It was 61 degrees at sunrise on Saturday, October 6, 1798. A light northeast wind was blowing on that clear morning, and by midday the temperature would rise into the 70s. Captains Abel Smith and Robert North and their crew had anchored ship near the Union Street Wharf in Poughkeepsie. They must have felt a bit of nervous excitement in anticipation of the coming trip. It was their custom on Saturdays to load goods at Poughkeepsie for transport down the Hudson River to New York City, but today would be different, even momentous.
For more than two months yellow fever had rampaged the city of New York, claiming its first victim on July 28 and continuing to kill dozens of residents daily. The epidemic had also brought much of the economy to a standstill, which compounded the misery of many. According to James Hardie, a contemporary observer,
In a calamity so terrible and unexpected, the distress of the laboring poor were unavoidably great. The general stagnation of business had deprived them of their ordinary means of support and rendered them unable to remove where employment and subsistence might be had. To add to their difficulties, their employers, and More affluent acquaintances, who might have been disposed to relieve their wants, had in general fled.
In response to this tragedy, on September 20 at 7 p.m. Poughkeepsie inhabitants were called to a meeting at the courthouse, at which it was decided to send a letter to New York’s mayor, Richard Varick, “to know what relief is wanted for the suffering inhabitants of that City.” The mayor responded with this urgent plea:
Our benevolent neighbors, the inhabitants of Poughkeepsie, feeling for the situation of the inhabitants of this city, under the calamity with which they are now afflicted . . . as the present supplies of the city, of fuel, poultry, small meats and other produce, proper for sick & healthy, are becoming scanty and very dear, from the ill founded fears of many of the skippers, who were in the habit of furnishing those supplies, the committee request, as the benevolence of the inhabitants of Poughkeepsie, may furnish them, you gentlemen, will use your influence with the masters of vessels of that town, and its vicinity, to continue their supplies of fuel, poultry, and other country produce usual at this season; all which may as yet be landed at the wharves on Hudson’s river, especially when westerly winds prevail.
Due to the gravity of New York’s situation the mayor sent the letter by special courier. When it was read at another meeting at the Poughkeepsie courthouse on September 25, those in attendance decided to circulate a subscription list—and to petition other towns throughout Dutchess County to do the same—for the collection of money and articles to be appropriated to the poor of the city of New York. This meeting was an important first step in organizing relief help. Among other steps was to arrange for the donated goods to be transported by ship from the Union Street Wharf.
Among the many Poughkeepsie-area residents who responded to the call was the pottery factory of James Egbert and Durell Williams, located just a few hundred yards from the wharf. Since the announcement of their establishment as the Hudson Valley’s first stoneware manufactory in an advertisement published in the Poughkeepsie Journal of April 4, 1797, they had labored to establish a market for their utilitarian stoneware vessels (fig. 1). Now they engaged in creating a lasting tribute to what would be a significant yet long-forgotten event in Poughkeepsie’s history (figs. 2, 3). At the end of September and in early October dozens of stoneware vessels were thrown on their potter’s wheel. Most were decorated with cobalt oxide, stacked in the kiln, fired, and—once the temperature reached a minimum of 2,200 degrees—salt-glazed. The whole process would span several days of round-the-clock work, including tending the wood-fired kiln. Were the kiln temperature to rise too rapidly or become too hot, the clay might melt and buckle. If the kiln cooled too quickly after firing was complete, the stoneware vessels might crack. Early wood-fired kilns were labor intensive and required skill and perseverance. One of the pots they made had been incised with a sharp stick or tool before being fired in the kiln. A ravenlike bird holding an olive branch graced one side (fig. 4). On the opposite side was incised a floret design with “October” incised in the first flourish, “6” in the next, and “1798” in the last. Curiously, “Poughkeepsie” appears to have been hastily incised in script at the bottom left of the design (fig. 5), as though an afterthought.
