David Drake, also known as “Dave the Potter” and “Dave the Slave,” was born in c. 1800, possibly to parents who had trained as potters in West Africa, as Atlantic slave traders frequently kidnapped skilled laborers from villages. Drake was first owned by Harvey Drake, a nephew and business partner of the physician Dr. Abner Landrum, a founder of Pottersville, South Carolina, a community near Edgefield, South Carolina, known for its stoneware production. It was Dr. Landrum who likely taught David how to read, as he had expressed interest in having the younger man work for him as a typesetter for his newspaper the Edgefield Hive. David remained the property of Harvey Drake, whose surname Dave took, until 1833. He was then sold by Drake’s widow in 1832.
A mortgage document indicates that David was seventeen when he began to produce pottery, which was then sold to plantations for farming purposes. He may have lost his leg in a train accident in the 1830s but was still able to maneuver the potter’s wheel. Additionally, David was physically dexterous enough to help operate kilns, which measured nearly one hundred feet in length and required ten tons of firewood each day.
David was one of forty known enslaved potters working in or near Edgefield between 1815 and 1880, but he was the only one who signed and dated his pots. David likely began to sign and write inscriptions, usually in the form of rhyming couplets, on the shoulders and sides of some of his glazed pots around 1840. He briefly stopped signing and inscribing pots in late 1840, shortly before the discovery of plans for a slave revolt. He produced his last known pot in 1864.
David worked as a potter for three decades and produced, signed, and dated around one hundred pots. He also possibly made tens of thousands of enormous stoneware pots that he left unsigned and without his unique inscriptions. David remained enslaved for the duration of his life and was traded and sold between the Landrums, the Drakes, and their relatives until his death sometime in the 1870s.