girl grows indigo in south carolina colony

At the age of sixteen tender years, Eliza Lucas became the manager of her father’s 600-acre plantation in South Carolina. Her mother was ailing, and the work involved in the management of the entire operation fell upon her shoulders. She was also supervisor of the overseers of her father’s two other plantations, one which produced tar and consisted of fifteen hundred acres, the other a three-thousand acre rice plantation. Eliza Lucas is known for her research and development of indigo as a major crop in the American colonies.

Eliza was born in Antigua, in approximately 1722, and, when she was fifteen years old, moved with her family to South Carolina, where her grandfather had owned land since the early part of the century. The following year her father, Colonel George Lucas in the British army, was obliged to return to his post due to conflict between England and Spain. Three years later he was appointed lieutenant governor of Antigua and never returned to his plantations.

Having the “business of 3 plantations to transact, which requires much writing and more business and fatigue of other sorts” would be beyond the range of ability for the average modern sixteen-year old, male or female, but Eliza was a capable and determined young woman. Under her father’s guidance, which she received by way of letters sent to and from him at his post in Antigua, she developed the cultivation of a variety of indigo that ultimately increased the export of indigo dye from the colonies nearly thirty-fold and caused indigo to become a major economical resource in the Carolinas.

Eliza also asserted her will and intelligence in standing up to her father when she felt the need to do so for her own peace of mind. One of the first entries in her letter book is a letter to her father telling him plainly that under no conditions would she marry the man he had suggested for her. “…and [I] beg leave to say to you that 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.” This was an unusual girl for the times; and her father must have also been an unusual gentleman to take such back-talk from his daughter. She softens her strong stance in the last paragraph of the letter:

You are so good to say you have too great an Opinion of my prudence to think I would entertain an indiscreet passion for any one, and I hope heaven will always direct me that I may never disappoint you;

Her letters to her father were almost always addressed to “Honored Sir:” She clearly felt very attached to her father and appreciative for her upbringing and his continued guidance, though she carried the largest load of responsibility. The day to day problems and tasks of the plantations were hers to deal with and she would wait weeks for answers from him to her questions.

She was responsible not only for the management of the three farms, but also the care of her mother and younger sister. Eliza’s parents believed in education for girls as well as boys. She had attended school in England, studying French, music, and other subjects, but she wrote her father in 1740 asking that her young sister Polly not be sent to England for school, instead offering to teach her at home. However, in 1742, she wrote to her father saying that she had “prevailed on Mama to send Polly to school.” We can only imagine what events or circumstances caused her to change her mind.

Eliza was passionate about gardening, and in addition to her work with indigo, embarked upon various other horticultural experiments. Reading the work of Virgil inspired her to plant a cedar grove, and she planted an orchard of figs with the intent to dry and export the fruit.

In her letter book Eliza describes a typical day in her life to a friend as full but also fulfilling. Rising at five o’clock in the morning, she read until seven. Then she would take a walk outside to supervise the employees of the plantation, and after that have breakfast. After breakfast she practiced her “musick.” After music came French so it would not “be quite lost,” and then until lunchtime she taught her sister and slave children to read. After lunch she would spend another hour practicing her music, and the afternoon with needlework until dusk made it difficult to see. After dinner was spent reading or writing until time for bed. On Tuesdays the music teacher came, and on Thursday she spent the entire day writing, “either on the business of the plantations, or letters to my friends.” Every other Friday, she went visiting.

This description, from the letter book, sounds somewhat relaxing to us who are used to eight to ten-hour work days away from home. But at that time, a girl as young as this, had she not had the responsibilities that Eliza did would have undoubtedly led a much lazier life, sleeping late in the mornings, and having not much to do except for her own lessons and letter-writing.

Eliza left an invaluable chronicle of American Colonial life, and the fact that the letter book was begun by a sixteen-year-old girl is especially interesting. The will, intelligence, and perseverance of Eliza Lucas provide an example that modern women will find inspiring.

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