Cotton Pipes

Project details

  • Date

     January 31, 2015

  • Task

     Study Collection

  • Category

     Tobacco

  • Object number –
  • Material – Clay
  • Place of Origin – James Fort
  • Date – Early 17th century
  • Context – James Fort
  • Location – Archaearium
  • Category – Tobacco

Why were the names of famous 17th century English leaders found on tobacco pipe stems in an abandoned cellar and well shaft at James Fort? Lettering spells out parts of names of politicians, military men, social leaders, Virginia Company officials, Virginia governors, and maritime explorers. Was this the first marketing effort in British North America — a keepsake to link London leaders to the colony?

Robert Cotton, “tobacco-pipe-maker,” arrived in Jamestown in April 1608 — his inclusion in one of the first groups of craftsmen shows the importance of the tobacco smoking market. The Virginia Company may have sent him to test Virginia clays for pipemaking and pottery production. Good Virginia clay could break the monopoly held by Dorset clay merchants in the London pipemaking industry. No other mention is made of Cotton; he is not listed in the colony census of 1624-25, so he had probably either perished or returned to England by then. His legacy is the handmade clay tobacco pipes of a design not yet found on any other early Virginia sites.

The pipes’ color indicates they are made of native Virginia clay, which, when fired, becomes a color ranging from a bricklike reddish color to chocolate brown. European-made pipes of the time have bulbous molded bowls, but these Virginia bowls are trumpet-shaped like Virginia Indian pipes. The manufacturing process took place right at Jamestown. Fragments of small saggars (types of pottery containers only used in kilns during the ceramic firing process) were found with some of the Cotton pipes. Some of the Cotton pipe stems have shaved faceted shafts, and shavings from this process have been found in early Jamestown deposits.

Archaeologists have found about 1550 fragments of Cotton pipes. Most bear a distinctive cross-shaped design made by impressing a metal stamp with four fleur-de-lis and a diamond. Nine fragments had names on them, and two had the same name. Captain Samuel Argall’s Cotton pipe establishes the date his pipe and probably the others were made: Argall first appears in the Jamestown archives when his supply ship arrives in the summer of 1609 bringing news that a new charter had been issued by King James naming Lord De la Warr (Thomas West) governor. Since De La Warr is also named on a pipe, Cotton may have been making pipes after Argall arrived and before Argall returned to England that same summer. Lord De La Warr was a major venture capitalist for the Virginia Company, investing 5000 L when the standard share cost 12 L 10s. Other pipe fragments have names from the king’s list of people having authority under the 1609 Charter: the Earl of Southampton (Henry Wriothesley) and Sir Walter Cope. Southampton was Shakespeare’s major patron and an enthusiastic supporter of English colonization. Cope was a high ranking and disgruntled official of the Virginia Company who needed encouragement. He collected exotic Indian artifacts for display in his museum in London, and a personalized Virginia-made tobacco pipe could have been crafted to find a spot in his cabinet of curiosities. Did Cotton intend to name pipes for all the earls, lords, knights, and captains listed on the Charter of 1609? This was probably humanly impossible, since he impressed the letters of the names individually with printers type. Naming all the charter members would require stamping out 176 names, perhaps as many as 17,000 individual characters.