Biography of 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 entrepreneur and slaveholding brothers Reverend John Landrum and Dr. Abner Landrum.

Key Takeaways: Dave the Potter

  • Known For: Extraordinatly large signed ceramic vessels 
  • Also known as: David Drake, Dave the Slave, Dave of the Hive, Dave Pottery
  • Born: ca 1800
  • Parents: unknown
  • Died: 1874
  • Education: Taught to read and write; turned pots by Abner Landrum and/or Harvey Drake
  • Published Works: At least 100 signed pots, undoubtedly many more  
  • Spouse: Lydia (?) 
  • Children: two (?) 
  • Notable Quote: "I wonder where is all my relation \ friendship to all—and every nation"

Early Life

What is known of Dave the Potter's life is derived from census records and news stories. He was born about 1800, the child of a woman forced into slavery in South Carolina with seven other people by a Scotsman named Samuel Landrum. Dave was separated from his parents in early childhood, and nothing is known of his father, who may have been Samuel Landrum.

Dave learned to read and write, and 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.

Edgefield Pottery

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.

Dave also apparently worked for Abner Landrum's newspaper "The Edgefield Hive" (sometimes listed as "The Columbia Hive"), a trade newspaper 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 March 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.

Marriage and Family

No clear record of Dave's marriage or family has been found, but when Harvey Drake died in December of 1832, his estate included four slaves: Dave, who would be sold to Reuben Drake and Jasper Gibbs for $400; and Lydia and her two children, sold to Sarah and Laura Drake for $600. In 1842, Reuben Drake, Jasper Gibbs and his wife Laura Drake, and Lydia and her children moved to Louisiana—but not Dave, who was at that time owned by Lewis Miles and working in Miles' pottery. U.S. museum studies scholar Jill Beute Koverman (1969–2013) and others have speculated that Lydia and her children were Dave's family, Lydia a wife or sister.

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. On a large jar made for the Pottersville foundry, Dave 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.

U.S. African and African American Studies professor Michael A. Chaney has connected decorative and symbolic markings on slave-produced forms of colonoware (a blend of African and Native American pottery made in the U.S.) to some marks made by Dave. Whether Dave's poetry was intended as subversive, humorous or insightful is open to question: probably all three. In 2005, Koverman compiled a 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. At 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.

Death and Legacy

The last known jars made by Dave were made in January and March of 1864. The 1870 federal census lists David Drake as a 70-year-old man, born in South Carolina and a turner by trade. The next line on the census lists Mark Jones, also a potter—Jones was another potter owned by Lewis Miles, and at least one pot is signed "Mark and Dave." There is no record for Dave in the 1880 census, and Koverman assumed he died before then. Chaney (2011) lists a death date of 1874.

The first jar inscribed by Dave was found in 1919, and Dave was inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame in 2016. 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, especially the somewhat subversive elements in Dave's writing. American museum studies scholar Aaron DeGroft's 1988 article describes the protest contexts of Dave's inscriptions; and folklorist John A. Burrison (2012) discusses the topics of Dave's poetry, as part of a broader discussion of the Edgefield potteries. American archaeologist Christopher Fennell has direct archaeological investigations at the Edgefield potteries beginning in the 21st century.

Perhaps the most focused research into Dave's ceramics was by Jill Beute Koverman (1969–2013), who, as part of her extensive work on Edgefield pottery works 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.

Selected Sources