ware, bolts of cloth, looking glasses, and toothbrushes. In fact, almost anything available on the coast of Virginia or in Richmond could be bought in the back country.

a jug
Map showing the Great Road

Estate inventories contain many references to earthenware pottery and some to stoneware, and census records list a large number of potters living in the region who presumably supplied most of the needs of their communities. Major pottery centers existed in Wythe and Washington counties in Virginia and Sullivan County in Tennessee.

The earliest potter recorded is Frederick Moore in Wythe County in 1779, and by 1840 seven potters are documented in Wythe and Washington counties. In the 1850 United States census thirteen potters were listed in Washington, Wythe, Russell, Smyth, Lee, and Scott counties in Virginia and Sullivan County, Tennessee. This number increased to eighteen in 1860, decreased to fifteen in 1870, and