American business pioneer Eliza Pinckney (1722–1793) single-handedly launched the indigo industry in pre-Revolutionary era South Carolina. Determined to make the highly prized tropical crop flourish in the Carolina soil, Pinckney carried out several experimental plantings in the early 1740s. These plantings finally yielded enough new seeds to make the plant, used in the textile industry for its distinctive a deep-blue dye, a viable crop in the region. Within a decade, South Carolina planters were exporting thousands of pounds of it annually, and the crop became a staple of the Southern economy.
Educated in England
Pinckney was born on December 28, 1722, in Antigua, one of the islands of the West Indies then under British control. Her father, George Lucas, was a British Army lieutenant-colonel and lieutenant governor of Antigua. Little is known about Pinckney's mother, save for the fact that her health worsened as her daughter entered her teens. Pinckney's father encouraged her to read and cultivate her mind. She was even sent to school in England, a rather unusual advantage for a young woman of her social standing, in her era, when learning was considered irrelevant to a woman's future role as wife and mother.
The Lucas family relocated from Antigua to South Carolina in 1738, the year Pinckney turned 14 years old. It was thought that the climate would prove more beneficial to her mother's health, and the family settled at a plantation that had been left to them by Pinckney's grandfather. The plantation was called "Wappoo" because of its proximity to Wappo Creek, it was also near Charleston, a bustling coastal city in the British North American colonies that was known as Charlestown at the time. But Pinckney's father was recalled to Antigua around 1739 when a conflict erupted between England and Spain called the War of Jenkins' Ear, and because his two sons were away at school in England, George Lucas left his capable teenage daughter in charge of not just Wappoo but two other agricultural properties.
A Head for Business
Seventeen was the age when a young Charleston woman of the landowning class prepared for impending marriage, and Pinckney participated in the round of teas and dances that made up the city's social scene. Yet she also spent hours studying books from her father's library with the goal of improving her knowledge of botany and the business of agriculture. She served as tutor for her younger sister, and also taught two young women slaves to read so that they could teach in a small school on the estate she had set up for the slaves' children. In May of 1740, Pinckney wrote a letter to a Mrs. Boddicott, in which she cautioned her reader not to consider her estate-management job "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, and by rising very early I find I can go through much business," according to the Dictionary of American History.
Pinckney also corresponded avidly with her father for advice, and he began sending her seeds from the West Indies to try out on the Carolina soil. The Wappoo property had twenty slaves, and both land and labor were mortgaged; Pinckney was determined to find a profitable crop that would help reduce that debt. Rice was the main crop of the Carolinas at the time, but its profit margins were dependent on several external factors related to geopolitical events. Instead she tried out ginger, alfalfa, cassava, and other crops, with little success, but in 1740 her father sent her some indigo seeds. Indigofera tinctoria was a tropical plant known since ancient times, cultivated in China and Japan but especially in India; its very name reflected the Greek term for India—indikon—which had supplied it to Europe as far back as the Roman era. In the Middle Ages, indigo was a rare luxury in the West, and even in some African cultures it was a prized commodity, with indigo-dyed garments a signifier of the wearer's wealth.
Grew First North American Indigo
By Pinckney's day, English textile firms used indigo from the West Indies, where the French had successfully cultivated it in large enough numbers for export. But England and France were great economic rivals, and English firms resented the exorbitant prices the French charged. Pinckney's first indigo crop was decimated by frost, and the second fared badly as well. Finally, a third season yielded a crop with enough seeds to plant again the following season—a crucial achievement because the French West Indies had recently outlawed the exportation of indigo seed in order to maintain their hegemony.
Turning indigo into a transportable substance was a tricky process. The plant needed to be converted into a liquid dye, and then left to dry into dye-cakes. The dye-cakes could then be shipped overseas. The method used at the time may have involved stale urine, known to have been used in Europe prior to 1800. Pinckney's father contracted with an expert from the French West Indian island of Montserrat named Nicholas Cromwell, and Cromwell came to South Carolina to show Pinckney how to ready the crop for sale as a dye. But Cromwell grew wary that a successful Carolina indigo industry would infringe upon the West Indian planters, and ruined a large supply at Wappoo by pouring lime water on it. When George Lucas learned of this, he enlisted Cromwell's brother, Patrick, to go to South Carolina instead and show Pinckney how the crop was prepared for export.
