The Ring Bottle
The ring bottle, first known to have originated in South Carolina, was predominantly used to transport drinkable liquids. It also served the purpose of keeping the water cold and allowing the bottle to be strapped to the body or the saddle when horse riding, most often used by field workers. This ring bottle is lead-glazed and has a molden spout (Mesda). The glaze is a combination of copper oxide and manganese that gives the bottle it texture and color. It is inscribed: “a present for Amos Weaver.” The maker of the bottle has been assumed to be Henry Watkins due to a close resemblance in the handwriting of the script. Clearly, based on the bottle's inscription, Henry Watkins created it as a gift to Amos Weaver. Both men—the creator and the recipient of this bottle—were Quakers. And here Amos Weaver is especially notable. His popularity grew as he began speaking outwardly against slavery, and he became one of the most outspoken abolitionists in North Carolina (Mesda).
One of the Confederacy’s greatest enemies was a religious group: the Quakers. Quakers held beliefs that would be considered very progressive in their time. They believed that every person was on the same path towards salvation and that God spoke directly to everyone. This belief in human equality made most Quakers believe in pacifism (Hamm, 2003). They were against the violence brought on by slavery and against the fighting that later occurred in the Civil War. While many Quakers initially owned enslaved people, a movement in the late 1700s motivated Quakers as a whole to move towards an antislavery mindset (Bates, 2000). Their vocal abolition movement was inspired by the prophet John Woolman who traveled to different Quaker meetings across the country to preach about slavery's abusive and inhumane nature (Huddle, 1996). Following this, Quakers began to actively speak out against the institution of slavery. They wanted to abolish slavery and end its practice. Quaker abolitionists were known to be the first public, institutional voice to fight against slavery. Quakers began working with the Underground Railroad and freeing those enslaved (Bates, 2000). The Underground Railroad was a network of people who guided secret routes and safe houses that sheltered slaves primarily to the North (Siebert, 2019). One of the most notable groups of Quakers was the North Carolina Manumission Society. This group of Quakers pushed to emancipate enslaved people. A notable incident of their actions is a 1776 incident where 11 Quaker slaveholders freed 40 enslaved people (Huddle, 1996).
However, this was a dangerous task because people were imprisoned for freeing enslaved people. In 1741, North Carolina passed a law that forbid the manumission of slaves and made it legal for freed slaves to be seized and resold (Huddle, 1996). Quakers were attempting to work around a structure so deeply embedded into the society that legislation made it virtually impossible to free held slaves in North Carolina. So, some Quaker abolitionists, in their attempt to be ethical within the system, owned slaves and treated them better. Other Quaker slaveholders transferred their enslaved people to the local Quaker meeting which allowed enslaved people much more freedom. Enslaved people were given homes and the wages from their work were saved to help them gain passage to the West or the North (Bates, 2000). The Manumission Society was also still at work for solutions. They planned out educational programs for enslaved people and worked to relocate formerly enslaved people to Africa (Sowle, 1965). However, the group was limited following the implications of the Nat Turner Rebellion. The bold and violent acts that occurred in the rebellion only led to the more intense imposition of oppressive legislation on slaves and made the concept of manumission dangerously taboo in the South (Kirkman & Norris, 2006). Despite all the boundaries they were forced to overcome, the Quakers were vital in the push toward abolishing slavery. The complications of history caused many contradictions in the Quaker’s attitude toward slavery. While they did contribute towards attempting to better the lives of their slaves, they were still contributors to the institution itself by holding slaves in their possession.
All the information that was gathered on Watkins was found on ancestry.com and the MESDA website (Every Family, Ring Bottle). Henry Watkins was born in Rowan, North Carolina to William and Lydia Watkins in 1797. During the first half of the 19th century, Watkins converted to Quakerism and was an accepted member within Randolph County. Watkins married Elizabeth Elliot in 1819 and they had eight children together (Every Family). Pottery was an integral part of society during the institution of slavery as a form of resistance and a form of art. Potters were able to create works that were incredibly beautiful, while still serving a purpose. Watkins was a renowned potter in Guilford County. He created and gifted the ring bottle to Amos Weaver to commend him for raising his voice against abolition. Although he appears to have a simple life, Watkins, like many abolitionists, had a dark secret. In 1821, a year after the birth of Watkins First born, Joel, Watkins had a child with an enslaved person (Every Family). This person’s name has not been recorded because in the past many people in charge of society did not view enslaved people as human. Enslaved people did not count as full citizens and had no rights. Additionally, it was difficult to keep track of enslaved people since they were viewed as property and were constantly being traded. The enslaved person gave birth to Lucinda Lyons in 1821 and the child lived until 89 years old. There is not much known about this incident but it is likely to parallel the story of many other enslaved women. Enslaved people did not have a choice and would often have to submit to their master or face worse consequences. Watkins most likely forcibly raped the enslaved women in order to impregnate her with Lucinda. It is extremely important to understand that this was typical behavior of many enslavers because they wanted to exert power over their enslaved people. Although Watkins appears to be an abolitionist and an important man in history, there are two sides to everyone’s story and it is imperative that the dark side does not go unnoticed (Every Family, Ring Bottle).
Due to the inscription on the side of the ring bottle, we are able to see that Amos Weaver was the recipient of this gift. Weaver was born in 1805 and at a very young age, he was left as an orphan in North Carolina (Every Family). With only about six weeks of schooling, he was still able to educate himself and later become a minister. Around the 1830s, Weaver became involved with politics opposing the Whig party and outwardly speaking out against slavery. He quickly became famous and went on a speaking tour to many of the Quaker houses. While being elected by the voters of Guilford County to the North Carolina General Assembly, Weaver wrote an anti-slavery tract called “An Address to the People of North Carolina on the Evils of Slavery” (Greensborough). This 69 page address outlined 5 propositions, condemning the institution of slavery. They backed these claims with biblical references in order to gain support from a primarily Christain region of the United States. His publication also mapped out a six step process to abolish slavery in the state. This included a “gradual emancipation starting with the halt of any expansion of the institution” and finished with the clause that “no freed slave can be removed from the state to be enslaved elsewhere”. As Weaver's work as a Quaker abolitionist grew, he received many gifts from his followers including this ring bottle.
