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The Pottery of Dave the Potter
by Bob Brooke
 

"I made this Jar all of cross
If you don't repent, you will be lost."
Dave

This inscription graces a plain stoneware jar made in May, 1862, by the elusive slave potter Dave. Today, it’s part of the enormous collection of the Smithsonian Institution. But when Dave created it, this jar was just one of thousands produced by slaves in the potteries of the Edgefield District of South Carolina.

Often called “Dave pots,” these vessels have sparked the interest of pottery collectors in recent years because they’re signed, dated and made by an enslaved African-American. So what makes Dave’s jars stand out from all the others? For one thing, they’re some of the largest ceramic vessels made in the 19th century. But, more importantly, they’re distinguished by the poetic verse inscribed on them.

Hunched over his wheel day after day, the enslaved African-American potter known simply as Dave created an astonishing 40,000 or more stoneware jars, jugs, and other storage containers, ranging in size from one quart to 40 gallons, during his lifetime. Born into slavery in South Carolina in about 1800, Dave was owned by Harvey Drake by the time he was 18. Drake ran a pottery with Abner and Amos Landrum on the outskirts of Edgefield in a community called Pottersville.

Dave and his more than 50 fellow enslaved potters were often traded among various owners throughout their lifetimes. Lewis Miles, the owner of a pottery called Miles Mill, purchased him in 1833. As a young, fast-working and strong potter who could move more than 50 or 60 pounds of wet clay on and off the wheel without much difficulty, Dave became recognized by pottery owners like Miles as a valuable asset.

Although records indicate Benjamin Franklin Landrum bought Dave in 1847 for $700, Landrum sold him back to Miles, who was married to Landrum’s sister, Sarah, two years later. Dave remained at Miles Mill pottery for the rest of his life, taking the surname Drake--his first owner’s surname–after emancipation. Because his name disappears from U.S. Census records after the 1870 listing, experts presume he died shortly thereafter.

With its rich deposits of high quality clay, the region surrounding Edgefield, South Carolina, became the site of numerous potteries starting in the early 19th century. Abner Landrum built the first one between 1810 and 1820, and the town, appropriately named Pottersville, grew up around it. These potteries were family-owned establishments that employed both paid and slave laborers and produced enormous quantities or utilitarian wares.

Archaeologists have linked Dave to at least five of these pottery sites, four of which have been excavated. He was taught to turn pots by either Abner Landrum or Harvey Drake. Landrum, a physician, potter; and newspaper editor, may also have been responsible for Dave’s unique, but illegal, literacy.

South Carolina's Edgefield District is widely known for its alkaline-glazed stoneware. Home of Francis Pickens and John Hammond, strong supporters of radical nullifier John C. Calhoun, the district was a hotbed of secessionist sentiment. The local newspaper, The Edgefield Hive, served as a venue to expound the liberal views and pro-union stance of its owner, Dr. Abner Landrum. Dave worked with Landrum, and perhaps because of his liberal views, Landrum taught Dave to read and write while he worked as a typesetter at Landrum’s newspaper, The Edgefield Hive.

Dave worked for 40 years in Edgefield. creating thousands of vessels used to preserve and store food on large southern plantations. The food storage jars made by Dave and other potters were in high demand by both local plantations and customers from outside the district, from such places as Charleston and Georgia.

Dave fashioned the native stoneware clay into durable, utilitarian vessels bathed in glossy, olive green and reddish-brown alkaline glazes. By the late 1850s, he became skilled enough to fashion enormous vessels that could hold more than 25 gallons and were up to 29 inches tall. These were pieced together--the base turned on a wheel and the body attached in sections joined by coils.

But the story of Dave the Potter is much more than that of a proficient artist working in stoneware, for Dave was also a literate, clever poet at a time when it was illegal for slaves in the South to read or write. By inscribing many of his pieces with thought-provoking couplets or simply signing them with a grand flourish, Dave, this master craftsman, unlike his fellow enslaved potters, boldly identified himself and expressed his feelings on a wide range of subjects--friendship, loss, freedom, religion and current events.

Using rhyming, vernacular language, he breathed life into these otherwise utilitarian wares, which still captivate with their charm and poignancy more than 150 years later. One of his pots, dated in March 27, 1836, proclaims “Horses, mules and hogs! our cows is in the bogs;/ there they shall ever stay,! till the buzzards takes them away.”

By 1840, Dave’s bold signature graced the surfaces of many vessels, and his verses became more assured. “Give me silver or either gold/though they are dangerous to our soul,” proclaims another inscription, while the reverse reads “Mr. L. Miles 27tb June: 1840/ Dave.”

Troubling gaps in writing and dating appear between 1846 and 1848, when Dave was owned by Benjamin Franklin Landrum, which raises the possibility that Landrum might not have looked favorably on his slave’s literacy and independent spirit–and sought to silence it.

When Dave returned to Miles Mill in the 1850s, however, his characteristic signature and verses reappeared with ‘renewed vigor–“I wonder where is all my relations/Friendship to all - and every nation (August 16, 1857)–and remained throughout his final works during the 1860s.

Dave’s work has been known for some time but much new information has come to light recently through research and archaeological investigation. Although he was still alive as late at 1870, he produced most of his pottery between 1834 and 1864.

No pieces dating between 1840 and 1857 bearing a poetic inscription have been located, but with the exception of the years 1842, 1844,1846-1848, and 1855, Dave did sign and date his work. Starting in the 1850s, when Lewis Miles owned Dave, his inscriptions became larger and bolder and his pots increased in size. Although his last known dated pieces are incised 1864, the 1870 census listed Dave as a turner, age 70.

During his lifetime, Dave was respected locally. But today, he’s something of a national phenomenon, with museums and private collectors vying for his work when they can find it. Today, his work sells from $10,000 for a signed and dated pot to more than $40,000 for one with a verse. Not bad for pieces that were offered for $1.25 at yard sales a few years ago. What’s more, the vessels Dave made sold for 10 cents a gallon during his lifetime, with a 20-gallon pot bringing only $2. He produced an average of 5,000 gallons a year.

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