The Heyward brothers’ success can be attributed to the perfection of rice cultivation in the coastal savannas and swamps of South Carolina.
Rice planters. Born respectively on April 13, 1764, and January 18, 1766, James and Nathaniel Heyward were the sons of Daniel Heyward and Jane Elizabeth Gignilliat. The brothers were raised at Old House Plantation on the Combahee River, an estuary of Port Royal Sound. When their father died in 1777, both James and Nathaniel inherited small plantations. Soon after the Revolutionary War, both young men went to Europe for eighteen months of cultural enrichment.
James and Nathaniel returned to the lowcountry and began experimenting with new methods of rice cultivation. James spent much of his life in England and Philadelphia, as a factor for Heyward products. He wed Susan Cole in England on October 4, 1794, and died at Old House plantation on October 4, 1796. He left his plantations (Copenhagen and Hamburg) to his wife who passed them down to Nathaniel when she died.
Nathaniel married Henrietta Manigault on February 27, 1788. Using her $50,000 dowry, Heyward acquired land and other assets, eventually becoming the wealthiest rice planter in South Carolina. Through inheritance and purchase, Nathaniel owned or managed 35,000 acres and as many as two thousand slaves in Charleston, Colleton, and Beaufort Districts. His rice plantations included Ashley and Marshland Farms on the Charleston Neck; Silk Hope, Club House and Pompion Hill along the Cooper River; Blanford, Clay Hall, and Williams Island in the Beaufort District; and Old House, The Bluff, Fife, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Lewisburg, Savannah, Rose Hill, Pleasant Hill, Middlehouse, Pines, Myrtle Grove, Copenhagen, Hamburg, and Antwerp in Colleton District. Other holdings included a cotton plantation, forest lands, livestock, nine houses in Charleston, plus diverse bonds and securities. By the time of his death at the Bluff Plantation on April 10, 1851, Nathaniel possessed a net worth estimated at just over $2 million, making him by some estimates the wealthiest man in antebellum South Carolina.
The Heyward brothers’ success can be attributed to the perfection of rice cultivation in the coastal savannas and swamps of South Carolina. The method, highly labor intensive, utilized a system of earthen levees and ditches to create rice fields and reservoirs of fresh river water for irrigation. An array of wooden irrigation trunks, fitted on either end with floodgates, separated the fields from the river and utilized tidal pressure to either hold the fresh water in the fields or allow its continual circulation. While rice was grown profitably on inland swamp plantations, the tidal irrigation techniques employed by the Heywards increased production considerably. Planters growing rice on inland swamps could produce between six hundred and one thousand pounds of rice per acre. By the 1790s tidal swamp plantations yielded as much as fifteen hundred pounds per acre.
Tidal irrigation techniques changed the social and geographic character of the lowcountry in South Carolina and Georgia. Increased production boosted profits, but the new techniques were expensive to implement and extremely labor intensive. Land prices near coastal rivers rose considerably and the slave labor needed to profitably grow rice demanded an enormous capital investment. The result was that a handful of planters reaped a fabulous financial reward that was out of the reach of poorer whites in the region.
Chaplin, Joyce E. An Anxious Pursuit: Agricultural Innovation and Modernity in the Lower South, 1730–1815. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.
Dusinberre, William. Them Dark Days: Slavery in the American Rice Swamps. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Heyward, Duncan Clinch. Seed from Madagascar. 1937. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.