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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/March 1895/An Old Industry


IN the rich lands along the river banks of South Carolina, particularly in the Peedee section, there could be seen a few years ago an occasional vat or tank, made of the durable cypress timber, and raised high above the ground on wooden posts. Perhaps before the present time the last of these vats has disappeared; yet these recent traces of an old industry tell of a time when the making of indigo was the most important source of wealth of a prosperous colony. For fifty years, extending from a little before the middle of the eighteenth century to its last decade, when the invention of the cotton gin changed the direction of southern enterprise, indigo-making in South Carolina exceeded all other industries in importance.

To-day not an ounce of indigo is prepared for market purposes within the State. The cypress boards of the "eaters" and "steepers" have been converted into other structures. The records of the methods and profits of the industry have been shelved in the archives of the once flourishing Winyaw Indigo Society, whose old hall in Georgetown has been given over to the use of a modern graded school. The wild indigo still grows abundantly in the woods, but its associations are foreign to the thoughts of the present industrial generation.

There are two species of plants native to South Carolina from which indigo for market purposes has sometimes been prepared. The most familiar of these is the Baptista tinctoria, of the order Leguminosœ, commonly called "wild indigo," a branching herb with insignificant yellow blossoms and small, bluish-green leaves which blacken in drying. It grows in dry, sandy soil in all the eastern States, and is abundant along the woody roadsides of New England, where it is often picked to put over the heads of horses on the road as a protection against worrying flies.

The other indigo-bearing plant was known as "false indigo" or "bastard indigo." It is the Amorpha fruticosa, a shrubby plant, also of the order Leguminosœ, but bearing bluish-purple blossoms. A coarse kind of dye was formerly prepared from its young shoots.

In the palmy days of indigo-making the dye generally thought to be of finest quality was obtained from a cultivated plant similar to the "wild indigo"—a native of Hindostan, but introduced into South Carolina from the West Indies. A writer[1] of the eighteenth century tells us: "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 our annual Plant, but the Nilco (i. e., wild) sort which is common in this Country is much more hardy and is perennial. The Stalk dies every year, but it shoots up again next Spring. The Indigo made from it is of as good quality as the other, and it will grow on very indifferent Land, provided it be dry and loose."

Experiments with indigo are noted as early as 1670. The earliest records of the colony contain allusions to "indico" as one of the sources of wealth. After a few years the making of indigo languished for a time. A London writer[2] of 1682 says: "Indigo they have made, and that good. The reason why they have desisted I can not learn." The industry was revived to some extent in Governor Thomas Smith's administration—the landgrave and wealthy planter who is said to have introduced the rice culture by planting in his garden at Charles-Town a bag of seed rice from Madagascar.

Edisto Island was early given to indigo culture, and the quality of its product became noted. The better soil for the production of indigo led many of the Huguenot immigrants to leave their first home at St. James on the Santee, and settle in St. Stephen's Parish. Yet these early efforts in indigo culture were not a marked success. We are told by an old writer that "all creatures about an indigo plantation are starved, whereas about a rice one, which abounds with provisions for man and beast, they thrive and flourish."

The honor of raising indigo-making to a profitable industry belongs to an enterprising young lady named Eliza Lucas. The story of her efforts is told in Ramsay's History of South Carolina,[3] George Lucas, the father of Eliza, was Governor of Antigua, in the West Indies, and also the owner of a plantation in South Carolina at Wappoo Cut.

In 1739 the daughter, who had become familiar with the crop and its methods in the West Indies, came to live in South Carolina. Her father often sent to her tropical seeds to be planted for her amusement on the plantation. The fact that a plant similar to the indigo of the West Indies grew spontaneously in the province suggested the adaptedness of the crop to this climate. Accordingly, some seed was sent, which Eliza planted in March, 1741. It was destroyed by a frost; but in April the experiment was repeated, the second crop being also cut down by a worm. Nothing daunted, the persevering young lady planted for the third time, and the effort proved successful.

