This essay is adapted from Lost Charleston. We discuss rice cultivation on our Lost Charleston tours.

From the dawn of the 18th century until World War I, rice cultivation was the most important factor shaping Charleston’s culture and history. Rice dominated Charleston’s economy and virtually every aspect of its society for more than 200 years and was responsible for establishing Charleston among the wealthiest and most sophisticated regions in colonial America.

How and when rice cultivation began here has long been a subject of debate. A popular legend claims Capt. John Thurber, sailing from Madagascar, sought safe harbor in Charles Town during a 1685 hurricane and shared a bag of rice with Dr. Henry Woodward, one of Carolina’s earliest British settlers. Records of rice production in the Lowcountry date to 1690, and by 1712 Charlestonians were exporting the crop to Europe.

It would be impossible to overstate the role enslaved West Africans played in providing the knowledge, technology and labor that created Charleston’s rice culture. Because Charleston’s climate and geography is similar to that of Sierre Leone and Gambia, where locals had long grown rice successfully, enslaved Africans brought their agricultural expertise with them. Methods of growing rice evolved over time, yet it was the harnessing of the Lowcountry’s tidal water flow, using a complex system of dikes and trunks, that made coastal Carolina the New World’s largest rice exporter throughout the 18th and early 19th century.

Cultivating rice required staggering amounts of labor in a dangerous environment filled with disease-carrying mosquitos, snakes and alligators. Miles of swampland had to be cleared, leveled and drained. Given a choice, few would risk the drudgery, hard labor, subtropical heat, and danger of the rice fields, making enforced labor essential. Thus the enslaved Africans’ knowledge, coupled with the need for human labor under harsh conditions, was the driving factor behind Charleston’s commitment to its  “peculiar institution” of slavery. By 1708, more enslaved blacks lived in the Lowcountry than people of European descent.

Ditches were dug between rows of high land called dikes, with trunks (flood gates) that could stop or release water flow at each end. At low tide, as fresh water flowed seaward, the upper trunks would be raised, seaward trunks lowered, and fresh water captured in the ditches to nourish the rice seeds. Later the seaward trunks would be raised and water would flow out to the sea. This flooding process was repeated three times during the growing season. Throughout the process, arduous labor was required to weed the fields by hoe and harvest the crop, especially before the development of rice mills in 1790

Given these rigors, it’s easy to understand why rice production dropped dramatically after emancipation. Meanwhile states such as Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas were developing machinery to affordably replace human labor. Heavy equipment would never work in the Lowcountry’s pluff mud though, and after the Civil War, there was little capital to invest in such modernizations. Finally, a series of hurricanes, especially the major storms of 1893 and 1911, drove salt water into most of the remaining rice fields. By 1919 the rice industry, and the plantation society that thrived on it, were essentially gone from Charleston forever. 

Rice trunks at Brookgreen Gardens. We visit the rice dykes of Hampton Plantation (below) on our French Santee Tour. (Photo credit above: Hisland7, via Wikimedia Commons; photo credit below: CharlestonSCwriter, via Wikimedia Commons)
Mulberry Plantation, shown in this 1938 image, was one of the Lowcountry’s last rice plantations. Though a few plantations continued trying to revive the crop, the Hurricane of 1911 effectively ceased the production of rice as a commercially viable crop in the Lowcountry. Though its dikes are still visible, this field was no longer commercially viable when this photo was made. We pass by Mulberry on our Cooper River Tour. (Photo credit: Library of Congress)
Field workers completing an earthen dike surrounding a rice trunk at Mulberry Plantation. (Photo credit: Historic Charleston Foundation, 1916, public domain)