Kaolin is a soft white alumina-silicate mineral, which is a necessary ingredient in the making of fine china. It is also known as “China clay” because the Chinese were the first to refine the process. Kaolin gets its name from the Chinese word Kau-ling, which means high ridge. The Cherokee name for kaolin is unaker, which means white.
Firing at high temperatures causes Kaolin to form a glossy hard ceramic called porcelain. It’s also used in paper making, medications, skincare products, rubber, paint, and heat resistant products, such as, the ceramic tiles on the space shuttle that form a thermal protection during the searing heat of atmospheric re-entry.
Europeans exploring the New World discovered kaolin in what became the southeastern United States. Some of the finest deposits were found in the southwestern mountainous region of North Carolina—Cherokee Country. In 1768 the area became the center of a great industrial adventure.
It all started when Thomas Griffiths, an emissary of Josiah Wedgwood (England’s famous Wedgwood china maker), arrived at Charleston, South Carolina, in September 1767 and began a two month expedition to the site of the mineral.
After enduring terrible weather and other hardships, Griffiths finally arrived at Iotla, near the Cherokee village of Cowee, in November 1767. He was then captured by the Cherokee’s, who subsequently released him because he had facilitated the safe return of a Cherokee woman, captured by enemies and rescued by the English. It was indeed fortuitous that authorities at Fort Prince George asked him to escort the woman back to her home.
Griffiths kept a journal, which must be a fascinating read. The journey across the ocean to Charleston in the 1700s by itself wasn’t an excursion for the faint hearted, but to continue onwards and upwards into the mountains of Eastern North Carolina required the true grit of a real adventurer. There must have been a great deal of discourse on the subject when he arrived back in England with five or more tons of kaolin.
As it turned out, the expedition proved to be very costly and Wedgwood found a source of kaolin closer to home. It’s interesting to note that Cherokee clay was used to produce his famous Queensware china, named for Queen Charlotte, consort to George III. Another interesting fact is that the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, labeled the Queen City, is also named for Queen Charlotte.
The article that inspired this post entitled “Regions kaolin history is nearly forgotten” was written by George Ellison for the “Smokey Mountain News”. It provides an account of a bygone era from Wedgwood and the early trading to the forgotten kaolin mining industry in Jackson and Swain Counties, North Carolina from 1888 to 1950. The article also describes an unnatural addiction caused by eating kaolin. Here’s the link to the article http://www.smokymountainnews.com/index.php/component/k2/item/2128-region%E2%80%99s-kaolin-history-is-nearly-forgotten.
The “Smoky Mountain News” has an engaging site and I plan to check in often. This is the link to the Home Page http://www.smokymountainnews.com/index.php.