When Governor Lucas heard that the plant had seeded and ripened, he sent from Montserrat, at high wages, an indigo-maker, named Cromwell, to show Eliza the process. He built vats on the Wappoo, and made some indigo of indifferent quality. Having repented of his engagement as likely to injure the industry in his own country, he also made a mystery of the process, and tried to deceive by throwing in too much lime. But Eliza, who was watching carefully, detected the deception, and at once engaged a Mr. Deveaux to superintend further attempts at indigo-making.

Not long after these experiments Eliza Lucas married Charles Pinckney, afterward Chief Justice of South Carolina. A generation later, their son—Charles Cotesworth Pinckney—was an illustrious figure in the affairs of the State and nation.

Eliza Lucas brought to her husband as part of her dowry the fruit of her own industry, in the form of all the indigo raised on the plantation. It was saved for seed, and a part was planted the next year on Mr. Pinckney's plantation at Ashepoo. The rest was given to friends, who began making experiments in indigo. Most of these proved successful, and the manufactured product soon became an important article of export.

Miss Lucas, though best known as the introducer of indigo, and the mother of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, is said to have possessed literary talent as well as executive power. Her letters were afterward privately printed, and one of them, under the title A Love Letter of the Last Century, has been included in Stedman and Hutchinson's Library of American Literature.

The success attending the experiments with imported indigo turned the minds of the people again to the native plants. A Mr. Cattell brought to Mr. Pinckney some of the wild indigo from the woods. Experiments were made, and it was found capable of yielding good indigo, but was less productive than the other. From this time, indigo for home use and for exportation was extensively made from both kinds of plants. Of the women of the Revolution we are told, "Indigo either tame or wild enables them to give a beautiful blue to their homespun."

In 1747 a considerable quantity of indigo was sent to England, which induced the merchants trading to Carolina to petition Parliament for a bounty on Carolina indigo. This petition of the English merchants was followed by another from the planters. Parliament examined the matter, and found that indigo was one of the most beneficial articles of French commerce; that the West India Islands supplied all the markets of Europe; and that Great Britain alone consumed annually six hundred thousand pounds weight of French indigo, which at five shillings a pound cost England the enormous sum of a hundred and fifty thousand pounds sterling. It was also found that the English West Indies were generally raising sugar cane instead of indigo. Accordingly, in 1748, a bounty was given "of sixpence sterling on all indigo raised in the British-American plantations and imported directly into Great Britain from the place of its growth."

Some years elapsed before the colonists learned the art of making it as well as the French. The planters were blamed by the English merchants for paying too much attention to the quantity and too little to the quality of their indigo, and the West Indian indigo brought a higher price in the market. But each year the skill of the colonists increased, and in process of time they brought indigo-making to such a degree of perfection as not only to supply the mother country but also to undersell the French in several European markets.

In 1748 the amount of indigo exported from South Carolina was 138,118 pounds, which was sold at 2s. 6d sterling; in 1754 the export was 210,924 pounds; and shortly before the Revolution it had risen to 1,107,660 pounds.

Various statements regarding the price of indigo are given in the old records. The value varied greatly during the half century of its production. A recent writer[4] says, "The finest quality of the dye at one time sold in the market for as much as four or five dollars a pound, and fortunes were made rapidly by its cultivation." It is certain that between the years 1763 and 1775, when indigo was at the height of its importance, South Carolina had a most unexampled period of prosperity. Ramsay tells us that "indigo proved more profitable to South Carolina than the mines of Mexico or Peru to Old or New Spain." Wealth poured in upon the people, many of the planters doubling their capital every three or four years. During the years preceding the Revolution[5] it is said that "a larger number of children were sent to England for education from South Carolina than from any of the colonies, and this on account of the greater wealth of the colony, owing to the superiority of her products rice—and indigo—which gave abundant means."

But the Revolution brought a change in industrial and commercial conditions. During the war more rice was raised than indigo, as was natural. After peace was declared, indigo culture increased again for a little time. But the conditions of trade were different. The English bounty was no longer available, Large importations of indigo soon came to England from the East Indies, which lowered the price, and the palmy days of indigo for South Carolina were gone forever.

