Because the Carolina country near the coastal rivers is so “low”—not many feet above sea level or the level of the rivers that feed the sea, it was perfect for the production of rice. Slave labor was used, as it had been on sugar plantations in the West Indies, to create a system of fields surrounded by dikes with openings at the river to allow the fields to be flooded and drained. This is key in rice production because rice can be grown underwater where invasive weeds cannot live resulting in the total elimination of the hard labor of weeding. The West Indian plantation system and its heinous practice of slavery was transplanted whole to the southern American colonies and, sadly, was the first “crop” that grew there. Rice production, in fact, was based almost entirely on West African slaves’ knowledge of growing rice. The most prized slaves were those with the greatest experience of cultivating rice in their home countries in Africa. In 1672, the first rice was planted and rice grew so well that it soon was produced in large quantities and shipped back to Europe. The era of the South Carolina Rice Plantation was born.
Rice production continued for the next two hundred years although, in 1720, plantations also began planting indigo to meet the French and English need for the purple dye laboriously prepared from the raw plant. As other, easier, sources for purple were found, indigo production tapered off and, in the 1780’s, ceased altogether. Several years later, in 1793, cotton took indigo’s place as the “other” crop besides rice and the two were grown, harvested, and, for the next 70 years, shipped from coastal South Carolina and Georgia through the ports of Charleston and Savannah.
Rice production was so successful, in fact, that, approximately 91 planters in the Georgetown district grew nearly half of the rice produced in the U.S. in 1846. The owners of the rice plantations became some of the wealthiest men in the world at that time. With their profits from rice production they built fine houses approached by allées of live oaks and surrounded by landscaped gardens. The abolition of slavery in 1865 removed the essential source of labor without which the plantations could not function. Production sharply declined, the plantations began to languish and the final blows to rice production were dealt by a series of damaging hurricanes in 1906-08. There was simply no way the field systems could be repaired without massive amounts of labor and, without slaves as a source of that labor, the rice plantations fell into disuse. Cheaper rice production using machinery in Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana added another burden, this time from unbeatable competition, and, in 1911, rice in coastal South Carolina disappeared altogether. There had been at least 215 plantations in Georgetown County at some point during South Carolina’s rice plantation history. Some of the old plantations and their large houses were purchased in the first decades of the 20th century for use as hunting and fishing retreats for the wealthy. Some were restored at least in terms of the houses, buildings, and some flooded fields to attract duck and birds but not the rice-production system. No rice is grown on these plantations now yet their beauty and maintenance as private properties serves to remind us of a bygone era. Click here to read about and see other pictures of some of the Georgetown area plantations.
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