Dave the Potter

By:Page Ivey


Dave the Potter
An illustration of Dave the Potter creating art

Born: About 1801 by most accounts; some push his birth back as far as 1776, but that is unlikely as some of his heavier work was dated more than 80 years later.

Died: About 1870 by most accounts; some say he died in 1863, but there are pots with later dates believed to be Dave’s work.

Background/significance: A man, who himself was once sold for less than $10, made pottery more than 150 years ago that today is sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Dave, Dave the Potter, Dave the Slave or Dave Drake (his first owner’s name) was considered a master of his art even in his own day. In a time when slaves were treated as chattel, Dave created timeless vessels for families of kiln owners that he signed with his simple moniker “Dave” and the occasional poem:

“Put every bit all between /

Surely this jar will hold 14”

Despite Dave’s ability to read and write, which was rare for slaves, and the untold number of pots and jars he made, we know very little about him. What we do know appears sporadically in public records that rarely recorded the names of slaves and on his pottery — mostly very large jars — that include his poetry, his name and the initials of him and presumably his kiln’s owner, Lewis Miles.

Dave was likely born about 1801 on the plantation of Harry Drake, who many think was the source of Dave’s literacy, even though it was frowned upon and in some areas illegal to teach slaves to read and write.

Signing his work and including verses were a bold show of his abilities that might indicate Dave was famed even in his own day for his craftsmanship.

Dave might have been sold several times during his life as a slave and perhaps lost a leg in a train accident, which would have made him unfit for field labor but well suited to tasks that required sitting, such as turning pottery.

Dave was among the slaves of Dr. Abner Landrum, who ran potteries in what is now the Edgefield area but was then known as Pottersville. The families of slaves in this area worked Landrum’s kilns making pottery with an alkaline glaze that made it waterproof as well as food-safe.

Dave began signing and dating his work as early as 1834. Some time later the signature included the initials “LM,” presumably for Lewis Miles, who might have become Dave’s owner.

His poems — rhyming couplets — focused on the size, use and quality of the pottery, Bible lessons or absent family members. These verses were typically etched below the lip on what is called the shoulder of the jars.

There is a notable absence of pots with Dave’s signature markings in the 1840s, though some have surfaced in recent years. Historians speculate that one of Dave’s owners might have been concerned about him publicly showing off his literacy during a time of upheaval.

After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, Dave took on the name of his first owner, Drake. He stayed in the Edgefield area until his death sometime in the 1870s.

South Carolina connection: Dave was born, lived and died near Edgefield. He is a lead figure in the state’s early pottery history.

Discover more: Writer Leonard Todd has explored Dave’s life extensively and maintains a blog on new discoveries as well as has written a book, “Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter, Dave”: http://leonardtoddconversations.com.

“I Made this Jar: The Life and Works of the Enslaved African-American Potter, Dave” was published by University of South Carolina Press, 1998.

“Discovering Dave: Spirit Captured in Clay” is a documentary film (2014): https://www.facebook.com/groups/228960090560683/.

Dave’s work is part of the Civil War collection at the Smithsonian Institution: http://collections.si.edu/search/record/nmah_1181785.

The South Carolina State Museum also frequently displays pottery by Dave in its collections: www.museum.state.sc.us/.

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