To many people, the rice culture of the South Carolina
Low Country represents a tranquil and idyllic period of history.
Romantic visions of riding in a horse-drawn open carriage down a
long avenue of moss-draper live oaks framing a manor house are the
stuff of novels and movies. During their period of greatness, Georgetown
rice planters, like the antebellum planters of other communities,
created a world that inspired young men to become country gentleman,
and insisted that young women train to be plantation mistresses
with perfect manners.
Enterprising colonists were the first to cultivate
rice in America. It began quite by accident when a storm-battered
ship sailing from Madagascar limped into the Charleston South Carolina
harbor. The ship's captain made a gift of a small quantity of "Golden
Seed Rice" (named for its color) to a local planter.
During the era in which the rice planters ruled
the Low Country, a distinctive caste system prevailed. Handed down
the system, the planters embraced a social doctrine which pertained
not only to economics, but also to race relations. This caste system,
which the planter class held so dear, would eventually prove to
be the principle that led to the demise of their world. The Georgetown
rice culture, as well as the plantation system throughout the American
South, may have been little more than a transplant, or continuance,
of medieval European Manorialism. However, because of the addition
of race as a determiner of slavery, it was uniquely American.
There is debate over how rice came to be cultivated in the Low
Country. What isn't debated is that, by 1690, growers were producing
it in large quantities. In that year the colonists, dissatisfied
with Governor James Colleton, petitioned that they pay their taxes
in commodities. On September 26, 1691, the General Assembly of South
Carolina ratified the proposal in an act that allowed Carolinians
to pay their taxes in rice, as well as other goods.
Once rice proved to be a reliable cash crop in the area, prospective
planters began to enlist a large labor force to improve the land.
In the swamp areas around Charles Town, the main chores involved
in improving the land were to remove the cypress and gum trees and
to ditch and dike the land. Without a large labor force already
present to perform these duties, local planters followed Virginia's
example of using slaves.
During its experimental stage, planters grew rice
primarily in river swamps around Charles Town. In 1700, they exported
330 tons of rice from Charles Town to England and the West Indies.
Edward Randolph, Collector of Customs for the Southern Department
of North America, wrote a letter to the same board explaining, "They
have now found out the true way of raising and husking Rice. There
has been above 300 Tons shipped this year to England besides about
30 Tons more to the Islands." During the spring of 1700, the
governor of Carolina wrote a letter to the Lords Commissioners of
Trade and Plantations explaining the problems that Carolina experienced
due to the overproduction of rice. He wrote, we "hath made
more rice ye Last Cropp then we have Ships to Transport."
The George Town District was not initially part
of the Low Country rice planting explosion. In 1700, what became
the George Town District was part of the Carolina frontier and depended
economically upon forest industries and the Indian- assisted fur
trade. However, due to population growth and the success of rice
and other local crops, land grants became available in 1705 for
the tidal lands around the Waccamaw, Black, Sampit and Pee Dee Rivers.
Beginning in 1726, in attempts to promote settlement, the colony
passed acts for improving existing roads and building new ones.
George Town was laid out in 1729, and in 1732 became an official
port of entry. By that time, most of the Indian settlements in the
district had been destroyed by either war, disease or enslavement.
Those that did survive had been pushed back into the Carolina frontier
where they either joined other tribes or perished. Meanwhile, the
production of rice advanced to creek bottoms, but it was not until
the 1750s that the rice culture expanded to the tidal lands.
During the 1720s and 1730s, the South Carolina rice
industry experienced its first boom, but the new George Town planters
placed more concern on building their plantations and attempting
to find new ways to cultivate rice than on the production of the
crop. On the eve of the War of Austrian Succession in 1740 (known
in the colonies as King George's War), George Town exported 4,785
barrels of the staple crop, while Charles Town merchants exported
80,000 barrels. Due to crop failures between 1741 and 1746, and
the interference in shipping because of the war which caused prices
to drop and insurance rates to increase, George Town planters did
not match the 1740 exportation figure again until 1755. By 1756,
the Seven Years War (known in the colonies as the French and Indian
War) spilled over from North America to include the European powers.
