Turtle Pipe Attributed To Robert or Sarah Head

by Thomas J. Blumer

Robert Head and Sarah Anne Louisa Evans married on December 21, 1861, and took up house keeping at the Head family homestead now located on Hagler Drive on the Catawba Indian Reservation. On May 13, 1862, five months later, Robert enlisted in the Confederate States Army. When he went off to the war front in Virginia he left his young wife Sarah to manage alone. She was then newly pregnant with their first and only child. By September 12, 1863, Robert Head was listed as a patient at the Episcopal Church Hospital in Williamsburg, Virginia. He was a victim of chronic diarrhea. On September 21, 1863, he was sent home on furlough. His son Pinckney Head was then nearly a year old. Family tradition tells us that Robert did hold the boy in his arms. Robert was later listed on a register of soldiers who had died on wounds or disease. According to CSA military records, Sarah Head was due to receive her husbands estate of $8.25 in back pay for military service. We do not know if Sarah ever received this money.

The economic situation of Sarah and her son Pinckney is not known in detail. We do know they shared the starvation conditions prevalent in the Catawba Nation during the war and the Reconstruction Period. Pottery was the only way for Sarah to put food on the table. She must have worked hard in clay. There is was not even a attributed piece of her work in any of the large number of Catawba vessels held in both public and private collections. Until recently, most Catawba potters worked anonymously.

Fortunately, the Head family homestead location is well known on the reservation. It is assumed the Head family took up residence on this spot at some time in the 1850s, around the time the Catawba reluctantly accepted the reservation as a temporary home. When Robert and Sarah married they lived there and Pinckney Head was born there. After Robert died, Sarah Head continued to live at the old home place until the family migrated to Colorado in 1887. The abandoned site remained unoccupied until around 1910 when Chief James Harris and his wife Margaret built a house on the site. Master potter Georgia Harris grew up in her father's house and raised her family there. The site was again abandoned in the 1960s.

In fact the Head homestead was home to three generations of potters: the Heads (1850s-1887); Margaret Harris (1910-1926); and finally Georgia Harris (1926-1960s). As these and other potters associated with them burned pottery in the yard, they customarily tossed broken pieces to the yard's edge or carried them to a trash pit where the fragments remain to this day.

Today the Head family home site is occupied by Betty and Bobby Blue. Over the years, they have expanded their home and planted gardens. Almost every time they put a shovel to the ground, a pottery fragment is unearthed. The Blue family is living on an archaeological site of major interest. Betty Blue frequently walks in the yard after a rain to search for pottery fragments. She is never surprised to find a small treasure. Some pieces are easily identified as the work of Margaret Harris or her famed daughter, Georgia Harris. In 1988, Betty Blue's son Brian was digging the footers for a new carport and found a fragment which is definitely not the work of any Harris family member.

Puzzled by the lump of battered clay noticed at the end of his shovel, Brian Blue retrieved the piece and held it in his hands to determine what he had found. It was a pipe of some sort he could tell from the intact bowl and the stem hole to one side. To be exact, Brian had unearthed a turtle pipe. It had been broken in the fire and tossed aside since it could not be sold. It seems this pipe must be the work of either Robert or Sarah Head.

This pottery fragment normally would have found its way to a shoe box where Betty Blue keeps such finds. But this humble fragment was destined to immediately take on a history of its own.

When I began collecting Catawba pottery in 1970, I soon learned, through an article written by McDonald Furman, that the Catawba potters had once made turtle pipes. As I approached each potter one of my first questions regarded the turtle pipe shape. To my surprise no one had ever seen a turtle pipe. Most of these individuals learned to make pottery early in the 20th century from elders who learned the craft while Robert and Sarah Head were active potters. The turtle pipe had obviously gone out of fashion in the 19th century.

My first chance to examine a turtle pipe came in 1984 at the University of North Carolina Archaeological Laboratory at Chapel Hill. It appears that this pipe may be the very same vessel purchased from Billy George by Furman in 1894. In any case, once I had access to a turtle pipe, I began to circulate drawings among the potters. I also left open orders for a turtle pipe and used slides of the Billy George pipe during all my reservation lectures. The potters never responded to these requests. At the end of four years I still did not have a turtle pipe in my collection.

The Head turtle pipe discovery changed everything. Though it was terribly battered and had suffered from a century under the ground, the potters received the news of its discovery with great interest. The year 1988 saw a revival of the shape by such master potters as Georgia Harris, Earl Robbins and Mildred Blue. Today one new generation master potter, Donald Harris, is known for his exceedingly fine turtle pipes. The result is a number of private and public collections now include turtle pipes.

Although we will never know for certain, I am inclined to believe the Head turtle pipe is the work of Robert Head or his wife Sarah. Although some female potters have been master pipe makers (Martha Jane Harris, Georgia Harris and Doris Blue are good examples), the genre is generally of greater interest to male potters. Men generally take great pride in making a fine smoking pipe and are willing to spend hours on such a small vessel. We well imagine Robert Head sitting under a tree in the yard working away on this little masterpiece. We may also imagine that it was pottery like this that kept hunger from Sarah Head's door as she sought to feed her young son, Pinckney.