Letters on Plantation Life Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“I find it requires great care, attention and activity to attend properly to a Carolina Estate, tho’ but a moderate one, to do ones duty and make it turn to account, that I find I have as much business as I can go through of one sort or other.”

Summary Overview

This is a collection of some of the letters written by Eliza Lucas (Pinckney), an eighteenth-century South Carolina planter in the two phases of her life when she oversaw plantations in the South Carolina low country. Lucas’s letterbook contains both copied out letters and short notes made of longer letters. The letters provide a look at the lifestyles of plantation owners and the cultural interests of elite women. They also display the unusual case of a woman—and in particular, a very young woman, as Lucas was when she wrote the early letters in the collection—administering a plantation in South Carolina’s patriarchal society. The last letter is from her life as a widow, administering estates for her young children. Lucas, also known by her married name of Eliza Lucas Pinckney, was an innovative planter who was recognized for promoting and spreading indigo cultivation. She was also an important figure in South Carolina society and politics.

Defining Moment

By the time of these letters, the economy of the South Carolina Lowcountry, based on slave-worked rice plantations, had been established, and South Carolina society was taking on the shape it would retain into the Civil War. The Stono Slave rebellion of 1739 had been repressed, and the particularly harsh South Carolina slave code was put into place in 1740. (Lucas’s husband, Charles Pinckney, had been leader of the Assembly when the slave code was passed.) So central was slavery to the economy that South Carolina was the only British colony on the North American mainland in which persons of African descent comprised a majority of the population, a pattern more characteristic of the island colonies of the British Caribbean where many South Carolinians originated. South Carolina society was closely linked economically and culturally with Britain and the British colonies in the Caribbean that furnished one of its principal markets. As a group, the South Carolina rice planters were the richest people in British North America, far wealthier than Boston merchants or Virginia tobacco planters. Lucas herself was born in the Caribbean and educated in England before settling in South Carolina. As the daughter of a British military officer, she naturally inherited a point of view with imperial rather than merely local horizons. She was writing at a time when the “polite” culture of the British elite had more influence on the culture of American elites and when South Carolina’s port of Charles Town had become one of the leading cities of the British Empire and the greatest slave trading port of North America.

The mid-eighteenth century was also characterized by a broad interest, across the Anglo-American colonies and European civilization in general, in agricultural improvement and the introduction of new crops. It was a time for the founding of agricultural societies (although Lucas, as a woman, would have been barred from membership in most scientific and technical societies) and the launching of agricultural prizes. In addition to promoting the economic prosperity of the colonies and their landowners themselves, the cultivation of new crops was also considered a way of substituting products grown in the British colonies for the same products imported from foreign countries and was thus viewed as an imperially patriotic act.

Author Biography

Elizabeth Lucas, known as “Eliza,” was born in the West Indies on December 28, 1722, the daughter of George Lucas, a landowner and British army officer from Antigua, and his wife Anne. In 1738 Lucas’s family, hoping to improve the health of Anne Lucas, moved to a South Carolina plantation along Wappoo Creek about six miles from Charleston. Despite the move, her mother remained incapacitated and when a maritime conflict with Spain made it necessary for her father to return to his military post in Antigua, Eliza Lucas began to administer her family’s six-hundred-acre plantation and oversee two smaller plantations herself. This was an unusual position for a sixteen-year-old woman in the male-dominated society of colonial South Carolina. Lucas worked to enhance the economic productiveness of the estates through the introduction of new crops. Her tenure as an agricultural experimenter is best known for the introduction of indigo, the source of a highly popular blue dye, as a commercial crop that became South Carolina’s leading crop after rice. After several failed experiments, she successfully produced an indigo crop in 1744 and subsequently distributed seeds and instructions to fellow planters. Due to Lucas’s efforts, the volume of exported indigo increased dramatically within the next five years, making it the second most profitable crop (rice being the first) for South Carolina and increasing the wealth of its planters.

Although rice was extremely profitable, it had widely varying seasonal demands for labor, and planters were looking for a crop that slaves could work when rice made fewer demands on their labor. In addition to indigo, Lucas experimented with other crops, some of which derived from the Caribbean. She grew cotton, lucerne (alfalfa), ginger, and cassava. She also grew figs, hoping to dry them for export, and tried packing eggs in salt to export them to the British Caribbean. Like many other American landowners and improvers she tried to develop silk as a commercial crop, with a similar lack of success.

Lucas’s first period of independent activity came to an end with her marriage to one of South Carolina’s leading statesmen and planters, the widower Charles Pinckney, in 1744. Between 1746 and 1750, the Pinckneys had four children: Charles Cotesworth; George Lucas, who died soon after his birth in 1747; a daughter, Harriott; and Thomas. In 1753, Eliza and her family went to London when Charles was appointed South Carolina commissioner to the Board of Trade. Following Charles’s death of malaria shortly after their return to South Carolina in 1758, Eliza returned to plantation management, this time for her three young children. This second period of plantation management was not as innovative as the first.

