Botany, like many of the natural sciences, had its Golden Age in the 18th Century. Gifted amateurs in British America were constantly sending New World specimens across the Atlantic to scientists eager to examine completely new species of plants. When Britain and France were at war the packages of specimens bore a second address, a respected scientist or collector in France, so that if the ship should be captured by the enemy, the plants would still end up in responsible hands. Farmers and plantation owners in the colonies just as eagerly ordered European varieties, to see if they would survive in new soil. Both Washington and Jefferson kept detailed day books, recording the progress of their experiments. Eliza Lucas Pinckney was certainly a sole mate of the two men.

It seemed reasonable that if a plant such as indigo thrived in hot climates like India and Africa, it should do quite nicely in South Carolina. When the first experiments proved promising, Eliza cultivated new, improved strains of the plant, able to better resist the storms and frost they sometimes encountered. She promoted these varieties among her fellow (pardon the expression, Eliza) planters. In the 1745-1746 season South Carolina exported 5,000 pounds of indigo for the textile mills of the mother country. In two years that figure had become 130,000 pounds, second only to rice as a cash crop. In 1754 the figure had reached 216,000 pounds annually and British soldiers were wearing uniforms dyed deep blue with American indigo.

The American Revolution ruined Eliza Pinckney. The need for food resulted in indigo fields being given over to rice cultivation, and after the war, increased indigo production in India ended the American ascendancy in the crop. But Eliza hadn't slowed down, even after the death of her husband in 1758. If she couldn't produce indigo she could provide patriots.

She believed children could learn from infancy and carved a set of alphabet blocks for her oldest son, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. He could read by the time he was two and a few years later, when Eliza would return home from church with Charles and newer arrivals Harriott and Thomas, she'd send the children scurrying off to the Bible to locate that day's sermon text in it. She obviously also taught them love of country. When young Charles studied in England in 1756 he had a portrait of himself, objecting to the Stamp Act, painted. He went on to fight with the continental army and sign the U. S. Constitution. Thomas, wounded and captured during the war, would go on to become governor of South Carolina. Eliza had done her usual fine job. In 1793, diagnosed with cancer, she traveled to Philadelphia for treatment and died there at the age of 71. At his own request, President George Washington acted as one of her pallbearers.

For Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor.

Adrosko, Rita J. - Natural Dyes and Home Dying (New York, Dover, 1971)
Kastner, Joseph - A Species of Eternity (New York, Knopf, 1977
Pinckney - The Letterbook of Eliza Lucas Pinckney (University of South Carolina, 1997)
Zhahniser, Marvin R. - Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1967)

© 1999 David Minor / Eagles Byte