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Historical Insights Growing Indigo in South Carolina

In the mid-1700s, the price of South Carolina’s largest cash crop, rice, was dropping, making indigo a valuable new addition to plantations. The indigo crop also extended the growing season, creating year-round work that made slavery more profitable.Credit: Science & Society Picture Library/SSPL via Getty Images

Growing Indigo in South Carolina

In little over a decade after its cultivation by 16-year-old Eliza Lucas, indigo became one of South Carolina’s most profitable cash crops.

In 1742 the face of agriculture in South Carolina changed dramatically when Eliza Lucas, the 16-year-old daughter of a wealthy planter, successfully cultivated indigo for the first time in the American colonies. Because the rich, blue dye extracted from the indigo plant was rare—and expensive—it was a symbol of status and wealth and in high demand in Europe. In 1747 the first shipment of indigo left for England, and within two decades more than a million pounds would be shipped each year, making the dye one of the colony’s largest exports, second only to rice. Indigo production was an extremely labor-intensive, multi-day process that could only be profitable when done on a large scale with slave labor, which limited it to plantations. Though most South Carolinians had few slaves, some landowners had many. The production of indigo caused a spike in the importation of African slaves—who would go on to outnumber whites in the colony by two to one—while lining the pockets of the colony’s elite.