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Indigo in the Fabric of Early South Carolina
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Indigo—both as a plant and a dye—forms an important chapter in the early history of the South Carolina Lowcountry. Although its memory flourishes today in conversations and artistic expressions, lingering misconceptions have distorted our general understanding about the real story of local indigo. In an effort to help “grow” this colorful conversation, I’ve crafted a series of common questions and factual responses that address some of the most important points of indigo history that every Charlestonian should know.
What is indigo?
Indigo is the name of a large family of deciduous shrubs, identified in modern scientific nomenclature as part of the genus Indigofera. This genus encompasses many hundreds of species of indigo, most of which flourish in tropical areas like India, Africa, and Latin America. Some species are native to subtropical climates, however, and flourish in places like the coastal regions of the American southeast.
Indigo is also the name of an organic blue dye extracted from the leaves a number of plants around the world. For many thousands of years, humans have used this dye to impart a lasting blue color to a wide variety of textiles. From the humble vestments of blue-collar laborers, to royal robes, to tapestries and other artistic expressions, indigo is deeply imbedded in the long history of human culture.
Botanical historians believe that ancient people on the subcontinent of India were the first to domesticate a plant now identified by the scientific name Indigofera tinctoria. The deep blue dye they extracted from its leaves was dried into a powder or small cakes and exported to the east and to the west. Two thousand years ago, the Romans called this product indicum, and that name formed the root of the later English spellings, indico and indigo.
Early trade routes like the Silk Road brought indicum to Medieval Europe, but professional trade guilds actively resisted the introduction of Indian indigo into Europe for many generations. Since ancient times, Europeans had cultivated the woad plant (Isatis tinctoria) to produce a very similar blue dye for textiles, and woad farmers and dyers wanted to protect their traditional trade. As indigo production shifted to the New World colonies in the late sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries, however, Europeans eventually discovered that indigo was cheaper and more colorfast than woad, and that traditional market declined.
What does indigo have to do with South Carolina history?
Indigo was grown in early South Carolina to produce blue dye that was exported to England for use in the British textile industry. Indigo formed a significant part of the South Carolina economy for approximately fifty years, from the late 1740s to the late 1790s. During that period, indigo (or, more specifically, indigo dyestuff) was South Carolina’s second most valuable export, behind rice.
The cultivation and production of indigo also involved the labor of thousands—perhaps tens of thousands—of people in the South Carolina Lowcountry. For this reason, the cultural memory of indigo is heightened among members of the African-American community along what is now called the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.
Why was indigo cultivated in South Carolina?
Early South Carolina planters cultivated indigo to satisfy commercial demand for the dye product in the English (later British) textile industry. This activity was one small part of a much larger mercantile economy. From a mercantile perspective, the entire purpose of the Carolina colony was to produce resources and wealth that would enhance the larger British economy and support the expansion of the British empire. The cultivation of indigo in colonial South Carolina was but a cog in that macroeconomic wheel of fortune that revolved around the hub of London.
As with tobacco in Virginia and sugar cane in the Caribbean, indigo was quite literally a foreign commodity to the early settlers of South Carolina. They did not plant indigo here as an extension of farming traditions back “home.” Textile merchants in eighteenth-century England were certainly familiar with indigo dye, but English farmers had no history of cultivating indigo as a crop. For South Carolinians, the foray into indigo production was a purely speculative venture.
Indigo had no value to the early settlers of South Carolina except as a commodity for export. As a plant, one couldn’t eat it, smoke it, feed it to animals, make it into clothing, or build a house out of it. The process of extracting the dyestuff from the plant was costly, time consuming, and labor intensive. The only motivation for investing time, money, and resources into such undertaking was the promise of profit at a market located more than three thousand miles away. Some of South Carolina’s indigo might have been used to dye textiles locally, but, prior to the nineteenth century, we purchased the vast majority of our textiles directly from England, “dyed in the wool.”
Which species of Indigo were cultivated in early South Carolina?
Three distinct species of indigo were cultivated during the first century of the colony of South Carolina. The first and most logical variety is, of course, the native species of wild indigo now classified as Indigofera caroliniana. This is a subtropical species that is found from southern Virginia to Louisiana along the eastern seaboard and Gulf Coast of North America. Colonists did experiment with it here in the eighteenth century, but they deemed its dyestuff to be inferior—in both color and volume—to that of two imported species.
The ancient Indian species (Indigofera tinctoria) came to early South Carolina through contact with English, French, and Dutch merchants trading across the Atlantic and throughout the Caribbean. Because many French planters cultivated this Indian species in their Caribbean colonies, such as Saint-Domingue (Haiti) on the island of Hispañola, eighteenth-century South Carolinians usually referred to this species as “French” or “Hispañola” indigo.
