Suzanne Scoggins, Director of Women's History

by Suzanne Scoggins, Director of Women's History
March 4, 2011 · Comments Off  

No portraits of Eliza Lucas Pinckney are known to exist; this illustration was made for American Spirit magazine.

No portraits of Eliza Lucas Pinckney are known to exist; this illustration was made for American Spirit magazine.

Before cotton, there was indigo. The source of South Carolina’s wealth and a mainstay of the American colonial economy before the Revolution, the indigo industry was the brainchild of Eliza Lucas Pinckney (1722-1793). She was one of the greatest agricultural innovators of colonial America.

The daughter of a British officer in the West Indies, Eliza Lucas was put in charge of her father’s three South Carolina plantations at the remarkable age of sixteen. Colonel Lucas obviously recognized that his daughter was a prodigy, and the ambitious young woman did not disappoint. Eliza loved botany and was fascinated by agricultural experimentation. She thought in terms of the big picture: she knew that South Carolina needed a cash crop to complement rice, and she saw that the burgeoning world trade in textiles was creating new markets for dyes. Using indigo seeds her father sent her from the West Indies, she embarked on a series of agricultural experiments in growing the new crop. Once she had succeeded in developing a strain of indigo that could be grown commercially in Carolina, she set about mastering the process of rendering and manufacturing the all-important dye.

By 1744, Eliza was ready to share her seeds and her knowledge with other South Carolina planters. The result was an agricultural revolution. In 1745-1746, South Carolina exported 5,000 pounds of indigo dye. By 1748, that number had jumped to 134,118 pounds. By 1775—the eve of American independence—South Carolina was exporting more than a million pounds of indigo every year.

Eliza was reluctant to marry, and understandably so. A married woman in colonial South Carolina had absolutely no legal or property rights; in legal terms she did not even exist, being totally subsumed under her husband’s authority. Eliza needed a husband who, like her father, would tolerate her agricultural and business pursuits. The man she finally settled on, Charles Pinckney, was a trusted family friend. It was a good choice: the marriage was a success, and Eliza continued to manage plantations and develop new crops.

Eliza raised her children according to the Enlightenment theories of John Locke, and her sons went on to become prominent figures in the Revolution and early republic. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney was a signer of the Constitution and Minister to France; Thomas Pinckney served as Governor of South Carolina, Minister to Great Britain, and special envoy to Spain. Eliza’s daughter Harriott was a distinguished planter and, like her brothers and mother, an ardent patriot. Eliza herself was so highly regarded that George Washington asked to serve as a pallbearer at her funeral.

There is a dark side to this story. As with the other southern cash crops—tobacco, rice, sugar, and cotton—indigo took a horrific toll on the slaves who worked the plantations. The Slavery in America website explores this aspect in The Devil’s Blue Dye: Indigo and Slavery.

Further reading:

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