When the French Navy began to seize ships, it crippled colonial
freight shipping and the rice trade suffered. In 1763, the English
forcibly removed the French from North America and restored colonial
shipping. By 1766, the colonial rice trade stabilized and rice prices
remained high until the American Revolution.
During the Colonial period, Northern Europe, mainly
Holland and the German states, imported as much as sixty-five percent
of the rice exported from South Carolina and Georgia. Southern Europe,
primarily Spain and Portugal, imported less rice, only seventeen
percent of the crop. Shipments to the West Indies accounted for
the remaining eighteen percent. Generally, English consumers eschewed
rice and remained dependent upon their staple of wheaten bread.
France banned the importation of North American rice, and, like
the Spanish, relied primarily upon cheaper rice from Turkey and
Brazil. Thus, the largest market for the Carolina planters was Northern
Europe. In those regions, people and livestock ate rice during the
winter when peas were scarce and barley was unavailable. To the
poor, rice was a cheap alternative to other cereal products and
local foods. Rice also supplemented bread and even meat in ordinary
By the 1730s, the major influx of slaves into South
Carolina was from the west coast of Africa. Planters preferred Africans
from Angola, the Gambia River area, the Windward Coast and the Gold
Coast, although some slaves, mostly prisoners of inter-tribal warfare,
came from as far as 700 miles into the interior of the Africa. In
the coastal regions, rice growing had been a dominant part of African
culture since 1500 BC. Tribal members "recruited" and
sold most of the slaves for trade with Europeans. The most common
reasons for selling tribal members to the Europeans were for offenses
against society, such as murder or theft, offenses against the king,
or even personal or tribal misfortunes such as indebtedness or tribal
famine. Slave brokers, along the coastal regions of Africa, often
trained future slaves in rice fields similar to those in which they
would work in the new world. The sale of human lives was profitable
for African tribal kings and the European traders as well as the
By 1730, two-thirds of South Carolina's population
was slaves, and the use of the local Indians as a slave force had
dwindled. Large scale Native American slavery in South Carolina
ended during this period for two reasons. First of all, the Indians
were far weaker than the Africans; they could be worked to death
and others died from European diseases. Also, they proved to be
nearly impossible to retrieve once they escaped from their masters.
Once freed, they could easily find groups of Indians and return
to their traditional lifestyle. In an attempt to end these problems,
slave holders began to sell their Indian slaves to the northern
colonies and the West Indies.
Between 1735 and 1740, Charles Town imported 12,589
African slaves. In the 1740s, a decade that witnessed considerably
lower rice exports, the slave trade also decreased. During the 1750s,
Charles Town only imported 1,562 slaves. The decrease may have been
the result of the 1739 African slave uprising south of Charleston
known as the Stono Rebellion, the largest slave rebellion in Colonial
American history, or problems related to the War of Austrian Succession.
Over the next twenty-five years, the slave trade reached new heights
of importation. By 1775, South Carolina imported nearly 60,000 more
slaves. With the rise of the American Revolution, the British stopped
shipping African slaves to the North American colonies. After the
war ended, South Carolina outlawed African slave trade in 1787,
but reopened the slave trade in 1804. In 1808 the United States
Constitution permanently outlawed the trade.
With the development of tidal flooding in the 1730s, and it's
perfection by 1750, George Town became the center of rice production
in the colony. Due to this new technology, rice became so profitable
that many merchants, physicians and attorneys left their professions,
purchased land and slaves and became rice planters.
The process of transforming the Carolina swamps into rice fields
was difficult work. First, the land had to be measured and the trees
felled and burned. Next, slaves cut a four or five foot ditch through
the clearing to form an enclosing bank with the mud, leaving a fifteen
or twenty foot wide space surrounded by a canal. The next phase
was to put trunk docks, also known as floodgates, in place to drain
the fields. After slaves temporarily blocked off the canals and
constructed floodgates, the fields were ready for the first season.
The following season, slaves dug smaller ditches
which ran the length of the field. These ditches are referred to
as quarter ditches, because they are a quarter of an acre apart.
They also repaired banks so that they remained a few feet higher
than the spring tide and constructed smaller banks to divide the
fields. Finally, slaves dug large ditches around the entire field
and put in small drains in place so the fields could be drained.
