Eliza Lucas Pinckney (1722-1793)
Eliza Lucas Pinckney was born into privilege on the Caribbean island of Antigua, where her British military officer father was stationed at the time. Her parents sent her back to England for a "proper" education, before they sailed to their new home in South Carolina. When Eliza was 16, her father, seeking a healthier climate for his ailing wife, brought the mother & their 2 daughters to a plantation, which he had inherited on Wappoo Creek in South Carolina, near Charleston, in 1738.
When the growing conflict between England & Spain, the War of Jenkins’ Ear, forced him to return to his military post in Antigua in 1739, the management of Wappoo, & of her father's 2 other plantations in the Carolina low country, fell to 16 year-old Eliza. Her observations of & contributions to botany & gardening & agriculture in South Carolina were immense. And the insights from her letters & memoranda into the life of an educated colonial woman in 18C America are revealing.
When Europeans colonized North America, they immediately started trying to grow crops of economic importance. Indigo is one of the 1st plants the British attempted to grow, when they got to North America. They tried growing it in Jamestown, while the Dutch tried it in New Amsterdam( New York City). The French had some success in Louisiana, but nobody had much luck making indigo commercially successful, until Eliza Lucas came along.
In the 1730s, 16-year-old Eliza Lucas, whose father was lieutenant governor of Antigua & who had an interest in botany, was put in charge of 3 of her father's South Carolina plantations. Her father sent her seeds from Antigua, & indigo seemed to Eliza to have the most promise.
At age 16, Eliza Lucas Pinckney became manager of her father’s 3 plantations, took care of her younger sister, & her dying mother. We have details of Eliza's life & hopes; because when she was 18, Eliza began keeping her letters & memoranda from 1740 - 1762. Her letterbook is one of the largest surviving collections of letters of a colonial woman. Her rich letters reveal her quick-witted perseverance & grit, as she forged an unique life for herself & plotted a new path for agriculture in South Carolina.
When she was 18, Eliza wrote of her new situation to a friend in England, on May 2, 1740. "I like this part of the world, as my lott has fallen here... I prefer England to it, ’tis true, but think Carolina greatly preferable to the West Indias, & was my Papa here I should be very happy...Charles Town, the principal one in this province, is a polite, agreeable place. The people live very Gentile & very much in the English taste. The Country is in General fertile...My Papa & Mama’s great indulgence to me leaves it to me to chose our place of residence either in town or Country, but I think it more prudent as well as most agreeable to my Mama & self to be in the Country during my Father’s absence. We are 17 mile by land & 6 by water from Charles Town where we have about 6 agreeable families around us with whom we live in great harmony...I have a little library well furnished (for my papa has left most of his books) in which I spend part of my time. My Musick & the Garden, which I am very fond of, take up the rest of my time that is not imployed in business, of which my father has left me a pretty good share...I have the business of 3 plantations to transact, which requires much writing & more business & fatigue of other sorts than you can imagine. But lest you should imagine it too burthensom to a girl at my early time of life, give me leave to answer you: I assure you I think myself happy that I can be useful to so good a father, & by rising very early I find I can go through much business."
The teenager brought her infectuous love of learning with her to Wappoo. She reveled in music & could “tumble over one little tune” on the flute. She quoted Milton, read Richardson’s Pamela, & spoke French. She enjoyed reading John Locke, Virgil's Plutarch, & Thomas Wood. But, her favorite subject was botany.
She tutored her sister Polly & “two black girls,” whom she envisioned making “school mistress’s for the rest of the Negroe children,” if her father approved. In 1741, she recorded sighting a comet whose appearance Sir Isaac Newton had predicted. Eliza enjoyed brief social visits in Charleston, but devoted most of her energy to her family & to plotting the success of the plantation.
In July of 1740, she wrote a memorandum, "Wrote my Father a very long letter on his plantation affairs and... On the pains I had taken to bring the Indigo, Ginger, Cotton and Lucerne and Casada to perfection, and had greater hopes from the Indigo (if I could have the seed earlier next year from the West India’s) than any of the rest of the things I had tryd."
Eliza recognized that the growing textile manufacturing industry was creating a worldwide market for good dyes. In 1739, she began cultivating & creating new strains of the indigo plant from which blue dye could be made. She introduced the successful cultivation of the plant indigo used in making dye to the American colonies.
