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A Colonial Wonder Woman


Old plantations speckle the South Carolina landscape
The year is 1738. Why don't you come for a walk with Nick and me on a rice plantation in South Carolina. Dozens of slaves are at work in the fields. Many others are inside preparing food and washing clothes. The master, meanwhile, is kneeling in the soil, planting seeds.

Let's take a look at the master. What do you imagine? A well-educated guy dressed all nice in a suit, his hair turning a little grey? 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 fainted 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. Her parents had her study French, music and other subjects intended to turn young ladies into desirable wives. But Eliza had other plans and she told her dad so when he tried to marry her.

Indigo seeds
She wanted to run a farm. There was just one problem: Girls were not supposed to play in the dirt back then, especially girls from her kind of family. Also, she wanted to try planting a new kind of plant called indigo that makes blue dye.

When her father had to go away for a very long trip and her brothers were off at school, she saw her chance. Eliza ran the whole plantation and she did a great job. So her father let her try planting the indigo.

Communing with Eliza's spirit
Her first try the young plants froze in a frost. The second time a beautiful crop grew before her eyes, but some pesky bugs noticed the indigo too, and they gulped it down in a single night. Finally the third year her crop was a winner. She was so successful that within two years so many other people were growing indigo and indigo became the second most popular crop to grow in South Carolina.

Success at last!
Eliza did eventually marry and her sons became governors, Revolutionary War generals, and signers of the U.S. Constitution. 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. 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!)

Imagine being told that you can't even plant a seed -- just because you're a girl! 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