A species of indigo native to Guatemala (Indigofera suffruticosa) also came to early South Carolina through trans-Atlantic and Caribbean trade networks. This Latin American species was cultivated for centuries by the indigenous Maya people of that region, and Spanish colonists began exporting indigo dye from Guatemala to Europe in the 1550s. Thanks to English trade with Spanish and Dutch merchants in the Caribbean, the seeds of Indigofera suffruticosa were available in eighteenth-century South Carolina, where it was usually called “Guatemala” or “Bahama” indigo. Because of its hardy nature and beautiful dye, this Latin American species became the principal species of commercial indigo cultivation in South Carolina.
When did indigo cultivation begin in South Carolina?
Indigo seeds (either I. tinctoria or I. suffruticosa) came to South Carolina with the first English settlers in 1670, along with the seeds of a variety of other plants. In the early decades of this colony, European settlers planted a number of different crops as they tried to learn the qualities of the local soils and the seasonal ranges of the climate. The same process of crop experimentation had led the early settlers of Virginia to focus on tobacco. The early English settlers of Barbados, Antigua, and Jamaica had also experimented with indigo as well as tobacco, ginger, sugar cane, and cotton. Once those Caribbean planters perfected their techniques of harvesting sugar and rum from sugar cane in the 1650s, however, they quickly abandoned their experiments and focused on that most profitable plant. Similarly, when South Carolina planters perfected the cultivation of rice in the late 1690s, they temporarily set aside other crops like indigo and focused on the most profitable commodity.
The French Protestant (or Huguenot) immigrants who came to early South Carolina probably arrived with a greater familiarity with indigo than their English neighbors. Because of France’s traditional commercial ties with Spain, and France’s colonies in the Caribbean, it’s likely that some of the Huguenot settlers who established plantations in the Carolina Lowcountry, especially around Santee River delta, in the early 1700s might have been cultivating indigo for their own use.
White Europeans were not the only people living in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, of course, so the story of indigo in this colony involves many other people. To my knowledge, there is no surviving evidence that the indigenous Native Americans of early South Carolina cultivated indigo, so the local Indians could not have introduced it to the early settlers, as they did with maize and tobacco elsewhere.
It is possible, however, that African captives transported to early South Carolina might have had some experience with indigo cultivation in their native land, or had learned about it in the Caribbean before coming here. Enslaved people were certainly deeply involved in the production of indigo in early South Carolina, but it seems unlikely that they would have had the freedom to cultivate the crop and manufacture the blue dye for their own use.
There is very little surviving evidence of the cultivation and production of indigo in the early years of eighteenth-century South Carolina, but it’s certain that some people were growing it here. An early South Carolina planter named Robert Stevens (died 1720), for example, described the process of extracting the blue dye from the plant in the autumn of 1706. The eye-witness observations of “Allegator” Stevens, as he was apparently known, were later reprinted on the front page of the South Carolina Gazette on April 1st, 1745.
How did indigo become a major crop in South Carolina?
The large-scale, commercial exportation of indigo dyestuff from South Carolina to England commenced in 1747, following a revival of interest in the crop. The principal motivation behind this revival was an economic decline caused by a decade of war with Spain and France (the “War of Jenkins’ Ear” and “King George’s War,” 1739–48). Because much of this warfare unfolded on the waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, the complex web of colonial trade networks suffered greatly. South Carolina planters who had focused almost solely on rice, for example, saw their profits fall while insurance rates skyrocketed. At the same time, Britain experienced great difficulty in obtaining exotic goods like indigo, olive oil, silk, and wine through their traditional suppliers, France and Spain. In light of these conditions, the governments of both Britain and her American colonies encouraged immediate diversification.
During the late 1730s and early 1740s, hundreds of South Carolina planters experimented with a variety of plants in the hopes of finding new commodities that were both well-adapted to the local soil and climate and valuable to the British economy. In May of 1744, the South Carolina legislature enacted a stimulus package to “grow” the local agricultural economy. To encourage planters to experiment with the production of wine, olive or sesamum oil (see Episode No. 78), flax, hemp, wheat, barley, cotton, indigo, and ginger, the provincial government offered a cash bounty of one shilling (South Carolina currency) per pound of merchantable produce for export.
