Chesapeake Pipes

Beginning in the early 17th century different pipes became available. Although similar in form to contemporary European clay pipes, Chesapeake pipes--also referred to as locally made or terra cotta pipes--were made from local clays that are believed to have come primarily from the Middle Atlantic Coastal Plain. Contrasting with the bright white color of ball clay pipes, Chesapeake pipes range in color from dark grey to orange; they also exhibit distinctive decorative motifs.

Who manufactured Chesapeake pipes?

Chesapeake pipes are found primarily in the Coastal Plain of Virginia, but examples have been excavated in the North Carolina Coastal Plain and Piedmont. Archaeologists generally agree that these pipes were produced from 1608 to 1700, but they continue to debate the question of who manufactured them: Were they produced by European settlers, Virginia and North Carolina Indians, enslaved Africans, or all of these groups at one time in a highly hybridized cultural landscape?

American Indians

When these pipes were first interpreted in the 1950s, archaeologists speculated that Natives living in settlements along the coast were producing locally made pipes and that English settlers or African Americans were using them on plantations. Researchers based this interpretation on decorative similarities identified between locally made pipes and American Indian pipes and ceramics from the Middle Atlantic region of the United States. Others note that the presence of locally made pipes at 17th-century Delaware, Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina Indian towns is additional evidence of Indian production of at least some of these pipes.  

Enslaved Africans

In the late 1980s a number of scholars attributed the production of these pipes to enslaved Africans because of similarities between decorative motifs found on locally made pipes and those found on ceramics and other materials produced by people living on the west coast of Africa. Researchers noted that the beginning of terra cotta pipe production coincided with the arrival of West African slaves in Virginia in the early-to-mid 17th century. Some researchers have suggested that the decorations on these pipes were an expression of the enslaved Africans’ identity or culture. While they acknowledged the possibility of Native participation in the production of locally made pipes, these scholars contend that Indians were not the primary producers of these pipes.

European settlers

English settlers were producing at least some of the pipes found on early 17th-century sites. Colonial records list the occupation of one of Jamestown’s settlers, Robert Cotton, as a pipe maker. Another line of recent research suggests that European colonists adopted the Indian tradition and turned it into a cottage industry. Scholars have linked some of the distinctive markings--maker’s marks--to particular producers (European and possibly Native) and identified the geographic reach of colonial production workshops in the Chesapeake. Other archaeologists have suggested that European settlers produced local pipes during difficult economic times--perhaps poorer planters produced pipes from local clays when they could not afford imported white clay pipes. Locally made pipes tend to be found in the living areas of lower-class bound laborers rather than planters’ families.


While the debate regarding the identity of the producers of terra cotta pipes has continued for some time, more recent studies have reframed the question. What does the production of locally made pipes reveal about the interactions and social processes in Virginia and beyond during the 17th century? Recent scholarship has suggested that locally made pipes should be viewed as hybrid or creolized objects that were the result of the unique social interactions taking place between white planters, African American slaves, and American Indians in Virginia during this period. For instance, some of the motifs found on locally made pipes such as stars, were not distinctive ethnic markers but were universally known to all groups involved in their production. Stars were likely chosen as decorative motifs precisely because they were common and accessible to many who lived in the 17th-century Chesapeake.