A handwritten letter is an endangered species in the current world of text messages and emails. However, in the colonial days of South Carolina, a handwritten letter was not only the primary way information traveled, it was also a true literary form. Examining such letters today, especially those written by the hands of such historic figures as Eliza Lucas Pinckney, reveal a treasure chest of information and culture, opening modern readers’ eyes to an important time in history vividly described by a very inquisitive and intelligent mind.
Eliza Lucas Pinckney was born in the West Indies (modern day Antigua) in December 1722 to a politically well-connected family. Her father moved the family to the colony of South Carolina in 1738 because of both the threat of war and the promise of better health and wealth. However, Eliza’s father soon had to return to Antigua to resume service in the British Army. With her father serving overseas, her older brothers pursuing formal education in England and her mother in poor health, Eliza, at the tender age of 17, found herself in charge of her family’s three plantations in the Lowcountry of South Carolina.
How did a teenager assume and respond to such heavy responsibility? Eliza Lucas Pinkney was not the usual teenage girl. She was disciplined and determined and had always set high standards for herself. When she was not looking after the business of more than 3,100 acres of farmland, she invested her time in helping others, such as teaching her younger sister how to read, as well as two young female slaves so that they could teach in a small school on the estate she had set up for the slaves’ children. Eliza believed that an educated mind was the key to happiness.
Eliza’s belief in education was the exception in that time period. In the colonial days, girls were not educated to the same extent boys were. The Southern colonies especially, dominated by a rural landscape, had a higher rate of illiteracy and fewer educational opportunities. Girls were typically taught how to be a good housewife, learning hands-on skills like sewing, knitting, cooking and math, to record the household expenses, and be obedient to male members of the family. However, girls born into the upper class, such as Eliza, had a better chance to be educated, primarily by their parents, older siblings or private tutors.
Even then, a girl and her parents had to be careful as to how much education she received. A woman who was too highly educated was often seen as being less desirable to potential husbands. Those cultural norms did not stop the determined Eliza Lucas Pinckney. As a young girl, she went abroad to England and received a thorough education. Not only did she become fluent in French, but she also learned Latin and studied music. She read widely and thoroughly, including the ancient Greek and Roman writers Virgil and Plutarch, as well as the English Enlightenment philosopher John Locke. She wrote to her father, “I beg leave here to acknowledge particularly my obligation to you for . . . my Education, which I esteem a more valuable fortune than any you could now have given me, … will make me happy through my future life.”
Eliza was especially fascinated with botany, and her journals are filled with notes about plants. Her father was the one who encouraged Eliza to experiment with indigo, a plant that had not yet been introduced to North America. This sought after dye is native to the tropics of Asia, most likely India. After fermenting the leaves of the indigo plant, a dye can be extracted, dried and pressed into cakes. This dye was considered very valuable as it was very rare, even to the ancient Greeks and Romans, so much so that indigo was often referred to as “blue gold.” (Most indigo dye today is made synthetically.)
At that time, most of the indigo that was imported to England and her colonies came from France and her colonies; England wanted to become less dependent on France for this luxury item. Because of Eliza’s persistent experiments over five years, she helped make indigo one of the South Carolina colony’s major exports. At the age of 22, Eliza produced her first marketable crop of indigo. Its quality was well received by the London market. Once this young lady showed how successfully indigo could be grown in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, many male planters followed her example of industry and innovation. In fact, Eliza generously shared indigo seeds and her hard earned lessons with local planters. Indigo soon became a staple crop for South Carolina, actually helping the colony become more financially viable and independent from England before and after the Revolutionary War.
Developing indigo into a leading South Carolina crop was not Eliza’s only successful goal. Eliza was just as determined to be a good wife and mother as she was a planter. Her husband, Colonel Charles Pinckney, was a neighbor and a recent widower when they married in 1744. He was 24 years her senior and was well established in the colony as a lawyer and political leader. They had four children, three of whom survived to adulthood. Charles died of malaria after just 14 years of marriage, and Eliza found herself once again in charge of the family and its properties and investments. She was determined to make the family holdings profitable for her children.
The American Revolution was a time of harsh realities for Eliza. She was robbed by the slaves, and her properties were burned and destroyed. Her two sons, who served in the Colonial Army, were sick and taken prisoner. Despite their trials, both of her sons, Charles Cotesworth Pinkney and Thomas Pinckney, served their new country with honor. Charles Cotesworth was a brigadier general in the American Revolution and one of South Carolina’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention, while Thomas served as governor of South Carolina and as ambassador to Great Britain.
At the time, some wanted to shape Eliza into a role model of Republican motherhood — a template promoted in the infancy of the United States to encourage women to see themselves as raising future patriots. However, Eliza simply raised her children in the manner she saw correct. Her letters show that, in many ways, Eliza saw herself not as a patriot of the young republic, but as a subject of the mother country. She also saw herself as the leader of her family; by overseeing their plantations and other properties, she freed her sons to pursue their political careers and to serve their new nation.
What augments her legacy is not only the wealth indigo as a cash crop brought to South Carolina; more importantly, her legacy is fortified by the numerous surviving manuscripts of letters and personal notes. Her letters, books and journals not only contain notes of her botanical experiments, but also recipes and home remedies that she shared with others. Eliza even experimented with raising silkworms and producing silk in the Carolinas. While this enterprise was not as successful as rice and indigo, it did produce enough to have three dresses made, one of which is on display in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
One of Eliza’s letters will be part of the upcoming exhibition Enlightened Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte, and the Shaping of the Modern World at the Yale Center for British Art in 2017. The exhibition explores the role of three generations of royal women as patrons in the 18th century. Eliza’s letter describes a memorable and rare visit that she, her husband Colonel Pinckney and their then 7-year-old daughter, Harriott, had with Augusta, the widowed Princess of Wales, and her children while the Pinckneys were in England. The letter is in the collection of The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the State of South Carolina.
She so thoroughly enjoyed her two lengthy visits to England that she wanted her husband to move there permanently. However, after his death she felt obligated to stay in South Carolina to look after the family property while her two sons continued and completed their education. Her letters also showed that she was not keen on crossing the Atlantic Ocean again.
Eliza Lucas Pinckney died in 1793 while in Philadelphia seeking treatment for cancer. She is buried in St. Peter’s churchyard, and President George Washington served as one of her pallbearers. Her life of 70 years was full — Eliza showed the capability of the best leaders to adapt to changing environments again and again in her life. She is considered one of the 18th century’s most distinguished American women. In the 20th century, Eliza Pinckney was the first woman to be inducted into South Carolina’s Business Hall of Fame.
This colonial legend continues to be a role model today. American women are now encouraged to lean into the opportunities in front of them, opportunities to lead, to speak up and to break the glass ceiling. Long before women were given any rights to pursue their own dreams and goals, Eliza was one young lady who pursued the opportunities that were right in front of her, developing into a remarkable leader for both genders to imitate. Ironically, Eliza Lucas Pinckney never legally owned a single acre of the land that she invested so much of her life into managing and cultivating. The land was always owned by a man — her father, her husband or her sons. However, Eliza did own the gift God had given to her of a brilliant mind and the opportunities God had placed in her life. By acting as a steward of the land, her life and her family, she left an enduring legacy for all to follow.
Editor’s Note: A special thanks to Renée Marshall with The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of South Carolina for her help with this article.