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Eliza Lucas Pinckney Writes to Her Father in 1741—Historic Letter

We can learn how people lived and thought in the past by reading historic letters. Such letters sometimes provide historians with information that is very difficult to find anywhere else. Eliza Lucas Pinckney wrote the letter below to tell her father about the progress and problems on their plantations.


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To My Father.
Hon'd Sir June the 4th, 1741

…The Cotton, Guiney corn, and most of the Ginger planted here was cutt off by a frost. I wrote you in [a] former letter we had a fine Crop of Indigo Seed upon the ground, and since informed you the frost took it before it was dry. I picked out the best of it and had it planted, but there is not more than a hundred bushes of it come up…. I make no doubt Indigo will prove a very valuable Commodity in time if we could have the seed from the west Indias [in] time enough to plant the latter end of March, that the seed might be dry enough to gather before our frost. I am sorry we lost this season. We can do nothing towards it now but make the works ready for next year….

My Dr. Papa
y[our]. m[ost]. ob[edien]t. and ever
D[evoted] D[aughter]
E. Lucas

Excerpt from The Letterbook of Eliza Lucas Pinckney, 1739—1762, edited by Elise Pinckney. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1972.


Background

What do blue jeans and Egyptian mummy bandages have in common? The answer is indigo, a blue dye that used to be made from indigo plants. The first person to raise indigo plants in what is now the United States was Eliza Lucas Pinckney.

Pinckney's family moved from the West Indies to South Carolina when she was a child. When her father had to return to the West Indies in 1739, he left 16-year-old Eliza in charge of the family's three plantations. Plantations are large farms that grow mostly one crop. As the plantation manager, Pinckney experimented with growing ginger, cotton, and alfalfa before she grew a crop of indigo. From her indigo plants, she made a strong blue dye that many people in Britain wanted to use.

Pinckney's work created a new industry for South Carolina's planters. She encouraged them to grow indigo and make dye. Soon, indigo was South Carolina's second largest export crop, after rice. By 1754, South Carolina exported more than one million pounds of indigo each year.