As its value declined, other crops took its place. Rice superseded indigo in the coast districts. In North Carolina, where indigo had been extensively raised also, tobacco became the principal export, and was used as a medium of exchange, as indigo had formerly been. But the climax of decline was reached in 1794, when a certain Yankee schoolmaster of Georgia, named Eli Whitney, brought to perfection the saw gin, which relieved the necessity of tedious manual operations in the cleaning of cotton. The value of cotton and of negro labor to cultivate it became suddenly very great. So the reign of indigo passed away; cotton became king, and a new industrial era dawned, leading to tremendous historical consequences in the State and nation.

But although indigo was no longer a staple or article of export, yet during the early part of the nineteenth century it was still produced in small amounts for domestic use. In his Random Recollections of a Long Life, published in 1876, Mr. Edwin J. Scott tells us of the process as he saw it carried on in his boyhood. The plants were immersed in water and the coloring matter extracted. This was allowed to sink by its own weight to the bottom of the vat, when the water was drawn off and the sediment left to harden. He continues: "When broken, the cleavage in good indigo was smooth, and showed a copper-colored tinge. The recipe of a traditional old lady of South Carolina for judging of the quality of indigo is said to have been as follows: 'Take a clean new cedar or cypress piggin; fill it three thirds full with clean spring water; put into it a lump of indigo as big as an egg and if good it will sink or swim, I have forgotten which!'"

But simple as the process sounds in the descriptions of Mr. Scott, the indigo industry was one which involved much risk, and required great skill and untiring attention day and night. Through the whole of the "making season" a periodical change of hands was kept up, except in the case of the "indigo-maker," who, we are told, "could no more leave his post than the captain of a ship on a lee shore."

In his Reminiscences of St. Stephen's Parish,[6] Mr. Du Bose says: "I have often heard it said that during the manufacturing season Mr. Peter Sinkler [Mr. Du Bose's grandfather, who was an indigo-maker of high reputation] would be three weeks without seeing his wife, though he slept at home every night. He would come home late, when she was asleep, and return to his professional labors before she awoke in the morning."

The want of success with indigo in the early days was probably owing far more to the imperfect knowledge of the methods of preparation than to the want of the imported seed. It seems to have been usually attempted at first to carry on indigo-making in alternation with other labors.

In an early Description of South Carolina[7] we read: "One Slave may manage two acres and upwards [of indigo] and raise provisions beside; and have all the Winter Months to saw Lumber and be otherwise employed in."

And again: "I cannot leave this Subject without observing how conveniently and profitably as to the change of Labour both Indigo and Rice may be managed by the same persons: for the Labour attending Indigo being over in the Summer Months, those who are 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."

In its best days indigo-making was a profession absorbing all the thought of an entire plantation.

An extended list of "Rules and Directions as practiced by an ingenious Person who practiced them with much Success" is given in Dr. Hewit's Historical Account of South Carolina and Georgia.[8] Another even more explicit description of the processes used is given by Du Rose in his Reminiscences. From these and other sources the following details of methods in vogue among professionals have been compiled:

The ground to be planted was plowed or turned up with hoes some time in December, that the frost might render it rich and mellow. Afterward it was harrowed, cleaned from all roots, grass, etc., well drained, and thoroughly pulverized. After all danger of frost was over—in South Carolina about the beginning of April—the fields were laid off in drills about an inch deep and twelve to fifteen inches apart. In these drills the seeds, mixed with lime and ashes, were sown.

Mr. Hewit tells us: "The next thing to be considered is the choice of seed, in which the planters should be very nice. There is great variety of it, and from every one good indigo may be made, but none answers so well in this colony as the true Gautimala, which if good is a small, oblong black seed, very bright and full, and when rubbed in the hand will appear as if highly polished. A bushel of seed will sow four English acres."

If the season was a fair one, the seeds came up in ten days or a fortnight, and grew rapidly, requiring nice and frequent hoeing and weeding. The plants were usually cut three or four times in the season. Whenever the plant was in full bloom it required to be cut down without regard to height, as the leaves were then thick and full of juice.

