For most of its history, agriculture virtually defined South Carolina, and no other single force has so profoundly influenced the state’s economy, history, demographics, and politics. For example, absent the state’s dependence on slave based staples such as rice and cotton, South Carolina’s fanatical defense of slavery to the point of disunion and war seems less tenable.
From the beginning South Carolina was conceived as an agrarian paradise. The Lords Proprietors intended the colony to fill a niche in the English mercantile system by supplying commodities not produced elsewhere in the empire. At first, however, settlers struggled merely to survive. They raised corn, cattle, and hogs for food while seeking a money crop to put the colony on a paying basis. It was a slow process. Experiments with semitropical plants such as ginger, silk, dates, almonds, and olives were disappointing. Desperate for cash, settlers planted tobacco, the crop of Virginia and Maryland, as a makeshift staple until a more suitable commodity could be found. Thus tobacco became, albeit briefly, South Carolina’s first cash crop.
The colony’s first significant commercial crop was rice. Small-scale experiments evolved into an established crop culture by the 1720s. The lowcountry’s warm climate and swampy landscape were perfect for growing rice, and an eager market existed as well. Europeans were hungry for Carolina rice, and ships laden with the staple called on London, Hamburg, and Rotterdam. Rice culture required substantial investments of capital and labor, and hundreds of fields were cleared and thousands of enslaved Africans imported to toil in them. Large plantations (some totaling thousands of acres) developed along the region’s tidewater rivers. Indeed, the expansion of rice and slavery went hand in hand, and by 1740 Africans comprised two thirds of South Carolina’s population. Black majorities were even greater in the heavy rice-producing areas around Georgetown and the ACE Basin. Thus the blend of Northern European and West African influences that became the unique culture of South Carolina began in the rice fields of the lowcountry. Rice (and the bondage that supported it) dominated lowcountry life for 150 years.
In the 1740s indigo became an important staple. Eliza Lucas Pinckney is credited with introducing indigo culture, although experienced French Huguenot settlers doubtless refined the process. The English government encouraged indigo by paying a bounty on the crop. As settlement spread inland, so did indigo. Soon farmers in Colleton, Williamsburg, Camden, and Ninety Six were producing the blue dye. Slavery expanded apace, bringing significant numbers of Africans to the interior for the first time. Independence from Britain ended the subsidy on indigo, and overproduction lowered prices still further. In the 1790s high grade dye produced in India (another British colony) drove South Carolina indigo from the market. Most producers shifted back to rice or a new commodity: cotton.
At first, only farmers along the coast planted cotton. The Sea Island variety simply did not grow well inland, and the fibers of short-staple (or upland) cotton were difficult to separate from the fuzzy seed. In 1793, however, Eli Whitney’s famous “cotton engine” solved the seed extraction problem, and stoked by rising demand, cotton was soon planted in every district in the state. The pace of the cotton boom was remarkable. Between 1793 and 1801 South Carolina’s cotton production rose from 94,000 to 20 million pounds, and by 1811 cotton production had passed 40 million pounds.
Cotton was especially important to the backcountry. Although the region’s farmers planted a little tobacco and wheat for sale, subsistence farming had been the norm, and backcountry folk mostly grew or bartered to meet their needs. Cotton changed that. The climate and soils of the backcountry were well suited to upland cotton, and the low start up costs of cotton culture appealed to small farmers. Growers often invested their cotton profits in land and slaves to produce still more cotton. Thus, landless farmers could become yeoman, and yeomen could aspire to planter status. The region became more market oriented as well. Seduced by the lure of cash on the barrelhead, backcountry farmers often forsook food crops for the staple. Thus, within a generation, cotton worked an economic revolution in the South Carolina backcountry. By the 1830s the state’s economy was heavily dependent on cotton, and the fortunes of the state rose and fell with the price of the white fiber.
Staple agriculture (the production of cash crops on plantations by slave labor) profoundly influenced South Carolina’s worldview and intellectual life as well. Agrarian orthodoxy held that rural life fostered character, respect for the natural world, the dignity of work, devotion to community, family, and God—a way of life in every way superior to the urban North with its anonymous, industrial drudgery. Faced with attacks on slavery in the 1840s and 1850s, the state’s best minds countered abolitionist rhetoric with strident defenses of the peculiar institution. According to the brilliant James Henry Hammond, slavery was a positive good that provided society with a needed “mudsill” of common laborers on which higher civilization rested. William Gilmore Simms, the South’s leading man of letters, urged fellow southerners to resist the creeping industrial and intellectual hegemony of the North. And Francis W. Pickens declared that “No pursuit is so well calculated to produce stern integrity and devoted patriotism, as agriculture.” Their devotion came at a cost. Writing in the 1930s, the historian David Duncan Wallace lamented the antebellum state’s “continued glorification of agriculture as morally superior to other industries [that] discouraged the development of other possibilities.”