She continued to look for ways to make a profit from the family's plantations. On April 23, 1741, she wrote a memorandum, "Wrote to my Father informing him of the loss of a Negroe man also the boat being overset in Santilina Sound & 20 barrels of Rice lost. Told him of our making a new garden & all conveniences we can to receive him... Also about Starrat & pitch & Tarr."
In June of 1741, she finally heard from her father after 6 months without any letters, & she wrote him in return, "We expect the boat dayly from Garden Hill [plantation] when I shall be able to give you an account of affairs there. The Cotton, Guiney corn, & most of the Ginger planted here was cutt off by a frost.
"I wrote you in a former letter we had a fine Crop of Indigo Seed upon the ground, & since informed you the frost took it before it was dry. I picked out the best of it & had it planted but there is not more than a hundred bushes of is come up...I make no doubt Indigo will prove a very valuable Commodity in time if we could have the seed from the west Indias in time enough to plant the latter end of March, that the seed might be dry enough to gather before our frost. I am sorry we lost this season."
Indigo Dyed Bed Cover 1770-90 ca. Detail of Fabric for Bed Cover, Cotton, Woven (plain), Block printed, Resist style.
Eliza hoped a fine grade of blue indigo grown in Carolina could be prepared into dye cakes for cloth manufacturers in England. The market for South Carolina rice had dwindled with the war, & indigo could be bought from South Carolina instead of the French Carribean islands, if she was successful at introducing a 2nd staple crop to the colony. “I was ignorant both at the proper season for sowing it [indigo] & the soil best adapted to it,” Eliza wrote. Yet it was her perseverance which brought to success experiments in growing this crop which had been tried & discarded near Charleston some 70 years earlier.
Indigo Dyed Blue Gown 1753 by American artist John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) Mrs. Joseph Mann Bethia Torrey
Knowing how complex was the process of producing the dye from the fresh-cut plants, Colonel Lucas sent an experienced indigo maker from the French island on Montserrat in the summer of 1741. Optimistically, Eliza wrote her father that October “informing him we made 20 weight of Indigo...’Tis not quite dry or I should have sent him some. Now desire he will send us a hundred weight of seed to plant in the spring.”
At the age of 19, in September of 1741, Eliza noted that she, "Wrote to my father on plantation business & concerning a planter’s importing Negroes for his own use. Colo. Pinckney thinks not, but thinks it was proposed in the Assembly & rejected. He promised to look over the Act & let me know. Also informed my father of the alteration ’tis soposed there will be in the value of our money- occasioned by a late Act of Parliament that Extends to all America - which is to dissolve all private banks, I think by the 30th of last month, or be liable to lose their Estates, & put themselves out of the King’s protection. Informed him of the Tyranical Government at Georgia."
A month later, she recorded, October 14, 1741, "Wrote to my father informing him we made 20 wt of Indigo & expected 10 more. ’Tis not quite dry or I should have sent him some. Now desire he will send us a hundred weight of seed to plant in the spring."
Indigo Dyed Blue Gown 1758 by American artist John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) Anne Fairchild Mrs Metcal Bowler
In April of the next year, she wrote to her friend in England, about her daily routine, "In general then I rise at five o’Clock in the morning, read till Seven, then take a walk in the garden or field, see that the Servants are at their respective business, then to breakfast. The first hour after breakfast is spent at my musick, the next is constantly employed in recollecting something I have learned least for want of practise it should be quite lost, such as French & short hand. After that I devote the rest of the time till I dress for dinner to our little Polly & 2 black girls who I teach to read...
Indigo Dyed Blue Gown 1763 by American artist John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) Anne Fairchild Bowler Mrs Metcalf Bowler
"But to proceed, the first hour after dinner as the first after breakfast at musick, the rest of the afternoon in Needle work till candle light, & from that time to bed time read or write...Thursday the whole day except what the necessary affairs of the family take up is spent in writing, either on the business of the plantations, or letters to my friends."
Indigo Dyed Blue Gown 1763 by American artist John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) Anne Fairchild Bowler Mrs Metcalf Bowler
She wrote to her friend again in May of 1742, "Wont you laugh at me if I tell you I am so busey in providing for Posterity I hardly allow my self time to Eat or sleep & can but just snatch a minnet to write you & a friend or two now. I am making a large plantation of Oaks which I look upon as my own property, whether my father gives me the land or not; & therefore I design many years hence when oaks are more valueable than they are now -- which you know they will be when we come to build fleets."
