Jug holds clues to mysterious origin

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April Hynes never dreamed the shoebox in her grandfather's attic held clues to a mystery linked to one of the last slave ships to arrive in the U.S.

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April Hynes holds a face jug she says her grandfather dug up in Philadelphia in 1950. The pottery is of a type made in the 1800s near Edgefield, S.C.  Associated Press
Associated Press
April Hynes holds a face jug she says her grandfather dug up in Philadelphia in 1950. The pottery is of a type made in the 1800s near Edgefield, S.C.

It was a tiny stoneware jug -- shaped like a face -- with broad lips, piercing eyes and leering teeth.

"It's been in my family since the '50s," said Hynes, who lives in Philadelphia, where her grandfather dug up the jug at a construction site in 1950.

"He was a plumber and they were building a school," she said. "He thought it might be some kind of Indian relic."

The jug moved from home to home, stored in attics and forgotten places. Hynes' grandfather died in 2002. He was 93.

Last fall, the jug re-emerged from a dusty china cabinet as Hynes helped her mother pack for another move.

"I knew it was something very special," she said. "So I started doing some research."

The jug turned out to be a piece of Edgefield pottery -- known for its distinct, greenish-brown alkaline glaze -- that was produced in the 1800s in South Carolina's Edgefield District a few miles northeast of Augusta.

In all, nearly two-dozen potteries thrived in the region, turning out storage jars and countless thousands of other vessels.

The face jugs -- of which only a few dozen are known -- are thought to have been made by slaves brought to the Georgia coast aboard the Wanderer, a schooner that landed near Jekyll Island in 1858, said Gary Dexter, an Aiken County potter and historian.

Of the 409 slaves who survived the voyage from their native Congo region of west Africa, 137 were transported up the Savannah River to a landing on the river's South Carolina side just opposite of Augusta.

Dexter said census records show some of them lived out their lives in the vicinity of the potteries, and likely worked there.

"The case for Wanderer slaves working in the area's potteries comes from the fact that the spooky-looking, crude face jugs showed up shortly after they arrived in 1858," he said.

The face jugs, he noted, are eerily similar to small statues made during the same time period by Congo natives and used to adorn bark baskets known as byeris.

The baskets had great significance and contained teeth or other sacred relics of their ancestors. The faces on those tiny statues were decorated with white kaolin clay -- the same material used to adorn the face jugs of Edgefield.

"Obviously, this was the single most important cultural item they had," Dexter said. "Just imagine them being chained and shipped across the ocean to here. They were probably trying to imitate this item in clay in the potteries where they may have worked. That is my theory."

Fragments of face jugs dating back as early as 1840 have been excavated in the area, but there is little doubt the arrival of young Africans aboard the Wanderer played a key role, said Steve Ferrell, who has studied the area's pottery for more than 40 years and operates the Old Edgefield Pottery studio and museum in Edgefield. "With their arrival, you have fresh blood, straight from Africa."

The Hynes jug found in Philadelphia, he added, could have been made by one of those slaves in the years after their emancipation.

"I would date the (Hynes) Philadelphia jug to the 1890s, due to the shape and form of the lip," he said.

Jill Koverman, curator of collections at the University of South Carolina's McKissick Museum in Columbia, said the complete mystery behind the face jugs of Edgefield might never be solved.

"What were they used for? That's still one of the big questions," she said.

The Wanderer connection is one of the best theories, although at least one white potter -- Thomas Chandler -- was known to make face jugs during the same period.

Oral histories, however, indicate one pottery in particular -- owned by Thomas Davie -- had 23 Wanderer slaves working there.

Today, many potters across the country make face jugs as contemporary art, she said, but authentic Edgefield face jugs from the late 1800s are quite rare.

"There are only a few dozen, maybe 50, and that's on the high side," Koverman said. "There has been a lot of research on them, but the puzzling part is that none of them are marked, with the exception of Chandler's piece."

Jugs similar to the one found by Hynes' grandfather are in collections at institutions including the McKissick, the Augusta Museum of History, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Charleston Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which owns an Edgefield face jug donated in 1904.

There are also an unknown number in private collections.

Even if more were known about the origins of the Edgefield face jugs in general, there would still be a mystery behind the one now owned Hynes.

Somehow, it traveled from Edgefield to Philadelphia -- almost 700 miles.

Hynes isn't sure how it got there, or why it was buried, but she is working with producers of the PBS show History Detectives , which plans to air a segment on the jug later this year.

Afterward, Hynes plans to lend the jug to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it will be displayed for everyone to enjoy.

Edgefield pottery

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays

WHERE: 230 Simkins St., Edgefield, S.C.

CONTACT: (803) 637-2060

ACTIVITIES: The Edgefield County Historical Society-sponsored studio offers visitors narrated history discussions, exhibits of antique pottery and a chance to see the process used to make Edgefield pottery. It is also a retail outlet for pieces produced at the studio.

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southern2
8561
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southern2 04/09/10 - 06:27 am
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Great find!

Great find!

InChristLove
22486
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InChristLove 04/09/10 - 06:46 am
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Interesting!

Interesting!

Big Tex
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Big Tex 04/09/10 - 07:45 am
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Wait a minute... Wasn't the

Wait a minute... Wasn't the slave trade to the U.S. outlawed in 1800? Why do we have a ship sneaking slaves into Jekyl Island in the 1850's? I wonder how much of that was going on.

Rob Pavey
560
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Rob Pavey 04/09/10 - 01:09 pm
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Big Tex, you are exactly

Big Tex, you are exactly right - slavery was outlawed in 1808, which is why this smuggling episode was a huge thing in its day. There were all sorts investigations and one of the ship captains was even tried (but acquitted in what observers said was a rigged trial). A UGA professor named Tom Henderson Wells (he died in 1971) authored a book, The Slave Ship Wanderer," that I found fascinating. The whole text is online for free in the Digital Library of Georgia website.

Big Tex
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Big Tex 04/09/10 - 01:23 pm
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Rob: Thanks for the info.

Rob:
Thanks for the info. Sounds like it's worth checking out.

Big Tex
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Big Tex 04/09/10 - 01:34 pm
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Rob: Just downloaded a copy

Rob:
Just downloaded a copy in pdf. Holy mackerel, what a gold mine! If anyone else is interested, here's the url:
http://dlg.galileo.usg.edu/ugapressbks/pdfs/ugp9780820334578.pdf

Fiat_Lux
17529
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Fiat_Lux 04/09/10 - 01:43 pm
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You should look up Charles

You should look up Charles Augustus Lafayette Lamar, the man who owned the Wanderer, who also is one of my less illustrious antecedents. He was in fact convicted of holding slaves and was sentenced, I believe, to 30 days house arrest in Savannah for his crime.

Fiat_Lux
17529
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Fiat_Lux 04/09/10 - 01:59 pm
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You are right about the gold

You are right about the gold mine, Big T. What a find. All I had was a several years old article from the Savannah Morning News and the stories passed down through my mother's family.

Thanks for the link.

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