Much has been made of rice and cotton as Carolina’s historic cash crops. Both have been well-researched and documented, particularly by Richard Porcher, Ph.D. The story of Eliza Lucas Pinckney’s success with indigo is somewhat less well known, even though its dramatic narrative of failure, perseverance, and ultimate triumph is inspiring proof of how one individual can have a major effect on the economic well-being of an entire society. Through Pinckney’s efforts and the English bounty given for indigo in order to break the monopoly of the rival French, South Carolina, with its splendid harvests of indigo and Carolina Gold Rice, became England’s wealthiest “pet” colony in the New World, and Charles Town her wealthiest city.
The lucrative trade of animal hides with the Native Americans was actually Carolina’s first real cash “crop.” This trade was the subject of tales of high adventure. Carolina founder Henry Woodward was one of the first of these intrepid explorer-traders. His story is told in one of the state’s finest, yet little-known, novels, Hilton Head, published in 1941 by Josephine Pinckney, a descendant of both Woodward and Eliza Lucas Pinckney. The novel’s description of early farm life is unforgettable.
Indian tobacco, more often associated with Colonial Virginia, was also an important South Carolina staple. Thousands of wooden barrels packed with “sotweed,” as Colonials called it, were shipped to England through Charles Town. It became a necessary luxury item for the London gentleman, whose silver or enameled snuff boxes were both status symbols and fashion statements. Tobacco was eventually grown in the mountains. Stories of “tobacco rollers” rolling their product in barrels from the mountains to the sea were common in the 18th century. The sound the barrels made as they jostled and bounced down uneven paths through quiet, primeval forests elicited many comments in fiction, poetry, letters, and diaries. Sometimes these barrels also contained chestnuts harvested from the woods, which brought high prices in London. The rich and varied produce of the land put cash in the pockets of enterprising settlers who did not mind a little sweat. England had to be fed and clothed, and that was what colonies were for, after all. Charles Town provided a fine highway to a world eager for the American Colonies’ riches.
These early staples lent themselves to interesting, romantic, and picturesque narratives, and their stories have in a sense rightly also become the story of Carolina. Lending themselves to legend and tale are also cash crop failures, which Eliza Pinckney experienced. In addition to her initial failures with indigo, she tried silk production but was only successful enough to make three beautiful silk dresses, one of which she wore when presented at Court in London. The Carolina climate was fine for mulberries but not favorable enough for the silk caterpillars that fed on them.
One of the Colony’s first attempts at a cash crop was grape culture for wine making by French Huguenots. Frustration and failure resulted from their use of European grapes unsuited to the new land’s humidity. Today with the use of Carolina’s native grapes, their early failures finally have given way to success.
The largest of South Carolina cash crops over the centuries has been, from the start, a production that fails to get adequate recognition. When Britannia ruled the waves in the 17th and 18th centuries, she did so with ships the hulls of which were crafted of Southern live oak, Quercus virginiana. After settlement in 1670, South Carolina quickly became the largest supplier. In America’s own fledgling navy, “Old Ironsides,” famous for its stalwart hull, was made of Southern live oak.
The sides of British ships were tough, owing to the toughness of live oak. The European shipwrights who first used this wood marveled at its strength, texture of grain, and workability. The growth rings of some of these Carolina giants showed they were from trees more than 500 years old.
Additionally, the masts and spars of His Majesty’s vessels were made of Carolina’s arrow-straight longleaf pine. Kingstree, South Carolina, in fact, got its name for the giant trees earmarked for the masts of the king’s ships. The pine, having no lower limbs, was thus easily shaped and durable. “Heart pine” today is still prized for its hardness and resinous resistance to rot. The slow-growing ancient longleaf must have been a marvel indeed.
In his article “The Impact of the Timber Industry on the South” (1972), Professor Thomas Daniel Clark of Indiana University noted, “The contemporary reader searches in vain for comments in depth on the impact of the forest” as crop in shaping Southern civilization, and chief textbooks “make slight comment on lumbering’s role on the Southern economy.” Clark pointed out that even the barrels holding the tobacco from Virginia and Carolina were made of Southern hardwood and were themselves a lucrative production. He counts many hundreds of thousands of them made for shipping to market flour, pickled pork and beef, lard, tar, pitch, and whiskey.
Gov. George Troup of Georgia noted in 1859 that Southern pine was of as great an economic importance to his state as cotton. He lamented, “It requires from 3 to 400 years to attain a size sufficient for a mast or spar for a large-sized ship.” He called for reforestation so that a future crop might be harvested. In South Carolina, William Summer of Pomaria Nurseries said the same and won the State Agricultural Society’s prize for his “Essay on Reforesting the Country” in 1860.
Figures in The Compendium Volume of the 1860 Census of the United States revealed that the South (not including Kentucky) produced $18 million “in gross yearly lumber income.” In today’s currency, that amounts to over half a billion dollars annually. Even more significantly, the figure had more than doubled since the previous census of 1850. The three highest lumber producing states in 1860 were South Carolina, Louisiana, and Alabama, in that order. An enormous amount of sawed timber was shipped through the port of Charleston to preferred customers in Cuba, Europe, and South America.
Professor Clark found that the real impetus to the growth of the Southern timber trade as cash crop was that the white pine of the North, particularly Maine, was being rapidly depleted with each annual cut, and the good qualities of Southern pine were furthermore established as its equal or superior. The South’s great advantage was due to the fact that “Maine soils were sterile and the weather was so cold that when white pine was removed from the land, it never reproduced the same crop … As Northern forest stands neared exhaustion by ravaging exploitation, the resources of the South grew in importance.” Clark found that after 1865, “Southern lands bearing 10 to 20,000 feet of virgin wood per acre were sold for negligible prices. Speculators bought lands in large blocks almost at will and in choice locations.”
