Lucas immigrated to South Carolina around 1786, which proved a fortuitous time and place for the arrival of a talented young millwright.
Millwright. Lucas was born in Cumberland, England, the son of John Lucas and Ann Noble. His mother’s family owned mills in the town of Whitehaven, which undoubtedly served as the source of Lucas’s skill as a millwright. Little is known of his early life in England. He married Mary Cooke on May 22, 1774. They had five children before Mary died sometime between 1783 and 1786. He then married Ann Ashburn of Whitehaven.
Lucas immigrated to South Carolina around 1786, which proved a fortuitous time and place for the arrival of a talented young millwright. Lowcountry rice planters had greatly increased the production of their rice fields by employing tidal rice cultivation. But the process of rice milling or “pounding”–removing the outer husk from the rice grains–had failed to evolve in a like manner. Most rice was still pounded by hand with wooden mortars and pestles or by crude pecker or cog mills powered by animals. Neither of these methods kept pace with the rapidly expanding production of tidal rice fields. Planters could sell unhusked or “rough” rice, but for a considerably lower price than cleaned rice.
Soon after his arrival in South Carolina, Lucas was put to work by a Santee River rice planter to improve the output of his plantation’s rice mill. Lucas experimented with wind and water as power sources, and within a short time his efforts bore fruit. His new pounding mill design was powered by an undershot waterwheel fed by a mill pond. It was first employed at Peach Island Plantation on the North Santee River in 1787. Lucas continued to improve his design, building his first tide-powered mill in 1791. Two years later at Henry Laurens’s Mepkin plantation he built a tide-powered mill, complete with rolling screens, elevators, and packers. The highly automated mill needed just three workers to operate and could pack as many as twenty 600-pound barrels of clean rice on a single tide.
With the assistance of his son Jonathan Jr., Lucas constructed his rice mills throughout the lowcountry, providing a means for South Carolina planters to clean their ever-growing output of rice. He purchased his own plantation on Shem Creek near Charleston, where he also established his own rice- and saw-milling operation. Lucas later purchased land in Charleston and built the city’s first toll rice mill. In 1817 Lucas built the first steam-powered rice mill in the United States. Jonathan Lucas, Jr., also had a successful career as a millwright, patenting an improved rice-cleaning machine in 1808 that found great favor in the rice-receiving ports of England and western Europe. His son Jonathan Lucas III built South Carolina’s largest antebellum rice mill, West Point Mills, on the Ashley River in 1839. Jonathan Lucas died on April 1, 1821, and was buried in St. Paul’s Cemetery, Charleston.
Lander, Ernest M., Jr. “Charleston: Manufacturing Center of the Old South.” Journal of Southern History 26 (August 1960): 330–51.
Lucas Family. Papers. South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston.