Pinckney, Eliza Lucas

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Pinckney, Eliza Lucas

Born December 28, 1723 (Antigua, West Indies)

Died May 26, 1793 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

Agricultural innovator

Eliza Lucas Pinckney was a teenager when she was assigned to manage three large plantations for her family. She was still a young woman when her horticultural (plant-growing) experiments succeeded in the cultivation of the first indigo plants in British North America. Lucas shared her discovery with her South Carolina neighbors, creating an industry that would sustain the Carolina economy for three decades. The so-called Indigo Bonanza saw indigo planters double their money every three to four years from 1745 until 1775, when the American Revolution (1775–83) brought an end to trade with Britain. By 1775, South Carolina was exporting over 1 million pounds of indigo annually, with a present-day value of over $30 million. Thanks to Pinckney's efforts, the Southern economy had grown strong by the time the United States won its independence in 1783.

"I wrote my father . . . on the pains I had taken to bring the Indigo, Ginger, Cotton, Lucern [alfalfa], and Cassada [cassava] to perfection, and had greater hopes from the Indigo . . . than any of ye rest of ye things I had tryd."

Pinckney supported the American Revolution and saw her plantations destroyed by British raiders during the war. Her eldest son, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1746–1825), fought in the Continental Army and later became one of the signers of the U.S. Constitution. Her youngest son, Thomas Pinckney (1750–1828), also fought in the war and later served as governor of South Carolina. President George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97; see entry in volume 2) paid tribute to Eliza Pinckney's contribution to the newly independent United States by requesting to serve as a pallbearer at her funeral in 1793. Although there are numerous portraits of her famous family, no painting or other likeness of Eliza Lucas Pinckney has ever been found. However, her surviving journal and letters create their own portrait and represent one of the most complete accounts of plantation life in early America. Eliza was one of the major matriarchs who helped shape America.

The planter

Elizabeth Lucas was born on December 28, 1723, on a sugar plantation overlooking Willoughby Bay in Antigua, West Indies. She was the eldest of four children born to Anne and George Lucas. From her earliest days, Elizabeth was called Eliza. Her father was a lieutenant colonel in the British army, and he became lieutenant governor of the island colony of Antigua. Eliza, intelligent and ambitious, was sent to London, England, to complete her education. She studied philosophy, French, and music, always setting high standards for herself and others.

In 1738, George Lucas moved his family to South Carolina, hoping the climate change might benefit his wife's poor health. Fifteen-year-old Eliza and her sister Polly joined their parents on a plantation George had inherited from his father, John Lucas of Antigua. The 600-acre plantation along Wappoo Creek was just 17 miles by land from Charles Town, later renamed Charleston, South Carolina.

The War of Jenkins' Ear, a maritime conflict between Britain and Spain, forced George Lucas to return to his post in Antigua in 1739. At sixteen years of age, Eliza was left in charge of Wappoo and two other large plantations owned by her father. In a large blank parchment-bound book, she began recording personal and plantation affairs, including details on her horticultural experiments. In addition to running the three family plantations, Eliza tutored her sister Polly. She also taught reading to two black women whom she intended to employ as schoolmistresses for the rest of the black children on her plantations.

George challenged Eliza to find a crop that would grow successfully on the high land which was drier with less fertile lands. South Carolina desperately needed a new export to invigorate its economy. The outbreak of war in Europe between France and Britain interrupted the market for Carolina rice, South Carolina's one staple (a crop produced regularly in large amounts). Eliza's father sent her seeds from the West Indies and encouraged her to plant them and experiment with the various crops. She tried many different kinds of seeds, including ginger, cotton, and alfalfa, but it was the indigo seeds that finally offered the greatest potential for success. If an American farmer could prepare a fine grade of blue dye-cakes from indigo for cloth manufacturers, English merchants would buy the American product rather than the one produced in the French West Indies.

Indigo lady

Eliza shared her father's sense of enterprise and his love of horticulture, and she recorded their correspondence. Beginning in 1740, she experimented with the best soil and the proper season for sowing indigo. Frost damaged Eliza's first crop before the seeds had sufficient time to dry in their small pods. This left her without enough seed for the next spring planting. Eliza had to write to her father and ask him to send more seeds from the West Indies. Worms ate the second crop, but Eliza's efforts to adapt the tropical indigo to the Carolina temperatures showed promise.

By September 1742, Eliza was able to report to her father that she had saved enough seed for the next annual planting. The manufacture of quality dye was a complex process; it took a skilled hand to produce good dye from fresh plants. Recognizing the success of Eliza's efforts, George Lucas sent a dye maker from the island of Montserrat to construct a small factory at Wappoo. Nicholas Cromwell built the vats, but he intentionally spoiled the dye because he feared that Carolina dye manufacturing might soon compete with dye production in his own country and ruin the island's economy. Eliza's experiments continued annually, and in 1744 Eliza finally grew a successful indigo crop, the first in North America. Her father sent Patrick Cromwell, a professional dye maker and a brother of Nicholas, to direct the manufacturing of the indigo dye-cakes (see box).

The 1744 crop of plants produced 17 pounds of dye for the Lucas family. Of this amount, 6 pounds were sent to England

The Manufacture of Indigo

Originally indigo was geographically restricted to areas of the world that had hospitable climates for the plant's growth. India supplied indigo dye to the ancient Middle East and the Greco-Roman world. During the expansion of European power into the Far East, many companies traded in indigo. The species found in Asia was always considered the most valuable indigo to trade, but lesser species were common in parts of Africa and the Americas. By the end of the seventeenth century, Britain was importing indigo for civilian use and for military and naval uniforms. Americans also made use of the dye: Almost half of the flags of the original thirteen states featured blue backgrounds. During the American Revolution, the colonists used indigo to dye the blue coats that became the uniform of the Continental Army.

The manufacture of dye-cakes required a factory consisting of a series of vats or tubs for steeping, beating, mixing, and draining the indigo before it was put into sheds for drying and packing. Slaves would clear and plow the fields and then sow the indigo seeds. Weeding typically began when the plants were 2 to 3 inches tall. When the plants were about a foot tall, the rows between them were plowed to add oxygen to the soil. If a drought lasted for more than six weeks at this point, the plants would start to blacken and die. The indigo was harvested when it was almost ready to flower, at about 2 to 5 feet tall. Slaves would then cut the stalks and bundle the plants together by tens before hauling them to the factory, where they would be processed the same day.

About one hundred bundles at a time were placed in the "steeper," a vat filled with water. The plants were weighed down with logs or stones. After twelve to twenty-four hours, the indigo began to ferment, making the water bubble and turn amber green as it drew the pigment grain from the leaves. The fermented mixture was drawn down into the "beater" vat, where unwanted particles were picked out of the liquid. It was then stirred with paddles for about two hours to add oxygen until the mixture turned a violet blue. The stirring caused the indigo to condense into specks, flake off, and sink like mud to the bottom of the vat. The water was then drawn off into a third container, leaving the indigo at the bottom of the second vat. From there it was scooped up and put into cloth bags to drain overnight.

The indigo now resembled blue mud. It was packed into square, brick-size containers with drainage holes. After additional pressing and drying, it was removed from the molds and cut into pieces about an inch and a half square. When completely dry, the pieces of "pigeon neck" indigo were very hard, lightweight, and gleaming blue. When it was needed for dying, the dried indigo dye-cake was dissolved in stale urine, tannic acid, or wood ash. The mixture was then put into water, where it produced a yellow-green solution. Cloth dipped into the dye turned yellow green until it was removed and exposed to oxygen. The cloth would then turn blue after drying.

and were enthusiastically received by the merchants of London. The rich blue dye was rated equal to that of the French indigo. European consumers were demanding more and more indigo products. They wanted indigo-dyed fabrics, paints, and laundry bluing, which made white fabrics appear whiter. The blue dye was used for adornment and religious ritual and as a symbol of political and social status. To encourage a commercial supply of indigo from Carolina, Eliza distributed the seed from her 1744 crop to a large number of planters in hopes of increasing trade with England. By 1747, Carolina plantations had produced enough indigo to export over 100,000 pounds of the blue dyecakes. The British parliament supported a bounty (payments to farmers to help with their farming expenses) on indigo from South Carolina and allowed the colony to establish impressive credits in London banking houses. South Carolina's success in growing indigo in the dry, high ground balanced nicely with its established rice plantations in the marshes and lowlands. The two lucrative crops made South Carolina one of the wealthiest of the thirteen colonies.

The Belmont Plantation

Most of Eliza's energies were given to her plantation duties, but she did enjoy brief visits to Charleston, a town that offered its residents and visitors music, theater, balls, and a weekly newspaper. After 1748, the town also offered a library society, but Eliza had her own well-furnished library made up of the books her father had left when he returned to Antigua. The year 1744 marked not only the success of her indigo experiments but her marriage to Charles Pinckney (1699–1758). Charles was a childless widower more than twenty years older than Eliza. He had studied law in England and was the first native South Carolina attorney. Soon after the wedding, Eliza's mother returned to Antigua, and Charles Pinckney began building a mansion in Charleston for his young bride. The Pinckneys lived in Charleston for almost a decade and had four children. Charles, Harriott, and Thomas all lived to see old age, but George died in 1747, only months after his birth.

Eliza continued her pursuits of horticulture and agriculture on her husband's Belmont Plantation on the Cooper River. She directed experiments with flax, hemp, and the culture of silkworms; her silkworm production aroused great hopes in Carolina but was only briefly profitable. Eliza continued to supervise the indigo experiments on her father's plantations and managed the marketing and sale of her crops.

In 1753, the Pinckney family moved to London, where Charles Pinckney served as a commissioner from the colony to the Board of Trade and Plantations. Eliza enjoyed her return to English society as the wife of a South Carolina representative, and the Pinckney children were enrolled in English schools. In May 1758, after nearly five years in Britain, Eliza and Charles took nine-year-old Harriott home to South Carolina. Charles and Thomas remained in England to complete their education. When Charles, Eliza, and Harriott arrived in America, Charles devoted himself to his neglected plantation, but he was soon stricken with malaria. He died on July 12, 1758, after a three-week illness. Heartbroken by her husband's death, Eliza returned to plantation business, directing her husband's seven separate landholdings in the low country.

The Pinckneys of South Carolina

Plantations were largely self-sufficient operations in the eighteenth century. In addition to a cash crop, plantations produced most of the goods the Pinckneys used on a daily basis. They also made their own cloth and leather, constructed their own barrels, and raised their own food. In running multiple plantations, Eliza oversaw a varied workforce consisting of planters, carpenters, and artisans. She also exerted a strong influence upon the lives and careers of her children, who were to play major roles in shaping America.

Eliza's sons were devoted to the American cause in spite of their long years in England. They returned to Charleston before the outbreak of the American Revolution, and both served in the Continental Army during the war. Charles served as General Washington's aide in 1777. After the war, he represented South Carolina at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the summer of 1787. Thomas attained the rank of general, and in 1787 he became governor of South Carolina. Both of Eliza's sons were Federalist Party candidates in the nation's early presidential elections. Eliza's daughter, Harriott, married Daniel Horry in 1767 and moved to Hampton Plantation on the Santee River. After the American Revolution, Eliza spent most of her time at Hampton, surrounded by her grown children and grandchildren.

In May 1791, President Washington stopped by Hampton to visit Eliza during his Southern tour to rally support for the new national government. The following year, Eliza was diagnosed with cancer. By the spring of 1793, her condition had grown so painful that she decided to travel to Philadelphia, to seek the cures of a highly recommended physician. Eliza Lucas Pinckney died on May 26, shortly after her arrival in Philadelphia. President Washington served as one of her pallbearers when she was buried in the city's St. Peter's Churchyard.

For More Information


Barker-Benfield, G. J., and Catherine Clinton, eds. Portraits of AmericanWomen: From Settlement to the Present. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Pinckney, Elise, ed. The Letterbook of Eliza Lucas Pinckney 1739–1762. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1972. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.

Ravenel, Harriott Horry. Eliza Pinckney. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1896. Reprint, Spartanburg, SC: Reprint Co., 1967.

Roberts, Cokie. Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation. New York: William Morrow, 2004.

Web Sites

West, Jean M. "The Devil's Blue Dye: Indigo and Slavery." Slavery inAmerica. (accessed on August 17, 2005).