The Colors of Indigo

June 26, 2014

by Neil Caudle

Andrea Feeser has lifted the history of indigo into the air, where the oxygen can reach it. Her new book,Red, White, and Black Make Blue: Indigo in the Fabric of Colonial South Carolina Life, tells a new kind of indigo story, in multiple hues.

Making it real

Kendra Johnson, a costume designer and associate professor in performing arts (photo above by Craig Mahaffey), researched, designed, and sewed this woolen skirt, dyed with indigo, to illustrate a type of garment worn by eighteenth-century slaves and poor whites. Johnson, whose academic research investigates African-American clothing during the antebellum period, says that clothing signified status, even among different groups of slaves.

“On huge plantations like Drayton Hall or Middleton, slaves had their own class system, and it was very strict,” she says. “If you were a weaver, for example, you didn’t get together with someone who worked in the field. And those differences in class were reflected in their clothing. But on the smaller plantations in the upstate, slaves usually did several jobs, so you wouldn’t see as many differences in the clothing.”

This year, Johnson and her students will be researching the clothes worn at historic Fort Hill, now a part of Clemson’s campus. To recreate the clothing of slaves, the team will research the work people did and build garments true to the times, simulating wear and tear.

“It’s called distressing,” Johnson says. “Let’s say I’m doing a skirt for a particular slave. I would need to know what her job was, and what kind of movements she would have done, and then I would dye the skirt and distress it, make it dirty where it would have been dirty, at the hem, for instance. Or it may have been faded and worn at the knees, if she had done a lot of squatting or kneeling.”

Johnson gets plenty of practice imagining life at Fort Hill.

“When I walk by Fort Hill, I wonder what life was like back then,” she says. “I try to imagine it from what I know—especially the labor involved, but also the weather and everything else, even the smells. That’s how you make it seem real.”

A descendent of Eliza Lucas Pinckney attends to her legacy.

The Civil War’s fiery rampage through South Carolina destroyed many of the documents, paintings, and other artifacts that could have borne witness to the colonial past. Lacking those records, families preserved their histories as best they could, in stories they tended as carefully as they tended the last of their heirlooms.

One of those heirlooms is an indigo-patterned wrap designed by Eliza Lucas Pinckney and woven on her plantation. Today, that wrap belongs to Tim Drake (photo above by Patrick Wright), a direct descendent of Eliza Lucas Pinckney through her son, General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a statesman and delegate to the Constitutional Convention. Drake inherited the wrap, along with a handheld fan and several other items, from his grandmother, Azalee Mitchell Drake. Tim Drake says that the trunk’s contents had been carefully labeled many years before, probably in the late 1800s or early 1900s, on scraps of yellowed paper pinned to the heirlooms.

“She called them ‘vestiges of aristocracy,’” Drake says.

For the past twenty years, Drake has worked as a volunteer director with the Pendleton Historic Foundation, which manages Charles Cotesworth Pinckney’s summer house, Woodburn, one of the few remaining treasures from a family fortune built largely on indigo. “I like history,” Drake says, “and I think it’s important to preserve a record of the past.”

In his other job, Drake manages state programs for Clemson’s Department of Pesticide Regulation. With the welfare of people and crops on his mind, he depends upon data and documented facts. So he understands the historians’ preference for solid documentation. But for the early history of indigo in South Carolina, Drake relies upon a different kind of source: stories from his extended family.

“What I learned from them is anecdotal,” he says, “so if you ask me to prove it with some kind of record, I can’t.”

The ring of truth

But to Drake, the family stories ring true. For one thing, they don’t always track with conventional wisdom or the biases of their time; nor do they sugarcoat the past. “Some of the slave-holding Pinckneys,” he says firmly, “were not kind to their slaves.”

While much of what Drake absorbed from family stories confirms historians’ accounts of the indigo era and Eliza Lucas Pinckney’s starring role, the stories also fill some gaps. Historians speculate, for instance, that the knowledge of indigo cultivation and dye making came from Africa, with slaves. Drake’s family stories do not equivocate on this point. Eliza Lucas, they say, got the idea for growing indigo by watching slaves grow it and make dye for their own use. She gradually built, on a commercial scale, an enterprise she learned from them.

Because official documents typically cited husbands, not wives, as the responsible parties in matters of property and business, some accounts describe Charles Pinckney, Eliza’s husband, as a prominent planter and credit him with much of the couple’s success with rice and indigo. But Drake’s family told a different story, he says. “Charles was a lawyer and spent most of his time in town. Eliza was the one who knew about agriculture. The plantations were hers, and she was the one who ran them. And she was the person most responsible for building the Pinckney family fortune.”