Weaver was never seated at the North Carolina General Assembly; however, he was able to take this time to travel around North Carolina counties as a minister. His grandson Dr. Rufus W. Weaver wrote that he was a “pioneer preacher, traveling a great deal, preaching in even the court-houses and brush arbors.” For this reason, it was very difficult to locate Weaver during this time period. At old age, he had given up his regular work as a minister; however, he still preached from time to time while in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was in Little Rock that he died, and was buried there at the age of 84.
The Quakers were the first group of people to publicly and vehemently so, voice their contentions with slavery. In 1774, Quakers were made to make a decision: slavery or Quakerism. Quakers were banned from owning slaves. Regardless of that radical, yet, revolutionary decision at the time, manumission laws, particularly in North Carolina made it impossible to free enslaved people without any consequences. It was illegal to free enslaved people in the state of North Carolina, thus somewhat forcing members to own enslaved people. In 1796, a statute was passed in North Carolina, which permitted societies to buy and sell enslaved people. In light of this change, the North Carolina Yearly Meeting – a meeting rooted in Quaker teachings – allowed Quakers to sell their enslaved people to the Yearly Meeting. Soon the Quaker institution became one of the largest slaveholders in the state, holding about 800 enslaved people. While contradictory to their overwhelming beliefs, this was the Quaker way of fighting slavery from within the system, without breaking the rules of the system. Most often, enslaved people that were enslaved by the Quakers at this time, were given more freedom and were not working under the kind of supervision like they had on the plantation. Some enslaved people were “hired out” as individual laborers and any process they received was saved to help with eventual resettlement movements in the north and the west. All of this was not short of aggressive lobbying efforts to encourage a change in North Carolina’s manumission laws.
Quaker Abolitionists played, for the most part, a monumental role in advocating for abolition. Yet, legal barriers made it difficult to follow the straight and narrow path. That is not to justify their owning of slaves, but just explore the contradictions and complications that arise when we teach and learn about historic oppression. It is hard to say anything for sure, because information is scarce, not because it is just difficult to find, but also because slavery was a point in human history where voices were erased, submerged, and drowned with compliance (NCpedia).
Recommendations for teachers
This project should be implemented throughout the course of learning about slavery and abolition. The story that we discovered demonstrates the complex history of America. Often, we are told that there are two sides to every story, but after discovering the fact that Watkins had enslaved people and was still a Quaker defied all norms. History is composed of secrets and turns that need to be uncovered in order to truly understand the past. Without the discovery of Watkins’ secret life, we may have continued on believing in the two sided history that has always been presented to us in the classroom. Abolitionism is complicated. From the outside, there are two clear sides. However, when taking a closer look, it is apparent that there are many more components at play. We hope that this project is utilized to understand that history is much more complex than it presents itself at first. Additionally, despite being categorized as an abolitionist or as pro-slavery, there were many people that would go back and forth due to a plethora of societal and personal pressures. The main takeaway we hope to leave with the classroom is that history may be deceiving and there is always more to uncover.
Object biography by Nishka Hajela, Ava Hirshberg, Laney Nissler, Scott Notz. Spring 2022.
Learn More About Quakers and Abolition
Ryan Jordan, author of Slavery and the Meetinghouse: The Quakers and the Abolitionist Dilemma, explains the role of Quakers in the abolition of slavery.
You can also read more from quaker.org here.
Read Amos Weaver's An Address to the People of North Carolina, on the Evils of Slavery.
By the Friends of Liberty and Equality: Manumission Society of North Carolina," Greensborough Patriot, March, 1830
Topics to pair with this project:
Slavery in Antebellum America
History of pottery and crafts in America
Bates, Doris McLean. “The Quakers and Their War of Resistance.” NCPEDIA, State Library of NC, Autumn 2000, https://www.ncpedia.org/quakers-and-their-war-resistance.
“Every Family Has a Story.” Ancestry® | Family Tree, Genealogy & Family History Records, https://www.ancestry.com/.
Greensborough Patriot, "An Address to the People of North Carolina, on the Evils of Slavery. By the Friends of Liberty and Equality: Manumission Society of North Carolina," Greensborough Patriot, March, 1830, Civil War Era NC, accessed April 27, 2022, https://cwnc.omeka.chass.ncsu.edu/items/show/135.
Hamm, Thomas D. The Quakers in America. Columbia University Press, 2003.
Huddle, Mark Andrew. “Quaker Abolitionists.” NCPEDIA, State Library of NC, Autumn 1996, https://www.ncpedia.org/culture/religion/quaker-abolitionists.
“Johnson, Hicks, and Allied Families”, 1930, The American Historical Society
Kirkman, Roger N., and David A. Norris. “Manumission Societies.” NCPEDIA, State Library of NC, 2006, https://www.ncpedia.org/manumission-societies.
“Ring Bottle.” Mesda, https://mesda.org/item/collections/ring-bottle/21631/.
Siebert, Wilbur Henry. The underground railroad from slavery to freedom: a comprehensive history. Good Press, 2019.
Sowle, Patrick. "THE NORTH CAROLINA MANUMISSION SOCIETY 1816-1834." The North Carolina Historical Review 42.1 (1965): 47-69.
Woolman, John. The Journal of John Woolman. Headley brothers, 1900.