Dave the Potter – Pottersville, Edgefield County, South Carolina

SC SC African-American History & Resources Notable SC African-Americans Dave the Potter

Dave – A Literate Slave

Dave goes by many names including "Dave the Potter," "Dave the Slave," Dave Drake, and simply Dave. There is considerable mystery surrounding this Edgefield artist, but thanks to the former slave's unique ability to read and write, we've been left with an amazing autobiography, scrawled on the shoulders and sides of his remaining jugs and vessels.

Dave was born around 1801, presumably to South Carolina plantation-owner Harry Drake. Drake is thought to have been staunchly religious and may have taught several of his slaves to read and write in order that they might continue to benefit from the teachings in the Bible. Helping a slave learn to read was heavily frowned upon, as common thought concluded that it would lead to free will and possible revolt. A series of laws were passed prohibiting owners from educating slaves, and in 1740 it became illegal to teach a slave to write, although reading was not specifically outlawed.

Dave the Potter – Pottersville

Dave may have had as many as five owners throughout his life as a slave. Following the death of Harry Drake in 1832, Dave became the property of Dr. Abner Landrum. Dave's literacy by way of Drake was not the only thing that made him unique. Evidence suggests that Dave may have lost a leg as a young man – the result of a train accident. This made him unfit for field labor but well suited to a type of work that required sitting.

Dr. Landrum owned a small pottery yard inhabited by about 15 slave-families. Known in early years as Landrumsville, and in later years as Pottersville, the stoneware produced there was of great quality and beauty. For use in plantation homes, it outshone its predecessor – earthenware pottery – as it was impervious to water and much stronger overall.

Diorama of the Pottersville Production Site
Diorama of the Pottersville Production Site
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According to legend, another slave named Henry was missing both of his arms. Also unable to fulfill the tasks associated with fieldwork, Henry was placed in an important position alongside his partner. While Dave sat at the potter's wheel sculpting enormous containers, Henry turned the wheel using his strong legs and feet. Together, they likely produced thousands of jars, pitchers, and jugs. Dave was able to produce vessels with the capacity of more than 40 gallons by constructing a small portion at a time, then building layer upon layer. Regardless of the method used, he was surely an extremely strong man to be able to create such massive pieces.

Dave the Poet

His tremendous skill, strength, and literacy allowed Dave to make a permanent mark in history. Customarily, stoneware pottery was marked with a stamp near the base of the vessel, indicating the name of its manufacturer. In 1834 Dave began signing and dating his vessels. The example below shows a jar Dave made in 1857. The date is preceded by the initials "LM", for Lewis Miles who is presumed to have been one of Dave's owners.

Signed Dave Pot
Signed Dave Pot, Terry Ferrell Museum
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In addition to signing his name, Dave often wrote short poems or rhyming couplets on his pieces. His poetry reflected any number of themes: the size or use of the vessel, biblical teachings, or questions related to family members who had been bought and sold. Pots were generally signed on the "shoulder," just below the lip or rim. Occasionally, they would wind around the pot like a coiled snake.

1841 marked the beginning of a period of near silence for Dave. Threat of a slave uprising among Georgia and Virginia plantations had given Dave cause to cease writing for fear of drawing attention to himself. Literacy among slaves had since been outlawed, and for nearly seventeen years Dave withheld his poetic musings.

David Drake – Freedman

Following the abolition of slavery, Dave adopted the last name of Drake after his first owner and the man who had taught him to read. He remained in Edgefield District, where he lived among a family-colony until his death sometime during the 1870s. The Reconstruction South was fraught with hardship for blacks – perhaps rivaling that of slavery itself. Fear abounded as the Ku Klux Klan became the freedman's worst enemy, and jobs were difficult to find as many of the plantations had begun to fall into disuse without the unpaid labor thay had once relied so heavily upon.

Dave's Pottery – Characteristics of His Work

The piece pictured below is a jar made by Dave, signed January 25th, 1840, Dave. This vessel is characteristic of the many pieces Dave produced throughout his life. While historians can often identify unsigned works simply by their form and quality, there are specific characteristics that can only be attributed to Dave himself. This piece is typical of Edgefield District pottery – its ovoid shape, ear-lug handles, and curved upper lip are all significant features.

Many of Dave's pieces were marked with unique symbols, which are more difficult to identify than a straight signature. Occasionally, he signed his work with a horseshoe-shaped symbol, a particular type of slash mark (used to identify capacity) or an X. Other potters used similar markings, but Dave's are recognizably different to those with a well-trained eye.

Straw Colored Dave Jar
Straw Colored Dave Jar, Old Edgefield Pottery
SCIWAY, 2008 © Do Not Use Without Written Consent

Pieces marked with the letters Lm, as in the 1857 piece pictured above, are also attributed to Dave. It is not known with certainty whether Dave was owned by Lewis Miles, but he almost definitely worked in Miles' factory. Finally, the most obvious sign of a piece crafted by Dave is his signature. He signed his vessels with a simple Dave, using a beautifully refined cursive script. These signatures appear on the shoulder of the vessels, as seen above, and are occasionally accompanied by his poetry.

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