Life on an Indigo Plantation

Imagine yourself as a young girl, transported from your proper English school to the wilds of South Carolina. The year is 1738. You along with your parents and sister take up residence at Wapoo, a plantation near Charleston. Now imagine that your father departs for Antigua, leaving you, at age 16,  in charge of not one, but three plantations.

This was the situation facing Eliza Lucas, who went on to become one of the most important women in South Carolina history. Her father, a colonel in the British army, left Eliza to decide where she and her family should live. From Antigua, he sent her a variety of seeds for experiment and in 1741 she first successfully manufactured the blue dye-cakes from the indigo plant. The intense dye was in demand abroad for making military uniforms and Eliza proved it could be a commercially viable crop.

Her days usually began at five am when she arose to read for a couple of hours. Then she walked the fields “to see that the Servants are at their respective business and then to breakfast.”  Afterward, her morning was consumed by practicing music, French, and shorthand, and by teaching  reading to her sister Polly and “two Negro girls.” After dinner, another hour of music needlework by candlelight, and then reading or writing until bedtime.Can’t you just imagine Eliza and Polly in the drawing room, their heads bent to their canvas, their needles flashing in the flickering light? A sultry, salt-laden breeze moving through the open window. Long shadows shivering on the walls.

Eliza left many letters that paint a vivid picture of life on an indigo plantation and of the enormous responsibilities left to her. In 1740, she wrote to her teacher in England: “We are 17 mile by land and 6 by water from Charles Town where we have about six agreeable families around us with whom we live in great harmony. I have a little library well furnished…in which I spent part of my time. My Musick and the garden which I am very fond of take  the rest of my time that is not imployed in business of which my father has left me a pretty good share…’twas inavoidable as my Mama’s bad state of health prevents her going through any fatigue.

“I have the business of three plantations to transact which requires much writing and more business and fatigue of other sorts that you can imagine.”

Eliza married Charles Pinckney, a prominent lawyer,  in 1744 and moved with him to Belmont Plantation. There, she continued experiments with crops including flax and hemp, and with cultivating silk. The Pinckneys and their children moved to London in 1753 and returned to Charleston five years later. Mr. Pinckney, who she described as “the beloved of my soul” contracted malaria and died shortly after. Nearly overcome with grief, Eliza resumed her plantation duties. Following the American Revolution, Eliza lived with her daughter until her death in 1793.

On a trip to Charleston many years ago, I visited one of my favorite used book stores, Boomer’s Books on King Street , owned and operated by Jim and Lee Breeden,( now it’s called Blue Bicycle Books and is under new ownership)  and  there I discovered, in near-perfect condition, a copy of Eliza’s letterbook . It’s a treasure trove of first- hand information about colonial South Carolina, offering a rare glimpse into the workings of plantation life and into the heart of a young girl of remarkable intelligence and strength.  Discovering lives like Eliza’s and sharing them with you  is what I love most about writing Southern historical fiction.


6 thoughts on “Life on an Indigo Plantation

  1. Cathy Richmond

    Eliza reminds me of Rosalie Stier Calvert. Her parents began Riversdale Plantation in Maryland, then returned to Belgium. She ran the plantation while continuing her father’s experiments in horticulture and being active in early Washington society. For Rosalie and Eliza, the good old days weren’t slow and leisurely!
    Mistress of Riversdale: The Plantation Letters of Rosalie Stier Calvert, 1795-1821 by M.L.Callcott

    1. dorothy Post author

      thanks, Cathy, for this recommendation. I didn’t know about Rosalie.. Now I will have to find her letters and read them. 🙂 Don’t ou just love this stuff??

  2. Doris

    Hello dorothy,
    I am a weaver/fiber artist who dyes all my own yarns. I have been in the Caribbean searching and finding ruins of indigo vats on Guadeloupe and Carricou. I am currently in Antigua and would like to search for more vat ruins. I find it interesting that you mentioned that Aliza’s father sent her seeds from Antigua. That leads me to believe that they must have grown and processed the indigo cakes on this island. Do you have any addtional information?

    1. dorothy Post author

      Hi Doris,

      From Eliza’s letterbook, we know that her father did indeed send her indigo seeds from Antigua in 1740. However, she does not mention the location of any vats there. I think it’s a safe assumption that indigo was processed there and I would love to know whether you find out anything further either about indigo production there, or about Eliza’s family. Best of luck!!!

  3. Doris

    If you would like to read what I have written about searching for indigo plantation ruins you can go to my website At the botttom of the home page click on the link. It will take you to “Fiber Focus”. The first story is about collecting bison hair for a sculpture. At the bottom of that story go to the link that says something like, explorer on a boat.
    After I explore Antigua I will sail on to the Virgin Islands. I think that there were also indigo plantations there. It is funny, it is very hard to find anyone on these islands that knows anything about the indigo plantations. They can tell you alot about the sugar cane business but they are totally unaware of the history of indigo.

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