Despite her connections with Britain, Eliza supported the American Revolution, and her sons Charles and Thomas both served in the Revolutionary armies. As matriarch of the Pinckney family, who were considered leaders in South Carolina politics and society, she played an important political and social role during and after the Revolution. When she died in Philadelphia in 1793, George Washington was numbered among her pallbearers.

Document Analysis

The letters of Eliza Lucas reveal the cultural and social world of the planter elite in late colonial Lowcountry South Carolina and the unique aspects of Lucas’s own career as a plantation mistress. Although Lucas lived in many places during her long and eventful life, the letters reproduced here were all written from the South Carolina plantations her family owned. As a large-scale South Carolina planter, Lucas functioned both as a leader of the local community and as a member of an imperial elite bound together by a common culture. She had close personal and cultural ties to South Carolina’s urban capital, the port of Charles Town, and further connections to Britain and other British colonies in the Caribbean and North America. While the South Carolinian elites were primarily self-governing, they were still provincials—a consciousness that is reflected in Lucas’s correspondence—and politically subject to a British government over which they had relatively little direct influence. However, in her local community Lucas was a leader, both as a holder of land and slaves and as an intermediary between her poorer white neighbors, the institutions of the state, and wealthy landowners. Perhaps most importantly, she was a member of an elite family by birth and eventually by marriage. Her awareness of her position in her family and her responsibilities to it shaped her life before, during, and after her marriage. Lucas occupied an unusual role in her family and society as a very young woman who was operating a plantation business and as an agricultural experimenter and innovator.

South Carolina in the middle of the eighteenth century was a rural society with little urban development outside Charles Town, the largest city of the South and one of the leading cities of British North America. The difference between the sophisticated urban society of Charles Town, where the Lucas family owned a house, and the rustic society of the country, where they had their plantations, played an important role in Eliza Lucas’s worldview. These divisions were not only spatial but also cultural. The particular qualities associated with the town and the social elite she expressed in the classical eighteenth-century language of “politeness.” Although Lucas claimed to have voluntarily chosen the rural life, it is clear that it presented difficulties due to a lack of companionship with people of a similar cultural background. Lucas identified six families living in the area as “agreeable,” indicating that they shared her position in the cultural, social, and economic hierarchy. However, country houses were often widely separated and transportation between them was primitive.

Despite the presence of these “agreeable” families and her own relatives, Lucas suffered from cultural isolation on the plantation before her marriage, which was partially alleviated by solitary amusements such as reading and playing music. Correspondence with people of a similar cultural background, particularly women, was an emotional lifeline, as were her visits to Charles Town, which sometimes extended to a month. In Charles Town, Lucas sometimes stayed with “Mrs. Pinckney,” the first wife of Charles Pinckney, the man she would eventually marry. In addition to her Carolina women friends and correspondents, Lucas also corresponded with Englishwomen like Mrs. Boddicot. Skill in letter-writing and the punctilious writing of return letters were highly valued social accomplishments for people in Lucas’s social class. Letter writing required mastering of the elaborate formulae of greeting and closing, such as the “Yr. most affectionet and most obliged humble Servt,” which closes Lucas’s letter to Mrs. Bodicott and was a proper closing for a social inferior in rank and age addressing a superior. Many of Lucas’s letters display a wit and literary polish indicating that she thought of them as more than mere communications. While on the plantation, Lucas was also dependent on correspondents in Charles Town and London for cultural items such as books and written music. The network of informal exchange also included items that Lucas manufactured herself, as well as gifts of plantation produce like preserved fruit.

In the country, major landowners like the Lucases and the Pinckneys also coexisted with smaller landowners, whom Lucas identified as those “who have a little Land and a few slaves and Cattle.” (True family farmers who did not own slaves did not exist at that time and place.) Economic, social, and cultural hierarchy was important in the relationships of Lucas and her smallholding neighbors. The lack of a political and social infrastructure in rural communities forced Lucas and other plantation owners into roles they were not formally qualified for, as can be seen in Lucas’s adoption of the role of lawyer who drew up wills in situations where death was imminent and no qualified lawyer was available. Many rural smallholders lacked the financial and geographic access to a lawyer that richer landowners or urban dwellers would have had as a matter of course. For a woman to take on this specific role was highly unusual, as women could not become professional lawyers and had no way of obtaining formal training in the law. However, the idea of the lady of the great house having some responsibility for her poorer neighbors had a long tradition in both England and the southern colonies, as was the idea that landowners should know something of the law of property, both for their own protection and to aid their less educated neighbors. Lucas, an avid reader, picked up knowledge of the law from “Dr. Wood,” Thomas Wood’s two-volume Institute of the Laws of England, first published in 1720 and published in multiple editions thereafter. Since she was not trained in the technical language of common law, she found Wood difficult to read. She identified Wood as “rustic,” re-inscribing the division between the “polite” city, as embodied in the uncle of the correspondent, presumably a lawyer, and the countryside, lacking in “politeness,” a central aspect of which was ease of communication. She was careful not to get out of her depth in the law, as indicated in her refusal to draw up a marriage settlement, a more complicated legal instrument than a will, for a local widow. Since the widow was financially able to hire a lawyer and the situation was not as urgent as a deathbed, Lucas did not regard the widow as an appropriate object of her charitable labors in any case.

