Author, planter, politician. Elliott was the scion of one of South Carolina’s wealthiest and most distinguished families. He was born on April 27, 1788, in Beaufort, descended from the pioneer families of the old Beaufort District, principally the Elliotts and the Barnwells. His father, William Elliott II, was a patriot soldier in the Revolutionary War and pioneer of Sea Island cotton culture in South Carolina. As a consequence, William Elliott III, the eldest son, became one of the wealthiest planters in South Carolina. In 1860 he owned twelve plantations in the lowcountry; a summer home in Flat Rock, North Carolina; and 217 slaves.
Elliott was educated at Beaufort College (1803–1806) and at Harvard College (1806–1808). Elliott withdrew from Harvard due to ill health before his graduation. In 1810 Harvard awarded him an honorary bachelor of arts degree as a consequence of his outstanding academic record. In 1815 he was awarded a master of arts degree from Harvard. In May 1817 Elliott married Anne Hutchinson Smith. The couple had nine children.
Elliott returned to Beaufort to pursue a career in planting, politics, and literature. He was known as one of the South’s most progressive and scientific planters. He wrote articles for the Southern Agriculturist and was notable for his studies in seed selection and for his promotion of diversification in southern agriculture. He was the perennial president of the Beaufort Agricultural Society, and in 1839 he was vice president of the South Carolina Agricultural Society. In 1855 Elliott represented South Carolina at the Paris Exposition, where he delivered a speech, in French, on Sea Island cotton to the Imperial and Central Agricultural Society. In the heyday of the antebellum plantation economy, Elliott produced some of the world’s best long staple cotton, known on the Atlantic market as “Elliott Cream Cotton.”
As was common for men of his class, Elliott was also a political leader. He served in the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1814 to 1815 and again from 1826 to 1829. He served in the South Carolina Senate from 1818 to 1821 and again in 1831. He was also intendant (mayor) of Beaufort from 1819 to 1824. Elliott’s political career was cut short when he resigned from the Senate and chastised his constituents for their support of nullification. Though always a defender of slavery, Elliott was nevertheless a staunch Unionist, a conviction not shared by the majority of the voters in Beaufort District.
Elliott is best remembered for his literary publications. In addition to his agricultural writings, Elliott was a frequent contributor to the Southern Quarterly Review. In 1850 he published a five-act drama, Fiesco: A Tragedy. Elliott’s most famous and lasting contribution to southern literature is Carolina Sports by Land and Water, published in Charleston in 1846. This book was a compilation of his articles on lowcountry hunting and fishing for the Charleston newspapers and was written under the pen names “Venator” and “Piscator.” Popular in its day, it has since become a classic of the American outdoor genre and remained in print in the twenty-first century. Elliott died at his home in Flat Rock, North Carolina, on February 3, 1863.
Bailey, N. Louise, Mary L. Morgan, and Carolyn R. Taylor, eds. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina Senate, 1776–1985. 3 vols. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1986.
Barnwell, Stephen B. Story of an American Family. Marquette, Mich., 1969. Rowland, Lawrence S., Alexander Moore, and George C. Rogers. The History of Beaufort County. Vol. 1, 1514–1861. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996. Scafidel, Beverly. “The Letters of William Elliott.” Ph.D. diss., University of South Carolina, 1978.