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Buried in Merrimacport?

William Pecker, his pots and his kiln


Justin Thomas
All photos courtesy the author

his past July, my nephew, Jason, and I left for a bike ride from my Newburyport, Mass., home with a specific destination in mind. He had asked if we could go to a place we had never ridden to before and I had been lately considering exploring Merrimacport. I had an ulterior motive. The earthenware potter, William Pecker, had lived in Merrimacport from 1780 until 1820, when his kiln collapsed on him and killed him. Little is known about Pecker, and I wanted to get a feel for the town where he had lived and worked. Id been imagining for sometime how many shards must be in the ground somewhere if the kiln was full with wares when it crushed the unfortunate potter. What if we found some?! The six-mile ride took us through Amesbury, Merrimac and into Merrimacport, much of it alongside the picturesque Merrimac River with its breathtaking views. This was the same river Pecker likely used to ship his earthenware east and west for distribution. We passed a number of marinas. We went up hills and down hills and believe me when I tell you that Jason would rather not have to struggle riding up any hills. The day was perfect - blue skies and temperatures in the low 80s with very little humidity. In Merrimacport we saw the house that William Pecker had once called home, and a townowned park that now borders it. A park sign indicated it was a historic site, without any indication of what made it historic. The sign outside the house read simply, The Potters House, 1776. In fact, a small industry had developed here. Peckers nephew, James Chase, operated a kiln on his property only a few houses away. Phineas Chase also owned a kiln next door to James house. The Pecker and Chase pottery tradition continued until 1864 when the Chase family had all but died out.

Jason had scrambled down the bank ahead of me and was the first to make the discovery.

Melted bricks that were likely used in a kiln.

These bricks or kiln furniture were likely used for stacking earthenware inside a kiln.

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The Potters House and the park back up to the Merrimac River. Jason and I peered down onto the rivers shore. The cliff dropped directly down. I did not expect to see much. Fortunately it was low tide, and as we both looked down, we saw bricks, an unexpected number of bricks that were certainly out of place this far up river. Bricks are often seen on the shores of Newburyport, a few miles downriver, where they came as ballast in ships from England and were used to rebuild the downtown after the great fire of 1811. There was no reason why so many were on the shores of Merrimacport and only in this location. As any curious 9-year-old boy would do, Jason scrambled down to the shore and after only a few minutes, yelled for me to come down and see what he had found. I could hear the excitement in his voice. He kept yelling for me. When I got there, he held up a crooked brick and asked me what it was. That got me as excited as he was - it appeared to be a kiln brick. Could it possibly have been part of William Peckers kiln? Looking around, I saw we were surrounded by bricks: Burnt and deformed bricks lay all over the shore. The steep ledge above the bricks had been eroded by storms. The root systems of half dozen or so trees had been exposed and among them a few bricks could be seen poking out. As we looked closer, we noticed it wasnt only kiln bricks around us, but kiln furniture, too, particularly the one-inch thin bricks used for stacking earthenware in the kiln. Unfortunately, we didnt find any redware or stoneware fragments to make a complete case for Peckers kiln, but the evidence felt strong. Of all the kiln artifacts, a deformed and stretched brick stood alone in the mud. It was still wet from the receding tide. It glistened in the sunlight and made me think of William Pecker and his pottery.

A possible example of William Peckers stoneware. Found in a Newburyport, Mass. home. The manufacturing technique seen is similar to that used by Pecker on his redware jugs.

William Pecker green glazed jug, 1795-1820.

William Pecker
William Pecker is arguably one of the most talented and important potters in the history of early American redware. He was born in Haverhill, Mass., on Oct. 10, 1758. By 1780, town records indicate he was living in Merrimacport, and by 1784 Pecker was working under his brother-inlaw, Benjamin Dodge, as an active potter within the riverside community. Not a lot is known of Peckers earliest eighteenth-century wares. We do not know where Pecker apprenticed, but it can be assumed he trained on Bostons North Shore in his younger years. The wellestablished potteries were north of Boston in Charlestown and Essex County. Lura Woodside Watkins suggests in Early New England Potters and Their Wares that Pecker may have trained in Essex, Mass., but she does not have much evidence to support her claim. Many today think of Pecker as a nineteenthcentury potter, but he really began his career many years earlier and likely before the American Revolution. He was involved with the eighteenthcentury potteries as much as he was with those of the nineteenth century. His career was equally divided between two colorfully contrasting times,

William Pecker hollow ware. Possibly a lard or dye pot. Likely 18th century, made after 1780.

William Pecker jug with a very rare yellow glaze, 1790-1820. The only other known yellow Pecker jug was dated in slip 1797.

Colonial and Federal. But Pecker is best known for his work after 1791 when he ran his own kiln in Merrimacport. It was within this independently run business that his most accomplished wares were produced. The only surviving properly attributed example of Peckers eighteenth-century work is a damaged yellow glazed jug with dripping brown brush strokes. Written across the front in white slip is the date, 1797. To my knowledge, it is one of only two Pecker jugs with a yellow body glaze, a color not commonly applied on early

American redware. Pecker is known for working with a number of rare glaze colors, nearly all used on jugs. Outside of Peckers well known traditional pumpkin orange glaze with brown brush strokes, there is not a lot known of his less traditional work. His forms included stew pots, pitchers, straight sided jars, jugs, flower pots, mugs, handled bowls and flasks. Beyond that, not much is known of additional utilitarian wares or kitchenware. He is not thought to have ever made flatware, but the kiln remains would really define the majority

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of Peckers work. Pecker is also known to have experimented with salt glazed stoneware. I have always wondered if the kiln that collapsed on Mr. Pecker contained a kiln full of wares. I imagined the mess that it likely left. Were the contents of the kiln ever cleaned up? As tragic as Peckers death was, an enormous amount of important archaeological evidence may be buried beneath the earth. As I looked at that brick still wet from the tide, I wondered of what the Pecker export industry once resembled. He worked alongside the Bayley family and Ebenezer Morrison of Newburyport in the final years of the eighteenth century. Did they know each other? Did they have any interactions? He did not produce nearly as many wares as the Bayley family or Morrison both of whom were able to fully support themselves through their crafts. By the time the nineteenth century arrived, the Newburyport industry had stopped. William Pecker was the only legitimate potter working between Newburyport and Haverhill and to his benefit, he was centrally located. Did Pecker export up and down the Merrimac River? Were his wares shipped

William Pecker handled howl, 1795-1820.

More examples of Peckers work can be seen on Online Exclusive.


William Pecker lidded storage jar, 6 3/4 inches tall. The discoloration of the lid was a result of the lid and jar being fired in two separate parts of the kiln, 1795-1820.

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further outside of the river region? Did he ship by land to the north, south and west? There is much to be discovered about Merrimacports famous potter, and the Pecker site is now under further investigation and study.

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