Eliza Lucas Pinckney
When I am out and about with tour groups, we talk about architecture, culture, historic events, and most importantly, the folks who shaped it all. We talk about Signers of the Declaration, Revolutionary patriots, framers of the constitution, slaves, abolitionists, Civil War servicemen and heros of the Civil Rights movement. There is no shortage of stories to choose from, but if I had to pick a favorite, Eliza Lucas Pinckney may be it. Hers is a story of persistence, passion and independence—an early example of the American dream and an inspiration to all young people.
On December 28, 1722 Elizabeth (Eliza) Lucas was born to British Army Lt. Colonel George Lucas and his wife Ann in Antigua, British West Indies. While her birth was truly a joyous event, no one would have imagined the impact she would have on the colony of Carolina and the birth of a new nation. Eliza was the oldest of four children having two brothers, Thomas and George, and a sister, Mary (affectionately known as Polly among family and friends). Girls didn’t receive many educational opportunities beyond reading, writing arithmetic and social graces, but Eliza had an inquisitive mind. She excelled in academics and received a formal education at a boarding school in England where she studied French, music and botany. In botany, Eliza indeed found her passion.
In 1738, Lt. Colonel Lucas moved his family to the colony of Carolina feeling that it would be safer than the island of Antigua should English and Spanish tensions come to a head. Eliza’s mother, Ann, was in frail health at the time, and her husband thought that the Carolina climate may also be easier to tolerate. Now a teenager with ideas of her own, Eliza was not keen on the prospect of leaving Antigua.
After a difficult voyage marred by seasickness, the Lucas family arrived in Charles Town. Her father had inherited three plantations in the Lowcountry of Carolina. The family settled at Wappoo Plantation, a 300-acre tract located on the north bank of Wappoo Creek just across the Ashley River from Charles Town. He also owned Garden Hill, a 1500-acre timber plantation located in the Ace Basin south of Charles Town and Waccamaw, a 3000-acre rice plantation in the Santee River basin south of Georgetown. Eliza quickly grew to love the soothing tidal creeks, abundant wildlife, and fertile land of the Carolina Lowcountry. Eliza’s new home offered exposure to new social circles as well. She was introduced to Charles Town society by dear neighbors, Charles Pinckney and his wife Elizabeth. The families became fast friends. Eliza was fond of both Charles and Elizabeth and thought of Charles as an attractive and kindly uncle.
A Plantation Mistress at the Age of 16
Life in a new place, however wonderful it may be, was not exactly easy. Eliza’s mother passed away after settling in Charles Town, and Eliza was left to care for the household. Life would be utterly turned upside down once again in 1739, when Eliza’s father was called back to Antigua to deal with the growing political conflict. Continued military service would prevent Lt. Colonel Lucas from ever returning to his children in Carolina.
In her father’s absence, Eliza had been tasked with the management of Wappoo Plantation and the supervision of overseers at the remaining two Lucas properties. Eliza’s father advised her to seek the help and advice of their friend Charles Pinckney during this time. Charles Pinckney visited often and provided invaluable support. Eliza also developed a close friendship with Charles’s wife, Elizabeth. But even with moral support, money was short, and the Lucas plantations were in disarray. It was common practice to borrow money to fund plantation operations. Eliza borrowed what she could and mortgaged the debt against future earnings. She then turned to the task of righting the fortunes of the family businesses, which left little time for a social life. Before his death, Lt. Colonel Lucas attempted to find a suitable husband for his daughter. This would have provided much needed financial relief for her, but Eliza rejected the notion of an arranged marriage. She threw all of her energy into her first love… botany.
Entrepreneurial Success by 22
Eliza’s father sent seeds to Eliza from Antigua for experimentation during their first year apart. In 1740, he sent indigo. There was a growing demand for indigo dye in England’s textile industry. Eliza’s first attempts were less than encouraging as fire, frost, and worms destroyed her crop. It took three years to prove that indigo could be successfully grown and processed in Carolina. In 1744, Eliza generously shared her methods with her neighbors hoping to increase English interest in Carolina indigo trade. By 1747, 134,000 pounds of indigo had been shipped to England generating fortunes for Eliza and her neighbors. Before the American Revolution, indigo accounted for 1/3 of the trade between the colonies and England, and Charles Town was the wealthiest city in the colonies.
An Unlikely Love Story
We know that Eliza had at least two suiters (arranged by her father) between 1739 and 1744. She rejected them both, which would have been highly unusual in colonial America. Most young women accepted arranged marriages that, like business dealings, were used to garner wealth, property or social status. Eliza had other concerns… Many of which she confided in Charles Pinckney.
The two would eventually develop an affection for one another beyond friendship, but neither of them acted on their feelings. Charles was a married man. However, when Elizabeth Pinckney’s health began to fail suddenly, she recommended that Charles consider marrying Eliza. Elizabeth passed away in January of 1744. Charles and Eliza married in May of the same year with blessings from extended family.
Eliza’s marriage was a true romantic relationship that she chose of her own accord. An unlikely event in the 1700s…
Charles and Eliza had four children. Three would survive to adulthood. Their eldest son was Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a signer of the US Constitution and two-time candidate for President of the United States.
Eliza Advocates for Revolution
Charles Pinckney passed away in October of 1758. After his death, Eliza became an enthusiastic supporter of the Revolution. She spent much of her time with her daughter Harriott Pinckney Horry at Hampton Plantation near Georgetown. There she met the “Swamp Fox “, Francis Marion. Eliza actually helped Marion to evade British troops (as he had done many times) by entertaining a group of them at Hampton. Eliza was also known to George Washington. The two met at Hampton Plantation during his 1791 visit to South Carolina. Eliza traveled to Philadelphia for breast cancer treatment in 1793. She died May 26th and was buried there. George Washington was one of her pallbearers.
In 1989, almost two centuries after her death, Eliza Lucas Pinckney was the first woman inducted into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame.
Eliza Lucas Pinckney was a truly remarkable woman. She was a loyal daughter, determined student, loving wife, devoted mother, a brilliant botanist, an accomplished businesswoman, and an American patriot. The value of her contribution to South Carolina and the nation as a whole cannot be overestimated.
Want to learn more about the life of the Pinckney family? I highly recommend visiting these historic sites…
- The City Market – The land for Charleston’s City Market was granted to the city by the family of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Eliza’s Son, in 1788.
- Castle Pinckney – This harbor fortification is located in the Cooper River adjacent Riley Waterfront Park. Built in 1797, the fortress was originally coined Fort Pinckney (named for Charles Cotesworth Pinckney). The current brick structure, completed in 1810, is called Castle Pinckney. Its original use was harbor defense during the war of 1812, and it was also instrumental during the Civil War. The island sits on a plot of land known as Shutes Folly Island.
Crops, commerce, and stories of Eliza are a component of my general history tour. Charleston was an important city long before Travel + Leisure bestowed its Best City honors. Beyond its food and charming accommodations, you may be curious to know how Charleston found itself in the limelight. Book A Stroll Through History for historical highlights and insider opinions from a lifelong Charlestonian. You can also email me to learn more about Private Tours. I would be happy to customize an outing based on your family history and unique interests.