Even though there is no tangible evidence that planters grew indigo as far west as Pendleton or Clemson, Drake heard about experiments with indigo at Woodburn Plantation from two of his distant relatives and local historians, David Watson and “Punch” Hunter of Pendleton. The lack of a written record, Drake points out, does not mean that indigo never grew in western South Carolina. If experiments with indigo failed, or if people were growing it only for local use, there might not have been any record at all. “I think they were growing it here,” he says. “Indigo was a part of their way of life.”

As stories of that way of life came down through the generations, there was no figure more inspirational than Eliza Lucas, the daring young entrepreneur who would build a mighty industry in commerce with Britain and then reject British rule to give her allegiance to a revolutionary army marching off to war in uniforms of indigo blue.

“She was a woman of the future,” Drake says. “She had a lot of agricultural knowledge, which was highly unusual for that time. And she was one of the people who became nation builders. I admire her.”

Tim Drake is state programs manager in theDepartment of Pesticide Regulation, part of Public Service Activities at Clemson. He is also secretary of the board of directors of the Pendleton Historic Foundation, which manages two historic houses, Ashtabula and Woodburn.

Karen Hall may have overdone the blue.

“My mother tried to put me in blue all the time, so of course I hated blue as a child, but I love it now. I can’t get enough of it. I take a look at my wardrobe and say, ‘Okay, what else besides blue do you have?’”

Some of that wardrobe she colored herself, with indigo dye. She has grown the plant in her backyard garden and extracted the dye, using a method that is hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. But Hall, who has a Ph.D. in plant physiology, has been learning both the art and the science of indigo dye.

Indigo plants—there are more than twenty species used for making dye, Hall says—do not have a stream of blue pigment running like blood through their veins. So squeezing an indigo plant will not yield a single drop of blue. But in their leaves, indigo plants conceal a molecule called indican that bonds, as the plant breaks down through fermentation, with another molecule released from the same plant. The bond yields a substance called leuco indigo, or white indigo. Leuco is not yet blue, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Hall can see the stuff, which is a pale, patchy, eerie green in the fermentation water, after she’s rotted the plants for a day or two. She draws the mixture off into another pot and adjusts the pH upward to enable what chemists call reduction, a change in the molecule’s number of electrons. Without this reduction and its flip side, oxidation, leuco indigo will not yield a dye. So Hall adds lime and beats the fermenting liquid sludge with a paddle to feed it air. As she paddles, indigo settles to the bottom of the pot as a muddy sediment. She leaves the settled indigo, draws off the liquid, and beats at the mixture again.

“You can tell by the color of the water that you’ve got leuco in it,” she says. “So as long as you’re getting that color, you keep repeating the steps. The last time I made indigo dye, I did that six times, at least, beating for fifteen minutes at a time, until I got tired and gave up.”

Colonial planters and their slaves weren’t making a few cakes of dye from a small patch of indigo plants; they were harvesting whole fields of the stuff and processing batch after batch, day after day, in giant vats, in the hottest months of summer. “So you can imagine with a vat that’s as big as this room is, it was probably an all-day process to add oxygen and get that indigo to fall out of solution,” Hall says.

Predictably unpredictable blues

After Hall dries the indigo sediment into a hard, chalky cake, she grinds it to powder and adds water and a chemical called thiox—not urine, which was the solvent of choice in colonial times—to make the dye. In her dye vats at home, she colors various fabrics and garments, experimenting with patterns and tints. Some plants yield blues with a blush of red; others trend toward purple. The darkest shades require dunking and airing the cloth multiple times. And with indigo, as with other natural dyes, the results are unpredictable. The plant’s genetic variations, climate and soil, and many other variables influence the ultimate color.

“I can use the same formula every time I make a vat, but its properties vary,” Hall says, laughing. “But the chemists who have synthesized it to dye our blue jeans today, they’ve got it worked out.”

Producing and using natural indigo is messy, smelly, and tiring, Hall says; it is also addictive. She blames her mother for getting her hooked. “My mom is a dyer and weaver, and for many years she did some natural dyes and also a lot of chemical dyes. I was teaching a class called Ethnobotany for Teachers, through a program where I used to work, so I asked my mom to please come to teach my students about indigo. So that’s how I learned, from watching her teach the teachers.”

Hall the dyer’s daughter had learned the how-to, but Hall the scientist wanted to know a lot more. “I was trying to figure out chemically what was really going on in front of our eyes,” she says.

Even though indigo is one of the world’s oldest and most popular dyes, there was not much information available about its chemistry, Hall says. She had to dig through lab reports, texts, and journal articles to figure out the chemical sequence behind the dye. In the process, she gained an appreciation for just how technically challenging producing indigo would have been in the colonial period. The necessary expertise was considerable, Hall says, and may well have come from Africa, along with the slaves.