With the technology of tidal flooding, rice became
the region's number two cash crop; indigo was number one. During
the 1740s, the War of Austrian Succession had threatened the indigo
crop in the West Indies and enabled South Carolinians to gain the
opportunity to grow great crops of indigo for the British. Prosperity
for the South Carolina indigo market continued throughout the 1750s
and 1760s due to the Seven Years War. However, during the American
Revolution, closure of commerce with the British Empire hurt the
indigo market, and it never fully recovered. By 1800, the production
of indigo in Georgetown ceased. The primary legacy that the indigo
planters left was the Winyah Indigo Society, a philanthropic organization
that has the distinction of being the first societal order formed
by the planters and merchants of George Town.
After the American Revolution, American-grown indigo
was no longer important to the British. The British simply restored
their crop in the West Indies and created new markets throughout
their empire. With the loss of the indigo market, rice assumed the
position of the area's primary cash crop. The invention of the rice
mill helped to foster its new position in the economy of South Carolina.
In fact, the mill had a comparable impact on the rice industry that
the cotton gin had on cotton production. With this new invention,
planters had no problem advancing the profitability of their crop
and abandoning indigo.
Before the invention of the rice mill, slaves milled
the rice with wooden, hand-held tools. Animals, mostly oxen, provided
the power to run the first mills. Then in 1787, Jonathan Lucas built
the first water-powered mill and in 1792, Georgetown built its first
tide-operated rice mill. With the invention of the tide-operated
mill, the wealth of the Georgetown planters and the district began
Georgetown needed a multitude of slaves to build
its rice culture. The census report of 1790 shows slaves to be the
majority of the population. In that year, the three parishes of
Georgetown contained 22,122 persons, of whom 13,131 were slaves.
At that time, the Prince George Winyah Parish, which contained the
town of Georgetown, had the most closely balanced population with
5,111 whites and 6,651 slaves. Prince Frederick Parish, located
northwest of Prince George, contained 3,450 whites and 4,685 slaves,
and All Saints Parish, located east of Prince Frederick, a coastal
community, consisted of 430 whites and 1,795 slaves.
In 1791, the developing rice planting aristocracy
entertained President George Washington when he visited Georgetown,
on his southern tour of the United States. President Washington
wrote of his experiences in Georgetown in his diary:
crossed the Waggamau to Georgetown by descending
the River three miles at this place we were recd. under a salute
of cannon & by a company of infantry handsomely uniformed. I
dined with the citizens in public, and in the afternoon, was introduced
to upwards of 50 ladies who had assembled at a tea party on the
Washington went on to write, "Georgetown seems to be in the
shadow of Charleston. The inhabitants of this place (either unwilling
or unable) could give no account of the number of souls in it, but
I should not compute them at more than 5 or 600."
Over the next fifty years Georgetown developed into
a major producer of rice, and an aristocratic faction based on the
production of the crop emerged. Although King Cotton ruled the Southern
economy after the invention of the cotton gin, when the majority
of Southern planters began to concentrate on the production of that
crop, the relatively small Georgetown district remained devoted
solely to rice. In 1826, when the architect and surveyor Robert
Mills visited Georgetown he observed that the town's population
had grown little since Washington's visit thirty five years earlier.
Mills recorded, "The White population is between 6 and 700:
and the black about 12 or 1400." He also made note of the peculiar
use of rice that he witnessed in the district: "In Georgetown
every thing is fed on rice; horse and cattle eat the straw and bran,
fowls, etc. are sustained by the refuse; and man subsists upon the
marrow of the grain."
By 1840, the total number of persons in Georgetown
had decreased, yet the percentage of slaves had risen. In 1840,
of the 18,274 persons living in the Georgetown district, 15,993,
88 percent of the total, were slaves. This phenomenon is due to
the fact that the larger planters bought out many of the smaller
planters, who then proceeded to acquire new lands in the Southwest.
In the district as a whole, the merchants continued to lose influence
to the local planters who operated north, south and west of the
As the planting communities developed into a tightly-knit
aristocratic faction, the people in the town became caught up in
many of the humanitarian and reform crusades sweeping the country.
