Initial agricultural pursuits in the SC colony centered around two goals: subsistence and the supply of goods to England and British colonies in the Caribbean. Providing provisions to colonies such as Barbados enabled those planters to better focus on cash crops, mainly sugar cane. The Proprietors in England intended for the Carolina colony to concentrate on agricultural staples to make a profit. These two goals clashed and resulted in a variety of initial agricultural experiments. While simultaneously ensuring that their stomachs were full and the Proprietors were satisfied, the colonists experimented with several economic ventures. 

An early venture was hog and cattle farming, which satisfied both of those early goals. The raising of livestock was found to have the simplest production and readiest market. In fact, raising livestock constituted the third major export commodity for the colony. From 1675 through 1690 raising livestock was a major agricultural pursuit of the colony, second only to food crops. Unlike Europe, settlement in this region was so sparse and land so plentiful that animals could freely graze requiring minimal human labor. Enslaved laborers were also familiar with agricultural labor. Similar animals were common in many regions of Africa so enslaved Africans were often expert herders. The inventory of the estate of Thomas Drayton, owner of what is today known as Magnolia Plantation, indicates that he was in the business of cattle farming in the early days of Magnolia Plantation. The inventory lists numerous African “cattle hunters” and 1,203 head of cattle. Several factors, including the Yemasee War of 1715, devastated the trade and resulted in its shift to the interior of the colony. However, cattle farming did continue on a small scale in the region well into the 20th century.

The search for a staple crop remained, however, and by the beginning of the 18th century the colonists struck “gold”. Carolina Gold rice (named for the yellow husk encasing the grain and the large profits it reaped) remained the dominant cash crop in the Lowcountry until the Civil War. There is some debate as to exactly when rice was introduced, but by 1700 the crop became the most significant agricultural activity in the region. The Ashley River region is a quintessential example of the wealth this crop brought to the colony. Large tracts of land were purchased, extravagant plantation homes were built and huge investments in human labor were made, all based on profits resulting from rice cultivation. The financial success of rice cultivation in this region is staggering. One scholar believes that due to the success of rice cultivation, Antebellum Charleston “gloried in one of the greatest concentrations of wealth in the world.”

Evidence of successful rice cultivation is still visible throughout the region today. Retaining ponds remain at Middleton Place and Magnolia Plantation, and remnants of rice fields and dikes can be found throughout the region at places like Uxbridge, the Wragg Settlement (now known as Mateeba Gardens), and Millbrook. Visible remnants of this agricultural practice left in the landscape can be found on the banks of the Ashley River and in the interior of the district, providing a physical reminder of the connection between the grand plantation dwellings on the river and working portions of their plantations in the interior lowlands.

There were several evolutions of rice cultivation in the Lowcountry. Initially, rice was grown without irrigation on land that was dry and relatively high. By the 1720s production shifted to freshwater swamps and then later shifted again to impoundments on or adjacent to major rivers. Using the latter system, planters could rely on tidal changes to irrigate and drain the fields. With the introduction of tidal irrigation, production  increased dramatically. Wooden rice trunks were built to allow water to pass back and forth between the rice fields and the canal or river. Remnants of rice trunks remain at Middleton Place around the ruins of a rice mill chimney located on the south side of Ashley River Road–this was a water-driven rice mill at the center of an extensive inland rice complex complete with associated earthworks. A grist mill still standing at Middleton Plantation is further evidence of this complex agricultural technology.

The collapse of the plantation system after the Civil War, however, was the beginning of the end of rice cultivation Lowcountry. The crop proved impossible to adapt to sharecropping and emancipated labor, and there was strong competition from other regions. By the end of the 19th century, little rice was being produced in the area. A series of hurricanes (1893, 1894, 1898, 1906, 1910, 1911) destroyed the already fragile rice dikes up and down the coast.

Indigo was another major cash crop in this area, and although no physical evidence remains from its cultivation, economically it had an enormous impact which influenced development of the region. Experiments in production took place in the early colonial period; however, production was not successful until the 1740s. As England’s trade with other indigo suppliers was interrupted by King George‘s War, Carolina planters began growing the crop in large quantities to fulfill demand. Further encouraged by a bounty, or financial incentive, that Parliament had placed on indigo in 1749, the plant became second only to rice in profit. On Lowcountry plantations indigo was grown and processed on the higher lands behind the rice fields. This was done in part because of the unpleasant odor of processing indigo and the attraction of mosquitoes. After the Revolutionary War, because of a lack of market, indigo ceased to be grown on any large scale in this area.

Corn (“Indian corn”) was produced on most of the plantations throughout the region. The U.S. Agricultural Census (1850, 1860 particularly) list Indian corn as a crop throughout the region. Additionally, evidence for corn production can be found on plats of the area and in the fact that Middleton Place had a grist mill on site which was used by other property owners in the region. Photographs of Drayton Hall just after the Civil War show untamed corn growing throughout the property. Corn was likely grown for subsistence and animal feed and was not sold on any large scale, though it continued to be cultivated into the 20th century. In 1940 corn constituted “the third most valuable crop in the state,” and was considered to still be short of demand. One property owner within boundaries of the original Cook tract found it still growing on his land in 2001. The previous owners had been growing it on a small scale for livestock.

Cotton was also grown in the district. Cotton is listed on the US Agricultural Census of 1850 and 1860 as being cultivated in various quantities and cotton fields are labeled as such on many plats throughout history. The class of cotton grown in the Ashley river region was termed “mains” cotton based on the buying market and relative quality of the fiber. Mains cotton was Long Staple and of moderate quality compared to the much desired Sea Island cotton grown nearby. Its inferiority to Sea Island cotton was based on seed selection, hybridization with upland cotton, and environmental influences. Cotton never became a main cash crop in this area and eventually died out.

In the two decades prior to the Civil War, agriculture and the plantation system were in decline—as evidenced by Agricultural and Geological Surveyor Edward Ruffin’s visit to the Ashley River region in 1843. Ruffin describes the scene:

“Now these lands are left untilled, are rarely inhabited by the proprietors…& the whole presents a melancholy scene of abandonment, desolation & ruin…But little rice is made, & only by a few persons. One Occupant only on the left bank cultivates cotton for sale…The principal business now pursued is cutting wood to sell in Charleston.” 

The economy in general in the Lowcountry was in decline at this time (as it was all over the South). Southerners were reluctant to industrialize and thus lagged behind the rest of the nation technologically and economically.

Following the Civil War, what little agricultural activity that remained was mostly for subsistence and secondary to more extractive industries such as phosphate mining and timber farming.

Conservation Spotlight

Poplar Grove and Watson Hill: A Case Study In Coalition Building and Land Conservation

Two converging development threats in the Ashley River Corridor beginning in 2003 catalyzed a major conservation effort led by the Coastal Conservation League, Ducks Unlimited, the Lowcountry Open Land Trust and others…

Established in 1947, Historic Charleston Foundation is dedicated to preserving and protecting the architectural, historical and cultural character of Charleston and its Lowcountry environs, and to educating the public about Charleston’s history and the benefits that are derived from preservation.