Married a Prominent Lawyer
In that same letter to Mrs. Boddicott, Pinckney mentioned a "Mrs. Pinckney" of Charleston as one of her good friends. On May 27, 1744, the young plantation manager married Charles Pinckney, a well-known Charleston figure who was the first licensed lawyer born in the Carolinas. He was also a widower and nearly twice her age, but the match was a successful one, and as a wedding gift they were given Wappoo. Pinckney's husband was also enthusiastic about the possibilities of a successful indigo crop, and when six pounds of Wappoo indigo were sent to English textile firms to try, they pronounced it superior to French product. Charles Pinckney also began visiting French prisoners in Charleston jails for the purpose of interviewing them about the planting and preparation of indigo for export; what he gleaned resulted in a primer for future South Carolina planters. The Pinckneys distributed the seeds to their neighbors, and their efforts began to bear fruit: in 1746, local planters were exporting 40,000 pounds of it to England, and a year later that number had more than doubled.
Though Wappoo was eventually lost to creditors, the Pinckneys lived in a large waterfront house in Charleston, and became parents to three children. They also spent time on another plantation in Charlestown Neck, known as Belmont, where Pinckney continued to experiment with various crops, including flax and hemp. She also established a silkworm farm and began to spin silk from its yield. In March of 1753, the family relocated to England when Charles Pinckney was appointed the colonial agent for South Carolina, and his wife was known to have presented a dress made from her plantation's silk to the Princess of Wales as a gift. They traveled throughout England with their children, and settled in a home in Ripley.
Friend of First President
In 1758, after five years abroad, the Pinckneys returned to Charleston with their daughter Harriot, but Charles Pinckney fell ill and died of malaria on July 12 of that year. Widowed at 36, Pinckney stayed in the Carolinas, though her sons, Charles Jr. and Thomas, remained at school in England. Later in life she went to live with Harriot—who had also been widowed at early age—at Hampton, a plantation on the Santee River in South Carolina. There, in 1791, President George Washington came to visit Pinckney. When she died two years later, Washington served as a pallbearer at her funeral.
The indigo export industry that Pinckney launched in the Carolinas was mainstay of the region's economy until the Atlantic shipping trade was interrupted by the American Revolutionary War. The large volume of correspondence she left behind is one of the most extensive of any woman of her era in colonial times, and provides an important glimpse into plantation life in the early Carolinas. The signature of one son, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, is among those affixed to the U.S. Constitution, and he was also the Federalist presidential candidate in 1804 and 1808; Pinckney's other son, Thomas, served as a governor of South Carolina and ambassador to Great Britain.
American Eras, Volume 2: The Colonial Era, 1600–1754, Gale, 1998.
Dictionary of American Biography, American Council of Learned Societies, 1928–1936.
Dictionary of American History, edited by Stanley I. Kutler, Volume 9, third edition, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2003.
Kupperman, Karen Ordahl, editor, Major Problems in American Colonial History, D. C. Heath and Company, 1993.
Science and Its Times: Understanding the Social Significance of Scientific Discovery, edited by Josh Lauer and Neil Schlager, Volume 4: 1700 to 1799, Gale, 2000.
Pinckney, Eliza Lucas (1722-1793)
Eliza Lucas Pinckney (1722-1793)
Responsibility. Eliza Lucas was the daughter of Lt. Col. and Mrs. George Lucas. She was born on 28 December 1722 on Antigua in the West Indies, but only part of her childhood was spent in that warm climate. Eliza traveled to England to pursue an education, an unusual activity for young women at that time. In 1738 Lieutenant Colonel Lucas settled his wife and two daughters in South Carolina because of his wife’s poor health. He returned to Antigua after he left his two sons in England, where they attended school. A competent seventeen-year-old, Lucas assumed the management of her father’s three Carolina plantations.
Dedication. A curious and industrious Lucas experimented with growing ginger, cotton, alfalfa, cassava, and indigo, a deep-blue dye product. Planters’ frustration with indigo convinced them to invest time, money, and labor in rice cultivation. In 1740 she received West Indian seed from her father. It took Lucas four years to develop a promising grade of indigo seed. Frost ruined the first crop. Her second crop was very small. Her harvest in 1742 was barely enough to produce seed for the next planting. The 1743 crop was also unsatisfactory. It was not until 1744 that she harvested a successful crop that she could share with her neighboring planters. Her local supply of seed was critical because the French West Indians outlawed the export of indigo seed to competing English planters.
Success. In addition to developing good seed, Lucas worked closely with skilled laborers her father sent to process the dye. They were able to improve on the timely and delicate production of indigo. They needed to convert the plant to liquid dye and dry the liquid into dye-cakes that could be shipped to England. Eliza Lucas’s painstaking experimentation and vigilant supervision produced a staple crop that was invaluable to South Carolina’s export economy.
Renown. After she married widower Charles Pinckney in 1744, Eliza continued with her experimentation. She was more successful with the production of silk than with hemp and flax. Following her husband’s death in 1758, Eliza resumed the management of family plantations that would belong to her three children. Eliza Lucas Pinckney died on 26 May 1793 in Philadelphia, where she had gone for medical care. Her funeral is noteworthy in that President George Washington was one of her pallbearers.