In Palmetto Leaves (1873), Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was among the first celebrities to encourage Northerners to migrate to the South to make their fortunes. Now that the South was impoverished, she said that plenty of local cheap labor could be “disciplined” with New England efficiency to make profits and “turn green into gold.” She related that land could be purchased for almost nothing.
The encouragement did not fall on deaf ears. Great wealth was to be made almost overnight on the South’s greatest crop, the virgin pine, cypress, and hardwood forests, especially since the North’s forest resources were depleted. From Lowcountry swamps to mountain coves and hollers, people provided cheap labor for the backbreaking work of timbering. The Singer family of Chicago, famous for the Singer Sewing Machine, bought up large tracts in northeast Louisiana. Francis Beidler, also of Chicago, bought several significant large tracts in South Carolina in the early 1890s, including the 3,400 acre Four Holes Swamp. Vestiges of the Beidler land holdings remain today as half of his Four Holes property in the 1,800 acre Francis Beidler Forest was sold to the National Audubon Society in the 1960s, and much of the 27,000 acre Congaree National Park was purchased from the Beidlers. Unfortunately, the Singer Family lands in Louisiana were sold to the Chicago Mill that cut the tree in which the last female ivory-bill woodpecker was known to have a nesting cavity. The harvest of this cash crop was thus accompanied with great ecological loss.
In the 1870s and 1880s, absentee-owned lumber companies entered the mountain regions of the South. The “Biltmore” Vanderbilts in the Pisgah Forest of North Carolina were at first the least destructive among them. Clark details how a combination of English and Northern syndicates “bought millions of acres for a fraction of their actual market value.” Some of these absentee timber barons, without ever witnessing the ecological damage they did, reaped huge fortunes, and according to Clark, “Their stories could be repeated all across the South.”
This all-too-popular cash crop disrupted “the tenor of the old ways of Southern life,” Clark declared. “Because of this internal migration, the rural farm face of Southern life was permanently disrupted,” with homes, schools, and churches abandoned. The land was scarred more quickly than in the worst of row cropping practices. William Faulkner treated the process in the lumber camp settings of both his novels Light in August (1936) and Go Down, Moses (1942). As was often the case, Faulkner was writing about uncomfortable and controversial current issues. Wendell Berry, in his now classic The Unsettling of America (1977), details the depopulation of the countryside most dramatically.
Professor Clark concluded in 1972 that the sum total of timber products as the South’s cash crop “has produced an income surpassing that of cotton in its brightest years.” He declared, “Productive timber lands have pushed cotton out of its old strongholds and have now presumed to wear King Cotton’s historic crown.” Timber is now historically the cash crop that has reaped the most revenues in South Carolina’s three and a half centuries. However, unlike cotton and rice, a large share of the profits went to outside interests.
For another of South Carolina’s important cash crops infrequently mentioned in the news but receiving growing attention today, one must return to Carolina origins and her earliest Colonial era of supplying ship building products. His Majesty could not rule the waves without a third Southern crop that South Carolina and other Southern Colonies supplied with ease. This product was hemp, a crop that is seeing a resurgence in South Carolina today, albeit for more diverse purposes.
Both the rope of ship riggings and ship sails had to be made from the strong and durable hemp fiber. Because hemp fiber is among nature’s strongest, no substitute worked as well. The word canvas, in fact, derives from cannabis, hemp’s genus name. So important was hemp to the English navy that refusing to grow hemp in America during the Colonial era was against the law. One could be jailed in Virginia from 1763 to 1769 for refusing to grow it. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp on their plantations, and Benjamin Franklin used it to make paper. The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were written on hemp paper. Betsy Ross’ flag was made from hemp cloth. Eighty percent of all textiles, clothes, bedsheets, drapes, and other products was made from hemp before the invention of the cotton gin. At one time, U.S. currency was made of hemp paper. Hemp made superb cloth. A Thomas Jefferson style jacket made of 100 percent hemp purchased some 30 years ago by the author of this essay is as soft and fresh today as it was when new. It simply will not wear out. Hemp is the true miracle fiber.
In 1916, the U.S. Government predicted that by the 1940s, all paper would come from hemp, and that no more trees would need to be cut down to make paper products. Studies revealed that one acre of hemp equaled 4.1 acres of trees. These figures upset the timber lobby tremendously. Today European experiments with hemp construction materials for the complete building of houses show it to be a viable option to wood. In the February 1938 issue of Popular Mechanics, hemp was called America’s “Million Dollar Crop” and the first cash crop that had the business potential to exceed a billion dollars. Hemp-seed gasoline was the first fuel to run Henry Ford’s Model-Ts. Mr. Ford was even photographed in his vast hemp fields. The car “grown from the soil” had hemp-plastic panels with an impact strength said to be 10 times stronger than steel (Popular Mechanics, 1941). In 1935, 58,000 tons of hemp seeds were used in America to make paint. Sherwin-Williams Paint Company testified to no avail against the U.S. Congress’ Marihuana [sic] Tax Act in 1937. Marijuana, which can be produced as a byproduct of hemp, was a growing public concern, while hemp also had many enemies in the petrochemical, oil, timber, cotton, and other powerful lobbies.
Throughout the South’s history, frequent references show that production of hemp was widespread and relatively effortless. The climate, ideal for hemp’s rapid growth, and hemp’s ability to withstand heat and drought made it a natural cash crop for the region. In fact, Southern hemp is one of the fastest growing biomasses known. Historical hemp was not choosy as to soil and would grow in waste places. Its uses as paper, cloth, rope, canvas, paint products, building material, biodegradable plastic, and even fuel made it a versatile cash crop, and even today could potentially be a savior for diversified small family farms, which are threatened with extinction.
The story of South Carolina’s cash crops is thus still unfolding.