Graphic by Victoria  2011

Rice and Indigo
in South Carolina

by Victoria Proctor

In brief...

Rice was grown successfully in South Carolina as early as 1680. By the early 18th century, with the slave system established on a large scale, rice became a major export crop of the region. Rice planting was extremely profitable -- Charleston rice exports rose from 10,000 pounds in 1698 to over 20 million pounds by 1730 -- and South Carolina's tidal swamps were well-suited for it. Because of the seasonal nature of rice and indigo, both crops could be grown using the same labor force.

An 18th Century Description of South Carolina

"The land of South Carolina for a hundred or a hundred and fifty miles back is flat and woody; intersected with many large rivers, some of which rise out of the Cherokee Mountains, and after a winding course of some hundreds of miles, discharge themselves into the sea.

"It is remarkable for the diversity of its soil; that near the coast is generally sandy, but not therefore unfruitful; in other parts there is clay, loam, and marl; I have seen of the soil of some high bluffs, near the sides of rivers, that exactly resembles castile soap, and is not less variegated with red and blue veins, nor less clammy.

"There are dispersed up and down the country several large Indian old fields, which are lands that have been cleared by the Indians, and now remain just as they left them. There arise in many places fine savannahs, or wide extended plains, which do not produce any trees; these are a kind of natural lawns, and some of them as beautiful as those made by art.

"The country abounds everywhere with large swamps, which, when cleared, opened, and sweetened by culture, yield plentiful crops of rice. Along the banks of our rivers and creeks there are also swamps and marshes, fit either for rice, or, by the hardness of their bottoms, for pasturage.

"It would open too large a field to enter very minutely into the nature of the soil; and I think that this will sufficiently appear by the following account of what the labour of one Negro employed on our best lands will annually produce in rice, corn, and indigo.

"The best land for rice is a wet, deep, miry soil such as is generally to be found in cypress swamps; or a black , greasy mould with a clay foundation; but the very best lands may be meliorated by laying them under water at proper seasons. Good crops are produced even the first year when the surface of the earth appears in some degree covered with the trunks and branches of trees. The proper months for sowing rice are March, April, and May. The method is to plant it in trenches or rows made with a hoe, about three inches deep. The land must be kept pretty clear from weeds and at the latter end of August or the beginning of September it will be fit to be reaped. Rice is not the worse for being a little green when cut. They let it remain on the stubble till dry, which will be in about two or three days, if the weather be favourable,, and then they house or put it in large stacks. Afterwards it is threshed with a flail, and then winnowed, which was formerly a very tedious operation, but it is now performed with great ease by a very simple machine, a wind-fan, but lately used here and a prodigious improvement.

"The next part of the process is grinding, which is done in small mills made of wood of about two feet in diameter. It is then winnowed again, and afterwards put into a mortar made of wood, sufficient to contain from half a bushel to a bushel, where it is beat with a pestle of a size suitable to the mortar and to the strength of the person who is to pound it. This is done to free the rice from a thick skin, and is the most laborious part of the work. It is then sifted from the flour and dust, made by the pounding, and afterwards by a wire sieve called a market sieve it is separated from the broken and small rice, which fits it for the barrels in which it is carried to market.

"They reckon thirty slaves a proper number for a rice plantation, and to be tended with one overseer. These in favourable seasons and on good land will produce a surprising quantity of rice; but that I may not be blamed by those who being induced to come here upon such favourable accounts and may not reap so great a harvest; and that I may not mislead any person whatever, I choose rather to mention the common computation throughout the province, communibus Annis; which is, that each good working hand employed in a rice plantation makes four barrels and a half of rice, each barrel weighing five hundred pounds weight, neat; besides a sufficient quantity of provisions of all kinds, for the slaves, horses, cattle, and poultry of the plantation, for the ensuing year.

"Rice last year bore a good price, being at a medium about fortyfive shillings of our currency per hundred weight; and all this year it hath been fifty-five shillings [to] three pounds; though not many years ago it was sold at such low prices as ten or twelve shillings per hundred. Indian corn delights in high loose land. It does not agree with clay, and is killed by much wet. It is generally planted in ridges, made by the plough or hoe, and in holes about six or eight feet from each other. It requires to be kept free from weeds, and will produce, according to the goodness of the land, from fifteen to fifty bushels an acre; some extraordinary rich land in good seasons will yield eighty bushels, but the common computation is that a Negro will tend six acres and that each acre will produce from ten to thirty-five bushels. It sells generally for about ten shillings currency a bushel, but is at present fifteen.

"Indigo is of several sorts. What we have gone mostly upon is the sort generally cultivated in the Sugar Islands, which requires a high loose soil, tolerably rich, and is an annual plant; but the wild sort, which is common in this country, is much more hardy and luxuriant, and is perennial. Its stalk dies every year, but it shoots up again next spring. The indigo made from it is of as good a quality as the other, and it will grow on very indifferent land, provided it be dry and loose.

"An acre of good land may produce about eighty pounds weight of good indigo, and one slave may manage two acres and upwards, and raise provisions besides, and have all the winter months to saw lumber and be otherwise employed in. But as much of the land hitherto used for indigo is improper, I am persuaded that not above thirty pounds weight of good indigo per acre can be expected from the land at present cultivated. Perhaps we are not conversant enough in this commodity, either in the culture of the plant or in the method of managing or manufacturing it, to write with certainty.

"I am afraid that the limewater which some use to make the particles subside, contrary as I have been informed to the practice of the French, is prejudicial to it by precipitating different kinds of particles, and consequently incorporating them with the indigo.