The bounty enacted in 1744 was to be in effect for a period of five years, but the fast pace of agricultural experimentation led to an important revision in less than two. Benne seed oil and indigo were the front runners in this competition, but indigo was clearly in the lead. In mid-April 1746, the South Carolina legislature cancelled the bounty on indigo only, stating that so much of the blue dye had been produced recently that the continuation of the bounty was impractical.
The economic drive to produce indigo was further enhanced in the spring of 1748 when the British Parliament enacted their own stimulus package. South Carolina merchant James Crokatt, who had returned to England, successfully lobbied the government to offer a bounty (initially six pence sterling per pound) to the British purchasers of American indigo. That cash incentive, which took effect in 1749, convinced most South Carolina planters to cease experimenting with other crops and to focus on indigo.
But indigo was always a secondary crop. When Britain’s war with France and Spain ended in late 1748, the price of rice quickly improved and continued to be South Carolina’s primary export. Indigo production slowed dramatically after the war, however, and didn’t rebound until Britain again declared war on France in the mid-1750s. From that point onward, South Carolina’s indigo exports increased rather steadily over the next twenty years.
Did Eliza Lucas Pinckney create the indigo industry in colonial South Carolina?
Eliza Lucas (1722–1793), who married Charles Pinckney in 1744, was an important contributor to the success of indigo in South Carolina, but her role in this endeavor has been greatly exaggerated in recent times. As a young lady residing on a plantation on Wappoo Creek, west of the Ashley River, she experimented with the process of growing indigo from seeds and extracting the dye from the mature plants. But she was certainly not the only person undertaking such work at that time, and she certainly had help from a variety of sources.
As demonstrated in a series of newspaper articles published by her husband (under the name Agricola) in 1744 and 1745, Eliza Lucas was following the same experimental steps followed by many of her neighbors. That is, she obtained a supply of indigo seeds from contacts in the Caribbean and read published descriptions of indigo cultivation and dye production. In her surviving letterbook, which contains copies of her outgoing mail, Eliza mentioned that she spent countless hours reading in her father’s extensive library. In Charles Pinckney’s letters to the local newspaper in the 1740s, he shared some of the indigo instructions she had used. The South Carolina Gazette printed extracts from John Parkinson’s Theatrum Botanicum of 1640, Philip Miller’s Gardner’s Calendar (first published in 1731), and the manuscript instructions penned by “Allegator” Stevens in 1706.
David Ramsay’s 1809 book, The History of South Carolina, was the first publication to portray Eliza Lucas Pinckney as a kind of agricultural hero, and later authors repeated and exaggerated the claim. Doctor Ramsay had known Mrs. Pinckney personally and obtained biographical details about her through Eliza’s sons, but he purposefully distorted the story to portray her as an idealized model of American feminine ingenuity. Later authors have amplified and romanticized that ahistorical distortion, especially in recent years.
Descriptions of Eliza Lucas Pinckney as a heroic agricultural pioneer too often ignore the important contributions by her contemporaries, including such local men as Andrew Deveaux, Charles Hill, Thomas Mellichamp, and James de la Chappelle, not to mention the enslaved people of Native American and African descent who performed the bulk of the dirty work for Eliza and others. In short, the idea that Eliza Lucas single-handedly created an indigo industry in South Carolina is comparable to asserting that Elvis Presley single-handedly invented Rock and Roll. Yes, she was a major contributor to its success, but she was not alone in that journey.
Here’s another way to think about this topic. The indigo business in colonial South Carolina included three distinct components: the cultivation of the plant, the production of the dye, and the marketing of the produce. Eliza Lucas Pinckney contributed significantly to the local understanding of the plant’s cultivation, but not to the remaining two components of the business. To tell the whole story of indigo in South Carolina, therefore, you have to include the contributions of lots of other people.
Where was indigo grown in South Carolina?
Indigo was grown on hundreds of plantations in eighteenth-century South Carolina, predominantly, but not exclusively, in the Lowcountry or coastal plain. It was almost always grown in conjunction with other crops, such as rice, provisions (corn, beans, etc.), and cotton. There were a few South Carolina plantations that focused almost exclusively on indigo production, but they were a rare exception that existed for just a brief moment before the American Revolution.
Our colonial-era fields of indigo ranged in size from just a few acres to around eighty acres. Why so small? Because the production of indigo dye also required the construction of expensive vats and other apparatus. In a June 1755 essay published in the Gentleman’s Magazine of London, a South Carolinian named Charles Woodmason stated that indigo planters needed one set of vats for every six or seven planted acres of the crop. Indigo production entailed a significant start-up investment, therefore, which tended to keep plantings relatively small. Two hundred acres of indigo, for example, would require the construction of at least thirty sets of production vats, each of which had to be operated by a team of skilled laborers and kept in constant repair. The expense of such a large endeavor was too great for most planters, so indigo was generally planted in smaller quantities than many other crops in South Carolina.
