Monday, September 6, 2010

Book Report: Eliza Lucas Pinckney

In thinking about acquiring a second spinning wheel, I thought perhaps it would be interesting to learn about wheels used in early South Carolina. In trying to learn more about the history of spinning in SC, I found a book that really caught me up that I want to share.

The Letterbook of Eliza Lucas Pinckney 1739-1762. University of South Carolina Press, 1997, South Carolina Historical Society, 1972. I don’t recall how I found this book. I didn’t learn what I thought I would from it. So at this point I’m diverging largely from the subject of fiber to talk about Eliza.
Now, if you hail from or visit the South Carolina Low Country, you know the name Pinckney. Folks with the last name of Pinckney are everywhere.

Eliza Lucas (1722-1793) was English; she was born in the West Indies. Her father, George Lucas, served as a major in the British army in Antigua. She was schooled in England, and George moved the family to South Carolina in 1738. Major Lucas’s father, John Lucas, had owned three properties in SC which presumably Major Lucas inherited. These included
1) Bluff plantation on Wappoo Creek, 600 acres, which is 16 miles from Charleston
2) Garden Hill Plantation, 1500 acres, on the Combahee River
3) three different packages of land on the Waccamaw River, totaling 3000 acres, which produced rice
In 1739 Major Lucas returned to Antigua to resume his military duties. Eliza, aged 17, became responsible for overseeing the Wappoo Creek plantation and had responsibilities for supervising the Garden Hill and Waccamaw River properties. Her two brothers were being schooled in England, her Mother and younger sister lived at Wappoo Creek. Her Mother was not well.
Now at this point, have no doubt (if you had any) that African American slaves were involved in the maintenance of these properties. I offer no apologies, and understand that slavery and women’s rights do not mix. I have read my Belle Hooks, and I'm right there with her. But that was then and this is now. And Eliza is way too interesting to drop this discussion.
In 1744, at age 22, Eliza married Charles Pinckney. Charles was 45, and a widower. Charles has the distinction of being South Carolina’s first “native” attorney. After their wedding, Eliza’s mother and sister returned to Antigua; Eliza was the only member of her family left in SC to manage her father’s three properties. Charles built a mansion for the couple in Charleston. He also had a properties of his own
4)Belmont Plantation on the Cooper River, and
5)Pinckney Island and neighboring properties, Port Royal Sound
Eliza had four children, two of whom, Charles Cotesworth and Thomas, were schooled in England at Oxford. They returned to SC in 1758, after the death of their father Charles. Both Charles and Thomas were to become preeminent South Carolina politicians and farmers. But first, they were two important patriots serving in the Revolutionary war: Charles as a Colonel and later brevet Brigadier General, Thomas as a Captain and later Major General in the Continental Army.
Eliza was a perfectly sane individual and despite her fervent Christian faith, she understood that occasional dancing and card playing were not sinful as long as that was not ALL one did. She managed numerous properties and plantations largely on her own; recall that her father died in 1747 and her husband died in 1758. In additional to those listed above are these:
6) Auckland Plantation on the Ashepoo River
7) Marshlands Plantation on the Cooper River
8) Pinckney Plains Plantation on the west Ashley
9) Pinckney House, Colleton Square, on East Bay Street in Charleston.
And there were more. All this without air conditioning.
After suffering loss of much of her life ‘s accomplishments and properties during the Revolution due to British raids, Eliza died in Philadelphia where she was seeking cancer treatment in 1793. President Washington, who had been a guest at Hampton Plantation (not owned by the family, but Eliza had taken refuge there during the war), was one of her pallbearers. She is buried at St. Peter’s Churchyard in Philadelphia.
Eliza’s existent letters are housed in Columbia at the University Library in a fireproof room. (I was delighted to learn the USC HAS a fireproof room for precious historical items. ) Her letters are thoughtful, and full of love and concern for others. She loved botany, and delighted in plant life both near her homes for enjoyment, and the crops that she raised. My son is taking South Carolina history in 8th grade this year; according to his teacher, his class is reading some primary sources, and I hope this will be one of them; it had not yet been published when I was in that class.
So, I delved in to all of this thinking I might learn about fibers grown and used in prerevolutionary South Carolina. It’s clear that flax culture was critical as linen provided the coolest garments, although flax is not discussed in any depth in this book. However, I found more information in another book on Eliza and flax. Alice Morse Earl's excellent research for Home Life in Colonial Days revealed a letter from Major Lucas to Eliza dated 1745; in which he documented sending her via sloop (from the West Indies, presumably?) two Irish servants, a weaver and a spinner. He ordered flax seed sent to her from Philadelphia. The two Irish women were charged with training slaves to spin flax and weave clothing for the slave population. Eliza had spinning wheels and a loom made, and a "sensible negro woman and hundreds of others" had learned to spin. Mrs. Earl's followup comment is "excellent cloth has always been woven in the low country of South Carolina, as well as in the upper districts, till our own time" (p. 183). (Mind you, the book was originally published in 1898. She may have been alluding to the textile industry that is still active in upstate South Carolina).
Obviously, Eliza was successful with flax production. Her letters hint that she experimented with hemp manufacture. Silk production in SC has never been a serious enterprise, but Eliza did produce silk fiber at the Belmont Plantation on the Cooper River. There are white mulberry trees still in Belmont that have naturalized from her stock. The American History Museum at the Smithsonian museum has a silk dress made from fiber from Eliza’s silk worms. Here is a photo of the dress:

Eliza was actively interested in indigo culture and early in her life her father sent her indigo seeds from the West Indies. Her family’s properties were early growers of South Carolina indigo, which became a major export crop in our state.
Sources for this post are:
The Letterbook of Eliza Lucas Pinckney 1739-1762. University of South Carolina Press, 1997, South Carolina Historical Society, 1972.
Earle, Alice Morse. Home Life in Colonial Days. Originally published in 1898. American Classics edition c. 1993 by Berkshire House Publishers.
Information on Charles Cotesworth and Thomas' military careers was located at wikipedia.
More information on Eliza and her family abounds on the internet including here.
More information on South Carolina plantations including the ones mentioned in this post are available here.
More information on visiting South Carolina's plantations is available here. No, I'm not on the payroll.
Now, I’m off to find an indigo dye kit.

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