"But I cannot leave this subject without observing how conveniently and profitably, as to the charge of labour, both indigo and rice may be managed by the same persons [emphasis added]; for the labour attending indigo being over in the summer months, those who were employed in it may afterwards manufacture rice in the ensuing part of the year, when it becomes most laborious; and after doing all this they will have some time to spare for sawing lumber, and making hogshead and other staves to supply the Sugar Colonies."
--James Glen, "A Description of South Carolina,"
in Chapman J. Milling (ed.), Colonial South Carolina: Two Contemporary Descriptions by Governor James Glen and Doctor George Milligen-Johnston (South Carolina Sesquicentennial Series, No. I [Columbia, S.C.: 1951])

When Rice was King...

"During the summer months, rice crops waved over fields of thousands of acres in extent, and upon a surface so level and unbroken, that in casting one's eye up and down the river, there was not for miles, an intervening object to obstruct the sight. --(G.S.S., "Sketches of the Santee River," The American Monthly Magazine, October 1836.)

Rice was first grown successfully in South Carolina about 1680 when Henry H. Woodward planted seed given him by the captain of a Madagascar ship. By the early 18th century, it became a major export crop of the Lower South. Rice planting became extremely profitable and Charleston rice exports rose from 10,000 pounds in 1698 to over 20 million by 1730.

The rice fields were carved out of tidal swamps along coastal rivers by slaves brought to South Carolina from the West Indies and West Africa. With primitive tools, the slaves cleared the low-lying land of huge cypress and gum trees, and built canals, dikes, and trunks (small floodgates) that allowed the flooding and draining of fields with the high and low tides. From the 18th century to the Civil War, slaves planted, tended, and harvested the crops that made plantation owners wealthy.

The cultivation of rice with the tidal flow method transformed the coastal Southeast between 1783 and the early nineteenth century. This highly productive method was practical only on the lower stretches of a few rivers from the Cape Fear in North Carolina to the St. Johns in north Florida. The creation of a tidal rice plantation required a substantial capital investment and a tremendous amount of back-breaking labor. Slaves under planter direction cleared riverside swamps of timber and undergrowth, surrounded them with earthen levees, and then constructed an intricate system of dams, dikes, floodgates, ditches, and drains. Woman at workThe planters relied on the rise and fall of the tide to irrigate their fields several times during the growing season to encourage rice growth and control weeds and pests. 

The entire hydraulic apparatus of a rice plantation required constant maintenance by skilled slaves. The Civil War and Reconstruction seriously affected rice culture. No longer able to compel work in the harsh environment of the rice fields, planters faced chronic labor shortages. Finally, a series of devastating hurricanes in the 1890s ruined the rice fields and put an end to commercial rice growing in the Southeast.

Additional reading:
A series of three articles by Christopher Boyle of the Rice Museum in Georgetown:

A Brief History of Georgetown
Interesting and helpful reading--also by the Rice Museum staff


Down by the Riverside. By noted historian in folklore and folklife, Dr. Charles W. Joyner. Reconstructs life on the ante-bellum plantations of the South Carolina Low Country. 345 pages.

South Carolina Low Country: A Past Preserved. Features pictures and histories of over forty churches and plantations from Georgetown, Charleston and Beaufort Counties. Text by Catherine Compani Messmer, Photography by C. Andrew Halcomb. 143 pages. Black and White and color pictures.

Georgetown Rice Plantations. The Georgetown County Historical Society has reprinted Alberta Morel Lachicotte's classic work on the county's rice plantations. Over three dozen plantations are profiled in this 222 page hardcover book. Includes addenda and fifty illustrations.

No heir to take its place. Written by The Rice Museum's first director, this pamphlet is a must for all Low Country historians. Lawson explores a wide range of information pertaining to the rice culture from planting and harvesting the crop to the social lifestyle of the planter class. By Dennis Lawson. 32 pages.

Plantations of the Carolina Low Country. A study of some plantations of Georgetown, Charleston, Beaufort and Colleton Counties. By Samuel Gaillard Stoney. 247 pages.

Rice and Slaves: Ethnicity and the slave trade in Colonial South Carolina. Daniel C. Littlefield explores the slave trade through shipping records and other sources to explain why certain African tribes were more valuable to the American Colonists than other tribes. 199 pages.

Back of the Big House: The architecture of plantation slavery. A study of the structures on the plantations that are often overlooked in favor of the central mansion. The work includes blueprints and pictures of mills, icehouses, dairies, kitchens, slave cabins and much more. By John Michael Vlack. 290 pages.

A Woman Rice Planter. Elizabeth Allston Pringle (pen name, "Patience Pennington") describes life on a rice plantation during the era of the demise of the great South Carolina rice culture. Pringle was the last member of the Allston/ Alston family to plant rice in Georgetown County, a tradition which lasted for over 175 years. Introduction by Charles W. Joyner. 446 pages. Softcover.

Home by the River. The "first truly celebrated Southern writer after the Civil War" explains life on his family's rice plantation during the 1930s, as well as the Rutledge family history. By Archibald Rutledge. 196 pages. Hardcover.


The graceful leaves and flowers of the Indigo plant were once the chief source of the deep blue dye called indigo. The indigo plant, a member of the pulse family, grew chiefly in India, hence the name. The early Romans used indigo to dye cloth. Today, dyes made of chemicals have taken its place.

In 1742, Eliza Lucas (later Mrs. Charles Pinckney) succeeded in growing the indigo plant on her father's plantation near Wappoo Heights. Because the deep-blue dye produced from it was in great demand in Europe, indigo was a leading export throughout the entire colonial period.

About 1740, considerable quantities of indigo began to be produced in Georgia and North Carolina, but the industry disappeared after the War Between the States.

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