What’s the process of extracting the dye from the plant?
Indigo’s deep blue dye is obtained by different methods in different cultures. The most common method involves the extraction of natural juices from the leaves through a chemical process of fermentation and oxidation. In early South Carolina, laborers placed freshly-cut indigo leaves and branches into a water-filled vat called a “steeper” to precipitate the natural juices from the leaves. The resulting liquid was allowed to ferment over a number of hours, after which the “liquor,” as it was called, was drained into another vat while the leaves and branches were discarded.
In the second vat, often called the “battery,” laborers agitated the clear liquid with paddles or bottomless buckets to induce a chemical change. As the liquid mixed with air, the molecules oxidized and transformed into a heavier, blue substance. Once the agitation had produced the desired shade of blue, the liquid was allowed to rest and settle. The addition of water infused with caustic lime (derived from burnt oyster shells) further encouraged the heavier blue material to separate or subside from the water.
After several hours of stillness, laborers drained away the remaining liquid to reveal a vat filled with a dark blue mud. Laborers then scooped the mud into cotton or linen bags that were placed in a series of wooden forms and allowed to dry. Before the product was completely hard, workers cut the indigo cakes into small cubes or squares, like brownies, and placed them on racks in a shed to harden. The dried cubes or squares were then packed into wooden barrels, which were then transported (usually by boat) to the port of Charleston and loaded onto cargo ships bound for England.
A number of publications from colonial-era South Carolina describe and even illustrate the process of transforming the indigo plant into a marketable dyestuff. I’ve already mentioned the directions published in the mid-1740s by Charles Pinckney under the name Agricola. In 1755, Charles Woodmason published a two-part essay on South Carolina’s indigo techniques in widely-read Gentleman’s Magazine, which includes an crude illustration of a set of indigo vats. Thomas Mellichamp received a reward from the South Carolina legislature in 1760 for his improvements in indigo production, which were then published in the local newspaper. A 1773 map of St. Stephen’s Parish, South Carolina, contains a valuable illustration that attempts to summarize the entire process of indigo manufacture in a single image. Similarly, a 1780 map of South Carolina includes a great illustration of laborers engaged in two stages of indigo dye production.
Who did the labor of cultivating the crop and processing the indigo dye?
The work of planting, tending, and harvesting indigo plants in eighteenth century South Carolina was done almost entirely by enslaved people of African descent. Besides cultivating the crop, they also built and maintained the vats and other apparatus used in the production process. Likewise, enslaved men, women, and children also shouldered the bulk of the labor involved in extracting the blue dye from the plants and preparing the finished product for exportation.
Some of this work demanded brute force, unskilled labor. Much of it, however, required intellectual skills that could only be acquired through long experience. Determining the duration of the plant’s initial fermentation, for example, played a significant role in determining the finished quality of the dyestuff, as did the duration and character of the agitation of the “liquor” in the battery vat. The delegation of such important roles to enslaved workers denotes a level of trust, and perhaps respect, that helps us to understand of the complexities of slavery in early South Carolina.
In his 1755 description of South Carolina indigo cultivation, Charles Woodmason estimated that fifteen “hands” (that is, fifteen enslaved humans) were required to plant and tend fifty acres of indigo. Once that crop matured, Woodmason advised that it would take twenty-five “very able” hands (that is, experienced, skilled laborers) to transform that fifty acres of plants into indigo dyestuff. He estimated fifty pounds per acre to be an average yield. Thus fifty acres of plants would yield an average of 2,500 pounds of dye, and required the labor of at least twenty-five enslaved workers. Because that means an average of one hundred pounds of product per laborer, the planter had to decide whether the ever-mercurial price of indigo on the British market merited the investment of his time, money, and resources.
When and why did commercial indigo cultivation in South Carolina end?
In the year 1775, South Carolina exported more than one million pounds of dried indigo cakes to England. That record-high output was immediately followed by a near collapse of the industry. The commencement of the American Revolution, which followed years of simmering political tensions, permanently dismantled the traditional mercantile links between American farmers and British customers. Some South Carolina planters continued to grow indigo and to produce the dye during the eight-year war, but they had a difficult time finding customers for the product.
The Continental Congress, of which South Carolina was a member, prohibited the exportation of any goods (except rice, until the summer of 1777) to Britain or any of her allies. South Carolina producers of indigo then tried to market their product to customers in the Northern colonies and to French customers in the Caribbean, but their success was limited. The long-standing bounty on American indigo, created by the British Parliament in 1748, expired in 1777.
