Seeking Indigo for Rainbow Summer School for Mrs. Matlock’s class, led me to return to Charleston, SC~ which we visited several weekends ago.
Indigo, or indigotin, is a dyestuff originally extracted from the varieties of the indigo and woad plants. Indigo was known throughout the ancient world for its ability to color fabrics a deep blue. The dye was highly prized by English textile plants in the 18th Century.
Although rice was actually the first lucrative cash crop of South Carolina, it took approximately one hundred years to perfect the rice-growing techniques used in the New World. By the middle of the 18th Century, indigo became a strong rival of rice in South Carolina. Its culture is said to have begun through the experiments of a planter’s daughter, a young girl named Eliza Lucas, who set out the plants on her father’s farm on Wappoo Creek.
Eliza Lucas is credited with introducing indigo to South Carolina. In her father’s absence, sixteen-year-old Eliza became responsible for managing the Wappoo Creek farm, plus supervising overseers at two other Lucas plantations, one inland producing tar and timber, and a 3,000 acre rice plantation on the Waccamaw River. With seeds she received from her father from the West Indies, she eventually perfected a method of making blocks of indigo cakes to be turned into dye. The dye, for which England had relied upon from French sources, was in great demand, used in military uniforms and in dress coats of the day. She provided a new, lucrative business for South Carolina planters. Historian Edward McCrady wrote: “Indigo proved more really beneficial to Carolina than the mines of Mexico or Peru were to Spain . . . . The source of this great wealth . . . was a result of an experiment by a mere girl.”