The plants were cut with a reaping hook and carried to the macerating vat, also called the "steeper." This, as well as a second vat called the "beater," was "made of the best cypress or yellow-pine planks, well fastened to the joints and studs by spikes and then calked."

When the steeper was furnished with a sufficient quantity of weed, clean water was poured in, and the weeds were left to steep or macerate until all the coloring matter was extracted. The weed was laid regularly in the steeper with the stalk upward, and upon it long rods were fastened lengthwise in the vat to prevent its buoying up when the water was pumped in. Soft water was needed for the purpose, and the quantity must be just enough to cover all the weed. This process of "steeping" or fermentation usually took from twelve to fifteen hours.

The fluid was then drawn off into the beater, where it was agitated violently until all the coloring matter was united in a body. The usual contrivance for this purpose consisted of an axle, to which were attached long arms, each furnished with a small bucket at the end. The laborer would place himself upon the vat, and work the axle with a handle or crank, causing the buckets to rise and fall rapidly in the liquid. This process of "beating" required great nicety, for if not continued long enough a part of the tingeing matter remained in the water; if continued too long, a part of that which had separated was dissolved afresh.

Du Bose tells us: "I can well remember how often in the process the liquor was taken up in a plate and anxiously examined in the rays of the sun to ascertain whether all the particles of dye were separated; for if not, the result would be a failure; the bright true-blue color would not be obtained, and the value of the drug would be impaired."

Lime was then applied, which assisted in the separation of the water from the indigo. The whole was allowed to rest eight or ten hours, until the blue matter had thoroughly settled. The clean water was then drawn off by cocks in the sides, at different heights, and the blue part was discharged by a cock in the bottom into another vat. It was strained through a horsehair sieve, and afterward put into bags "made of osnaburgs, eighteen inches long and twelve inches wide," and suspended for six hours to drain. After this, the mouths of the bags being well fastened, they were put into a press to complete the removal of the water.

The indigo had now become a fine stiff paste which was cut into pieces about two inches square and laid out to dry. The drying house was made of logs so arranged as to allow free access of air without exposure to the sun, "which was very pernicious to the dye"; as indigo, if placed in the sun, "in a few hours would be burnt up to a perfect cinder" While in the drying house the indigo was carefully turned three or four times a day to prevent it from "rotting." Care was also taken to keep away flies, since "at this season of the year they are hatched in millions and infect an indigo plantation like a plague." Care was also necessary that the indigo should be sufficiently dry before being packed, lest after it was headed up in barrels it should "sweat" and so become spoiled for the market. In packing the indigo the lumps were brushed to make them look as bright as possible.

While the indigo was curing it had an offensive smell, and we read that "as the dregs of the weed are full of salts and make excellent manure they should be immediately buried underground when brought out of the 'steeper.'"

The season for making indigo in Carolina ended with the beginning of frosty weather, and the planters brought their indigo to market about the end of the year. The merchants judged of its quality by breaking it and observing the closeness of the grain and the brilliant copper or violet-blue color. The weight also showed the quality, for heavy indigo of every color was always bad. Fire afforded another test, as good indigo was almost entirely consumed, but the bad would leave a quantity of ashes.

Probably these numerous details in the process were abbreviated by many of the indigo-makers. But there were many grades of professional reputation among indigo planters, dependent on the nicety of their work.

In addition to the risks attending the manufacture of indigo, there were others connected with the growth of the crop. Du Bose writes: "The great enemy of the crop was the grasshopper, which would sometimes destroy the crop in a few days. The best remedy against this enemy was chickens. I recollect that my father was in the habit every year of sending into the swamp fields several hundred chickens. Movable coops were furnished for their accommodation by night, but no food. Nor did they require any so long as the grasshopper infested the fields. Those who could not use chickens suffered the margins of their fields to grow up to grass. The grasshoppers, driven from the fields with whipping brushes, would alight in the grass, which was then fired."

