04 September 2008

Rice: A South Carolina Tradition

  • It has been labeled the "food of the world" because nearly 2/3 of the world's population considers it an essential food staple.
  • Today, the United States is one of the world's largest producers, exporting to over 100 countries worldwide.
  • South Carolina was the leading producer for almost two centuries; from the late 1600s to the late 1800s, nearly 1/3 of the entire North American crop was grown in South Carolina.
September marks the annual celebration of National Rice Month (established in 1991). It is a time to enjoy the taste, versatility, and immense economic contribution of rice to our national economy. For South Carolinians, rice is more than a delicious side dish. It is the building block of the everyday meal, a monument to Carolina agricultural history, and a way of life. In face, many lowcountry born and reared children grew up eating rice twice a day, every day, at lunch and supper.

Carolina planters cultivated rice in the coastal tidewater rivers of the lowcountry--mainly the Waccamaw, Santee, Cooper, Ashley, Combahee, and Savannah Rivers. While it is sometimes perceived that rice was grown on most plantations in the lowcountry, according to the Census of Agriculture of 1859, less than 40% of lowcountry farms grew any rice at all.

While cultivating rice was less labor intensive and less hazardous than growing sugar cane, it was rather more intensive than raising tobacco. African slaves were well suited to the tropical summer climates, tolerant to malaria and yellow fever, and previously acquainted with rice cultivation. These factors greatly increased the popularity of West African slave labor in the Carolina rice culture.

Rice production required skilled laborers, and lots of them. The larger the number of slaves on a plantation, the more likely that rice was cultivated by the planter. By 1860, nearly 1/3 of plantations with over 300 slaves and nearly 2/3 of plantations with over 500 slaves produced rice. The largest rice planter in the United States in 1860 was Joshua Ward (of the Waccamaw River area, Georgetown District, SC), owner of 1,092 slaves.

The American Civil War and Emancipation coupled with steadily declining soil quality and a series of destructive hurricanes heralded the demise of the Carolina rice culture. But fear not! Authentically grown "Carolina Gold" rice can still be found, thanks, in part, to the efforts of Dr. Richard Schulze of Turnbridge Plantation in Hardeeville, SC. After a nearly 60 year shortage, this gourmet southern staple can grace tables once again. California, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas may grow the majority of the United States' rice, but the history and tradition of rice cultivation will always remain fundamentally Carolinian.

To learn more about local rice cultivation, visit the Beaufort District Collection at 311 Scott Street, Beaufort, South Carolina 29902.

Suggested Reading
  • B Alston. Rice Planter and Sportsman: The Recollections of J. Motte Alston, 1821-1909
  • 306.3 DUS. Them Dark Days: Slavery in the American Rice Swamps by William Dusinberre
  • 633.18 SCH. Carolina Gold Rice: The Ebb and Flow History of a Lowcountry Cash Crop by Richard Schulze
  • 633.1857 CAM. The History of the Rice Industry in South Carolina to the Civil War by Harriett Z. Campbell
  • 633.3318 DOA. Rice and Rice Planting in the South Carolina Low Country by David Doar
  • 975.7 LIN. Historical Atlas of the Rice Plantations of the ACE River Basin--1860 by Suzanne Cameron Linder
  • 975.702 LIT. Rice and Slaves: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina by Daniel C. Littlefield
  • 975.702 LIT. Rice and the Making of South Carolina: An Introductory Essay by Daniel C. Littlefield
  • 975.789 SOU. The South Carolina Rice Plantation: As Revealed in the Papers of Robert F. W. Allston
  • 975.79 HEY. Seed From Madagascar by Duncan Clinch Heyward
  • 975.79 PRI. A Woman Rice Planter by Elizabeth Allston Pringle
  • Beaufort County Historical Society Paper: "Rice, Indigo, and the Carolina Lowcountry" by Gerhard Spieler
  • Vertical File: Rice
(image courtesy of The Library of Congress, Digital Collections)

No comments: