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Indigo Production in the Colony of South Carolina

Updated on July 20, 2016

Eliza Pinckney Introduced to Indigo Plant

South Carolina, like the other southern colonies, developed a one-crop economy. Their primary export in the mid-1700s was rice, but Elizabeth Lucas, a sixteen-year-old girl did the of another southern though short-lived, major export crop. Born December 28, 1722, in the West Indies, she was the daughter, Lieutenant Colonel George Lucas of Dalzell's Regiment of a British Army, stationed in the Antigua, West Indies who had purchased three plantations along the Wappoo Creek located a few miles south of Charleston. When England declared war against Spain in 1743, Colonel Luca left for active duty. By now his family had moved to the South Carolina plantation which George Lucas inherited from his father. He left Elizabeth to care for her ailing mother, brother, sister, and twenty slaves to manage the manor along Wappoo Creek. Her father sent back seeds of plants that were common to the Islands and suggested that Eliza (as he called her) attempt their cultivation. This seeds included ginger, cassava, lucerne, and indigo.

Eliza's Experience with Indigo

Indigo was a semitropical weed with blue-black leaves, used as a dye throughout the Indies. Eliza and her farmers experiemented with the plants for two years and finally developed a way to grow indigo in the Carolina flat lands. She produced the first commerically successful crop in 1742. Her system of culture spread to other plantations. It was a messy crop like rice was. The adult plant was soaked in vats, pounded, and churned with wooden paddles. They then evaporated the water off, leaving a dark blue sediment. The indigo was then molded into cakes for export. By 1775, south Carolina exported five hundred thousand pounds of the indigo paste per year. It provided more than one-third of South Carolina's exports.

Elizabeth Lucas Pinckney's Influential Husband and Sons

Eliza Lucas married Charles Pinckney who later became chief justice of South Carolina and was the mother of Charles C. Pinckney and Thomas Pinckney both prominent in the Revolution.

Charles, the eldest, Pinckney was one of the leaders at the Constitutional Convention and defended the Constitution in South Carolina. In 1800 he ran as the Federalists candidate for Vice-Presidential , and in 1804 and 1808 as the Presidential nominee. He was, however, defeated on all three occasions.

His brother, Thomas Pinckney, was an early American statesman, veteran of both the American Revolution, and the War of 1812. In addition, he was a diplomat. On October 27, 1795, negotiated Pinckney's Treaty with Spain.

Lucerne Resurfaced 125 Years Later

The lucerne Elizabeth Lucas Pinckney tried died in 1744, and disappeared from American agriculture for more than 125 years when other American scientists discovered it again in European seed catalogs under the name "alfalfa". Her agricultural experiments ended when she attempted silkworm culture and the project failed.

Pinckney's Funeral

She died in 1793.As one of her pallbearers, President George Washington participated in her funeral at St. Peter's church. in Philadelphia. In 1989, she was the first woman to be inducted into South Carolina's Business Hall of Fame.

Indigo's Demise

During the Revolutionary War indigo was neglected in favor of the rice needed to feed the colonists. Afterwards,it could no longer compete with the cheaper, better quality East Indian type. By 1787, cotton replaced indigo as South Carolina's chief crop. Georgia and Louisiana cultivated some indigo but never succeeded in making indigo a large-scale commercial success. Individuals plantations, however, continued to cultivate and use indigo dye for local consumption until 1865.

Though no longer grown in South Carolina, natural indigo was used throughout the 1800s. It would also be 20 years before indigo could be produced in quantities and prices that made it readily available.Natural indigo was replaced by synthetic indigo and can no longer be obtained in the United States.

Making a Comeback

In recent years, due to the increase in learning more natural ways of doing things, indigo is starting to make a comeback. Google the term natural indigo and see for yourself.

How to use Indigo Dye

© 2013 Cygnet Brown


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    • profile image

      YoDude 17 months ago


    • cygnetbrown profile image

      Cygnet Brown 4 years ago from Springfield, Missouri

      She started the crops in 1738. She had her first SUCCESSFUL COMMERCIAL CROP in 1742. Her father went to war in 1743 and he sent back additional (probably better) seed while he was in the West Indies in his enlistment.

    • Schoolmom24 profile image

      Schoolmom24 4 years ago from Oregon

      I absolutely love American history, yet I had never heard of this young woman before! Thank you introducing me to her. Since I also homeschool my daughters, I will have them read this as an extra piece of history! :) Just need some clarification about the dates...she was born in 1722 and you mentioned her father went off to war with Spain in '43 (making her 21) but then mentioned she produced the first commercially successful crop in 1742. Also you said she was 16, which she would have been in 1738. Is one of the years a type error? Not that important, I know, but I'm just into dates. I was amazed that George Washington was a pall bearer, what an amazing girl, wife and mother she must have been! Voted up and interesting.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Nice historic piece and of course I love history having taught it for quite awhile...well done my friend. Thanks for the education.