The 1744 indigo crop did, indeed, "hitt" & was a success. Six pounds from Wappoo were sent to England & “found better than the French Indigo.” Seed from this crop was distributed to many Carolina planters, who soon were profiting from Carolina's new staple export product.
On May 27, 1744, Eliza Lucas married attorney Charles Pinckney, a childless widower more than 20 years her senior. Pinckney built a house on Charleston’s waterfront for his bride. And at his plantation on the Cooper River, Eliza initialized the culture of silkworms to establish a “silk manufacture.”
Indigo Dyed Blue Gown 1763 by American artist John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) Mrs James Warren Mercy Otis
Charles Pinkney who wrote down the instructions for how to grow & process indigo, & after a while they made enough seed to hand out to the neighbors, which started an indigo bonanza in the Southern colonies. By 1746, Carolina planters shipped almost 40,000 pounds of indigo to England; the next year the total exported was almost 100,000 pounds. Indigo sales sustained the Carolina economy for 3 decades, until the Revolution cut off trade with England.
Indigo Dyed Blue Gown 1763 by American artist John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) Mrs. Nathaniel Allen (Sarah Sargent)
Charles Pinckney's appointment as commissioner for the colony in London took the family in April of 1753, to England, where they had intended to live, until their sons finished their education. When war with France broke out, Eliza & her husband returned in May of 1758, to Carolina, leaving the boys at school. Pinckney contracted malaria & died in July of that year. After writing to tell her sons of the loss of their father, Eliza again turned to plantation business as she directed her husband’s 7 separate land holdings in the Carolina low country.
Indigo Dyed Blue Gown 1773 by American artist John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) Mrs. Moses Gill (Rebecca Boylston)
By 1760, Eliza was once again fully engaged in managing a plantation, "I find it requires great care, attention & activity to attend properly to a Carolina Estate, tho’ but a moderate one, to do ones duty & make it turn to account, that I find I have as much business as I can go through of one sort or other."
Eliza recorded her last letter in her letterbook in 1762. "I love a Garden & a book; & they are all my amusement except I include one of the greatest Businesses of my life (my attention to my dear little girl) under that article. For a pleasure it certainly is &c. especially to a mind so tractable & a temper so sweet as hers. For, I thank God, I have an excellent soil to work upon, & by the Divine Grace hope the fruit will be answerable to my indeavours in the cultivation."
Indigo Dyed Blue Wrap 1763-64 by American artist John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) Mrs. Gawen Brown (Elizabeth Byles)
She was able to send a substantial export of indigo to England in in return the Mother Country responded with the bounty to Carolina planters in an effort to cut out the French from dominating the market. In addition to economic motives, indigo production also succeeded because it fit within the existing agricultural economy. The crop could be grown on land not suited for rice & tended by slaves, so planters & farmers already committed to plantation agriculture did not have to reconfigure their land & labor. In 1747, 138,300 pounds of dye, worth £16,803 sterling, were exported to England. The amount & value of indigo exports increased in subsequent years, peaking in 1775 with a total of 1,122,200 pounds, valued at £242,295 sterling. England received almost all Carolina indigo exports, although by the 1760s a small percentage was being shipped to northern colonies.
Indigo Dyed Blue Head Wrap 1768 by American artist John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) Mrs. Joseph Henshaw
By the beginning of the American Revolution, Indigo made up 1/3 the exports from South Carolina. In less than 50 years the market had grown substantially. However, the tension with the British & the establishment of the East India Trading Company led to the diminishing of the Carolina indigo trade.
Indigo Dyed Blue Gown 1771 by American artist John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) Mrs. Joseph Barrell (Hannah Fitch)
The American colonies winning their independence ended many indigo exports to the British market, as England turned its attention to India for its indigo needs. Pinckney spent 30 years, after her husband's death, overseeing their plantations & helping her family. She invested monies she earned from exporting indigo into her children’s education. Both of her sons became involved with the new nation. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1746-1852) signed the United States Constitution, & Thomas Pinckney (1750-1828) served as South Carolina Governor & as US Minister to Spain & Great Britain.
In her later years, Eliza lived with her widowed daughter Harriet at Daniel Huger Horry's estate, Hampton Plantation near Georgetown . Eliza died of cancer on May 26, 1793, in Philadelphia, where she had gone for treatment. At her funeral, President George Washington, then presiding over the United States government in Philadelphia, served as one of her pallbearers.