Pinckney, Eliza Lucas (1722–1793)

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Pinckney, Eliza Lucas (1722–1793)

South Carolina plantation owner, botanist, and Revolutionary War patriot who introduced commercial-grade indigo as a North American crop. Name variations: Elizabeth or Eliza Lucas. Pronunciation: Pink-knee. Born Elizabeth Lucas on the island of Antigua in the British West Indies on December 28, 1722; died of cancer in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on May 26, 1793; daughter of Major (later Colonel) George Lucas of the British Army and Ann (maiden name unknown) Lucas; studied under tutors in Antigua and at a prestigious girls' school in England; married Charles Pinckney (a neighboring planter), in 1744; children: Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (b. 1746); George Lucas Pinckney (died in infancy, 1747); Harriott Pinckney Horry (b. 1749); Thomas Pinckney (b. 1750).

Moved with family from Antigua to England (1735); moved to a plantation near Charleston, South Carolina (1738); after father was recalled to activemilitary duty, managed his three plantations and was soon experimenting with indigo and other exotic crops including silk (1739); after marriage to neighboring widower Charles Pinckney, helped to manage a total of five plantations (1744); moved with husband and children to England for five years (1753–58); helped to finance the cause of the colonies during the Revolution (1776–81); entertained President Washington on one of her plantations (1791).

"I love a Garden and a book, and they are all my amusement," wrote Eliza Lucas Pinckney to a friend in 1762 with elegant simplicity. Indeed she did, for she proved to be an almost revolutionary innovator in colonial agriculture and a lifelong reader, ever seeking information, and even gleaning botanical and agricultural inspiration from such disparate writers as the Roman poet Virgil and the 17th-century political theorist John Locke.

An "army brat," Eliza was born in the tropical island colony of Antigua in 1722. Her father George Lucas was a professional soldier in the British garrison there, holding the rank of major. George and Ann Lucas were quite wealthy, and their children—Eliza, Mary (known as Polly Lucas ), and George, Jr.—were educated from their earliest years by learned personal tutors as well as by their mother.

In 1735, the family moved to England, where Major Lucas had been given a new command, and for some three years Eliza's educational horizons were vastly broadened by attendance at a quality girls' school, where she showed a particular fondness for Latin, French, and music that would never fade. She later looked back on this period with great nostalgia.

Three years later, in 1738, at age 16, Eliza accompanied her family to the colony of South Carolina. Her father had taken leave of absence from the army in order to manage three rice plantations bequeathed him on the death of his own father, John. The plantations were all near the bustling, sophisticated port city of Charleston (known then as Charles Town). The family settled on one, situated on the Wappoo Creek, as Eliza later recalled, "from Charles Town 17 mile by land, 6 mile by water."

The family soon was fatherless, for when England went to war with Spain (the War of Jenkin's Ear) in 1739, George was recalled to the army and ordered back to Antigua. Ann by this time was permanently incapacitated by illness, and Eliza, at the tender age of 17, was given by her father the very adult choice of either returning to England to live with relatives, or remaining on the Wappoo. Without hesitation, she decided on the latter, an easy choice for her, because she loved plantation life. But her new responsibilities were to prove far less easy. At Wappoo, Eliza became mistress of the 600-acre plantation, and also had to supervise the family's other two nearby plantations, while seeing to the care of her feeble mother and the education of her younger sister, Polly. George, Jr., had meanwhile been sent back to England to a military school.

It was a full life of 16-hour work days, in which Eliza oversaw scores of slaves (some of whom, in total defiance of local custom, she taught to read and write) as well as a number of white workers, ordered seed and stock and tools, paid bills, and personally tutored Polly, all the while setting aside enough time to read (usually in French) and practice playing the harpsichord for her own cultural development. Eliza thrived on this routine and proved to be extraordinarily efficient, while the plantations flourished under her management. She even found the time, under the guidance of neighboring planter and lawyer Charles Pinckney, for an informal study of law. By the time she was 19, neighbors were seeking her advice on legal matters.

Once in a while, Eliza would leave the plantation on the Wappoo and treat herself to a weekend trip into Charleston, where she stayed with friends, did some personal shopping, and attended parties and the theater. With typical understatement, she wrote to a friend: "Charles Town, the Principal one in this province, is a polite, agreeable place," whose inhabitants lived in a "genteel, English manner."

But it was in the plantation fields and paddies that Eliza was happiest, and her native curiosity drove her beyond management into experimentation. She was the first in South Carolina to successfully plant ginger, and in 1741 she "planted a large fig orchard, with design to dry and export them," which she soon managed to do. Much taken by the Roman poet Virgil, whose writings were loaned to her by Charles Pinckney, she planted a cedar grove to match one of the ancient bard's descriptions, and she also began "making a large plantation of oaks," to beautify one of her properties.

But her most outstanding contribution came through the cultivation of indigo, a very fragile and temperamental plant from which the brilliant blue dye is made. In 1740, her father sent some indigo seeds from Antigua and advice concerning their cultivation. Properly harvested, indigo was much in demand by the huge British textile industry, fetching astronomical prices. Frost caused the failure of Eliza's first crop, but she doggedly kept at it, and in 1744, with help from an experienced dye maker sent by her father, she harvested North America's first high-grade commercial indigo crop at age 22. Eliza earned good money from indigo, and she generously gave away seed and advice to many of her neighbors, including Charles Pinckney. By 1750, South Carolina would dominate the world trade in the blue dyestuff.

