logo Click BACK to return to basecamp
Lost Teachers
Search Info
White beveled edge

Meet Stephanie

Stephanie Archive

Cool Links
Other Notable Women in History



A Colonial Wonder Woman


Old plantations speckle the South Carolina landscape
The year is 1738 and we're on a rice plantation near Charleston, South Carolina. Dozens of slaves are toiling away in the master's paddies. Scores more are preparing the master's meal. Others are hanging the master's clothes out to dry. The master, meanwhile, is kneeling in the soil, planting indigo seeds.

Now who, do you suppose, is the master? An Oxford-educated statesman with silver hair and a row of spit-polished medals pinned to his chest? Not on this plantation. Here the master is actually a mistress - who is only 16 years old.

Surprised? So were we. Before Nick and I headed South, we were under the impression that colonial women wore long frilly dresses and spent their days relaxing on the veranda. If they grew thirsty, they simply clapped their hands and a servant appeared with a pitcher of ice-cold lemonade. If they received bad news, they called for their smelling salts and passed out gracefully on their lounge chairs.

This is the site of Eliza's first experiments with indigo
These stereotypes were blown to bits when we learned about Eliza Lucas Pinckney, Colonial Woman Extraordinaire. Her early life paralleled that of other upper-class girls of European descent. Before moving to South Carolina, she attended "finishing school" in England, where she studied French, music and other subjects intended to turn young ladies into desirable wives. But Eliza had no intention of delving straight into domesticity. She had dreams to catch first. When her father asked her to decide between two suitors, she replied in a letter: "…a single life is my only choice…. I hope you will put aside the thoughts of my marrying yet these two or three years at least."

Indigo seeds
Eliza's passion in life was botany. She loved to experiment with seedlings and watch them blossom. Although people said that only rice could grow in South Carolina, Eliza had a hunch that indigo - the plant that makes blue dye - could thrive too, and was eager to try it. There was just one problem: Girls were not supposed to play in the dirt back then, especially girls of her social status. Every time Eliza returned home with dirty fingernails, her mother grabbed for her smelling salts. Eliza, however, refused to let go of her dreams.

Then came the day that Eliza's father, a colonel in the British Army, was called off to war in Antigua. Since her brothers were still studying in England and her mother was gravely ill, the responsibility of the family's three plantations fell upon Eliza's shoulders. At age 16, she was in charge of feeding, housing and clothing some 200 slaves, caring for her sick mother, educating her little sister Polly and managing nearly 5,000 acres of land! People said she couldn't handle it, but within a few years, Eliza had proven that she could do the work of men twice her age (and do it well).

That victory wasn't enough for Eliza, however. She still wanted to try her hand at botany. So she asked her father to mail her some indigo seeds and then she headed for the soil. When her future husband predicted she would fail, Eliza replied: "You shall see... that being a girl will not be a handicap with my planting... not in the least."

Communing with Eliza's spirit
Eliza managed to grow a few indigo shoots in her first attempt, but they perished in the frost. When she wrote her dad of her failure, he said: "I'm afraid the task is too difficult for a girl. Perhaps you should devote yourself more to Mama and young Polly's welfare."

This made her more determined than ever. She tried again the following year and was ecstatic to see a beautiful crop appear before her eyes. Unfortunately, some pesky bugs noticed the baby indigo too, and they gulped it down in a single night. Eliza was heartbroken. But the following year she decided to give it one last try, and this time her crop was a winner. The indigo market in Charles Town skyrocketed from 5,000 pounds a year, to nearly 130,000 within two years of Eliza's experiments. Thanks to her, indigo became second only to rice as the state's cash crop!

Success at last!
And Eliza didn't stop there. She also experimented with hemp and flax and revived the South's silk culture. At age 22 she married the Chief Justice of the Province, Charles Pinckney, and gave birth to two sons who eventually became governors, Revolutionary War generals, and signers of the U.S. Constitution. Eliza's hardships were far from over, however. The British seized Charleston during the war and practically razed it to the ground. In her letters, Eliza wrote: "I have been robbed and deserted by my slaves, my property pulled to pieces, burned and destroyed, my money of no value, my children sick and prisoners." Eliza died of cancer at age 70, and President George Washington served as one of her pallbearers.

After reviving silk culture in the South, Eliza made this beautiful dress
Few colonial women attained the fame of Eliza Pinckney, but they all endured her struggles. A typical day's work included raising and educating the children, supervising the preparation of meals, planting crops, sewing, overseeing internal finances, preparing remedies for the sick, caring for the ill and making candles. Women were also expected to be fluent in a second language, master a musical instrument, keep abreast of current events and host lavish dinners and parties - all while keeping their gloves spotless and their tempers cool. Being a white woman in the 18th century was nothing like it looks on TV! They barely had time to breathe, much less sip lemonade on their verandas. (And being a black woman was another story altogether.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle colonial women had to overcome was sexism. Imagine being told that you can't even plant a seed -- just because you're a girl! Women may have run entire households and cared for everyone in them, but they were still considered "weak" and "incompetent" and shunned from the political arena. Amazingly, a number of colonial women managed to break out of the domestic sphere and succeed in other realms. In South Carolina alone, women made great strides in the fields of business, botany, horticulture, journalism, fiction writing and painting. It all goes to show that you should never underestimate the power of women!


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Daphne - Nathaniel Bacon: a rebel with a cause
Kevin - Another slab of Bacon: a rebel without a clue
Teddy - Witchy woman's gonna put a spell on you!
Becky - Rock the vote the colonial way
Irene - Burning down the house: land riots in early America
Neda - The Regulators take on the big, bad tax men
MAD - The indentured servant trade: still rearing its ugly head