“To me, this is an excellent demonstration that an enslaved person does not mean a dumb person,” Hall says. “From an intellectual perspective, this is a complicated dye. It takes expert knowledge in order to understand how to grow it, how to make it, and how to use it. And that’s a story that should be celebrated, despite the fact that the history is tied to something so awful.”

At the time of this writing, Karen Hall was the director of the South Carolina Master Naturalist Program and state coordinator of the South Carolina Master Gardener Program, and a faculty member in the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources,College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Life Sciences. Currently, she is an applied ecologist with theBotanical Research Institute of Texas. For more about Hall’s experiments with indigo and dyeing, see her website,

About the dye

(from Karen Hall’s course material for teachers)

Indigo must be chemically reduced before it can be used in dyeing. As ground indigo is added to an alkaline vat with a reducing compound (thiourea dioxide, hydrosulfite, diothionite, or others), it quickly transforms into leuco indigo—or white indigo— a soluble salt. In a dye vat, the liquid is amber green or yellowish green. After the cloth is immersed in the dye bath and then raised into the air, the indigo white salt compound exchanges its bond with the salt for a bond with the fiber as it oxidizes into the familiar blue indigo. In this form, the dye is relatively permanent but lightly bound with the fiber in the cloth. Indigo doesn’t penetrate cellulose fibers very deeply. It mostly attaches to the frayed edges of microfibrils, cellulose strands wound into a cable-like structure. Blue jeans fade not only because they have lost some indigo but because friction has exposed the inner, whiter parts of the cellulose microfibril. Animal, plant, and some synthetic fibers can be dyed with indigo, but the cloth must first go through a chemical scouring to fray the fiber slightly so that indigo can penetrate; the chemical scouring also removes any of the chemical treatments used on modern fabrics.

The caustic chemicals used to reduce indigo dye are hazardous, and in factories during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, accidents injured or killed many workers.

Download Karen Hall’s Indigo Recipe.PDF.

How red and black and white made blue.

The story we’ve heard is quite pretty: Eliza Lucas, an adventuresome young woman of sixteen, arrives in the low country from Antigua, takes charge of her father’s plantations as he careers abroad, and nurtures the seeds of a mighty industry that transforms the landscape of South Carolina and bathes all of Britain and its colonies in blue.

The plant itself is pretty: a shrub with frond-like branches, seedpods curved like tiny smiles, and delicate, coral-pink flowers.

But indigo did not surrender blue without a fight. Slaves had to plant it, weed it, and coax it through cold spells in spring. When the summer swelter thrummed with insects, slaves would pick pests from the indigo leaves. When the shrub grew tall and bushy and heavy with with sap, the slaves would hack it down and lug it on their backs, heave it into giant vats, pound it to pulp, cover it with water, and weigh it down with stones to make it rot.

Putrefaction was not pretty. Neighbors complained of the stench. The odor of rot was so great it could nauseate slaves as they beat at the mixture with large, wooden paddles, feeding air to the sludge.

And the dye itself, dried and packed and sold in cakes or sock-like canvass bags, was useless until it was ground to a powder and doused with urine. Stirred into water, it slouched into a splotchy, pea-green soup with a yellow-green fluorescent sheen.

But when the dye master dipped into this soup a swath of fabric, and raised it to the air, the sopping cloth began to blush a living blue. Oxygen was the final ingredient, the kiss that brought color to life.

Andrea Feeser has lifted the history of indigo into the air, where the oxygen can reach it. Her new book, Red, White, and Black Make Blue: Indigo in the Fabric of Colonial South Carolina Life, tells a new kind of indigo story, in multiple hues.

The art and the facts

This is not Feeser’s first case of the blues. At the University of Hawaii, she coauthored a book about Waikiki, where, in local memory and art, blue bubbles up from the grays of concrete jungles and flows like water from the past. When she left Hawaii and came to Clemson, in 2002, having never before lived in the South, Feeser found a different landscape, a different culture, and a new sort of blue. Here, where agriculture had long shaped the land and its history, she came across a charming story. It was about a young woman, a mere teenager, who had started the second largest staple for South Carolina in colonial times.

“That’s the popular story,” Feeser says, “that Eliza Lucas Pinckney was responsible for the indigo boom. She is, in fact, the first woman inducted into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame, and that was in nineteen eighty-nine—late recognition, but recognition nonetheless. So I began to investigate that history.”

