The Cowee Valley of Macon County is well known for its gemstones, but few people are aware of the high-quality clay that is also found there. This clay literally found its way to the dinner tables of European royalty.
In the 1760s, a Georgia potter named Andrew Duche learned of the Cowee Valley kaolin soils and scouted the Cherokee Indian territory in search of the clay. He had heard that it was comparable to the clay used in Chinese porcelain and obtained the rights from the Indians to mine the clay. Word of this agreement reached Josiah Wedgwood, an English potter, who sent a South Carolina agent to Western North Carolina to negotiate a similar deal.
Quick to realize that they held a valuable resource, the Cherokee chiefs offered the rights to the clay at a premium price. Wedgwood was forced to pay similarly high prices to transport the clay overland to a port for shipping.
Despite the costs, Wedgwood ultimately purchased a significant tonnage of Cowee Valley kaolin. He used it to manufacture very high quality china, which debuted under the name Queensware. Wedgwood's china catapulted him to great fame and provided the basis for the high-quality standard carried out by his successors. His North Carolina clay was also used to produce a dinnerware service for Russia's Catherine the Great. Although Wedgwood eventually located a European source for kaolin of similar quality, his original Cowee Valley pottery products have become priceless museum art pieces.
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