Familial bonds were central to Lucas’s social existence, as they were to all upper-class British colonists at the time, and particularly to women, who did not occupy a public political role, but who, like Lucas could be extremely influential through family connections. Throughout her life, Lucas fulfilled the prescribed social roles of daughter, sister, wife, widow, and mother. Her first period of plantation management was as the deputy of her father, the actual owner of the plantation, and the second was as caretaker for her young sons when they were being educated in England. Her bonds with her father were partly those of business—she reports to him on plantation affairs—but also affectionate, as when she speaks of how happy she would be if here “Papa” were there with her.

There was a growing emphasis in eighteenth-century culture on close emotional relationships among family members. Familial bonds extended far beyond the immediate family in South Carolina’s tightly interwoven community, however. The importance of extended family bonds can be seen in the arrangement Lucas made with the anonymous “conscientious good man,” the foster father of two orphans of whom her late husband had been the guardian. The incapacity of many of Lucas’s family members, the absence of her father, and later the death of her much older husband while her children were still young, added to the challenges she faced, but they also spurred her independence because she therefore spent much of her life outside the direct control of a dominant, patriarchal male.

Like all South Carolina landowners, big and small, Lucas and her family were ultimately dependent on the labor of the slaves who grew and processed the rice and indigo and did the day-to-day physical work that made the plantations run. Although these letters contain relatively few direct references to slaves, slavery as an institution permeated South Carolina society, and Charles Town was the largest slave-trade port in continental North America. Rural land was considered worthless without slaves to work it. Even the poor landowners Lucas mentioned owned more than one slave. On a large plantation like Lucas’s, supervising the slaves at work was the job of overseers, and the necessity of hiring good overseers—as well as a man to oversee the overseers—comes up in the letters. This work was strongly gender based as can be seen in the refusal of the “conscientious good man” Lucas hired to supervise her overseers to work for male landowners, who would be expected to exert their patriarchal authority by supervising the overseers themselves. The reference to planters “importing negroes”—African slaves—for their own use probably refers to a provision of the law that allowed planters who imported slaves to work on their own plantations, as opposed to slave traders importing slaves to sell to others, to be exempt from import duties—an arrangement to the advantage of the planters who dominated the South Carolina Assembly. The work demanded of slaves in South Carolina rice culture was extremely debilitating, leading to short lives and low fertility rates, so importing slaves was vital to maintaining the economy. The letters also provide one glimpse into Lucas’s relationship with her slaves outside of economic exploitation when she mentions trying to teach young slave children to read (in the hopes, she explains in a letter not included in this selection, that the girls she trained would then train other slave children to read). This would have been unusual in South Carolina in the aftermath of the Stono Rebellion when treatment of slaves actually became considerably more repressive. Slaves were actually forbidden from learning to write by the harsh slave code of 1740—passed when Charles Pinckney was speaker of the South Carolina Assembly—although it remained legal for slaves to learn to read.

As a plantation manager, Lucas oversaw supplies, production, and distribution, an enormous task given that her responsibilities encompassed three plantations when she was only sixteen years old. However, Lucas was not content to simply manage the plantation’s existing rice-based economy. Like other eighteenth-century landowners, she decided to introduce new profitable crops for cultivation and to maximize the value of plantation land and slave labor. Although she is best known for introducing indigo cultivation to South Carolina, Lucas experimented with a variety of crops, as can be seen from her letters’ references to ginger, “Lucern grass,” and indigo. From her reference to the purchase of Colonel Heron’s house in Georgia, Lucas also seems to have handled nonplantation family business.

In addition to its social importance, correspondence also played an important role in business, and letters could easily mix business and personal affairs. That made it particularly important to keep a record of letters sent, and Lucas’s letterbook served as a register of sent letters, and the actual letters may have differed from what is recorded in the book, as evidenced by the abbreviations found throughout.

