David Drake - An Enslaved American Potter

Enslaved African-American Ceramic Artist

Pot Signed by Dave the Potter 1854
Pot Signed by Dave the Potter 1854. Mark Newell

David Drake [1800-1874] was an influential African-American ceramic artist, born into slavery under the pottery-making families of Edgefield, South Carolina. Also known as Dave the Potter, Dave Pottery, Dave the Slave or Dave of the Hive, he is known to have had several different owners during his lifetime, including Harvey Drake, Reuben Drake, Jasper Gibbs, and Lewis Miles. All of these men were in some way related to the ceramic entrepreneurs and slave holders, brothers Reverend John Landrum and Dr. Abner Landrum.

In 1815, the Landrums established the Edgefield pottery-making district in west-central South Carolina, and by the mid-19th century, the district had grown to include 12 very large, innovative and influential ceramic stoneware factories. There, the Landrums and their families blended English, European, African, Native American and Chinese ceramic styles, forms and techniques to make durable, non-toxic alternatives to lead-based stonewares. It was in this environment that Dave became an important potter, or "turner", eventually working in several of these factories.

What We Know About Dave

Not much is known about Dave; much of what we do know, scholars derived from census records and news stories. Born in 1800, Dave probably began working in the potteries in his late teens, learning his trade from the European-American potters. The earliest pottery vessels which bear attributes of Dave's later pots date to the 1820s and were made in the Pottersville workshop.

He apparently worked for Abner Landrum's newspaper "The Edgefield Hive" (sometimes listed as "The Columbia Hive"), where some scholars believe he learned to read and write. Others believe it is more likely he learned from his owner Reuben Drake. Dave's literacy had to have occurred before 1837, when it became illegal in South Carolina to teach slaves to read and write.

Dave was owned for a time by Lewis Miles, Abner's son-in-law, and he produced at least 100 pots for Miles between July 1834 and January 1864. Dave may well have produced many more, but only about 100 signed pots have survived from that period.

He lived through the Civil War, and after the Emancipation, continued to work for the pottery, as David Drake, his new surname taken from one of his past masters.

While that doesn't seem like very much information, Dave was one of 76 known enslaved African or African Americans who worked in the Edgefield District. We know far more about Dave the Potter than we do for the others who worked in the ceramic workshops of the Landrums, because he signed and dated some of his ceramics, sometimes incising poetry, proverbs and dedications into the clay surfaces.

Writing and Pottery

Potters typically use maker's marks to identify the potter, the pottery, the prospective owner, or manufacturing details: Dave added quatrains from the bible or his own eccentric poetry.

One of the earliest of the poems attributed to Dave is from 1836, a large jar made for the Pottersville foundry, on which he wrote "horses, mules and hogs / all our cows is in the bogs / there they shall ever stay / till the buzzards take them away".

Burrison (2012) has interpreted this poem to refer to Dave's owner's selling of several of his co-workers to Louisiana.

Chaney (2011) has connected decorative and symbolic markings on slave-produced forms of colonoware to some marks made by Dave. Whether Dave's poetry was intended as subversive, humorous or insightful is open to question: probably all three. See Koverman 2005 for a compiled list of all Dave's known poems.

Style and Form

Dave specialized in large storage jars with horizontal slab handles, used for large-scale plantation food preservation, and his pots are among the largest made during the period. In Edgefield, only Dave and Thomas Chandler made pots with such a large capacity. Some hold up to 40 gallons: and they were in high demand.

Dave's pots, like those of most of the Edgefield potters, were alkaline stonewares, but Dave's had a rich streaky brown and green glaze, idiosyncratic to the potter.

His inscriptions are the only ones known from American potters at the time, at Edgefield or away from it.

Interpretations

A considerable amount of scholarship on Dave's inscriptions has been amassed over the past couple of decades. Chaney (2011) discusses the "politically mute" but "commercially hypervisible" status of Dave's writings, and focuses his attention on the poetic inscriptions, the somewhat subversive elements in Dave's writing. DeGroft's 1988 article describes the protest contexts of Dave's inscriptions; and Burrison (2012) discusses the topics of Dave's poetry, as part of a broader discussion of the Edgefield potteries.

Perhaps the most focused research into Dave's ceramics is by Koverman (2005, 2007, 2009), who, as part of her extensive work on Edgefield pottery works has cataloged and photographed well over 100 vessels marked by Dave or attributed to him. Koverman's nuanced discussion includes Dave's artistic influences and training.

Sources

Burrison JA. 2012. South Carolina's Edgefield district: An early international crossroads of clay. American Studies Journal 56.

Chaney MA. 2011. The Concatenate Poetics of Slavery and the Articulate Material of Dave the Potter. African American Review 44(4):607-618.

De Groft A. 1998. Eloquent Vessels/Poetics of Power: The Heroic Stoneware of "Dave the Potter". Winterthur Portfolio 33(4):249-260.

Koverman JB. 2005. The Ceramic Works of David Drake, aka, Dave the Potter or Dave the Slave of Edgefield, South Carolina. American Ceramic Circle Journal 13:83.

Koverman JB. 2007. Communities of Heritage: Southern contributions. In: Potter C, editor. Craft in America: Celebrating Two Centuries of Artists and Objects: Random House. p 120-140.

Koverman JB. 2009. Clay Connections: A Thousand-Mile Journey from South Carolina to Texas. American Material Culture and the Texas Experience: The David B Warren Symposium. Houston: Museum of Fine Arts. p 118-145.