The date—October 6, 1798—was in fact the fateful day chosen for the first donation-laden ship from Poughkeepsie to set sail, bringing aid to the sick and poor of New York City. Local residents from all walks of life—the wealthy, merchants, craftsmen, and farmers from throughout Dutchess County—trekked to the Union Street Wharf on that day. The wharf became a busy, congested meeting place as benevolent neighbors arrived with whatever fresh produce and supplies they were able to share. Each donation had the same importance and conveyed the same spirit of caring.
It is not recorded whether Captains Smith and North left at their usual time of 4 p.m., although it is likely that they stopped at Fishkill Landing to take on additional donations before continuing down the Hudson River. By the end of the day twenty-two more New Yorkers had died from the fever. Nevertheless, Poughkeepsie—and many of its neighbors along the Hudson River—had understood the urgency and responded quickly and generously:
The committee appointed to receive and forward articles to the health committee of the City of New-York; with pleasure acknowledge the liberality of the Inhabitants of Poughkeepsie, and the adjacent towns; they have faithfully transmitted such produce as has come to hand, by captains Smith and North, this day; consisting of two fat cattle, upwards of seventy sheep and lambs, poultry, potatoes, cabbage, cheese, bacon, butter, flour, fuel, &c. This is a laudable beginning, and we doubt not that during the present calamity, the inhabitants of this respectable County, will weekly send such supplies as may be proper on this important occasion, to such of the landings as may be most convenient—Our attention shall not be wanting, and let it be remembered that relief will be accepted to distressed citizens, for some considerable time after the fever abates. William Emott, John Mott, James Bramble; Committee: Poughkeepsie, Oct. 6th, 1798.
The weather report recorded by James Hardie for Sunday, October 7—“Plentiful rain,” with gusting winds—suggests that the donation-laden ship might have been delayed in its sail down the Hudson. Most likely it arrived at its destination late on Monday, October 8.
The purpose of the incised stoneware pot dated October 6, 1798, at last comes to light in James Hardie’s Account of the Malignant Fever pamphlet. Under the date October 9 he lists among donations from residents of Poughkeepsie, Washington, and Standford “1 tub and 1 pot of butter.” Even though the stoneware pot under discussion is not specifically described, the “pot of butter” reference is sufficient for the connection. The Poughkeepsie potters chose to honor the humanitarian relief effort—or at least their part in it—by inscribing the pot with the date the ship set sail and the port from which it left. Utilitarian stoneware pottery of this kind was commonplace in New York City, however, and the piece made the trip with little fanfare.
As a result of research surrounding this humble presentation vessel, a lost history of the Hudson Valley has been brought to light. The yellow fever epidemics of 1795–1805 sent craftsmen, merchants, and the wealthy from New York City to towns such as Poughkeepsie. Significantly, there is evidence that James Egbert and Durell Williams left New York City during the yellow fever epidemic of 1795. Egbert is listed as a “house carpenter” on Eagle Street in the Bowery in the New York City business directory for 1795, but not thereafter. Williams appears in the same 1795 directory as a “potter” at 19 Augustus Street, but he, too, does not appear in subsequent directories. Perhaps the yellow fever epidemic drove them to Poughkeepsie in 1795 and, once there, they were able to get financial backing for a stoneware manufacturing venture. In any event, by 1797 stoneware production by Egbert and Williams—usually confined to large trade centers like New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia—was advertised at Poughkeepsie.
