This chapter was named for Eliza Lucas Pinckney (December 28, 1722–1793), who changed agriculture in colonial South Carolina, where she developed indigo as one of its most important cash crops. The cultivation and processing of indigo as dye produced one-third the total value of the colony’s exports before the American Revolutionary War. Manager of three plantations at age 16, Pinckney had a major impact on the economy. She was the first woman to be inducted into South Carolina’s Business Hall of Fame.
Early Life and Education
Elizabeth (known as Eliza) Lucas was born on December 28, 1722, probably in Antigua, British West Indies, where she grew up at Cabbage Tree, one of her family’s three sugar plantations on the island. She was the eldest child of Lieutenant-Colonel George Lucas of Dalzell’s Regiment of Foot in British Army, and his wife, Ann Lucas. She had two brothers, Thomas and George, and a younger sister Mary (known to her family as Polly).
Colonel and Mrs. Lucas sent all their children to London for schooling. It was customary for elite colonists to send boys to England for their education when they might be as young as eight or nine. Girls would not be sent until their mid-teens when nearing marriageable age.
During this period, many parents believed that girls’ futures of being wives and mothers made education in more than “the three “R’s” and social accomplishments less necessary. However, Eliza’s ability was recognized. She treasured her education at boarding school, where studies included French and music, but she said her favorite subject was botany. She wrote to her father that she felt her “education, which [she] esteems a more valuable fortune than any [he] could have given [her], … Will make me happy through my future life.”
In about 1738, when Eliza was 16 years old, Colonel Lucas decided to move his family from Antigua to South Carolina, where he had inherited three plantations from his father. The chief plantation overlooked Wappoo Creek outside of Charleston.
In 1739, Colonel Lucas had to return to his post in Antigua to deal with the political conflict between England and Spain. Colonel Lucas was appointed lieutenant governor of the island. England’s involvement in the War of the Austrian Succession thwarted his attempts to move back to South Carolina with his family. Eliza’s letters to him show that she regarded her father with great respect and deep affection. Her mother died in Antigua on October 25, 1759. Eliza’s letters demonstrated that she was head of the family in terms of managing the plantations.
Eliza was just 16 years old when she became responsible for managing Wappoo Plantation and its 20 slaves, plus supervising overseers at two other Lucas plantations: one inland producing tar and timber, and a 3,000 acre rice plantation on the Waccamaw River. In addition, she oversaw her young sister, as their two brothers were still in school in London. As was customary, she recorded her decisions and experiments by copying letters in a letter book. This letter book is one of the most impressive collections of personal writings of an eighteenth-century American woman, and gives insight into her mind and society.
From Antigua, Colonel Lucas sent Eliza various types of seeds for trial on the plantations. They and other planters were eager to find crops for the uplands that could supplement their cultivation of rice. First, she experimented with ginger, cotton, and alfalfa. Starting in 1739, she began experimenting with cultivating and improving strains of the indigo plant, for which the growing market in textiles created demand. When Colonel Lucas sent Eliza indigo seeds in 1740, she expressed her “greater hopes” for them, as she intended to plant them earlier in the season. In experimenting with growing indigo in new climate and soil, Lucas also depended on the knowledge and skills of enslaved Africans who had grown indigo in the West Indies and West Africa.
After three years of persistence and many failed attempts, Eliza proved that indigo could be successfully grown and processed in South Carolina. While she had first worked with an indigo processing expert from Montserrat, she was most successful in processing dye with the expertise of a black indigo-maker of African descent whom her father hired from the French West Indies.
Eliza used her 1744 crop to make seed and shared it with other planters, leading to an expansion in indigo production. She proved that colonial planters could make a profit in an extremely competitive market. Due to her successes, the volume of indigo dye exported increased dramatically from 5,000 pounds in 1745-46, to 130,000 pounds by 1748. Indigo became second only to rice as the South Carolina colony’s cash crop, and contributed greatly to the wealth of its planters. Before the American Revolutionary War, indigo accounted for more than one-third of the total value of exports from the colony.
Marriage and Family
Eliza and Charles Pinckney, a planter on a neighboring plantation, became attached after the death of his first wife. They were married on May 27, 1744. She was 20 and took her family responsibilities seriously, vowing “to make a good wife to my dear Husband in all its several branches; to make all my actions Correspond with that sincere love and Duty I bear him… I am resolved to be a good mother to my children, to pray for them, to set them good examples, to give them good advice, to be careful both of their souls and bodies, to watch over their tender minds.”
Mr. Pinckney had studied law in England, and had become a politically active leader in the colony. He was South Carolina’s first native-born attorney, and served as advocate general of the Court of Vice-Admiralty, justice of the peace for Berkeley County, and attorney general. He was elected a member of the Commons House of Assembly and Speaker of that body intermittently from 1736–1740, and he was a member of the Royal Provincial Council. Eliza was unlike many women of her time, as she was educated, independent, and accomplished. When the Pinckneys lived in Charleston, Eliza was soon planting oaks and magnolias at their mansion overlooking the bay, and corresponding regularly with major British botanists.
Eliza soon had three sons and a daughter: Charles Cotesworth, George Lucas, Thomas, and Harriott Pinckney (born third). George Lucas Pinckney, her father’s namesake, died soon after birth in June 1747. In 1753 the family moved to London for five years. Shortly after their return in 1758 to South Carolina, Charles Pinckney contracted malaria and died. Eliza continued to manage their plantations, which were extensive, as well as the Lucas holdings. Most of her agricultural experiments took place before this time.
The surviving Pinckney sons became influential leaders. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney was a signer of the U.S. Constitution and was the Federalist Vice-Presidential candidate in 1800. In 1804 and 1808, he was the Federalist candidate for president. Thomas was appointed Minister to Spain, where he negotiated Pinckney’s Treaty in 1795 to guarantee U.S. navigation rights on the Mississippi River. He was the Federalist Vice-Presidential candidate in 1796. Eliza Lucas Pinckney died in 1793.
Honors and Legacy
1753 – At an audience with Augusta, the Dowager Princess of Wales, in London, Eliza presented the Princess with a dress made of silk produced on the Pinckney plantations.
1793 – President George Washington served as a pallbearer at Eliza’s funeral at St. Peter’s Church, in Charleston County, South Carolina.
1989 – For her contributions to South Carolina’s agriculture, Eliza Lucas Pinckney was the first woman to be inducted into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame.