GREENWICH, N.Y. — The sky on a clear day. The water of the oceans. Robin eggs in a nest. A pair of jeans. What do these have in common? The color blue! For Colonial Americans the color blue could only be obtained through one source: the indigo plant. Indigo became a popular crop to grow in a specific region of the southern colonies and is an unexpected agricultural product that came from America’s colonial period.
Indigo is a tropical plant that when put through a fermentation process produces a blue-colored dye which was used to make blue-colored clothing and other textiles. It is believed that indigo production first started in ancient India, and it was produced in other parts of Asia and the Middle East. Trade on the Silk Road brought indigo to the Roman world and later Medieval Europe. In Europe blue dye was produced through a plant called woad, however indigo produced a better color than woad so it quickly became a preferred option.1
Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries as European nations began forming colonies around the world, indigo became one of the crops that was attempted to be grown in parts of North and South America and the Caribbean. The Spanish and French both found success growing it in the Caribbean and in Louisiana. The Dutch attempted growing it in present-day New York with limited success.2 For the British colonies, indigo was not as high a priority although there is evidence they attempted growing it as early as the 1670s in South Carolina. The British focused their efforts more on the highly lucrative sugar production in their Caribbean holdings and tobacco production in parts of the American colonies and relied on the French to supply indigo.3
This changed, however, during the 1740s. King George’s War, also called the War of Jenkins’ Ear, disrupted relations between Great Britain and France meaning the British needed a new supplier of indigo. They turned to their own colonies to fulfill this need and indigo production began to take place in southern colonies like South Carolina, Georgia, and the territory of Florida.4 (Florida was exchanged between British and Spanish control several times in the 18th century. Regardless of who was controlling it, indigo remained a major crop produced in the area.)
South Carolina became the British colonies’ main producer of indigo and this is often attributed to the efforts of a woman named Eliza Lucas Pinckney. Pinckney was born on the island of Antigua as her father was the British governor of the island. From an early age she developed a passion for botany. In 1738 at the age of sixteen she was sent to live on one of her family’s plantations near Charleston in South Carolina. Like most Lowcountry South Carolina plantations the property grew rice, however Eliza set about experimenting to determine another profitable crop they could grow.
After failed experiments with plants like figs and oak trees Eliza tried out indigo and it showed promise. For several years she cultivated indigo crops with the help of a French grower named Monserrat and a mulatto slave named Quash. Neighbors were skeptical beliving indigo was not suitable for the climate.5 However, by 1744 the plantation produced enough of a crop for dye production. She sent a sample to Britain calling it “Carolina Indigo” where it was well received.
After marrying the wealthy planter Charles Pinckney, a convert to indigo production after seeing her progress, she was able to further spread indigo seeds and knowledge with neighboring plantations. While Eliza Pinckney was not the first or only person in the Lowcountry region to grow indigo, she did help kickstart South Carolina’s indigo industry.6
After seeing the initial success of growing indigo in South Carolina and lobbying efforts by colonial agent James Crokatt, the British government instituted a bounty of six pence per pound on indigo dye in 1749. With the incentive in place the crop was grown in more earnest. In 1747 South Carolina exported 138,300 pounds of indigo to Britain. By the peak of indigo production in the colonies in 1775, S.C. exports grew to 1,122,200 pounds of the blue dye to the mother country. Georgia’s production peaked in at 22,000 pounds in 1770.7
Indigo farmers grew different species of the plant in the colonies. There was a wild indigo species now classified as Indigofera caroliniana that naturally grew in areas from Virginia to Louisiana. However, this wild species did not produce a very vibrant or lasting blue dye. Growers preferred imported varieties. Indigofera tinctoria came from India and was known as “French” indigo at the time, and Indigofera suffruticosa was native to Central America and was known as “Guatemalan” indigo. Both these varieties made better products and the Guatemalan indigo became the primary variety grown in the colonies.8
The indigo growing season began in April and growers would get two to three cuttings a year of the indigo plants between June and September. The dye making process began by taking the cuttings to a processing site which was usually a covered area with three large vats. Plants were thrown into the first vat filled with water called the steeper. After anywhere from 12 to 24 hours in the steeper the plants would ferment.