Because of her dedication to work on the plantations, Eliza's social life was spotty. George Lucas, who was now kept away by his appointment as governor of Antigua—a signal honor—worried about his daughter from afar, and urged her to marry. He even attempted matchmaking, but to no avail. As she wrote him in Antigua of one proposed suitor, "The riches of Peru and Chili if he had them put together could not purchase a sufficient Esteem for him to make him my husband." She had a mind of her own, and with her father so distant and her mother now deceased, she was literally her own boss.

Her closest friends were the Pinckneys, of Belmont plantation nearby. Mrs. Pinckney was very sickly, and Eliza often visited her, but with Charles she corresponded almost daily, about plantation matters, world events, the writers they both admired, and their very deep religious convictions. When Mrs. Pinckney died of "fevers," Eliza consented to marry Charles a relatively short time after expressing her condolences. The ceremony took place scarcely four months after the burial, an uncouth period of time to allow for mourning by the standards of the day.

Charles Pinckney, South Carolina's first native attorney and a colonel in the militia, served in the colonial legislature, and oversaw two large rice plantations, on which some of Eliza's indigo was also produced. He was, in local terms, "a man of substance." In the first six years of her marriage, Eliza had four children (the second, George Lucas Pinckney, died shortly after birth in 1747). Meanwhile, she was soon managing all five of her family's plantations. Each morning, arising before the sun, she made a list of chores and resolutions for the day, carefully reserving some time for religious contemplation, music and learning. She was nothing if not efficient and organized. Nor did she abandon experimentation. Through the importation of silkworms and mulberry trees, she had modest success after some years in producing a somewhat coarse silk, which she had fashioned into party gowns. Although Charles built two mansions for Eliza in Charleston (one on prestigious East Bay Street), they were rarely used, and the growing family resided increasingly on one of his plantations east of the Cooper River, some ten miles from the town.

In 1753, with their youngest, Thomas, then three years old, the Pinckneys moved to London, where they resided for five very happy years. Charles was honored by appointment as Royal Agent for South Carolina, a position entailing little work but much prestige. Wealthy and lacking for nothing, they enjoyed a flourishing social life, traveled extensively in England, and built a network of influential friends. Before they left England they placed their sons in an exclusive boarding school, and in the spring of 1758, they sailed for home with daughter Harriott.

Eliza Lucas Pinckney">

I love the Vegitable world extremly. I think it an innocent and useful Amusement.

—Eliza Lucas Pinckney

During the couple's long absence, their plantations, which had been run by their various foremen, had deteriorated, at least in Eliza's view, and she was to work in a frenzy for years to restore them to their former state. But she was to work bereaved, for Charles, who was many years her senior, died of malaria in the summer of 1758. As Eliza wrote to many a friend, if she had not had her work, her heart would have broken: "I was for more than 14 year the happiest mortal on Earth!… Think what I now suffer." The five plantations, however, took up her time so thoroughly that there was little left to grieve, or even maintain her normally heavy correspondence. Only her sons in England would receive regular letters. Of her full days, she wrote:

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 recolecting something I have learned lest for want of practise it should be quite lost, such as French and shorthand. After that I devote …

and so her schedule progressed efficiently through the day and late into the night, ending with religious devotions.

When Harriott was 19, in 1768, she married a neighboring rice planter, Daniel Horry. Shortly thereafter, Eliza's sons returned to South Carolina and helped her manage the plantations, dabbling also in politics. By 1770, both were considered the brightest rising political stars in the colony. The Revolutionary War validated their stature, and Eliza proudly outfitted her sons in the uniforms of officers in the cause of independence. For eight years both served with great distinction, and both achieved the rank of general by the war's end. Eliza served the colonies' struggle with equal distinction, helping to finance the defense of Charleston, and sending food, cash and equipment to patriot forces throughout the Southern states, until her selfless generosity had left her personal fortune much depleted.

The contributions of Eliza and her sons continued. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, who served in the legislature following the war, was named to the state delegation sent to Philadelphia in 1787, and helped to write the Constitution of the United States. Thomas, by then serving as governor of South Carolina, was selected to chair the South Carolina committee in charge of the Constitution's ratification. Charles would serve in the U.S. Senate for many years and run for president three times, and both Pinckney men would head the Federalist Party, the party of Washington and John Adams. In 1791, Eliza was personally honored when President Washington, on his only trip to the state, elected to sample her hospitality and stay on the Pinckneys' East Cooper plantation.

Not long after the president's visit, Eliza Pinckney was nearly 70 when she discovered that she had cancer. Finding no relief from local doctors or folk medicines, she traveled to Philadelphia, then still the young nation's capital, in April 1793, to consult a Dr. Tate, who had reputedly cured many cancer patients. She died on May 26, while undergoing treatment, and President Washington, by his own request, served as chief pallbearer at her funeral the following day. She was interred in the churchyard of St. Peter's Episcopal Church. Her surviving children lived unusually long lives for the time, Thomas dying at age 78, Charles Cotesworth and Harriott at 80.


Bodie, Idella. South Carolina Women. 2nd ed. Orange-burg, SC: Sandlapper Publishing, 1990.

Pinckney, Eliza Lucas. The Letterbook of Eliza Lucas Pinckney, 1739–1762. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1972.

Rogers, George C. Charleston in the Age of the Pinckneys. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969.

suggested reading:

Ravenel, Harriet Horry. Eliza Pinckney. NY: Adams Press, 1896.

Zahniser, Marvin R. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney: Founding Father. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1967.

John Hoyt Hoyt , Professor of History, Indiana State University, Terre Haute, Indiana