At the conclusion of the American Revolution in 1783, some South Carolina planters returned to the cultivation of indigo. Its price on the international market increased for a short while, but European merchants generally found indigo produced by the Spanish and French colonies to be superior to that from Carolina, both in quantity and quality. By the early 1790s, there was a worldwide oversupply of indigo dye, and South Carolina planters realized that chasing after indigo profits like they had before the war was now a futile endeavor.
Meanwhile, mechanical improvements to the cotton gin in the early 1790s transformed that crop into a highly profitable commodity. In response, many South Carolina indigo planters abandoned the blue dye and began growing cotton. By the year 1800, South Carolina was riding a boom of cotton exports while the commercial exportation of indigo had quietly faded into oblivion. European chemists found a laboratory method of synthesizing an indigo-blue dye (aniline) around the middle of the nineteenth century, and the subsequent mass production of the synthetic dye doomed the traditional commercial industry that revolved around organic indigo.
What’s the legacy of indigo in the Lowcountry?
Indigo is a very visible and popular topic of conversation in twenty-first century South Carolina and beyond. A small number of people around the world are advocating for a return to the commercial production of organic indigo dye (and other dyes) from plants grown in a sustainable manner. Scientists working in partnership with farmers are experimenting with the cultivation of indigo plants as a means of amending soil and air quality.
Closer to home, modern efforts to renew local interest in indigo have reintroduced the two imported species of indigo (I. tinctoria and I. suffruticosa) and brought renewed attention to the native species (I. caroliniana). But there’s a significant difference between the historic use of indigo and our modern fascination with the topic. While South Carolinians in the eighteenth century undertook the cultivation of indigo plants and the production of indigo dye in the hopes of making a good profit, most efforts to cultivate indigo in this area today focus on education, explorations of cultural heritage, and expressions of artistic vision.
On the eve of the American Revolution in 1775, there were many hundreds—perhaps thousands—of indigo vats scattered across the South Carolina Lowcountry. Most were built of cedar or cypress wood and have long since disappeared, but a few brick vats still survive. The brick vats built around 1770 at Otranto Plantation in what is now North Charleston, for example, were moved in 1979 to a location on Bushy Park Road in Monck’s Corner, and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. A few weeks ago, Robert Behre of the Charleston Post and Courier published a fascinating article about a surviving indigo vat on John’s Island.
If you’d like to learn more about this topic, I’ve prepared a short summary of facts about South Carolina indigo history and a list of books and journal articles for further reading. I’ve included a PDF copy of that document at the end of today’s essay. In addition, the Charleston County Public Library periodically hosts indigo-related programs such as lectures, book discussions, and even dye classes, so stay tuned to the library’s website and social media feeds.
Indigo is a beautiful substance that is inexorably linked to a long and painful chapter in the history of South Carolina. By embracing the consoling beauty of indigo and acknowledging the full breadth of its local history, we remember the enslaved people with blue-stained hands whose lives and labors contributed to the success of this community. And we see that indigo truly is part of the fabric of South Carolina history.
 For a biographical profile of Robert “Allegator” Stevens, see Walter Edgar and N. Louise Bailey., eds., Biographical Directory of the South Carolina House of Representatives, volume 2 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1977), 657.
 See the South Carolina Gazette, issues of 8 October 1744, 22 October 1744, 29 October 1744, 1 April 1745, and 23 December 1745.
 For more information on the mythology of Eliza Lucas Pinckney, David L. Coon, “Eliza Lucas Pinckney and the Reintroduction of Indigo Culture in South Carolina,” Journal of Southern History 42 (February 1976): 61–76; and Darey R. Fryer, “The Mind of Eliza Pinckney: An Eighteenth-Century Woman’s Construction of Herself,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 99 (July 1998): 25–37.
 See “The Indigo Plant Described,” Gentleman’s Magazine 25 (May 1755): 201–3; and “On Manufacturing Indigo Into A Dye,” Gentleman’s Magazine 25 (June 1755): 256–59. Both articles were attributed to “C. W.” (Charles Woodmason).
 See South Carolina Gazette, 16–23 August 1760.
 See Henry Mouzon Jr., A Map of the Parish of St. Stephen, South Carolina (London, 1773).
 See the graph of “Indigo Exported from South Carolina: 1747–1775,” in John J. Winberry, “Indigo in South Carolina: A Historical Geography,” Southeastern Geographer 19 (November 1979): 91–102.