After fermentation the water was moved to the second vat called the beater. Here the water would be “beaten” to with paddles and stirred around constantly. Lime was usually added in this vat to speed up the process. Eventually the water would turn blue. With continued beating a chemical in the water called indican would form leaving a blue sediment on the bottom of the vat. Once this formed the water would be drained into the third vat leaving behind “indigo mud” in the second vat. The mud was than hung in cloth bags to drain. Once drained the indigo would be molded into “bricks” or smaller squares and dried where they would then be ready for export.9
The indigo-making process was not a pleasant task as the fermentation process emitted an incredibly foul stench. Indigo processing sites were at least a quarter-mile away from plantation dwellings because the smell was so bad. The smell often attracted flies, mosquitos and other insects making things more difficult for the slaves that produced it. The long periods exposed to the stench could be nauseating for those who worked to make the dye.10
This leads us to the important reality that the colonial indigo industry was dependent on slave labor. Indigo growing took hold in the southern colonies because the warmer climate was more suitable to grow the plant, and also because indigo was a crop that could easily be produced within the already established plantation style of agriculture. Indigo could be grown on land not suitable for rice growing which was the primary crop grown in the southernmost colonies. So plantation owners that focused on growing rice would sometimes add in indigo as a secondary crop. Slaves would work the fields planting and harvesting the crops, as well as accomplish the processing of indigo to turn it into dye. Slaves that had the skills and knowledge to make the dye were sometimes referred to as “indigo slaves” and were considered to be of greater value.11
The Indigo industry in the colonies was damaged by the outbreak of the American Revolution. American-grown indigo was sold almost exclusively to Great Britain. With the outbreak of the war indigo growers essentially lost their only trading partner. Growers had limited success selling the product to the northern colonies and the French, although the product was used to make some of the blue uniforms of Continental Army.12 The war itself also damaged the lands used to grow indigo preventing the crop from being grown at all for a time.13
The industry recovered briefly in the late 1780s, but Britain soon turned to India to sourced its indigo. With no bounty from the British government to grow the crop and a diminished amount of trading partners indigo production steadily decreased in the 1790s and was mostly gone by the early 1800s. Many indigo planters switched to growing cotton as it was becoming more lucrative and again fit into the plantation economy.14
While indigo has a longer and deeper history in other parts of the world, the plant played a role in early American agriculture. Indigo growing provided an important product for the burgeoning British textile industry. The plant brought a great deal of wealth to the colony of South Carolina as it became the colony’s second largest export between 1740s and 1790s. Also, the industry’s dependence on slave labor perpetuated the plantation system of agriculture in the American South which would ultimately play a role in causing the Civil War later on. Today, ruins of the indigo fermenting vats remain in parts of South Carolina, and the plant remains an important part of the cultural history in the areas where it was grown.
1 Nic Butler, “Indigo in the Fabric of Early South Carolina,” Charleston County Public Library, August 16, 2019, https://www.ccpl.org/charleston-time-machine/indigo-fabric-early-south-carolina.
2 James Bitler, “Indigo.” New Georgia Encyclopedia, last modified Jul 15, 2020, https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/indigo
3 Nic Butler, “Indigo in the Fabric of Early South Carolina,” Charleston County Public Library, August 16, 2019, https://www.ccpl.org/charleston-time-machine/indigo-fabric-early-south-carolina.
5 Neil Caudle, “The Colors of Indigo,” Glimpse, accessed February 2, 2023, http://glimpse.clemson.edu/the-colors-of-indigo/.
6 “Eliza Lucas Pinckney,” National Park Service, last updated March 1, 2021, https://www.nps.gov/chpi/learn/historyculture/eliza-lucas-pinckney.htm.
7 Virginia Jelatis, “Indigo,” South Carolina Encyclopedia, last updated August 5, 2022, https://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/indigo/.
8 Nic Butler, “Indigo in the Fabric of Early South Carolina,” Charleston County Public Library, August 16, 2019, https://www.ccpl.org/charleston-time-machine/indigo-fabric-early-south-carolina.
9 Virginia Jelatis, “Indigo,” South Carolina Encyclopedia, last updated August 5, 2022, https://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/indigo/.
10 Kenneth H. Beeson, “Indigo Production in the Eighteenth Century”, Hispanic American Historical Review, 1 May 1964, 44 (2): 214–218, doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00182168-44.2.214.
11 Virginia Jelatis, “Indigo,” South Carolina Encyclopedia, last updated August 5, 2022, https://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/indigo/.
13 Latria Graham, “The Blue that Enchanted the World,” Smithsonian Magazine, accessed February 2, 2023, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/indigo-making-comeback-south-carolina-180980987/.
14 Virginia Jelatis, “Indigo,” South Carolina Encyclopedia, last updated August 5, 2022, https://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/indigo/.
Chandler Hansen grew up and lives in Easton, NY. He is a graduate of Gordon College where he earned a bachelor’s degree in History. He serves as a writer and editor for Morning Ag Clips.