Redware clay was the only native clay available for local potters in the agricultural communities north of New York City, who found the pottery agreeably inexpensive and available and who usually did not ship consumable products very far from their farms. Stoneware vessels had been made in quantity in Manhattan since at least the 1770s (and possibly as early as the 1730s) by the Remmey and Crolius families of potters, so they could have been manufactured there into the first quarter of the 1800s. However, redware was fragile by nature (potters fired it only to 1,800 degrees), and a dangerous lead-based glaze used to seal them made such utilitarian vessels unhealthy as well. In a poignant letter to the editor of the Commercial Advertiser published on August 15, 1798, one New York City resident wrote:
A necessary caution respecting the use of brown glazed earthen vessels. From the following circumstance it is very evident that this ware, either from its not being baked suYciently hard, or from some composition in the colouring, is capable of communicating a nauseous poisonous quality. About two months ago I bought a gallon of excellent brandy and put it in a jug of this kind, as my wife and myself were the only persons in the family who made use of it occasionally, it lasted us more than four weeks. During this time it was in use I could discover it increase in colour, till at length, when nearly out, it became as red as port wine, leaving in the mouth a disagreeable brackish taste, some remains at the bottom were thrown away, but still I had no suspicion of the cause of the alteration in its quality and taste. Soon after a gallon of sherry wine was put in the same jug, according to the length of its continuance, so also was the alterations, in its quality and taste, until it was perceived to leak thru’ the bottom of the jug, when I emptied what remained into a bottle and laid the jug by, and the bottom is at this time covered with a kind of verdigrease, or green poisonous quality. During the time of our using these liquors we have been afflicted (without ever suspecting the cause) with considerable degree of weakness, irregular state of the body, frequent vomittings, and an aversion to food, with an almost continual disagreeable bitter taste in the mouth. I hope these remarks will produce an opinion and observations thereon by some medical gentleman, as it is very evident to me that had the liquor been taken in larger quantities and at shorter intervals, it perhaps would have proved fatal.
Despite this warning, lead-based “brown glazed earthen vessels” continued to be manufactured and in demand throughout New York State well into the second quarter of the 1800s.
While the Egbert and Williams pottery was manufacturing its presentation stoneware vessel, even the most famous potters in New York City were struggling to ride out the epidemic. Hardie’s pamphlet contains a detailed list of deaths caused by yellow fever, and among those buried were “Crolius John, a child of Chatham Street,” and “Remmy John, the child of, Potters-hill.” John Remmey needed to support his family and could ill aVord to leave his kiln even at the risk of his own life. Despite the loss of one of his own children—or perhaps because of it—John Remmey’s manufactory donated 162 pieces of earthenware.
Through the rest of October and into January 1799 donations continued to arrive from Poughkeepsie and throughout the Hudson Valley. The last death from the 1798 yellow fever epidemic is recorded on November 14, 1798—the final tally came to 2,086. Despite the information gained and precautions taken, New York City was struck by another yellow fever epidemic in 1799. Then, too, a New York City potter attempted to carry on his trade. In a pamphlet published by the “Health Committee” is a list of those who died, among them “September 9—Noah Decker, Potter, Fletcher-street,” followed a few days later by “13th—Charlotte Decker, Fletcher-street,” presumably his wife. What kind of pottery Noah Decker produced or whether he worked at one of the major potteries or on his own is not known.
The discovery of the October 6, 1798, stoneware pot triggered research into a twenty-five-year gap in Poughkeepsie’s ceramics history. The town’s early lead in stoneware production has long been overlooked by historians. While yellow fever epidemics continued to plague New York and its potters into the early 1800s, potters in Poughkeepsie struggled to produce stoneware far from the sources of clay. Historians have long believed redware was the only ceramics product that could have been produced there, despite the existence of a map dated May 10, 1799, and entitled the “Corporation of the Village of Poughkeepsie, surveyed by Henry Livingston” on which is marked a “Pottery.” The only source for more expensive stoneware clay at that time was in New Jersey, requiring that it be transported by sail up the Hudson River. The fact that Poughkeepsie was the first town in the Hudson Valley to produce this more costly ware shows just how dramatic its early economic growth was.
For more than one hundred years potters struggled to continue Poughkeepsie’s pottery production, suffering increased competition in the Hudson Valley, economic downturns, high rents, financial panics, mismanagement, death, destruction from a pair of suspicious fires, and just about every setback a business could face. Nevertheless, stoneware production continued, with more than two dozen pottery companies working two kiln locations.