The indigo for exportation was brought into Charles-Town in wagons, and the owners received the proceeds in the form of Spanish silver coin, which composed almost the entire currency before the Bank of the State was established in 1812. It was a clumsy and inconvenient medium of exchange for large amounts. We read that "the merchants of North Carolina and other distant points used to carry the money in boxes fitting under the seats of the 'sulkies' in which they traveled, so as to be taken out at night and put back in the morning."

The indigo itself was often used directly as a medium of purchase for other commodities. General Harrington at one time sent three four-horse wagonloads of indigo to Virginia, buying in exchange from fifteen to twenty negroes.

An interesting illustration of this use of indigo is connected with General Francis Marion. The incident occurred in 1783, just after the battle of Hobkirk Hill. A nephew of General Marion was to be sent to school in Philadelphia, and was accordingly fitted out with a wagonload of indigo which was to pay for his tuition and other school expenses. As the British then held possession. General Marion wrote[9] to Lord Balfour in command in Charles-Town, asking a permit for the boy to pass through the British lines. General Marion's letter was sent by Balfour to Rawdon and was afterward countersigned by Cornwallis. The youth with his wagonload of indigo was allowed to proceed by the Charlotte route toward Philadelphia, but unfortunately he died before reaching his destination.

The history of the indigo industry would not be complete without a description of the old Winyaw Indigo Society of Georgetown. This society, named from the tribe of Indians who once occupied this part of the State, was originally a social club formed in 1740 by the planters of the Georgetown district. It met once a month to discuss the latest news from London, and also certain agricultural questions. The society was not incorporated until some years later, and then took the name "Winyaw Indigo Society," having in view the improvement of the indigo industry, and also certain educational aims.

The annual fees of the members were paid in indigo, and, as the expenses were light there had accumulated in 1753 a sum which seemed to require some special application. The president proposed that the surplus fund should be devoted to the establishment of a charity school for the poor. Ramsay tells us, nearly fifty years later: "The object of this society is now wholly confined to the education of orphan children. Since its commencement there have been educated and supported by its bounty between one hundred and two hundred children. From the continual accession of new members the funds are in a flourishing condition and enable the society to educate twenty children annually." The school had a growing reputation, and afterward enlarged the sphere of its benefits. It was for many years one of the chief schools in the eastern part of the State, and was resorted to by all classes.

The society[10] also accumulated a valuable library, which was added to and maintained until destroyed by the Federal troops on the occupation of Georgetown during the civil war. Also during the war the school itself was discontinued.

The Winyaw Indigo Society still exists in Georgetown as a social club, but has no connection with indigo except in name. The old hall of the society is now occupied by the public graded schools of Georgetown.

Thus a new social and industrial order has established itself upon the old. The children of these schools to-day know nothing of indigo. The process of its manufacture, once so important, is now forgotten. But to the traveler through the country the branching herbs of the wayside with their bluish-green leaves are eloquent with the memories of an era long past, and of a forgotten industry whose records are hidden away within the pages of a few obscure old volumes.


  1. This quotation is taken from A Description of South Carolina prepared by Order of Governor Glen, and containing Curious and Interesting Particulars relating to the Civil Natural, and Commercial History of the Colony within Forty Years (1710-1760).
  2. Quotation from A Compleat Discovery of the State of South Carolina, prepared by T. A., Gent, clerk in his Majestie's Ship Richmond, which was sent out in the year 1680 to inquire into the State of that Country by his Majestie's Special Command. To be sold by Mrs. Grover in Pelican Court, Little Britain, 1682.
  3. See Ramsay's History, vol. ii, p. 138, etc.
  4. Scott's Random Recollections, etc., 1876.
  5. See Ramsay's History.
  6. Du Bose's Reminiscences of St. Stephen's Parish, printed in 1852.
  7. Same book referred to in the first note of this article.
  8. Included in Carroll's Historical Collections.
  9. This interesting letter of General Marion's is now in the possession of Mr. Richardson, of Sumter, S. C.
  10. An account of the Winyaw Indigo Society, and the school established by it, is given in a Paper on Colonial Education in South Carolina, read before the South Carolina Historical Society, August 6, 1883, by Edward McCrady, Jr., and afterward published in vol. iv of the Collections of the Historical Society of South Carolina.