South Carolina had long-standing connections to the British Caribbean colonies, and many of its early settlers, including Lucas’s family, could trace their origins there. This made South Carolina different from other colonies that had originally been settled by people from England and Europe. In these letters, transatlantic considerations seem to outweigh continental North American ones. In considering places to live, Lucas ranked Carolina above the West Indies but below England. The high ranking of England in this passage may be explained by the fact that the letter is addressed to Mrs. Boddicot, an Englishwoman, although it may also express Lucas’s genuine preference. The colony of Georgia, on South Carolina’s southern border, had only recently been founded, but Lucas refers to its first governor, James Oglethorpe, as “tyrannical,” an attitude commonly held among elite South Carolinians due to Oglethorpe’s military government and his opposition to extending slaveholding to the new colony.

Both Lucas’s father and brother were officers in the British military, (one reason why Lucas had so many family responsibilities) and Lucas frequently dealt with officers such as Colonel Heron, Captain Sutherland, and Captain Gregory. At this period of her life, with Great Britain involved in the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War, Lucas seems to have identified as an imperial patriot. However, she was not blind to the problems of the British Empire from an elite South Carolinian point of view. South Carolina, like the other British colonies in North America, had a great deal of independence and was able to pass even fundamental laws like the slave code with little interference from Britain. However, South Carolina remained part of the British Empire and ultimately subject to Parliament. The case of Georgia revealed the potential for “tyranny” in the imperial framework. British imperial policies, over which South Carolinians could have little direct influence, affected South Carolina’s economy. British moves against independent colonial banks threatened the circulation of currency in the colonies, whose lack of sufficient currency had already led to the common use of the Spanish pistole. Although Lucas does not voice discontent in this passage with the vulnerability of South Carolinians to parliamentary decisions that were made in London and that did not represent their interests, the situation is of the kind that would eventually lead to the American Revolution, in which South Carolina somewhat reluctantly participated.

The last letter was written in Lucas’s (then Eliza Lucas Pinckney) widowhood, when she found the task of running an estate a welcome distraction from the stress of her husband’s death. Her sons were too young to run the Pinckney plantations themselves and were being educated in England. Lucas seems more focused on running the plantation in a way to clear off its debt than on experimenting at this stage in her career. Debt was a condition of life for plantation owners throughout the South. Lucas’s hopes to pay off the debts of her estate with a good crop failed. She blamed this on poor weather, reminding the reader that in all agricultural societies, nature was the ultimate arbiter of success or failure.

Essential Themes

Although women with Lucas’s prominence as plantation managers and agricultural experimenters remained few and far between and those, male or female, who began running plantation business at the age of sixteen were even rarer, the life she led was similar to those of many elite South Carolinians and southerners who lived during the age of American independence and the antebellum period. Many women, including Lucas’s daughter Harriott Pinckney Horry, did manage plantations as widows or when their husbands were away or incapacitated, particularly during the Civil War. Elite landowners retained the idea of cultural superiority, and the cultural division between large landowners—the “planter elite”—and small landowners remained essential to southern life. The members of the Pinckney family into which Lucas married were political, social, and cultural leaders in South Carolina for decades. Eliza Lucas herself was viewed in retrospect as a South Carolinian and American patriot whose agricultural innovations were aimed at enriching and improving her country. It should be noted that much of the research on Lucas has been carried out by her descendants.

The imperial transatlantic world that Lucas’s letters reflect was largely ended by the American Revolution, and the weakening of South Carolina’s ties with London and the West Indies was initially accompanied by the strengthening of political and social ties to the other states of the new nation, particularly southern ones that shared South Carolina’s slavery-based plantation economy and society. The rise of abolitionism in the northern and mid-Atlantic states as well as Britain ultimately drew South Carolina into a southern identity of which there is little awareness in Lucas’s writings, coming at the time they did when all American colonies accepted slavery. Although it did not become the capital of the state of South Carolina after independence, Charleston remained a center of elite culture for the state and much of the South.

Despite the changes that came with independence and new technologies such as the railroad, the plantation economy depicted in the letters proved enduring. Agricultural slavery remained the basis of the South Carolina agricultural economy until the close of the Civil War. The indigo industry that Lucas helped start in South Carolina remained an important part of its economy until the late eighteenth century, when the rise of cotton began to marginalize colonial rice and indigo agriculture.

  • Fryer, Darcy R. “The Mind of Eliza Pinckney: An Eighteenth-Century Woman’s Construction of Herself.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 99.3 (1998): 215–37. Print.
  • Pinckney, Eliza Lucas. The Letterbook of Eliza Lucas Pinckney. Ed. Elise Pinckney and Marvin R. Zahniser. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1997. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Anzilotti, Cara. In the Affairs of the World: Women, Patriarchy, and Power in Colonial South Carolina. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002. Print.
  • Burns, William E. Science and Technology in Colonial America. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2005. Print.
  • Edelson, S. Max. Plantation Enterprise in Colonial South Carolina. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2006. Print.
  • Ravenel, Harriott Horry. Eliza Pinckney. La Crosse, WI: Brookhaven, 2005. Print.
  • Rogers, George C. Charleston in the Age of the Pinckneys. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2002. Print.

Categories: History