Ironically, the difficulty and expense of transporting clay up the Hudson River to Poughkeepsie was accomplished by two adventurous potters who had relocated in order to avoid a yellow fever epidemic in New York City. One of these potters memorialized the efforts of the good people of the Hudson River Valley to aid a city ravaged by yellow fever by incising a “pot of butter.” This stoneware vessel, which sailed into humanitarian and ceramics history, now serves as a portal into the past.
James Hardie, An Account of the Malignant Fever, Lately Prevalent in the City of New-York... (New York: Printed by Hurtin and M’Farlane, 1799), p. 147.
Ibid., pp. 141–42.
Ibid., p. 49.
Poughkeepsie Journal and Constitutional Republican, September 25, 1798.
Ibid., October 2, 1798.
Ibid., April 4, 1797.
Donald Blake Webster, Decorated Stoneware Pottery of North America (Rutland, Vt.: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1971), pp. 40–43.
A notice printed in the Poughkeepsie Journal and Constitutional Republican, March 19, 1794, announced: “on Saturday next, at 4 O’clock PM Capt. S. Smith, and Cap. North will sail with freight for New-York, as usual, from this place.”
Hardie, An Account of the Malignant Fever, p. 142.
This statement by the Poughkeepsie relief committee was published in the Poughkeepsie Journal and Constitutional Republican, October 9, 1798, the same issue in which appeared the announcement of the ship’s departure: “It is with pleasure we announce that captains North and Smith, sailed on Saturday last for New-York, with considerable supplies for the relief of the citizens of that distressed City.”
Hardie, An Account of the Malignant Fever, p. 147.
Ibid., p. 68. The complete entry reads: “town of Poughkeepsie, Washington and Standford, by Messieurs Wm. Emmot and James Bramble, 8 cheeses, 13 sheep and lambs, 40 1-2 bushels and a parcel potatoes, 18 cabbages, 1-2 bushel beans, 1-2 do. Beets, 6 lb. Bacon, 42 fowls, 1 ham, 4 bush. Wheat, 1 tub and 1 pot butter, 3 bbls. Indian meal, 1 do. Rye, 5 do. Flour, 2 do. Apples, 1 load of wood, 2 turkeys, 1 bushel corn, 1 do. Rye, with 50 cents cash.”
For more on this epidemic-driven migration, see George H. Lukacs, Poughkeepsie Potters and the Plague (Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2001), which discusses the cultural history of pottery production in the Hudson Valley, and specifically Poughkeepsie, 1797–1897.
William C. Ketchum, Potters and Potteries of New York State, 1650–1900, 2nd ed. (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1987), p. 46. Ketchum, p. 46, mentions a “decorated stoneware heart-shaped inkstand with well and sander which is incised on the base New York, July 12, 1773, William Crolius and which is presently the earliest known piece of marked New York State stoneware.” Ibid., p. 46. Ketchum notes that the earliest New York City map showing a pottery is “A Plan of New York, drawn about 1730. On it there appears, just south of the Little Collect and at the foot of Pottbaker’s Hill, a lone building labeled ‘potters.’” Ibid., p. 40. Clarkson Crolius is said to have “written in 1842 notes that: ‘the kiln was built in 1730 or thereabouts.’” Ibid., p. 41.
New York City Commercial Advertiser, August 15, 1798.
Hardie, An Account of the Malignant Fever, pp. 98, 125.
The gift appears in Hardie’s pamphlet (ibid., p. 69) under the heading “DONATION”: “October 10, 1798, Messrs. J. and N. Remmey, 162 pieces of earthen-ware.” In his grief Remmey contributed a kiln load of “earthen-ware” (pots, jugs, and dishes of redware clay), made with his own hands for the poor.
Ibid., p. 143.
Record of Death; Or an Accurate List, of the Names, Places of Abode, Occupations, &c. of Our Fellow Citizens, Who Have Fallen Victims to the Late Fever, since Its Commencement July 25, to October 21 as Have Been Reported to the Committee of Health and Faithfully Copied from the Register Kept by the Committee (New York: Printed for John Hill and Co., 1799).