On December 13, 1817, the women of Georgetown formed the Ladies
Benevolent Society, a private organization designed to perform good
deeds. In 1827, the townspeople and the clergy of Georgetown formed
the Winyah Anti-Dueling Association to suppress the act of dueling,
a favorite way of solving disagreements between the planting families.
In May, 1832, the Methodists organized the Winyah Temperance Society.
However, the Episcopal church, the church of the planter class did
not support the society. The Methodists of Georgetown also developed
a local chapter of the Methodists "Mission to the Slaves."
In 1836 the Georgetown "Mission to the Slaves" expanded
to the Waccamaw Neck, where it eventually caused the Episcopal Church
to adopt a similar philosophy of improving the lives of the slaves.
The function of these reform organizations was not
an attempt to overthrow the planter class or the social order that
they dictated but rather to stabilize life in the town. The townspeople
moved towards reform measures like the rest of the country; however,
they never attempted to form an abolitionist society. Nonetheless,
the planter class considered the townspeople's attacks on alcohol
and dueling as insults.
While the townspeople became increasingly more in
tune with the tide of reforms sweeping the nation, the planters
retreated further into their own world. They sipped their imported
wines, worked on improving their skills in the art of conversation
and relaxed in a lifestyle of ever-increasing leisure. They rocked
away on their verandas and in their personal libraries reading such
books as that of the Governor of South Carolina and Georgetown resident,
John Lide Wilson's The Code of Honor; or, Rules for the Government
of Principals and Seconds in Dueling (1838), Arch Ruport's, The
Art of Cockfighting and the pro-slavery arguments of Thomas Dew
(1832) and Iveson Brooks. In 1832, the planters further alienated
themselves from the merchants of the town when they aligned themselves
with John C. Calhoun in attempting to nullify federal tax laws.
After the Nullification Crisis, the planters began to form their
own social organizations for their class only. The planters who
lived south of the town strengthened their already existing ties
with the Charleston elite while the planters north of town formed
their own social societies.
By 1840 over 150 plantations had been built on the
rivers leading to Georgetown, the slaves were well disciplined,
and a distinct class of aristocracy emerged. During that time the
region entered into a period of unprecedented wealth; however, the
wealth was almost entirely concentrated in the country side. One
visitor to the town of Georgetown in 1843 remarked:
Georgetown District is the wealthiest portion of
the State; but a more miserable collection of decayed wood domicils
[sic] and filthy beer shops than are clustered together to make
up the town, would be difficult to find. Indeed, unlike the free
states, the wealth of the South lies almost entirely in the country;
the towns, unless Charleston form an exception, being made of artizans
As the planters grew wealthier, produced larger
quantities of rice and became influential, they became closely linked
to Charleston and ignored Georgetown altogether. The nature of the
large scale rice milling operations resulted in rice bypassing Georgetown
en route to the Charleston where it was milled and later exported.
Without the foreign trade that earlier revolved around the export
of rice, the port of Georgetown was left economically devastated.
The census report taken in 1850 shows the population
of the Georgetown District to be 20,647: eighty eight percent slave
and 2,193 free persons, including 201 "free persons of color."
Of those listed in the census, 604 white persons, 924 slaves and
100 "free persons of color" resided in the town; the rest
lived scattered about the country side.
The 1850s proved to be the most profitable decade
for the rice planters. The value of both rice and rice land reached
their all time antebellum height. During that decade, rice sold
from between 2.9 and 4.3 cents per pound. Several planters sold
over one million pounds, with each netting a minimum of $32,000
per year. Meanwhile, the average salaries of the inhabitants of
the town was only $1,200 per year. During the late 1850s, quality
rice land in the district sold for $200 to $300 per acre, as it
had in the late 1820s, whereas, undeveloped swamp land cost $100
per acre. By 1860, the planting class had strengthened its hold
on local influence. In that year the wealthiest 3.8 percent of the
white population owned 50.1 percent of the land in the district.
By 1860 the planting class controlled Georgetown and, like the planting
class throughout South Carolina and the south, felt confident in
building a nation of its own.