Despite numerous small farms, large-scale rice and cotton plantations dominated South Carolina agriculture in the antebellum decades. For example, the state’s mean farm size in 1860 was a substantial 569 acres. By 1860 South Carolina farmers—slave and free, great and small—were producing more than 176 million pounds of cotton and 117 million pounds of rice annually. Sadly, the prosperity of the 1850s only reinforced the notion that protecting slave based staple agriculture was worth disunion and war.
The Civil War altered South Carolina agriculture in fundamental ways. Most important was the emancipation of slaves and establishment of a free labor force. At first federal authorities imposed a contract system that bound former slaves to employers for a year, after which they were free to leave and work for another. The contract plan was unpopular and soon evolved into some form of tenantry. Laboring families either sharecropped (working for a portion of the crop) or rented acreage for cash or produce. Former slaves entered tenantry expecting it to be a temporary transition to land ownership, but most were disappointed and tenantry became a way of life for the poor of both races for seventy-five years. Lack of capital compounded the problem. Tenants often paid high interest rates for short term credit, and many slid into perpetual debt. Tenantry also led to a rapid decline in mean farm size. From 569 acres in 1860, the average fell to 143 acres by 1880 and to 65 acres by 1920, a decline approaching ninety percent. The humble wooden tenant house became a common feature on the South Carolina landscape.
Rice never recovered from the Civil War and emancipation. Most freed slaves simply refused to work in the rice swamps, and the peculiar labor demands of rice culture made tenantry impractical. Moreover, new culture areas in Louisiana and Texas undermined the market for Carolina rice. By 1890 the state’s rice crop had fallen to one fourth of prewar levels.
In common with other southern states, South Carolina’s cotton culture continued to expand after the Civil War, especially in the Piedmont counties of Anderson, Greenville, Oconee, Pickens, and Spartanburg. By 1880 South Carolina was producing forty-five percent more cotton than in 1860. But demand for the staple did not keep pace with supply, and cotton prices began a long decline. Cotton growers responded to falling prices with increased production that only worsened the problem. By the late 1880s South Carolina farmers were in desperate straits. Between 1886 and 1887 more than one million acres of farmland were sold for taxes. Thousands of dispossessed farmers and tenants simply walked away from cotton fields and into burgeoning textile mills.
The fall of cotton prices sent shock waves through South Carolina, and farmers and merchants began seeking alternatives to a one-crop economy. As a result, several new crop cultures took root in the Palmetto State. In 1887 Barnwell County farmers made profits that “far exceed, per acre, the best cotton crop” by growing watermelons for shipment north. In the Pee Dee, farmers rode the wave of rising demand for cigarette tobaccos by planting bright leaf. With an acre of tobacco worth ten of cotton, the Pee Dee entered a prolonged boom as the countryside prospered and market towns thrived. The arrival of the boll weevil in the early twentieth century compounded the woes of cotton growers and hastened the exit of thousands more from the culture. In the “Ridge” and Piedmont counties, peach trees flourished in former cotton fields and trainloads of fruit rolled north. In St. Matthews, agronomist John Edward Wannamaker sought soybean varieties that would thrive in South Carolina.
World War I raised crop prices to record levels, and the state’s farmers breathed easier for a few years. But prices plunged in the 1920s, and farmers responded with self defeating cycles of overproduction. With the coming of the Great Depression in 1929, many faced foreclosure and ruin, but New Deal farm policies provided immediate relief and addressed longterm problems. The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 (AAA) was especially important. Cotton and tobacco growers benefited most from quota plans that reduced acreage, balanced supply with demand, and raised crop prices. Other programs offered low-cost production credit, conservation funds, and cheap electricity. Truly the New Deal was the most momentous event in South Carolina agriculture since emancipation.
World War II quickened the pace of change. High wartime crop prices helped farmers recover from the Depression and enjoy a rising living standard for the first time in decades. After the war, tractors, implements, and harvesters began replacing tenants on South Carolina farms. Modern fertilizers improved yields with less labor, and cotton acreage declined further as soybeans gained ground. As more rural folk left the land, farms became fewer, larger, and better equipped. The census of 1980 reported an urban majority for the first time with less than two percent of the state’s population actively engaged in farming. In the 1980s and 1990s tobacco, the state’s leading cash crop, was undermined by health concerns. In the late twentieth century, South Carolina farmers produced a diverse variety of plant and animal crops including grains, fruits, vegetables, poultry, cattle, and hogs as well as some cotton and tobacco. Although increasingly urban and suburban, the Palmetto State has a strong rural tradition, and the quality of rural living attracts greater numbers of South Carolinians every year. Respect for the state’s agrarian past endures.
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