Feeser is not, strictly speaking, a historian, but she excavates the historical record to understand the meaning of place. Her experience as an art historian and artist helps her interpret the art as well as the facts of artifacts, and what they meant to the people who made them and used them. In the introduction of her book, she describes confronting a particular artifact that would haunt her as she wrote:

While visiting the Museum of London, I was captivated by a garment that prominently featured blue: a gorgeous eighteenth-century silk brocade dress alive with a rhythmic dance of flowering vines. My eyes were drawn in particular to delicate blue blooms scattered amidst the profusion of leaves and petals, and for a moment, I felt transported to a field of azure blossoms.

Beside her, a schoolgirl broke the spell, muttering, with her nose to the glass of the display case, “A ghost must be wearing that dress.”

Feeser understood what she meant. There was no mannequin, no model. The dress held an absence, a ghost.

An heirloom alive with light

The enchanting, shawl-like wrap caught the team in its spell, stitched them together into the fabric of the indigo story. As soon as Tim Drake unfurled the wrap and draped it on Andrea Feeser’s shoulders, she knew that the piece was a treasure. Eliza Lucas Pinckney, the woman most responsible for South Carolina’s indigo industry, had wrapped herself in a silken shawl whose needlework rendered the indigo plant—not in blue, but in sublimely subtle white on white. It was the stylized form of the living plant itself, and not its dye, that she chose to wear.

Feeser knew that the wrap, for its value as both history and art, should be preserved as an image, documented for her book and for anyone who could not see it firsthand. She also knew just the photographer for that kind of assignment: her colleague in the Department of Art, Anderson Wrangle (to see more of his work, take a look at Pictures from an Expedition).

Very soon, Wrangle was learning not only the garment but the history and science behind it. Karen Hall explained the botany, the chemistry, and the methods for making an indigo dye. He met Kendra Johnson and photographed the skirt she had made.

“It was terrific,” Wrangle says. “They drew me into their project, made me a part of the team.”

Photographing the wrap proved difficult, at first. It was six feet long and very sheer. “I had never photographed anything like it before,” he says. “It was so old and fine, it had a presence. I wanted to create something more than a document. I wanted people to see it and feel it the way I did.”

He tried shooting the wrap from several angles, but none of them satisfied him. He constructed a scaffold in his studio, covered it with protective fabric, and draped the wrap to hang vertically. “I had to experiment with the lighting, moving it around,” he says. “Finally, I got the light to shine through the fabric like light through glass. All of a sudden, it came alive.”

I imagined a disembodied presence that wanted to be felt, reaching out to the land of the living from the realm of the dead and trying desperately to say something to those of us on this side of the grave.

Later, in the midst of her indigo project, Feeser and two colleagues, Karen Hall and Kendra Johnson, were presenting a lecture one evening when a man came forward from the audience and draped a wrap across Feeser’s shoulders. The man was Tim Drake, manager of the historic Woodburn Plantation and a descendent of Eliza Lucas Pinckney. Eliza, Fesser says, had designed the garment herself, sometime around 1752. For that moment, Feeser occupied the absence, feeling the drape of old fabric alive with a tracery of indigo plants.

“It is a beautiful, openwork silk wrap,” Feeser says, “and she decorated it with indigo plants. It was a moment of disbelief that we had access to this spectacular garment. It was extraordinary.”

Beyond the spotlight

We have no idea what Eliza Lucas looked like. We have no paintings or drawings from life, no detailed descriptions. But when the drama of indigo opens, the spotlight shines on her. And deservedly so, Feeser says. Eliza Lucas was a remarkable woman. When her father left her in charge of his holdings and returned to Antigua, she learned not only to thrive in her strange new land but to manage it and build an industry within it, all the while probing the low country’s natural history as a botanist would, recording its marvels, conducting experiments, and corresponding with scientists about what she observed. Widowed at age thirty-six from Charles Pinckney, a prominent public official, Eliza Lucas Pinckney continued to manage vast holdings, and, despite her long and lucrative ties with England, became an ardent patriot of the revolution and the new American republic. When she died, in 1793, President George Washington was one of her pallbearers.

This was indeed a lovely story, but Feeser chose to look beyond the spotlight, to learn about Eliza Lucas’s supporting cast. Who was the figure behind her, mostly obscured by the dark? His name was Quash, a mullato slave. The record tells us, Feeser says, only a little about him. He may have been a driver, a kind of foreman who managed the slaves and took day-to-day charge of the indigo enterprise, from planting seed to packing finished cakes of dye. He was, by all accounts, an accomplished carpenter. He built the sturdy wooden vats that held the indigo. After Eliza married Charles Pinckney, Quash continued to serve them, on the plantation but also in town. He helped build for them in Charles Towne a grand house worthy of their standing among the elite of their time.

Every successful indigo plantation probably had a Quash or two, and planters took pains to keep such experts on the job, coercing or rewarding them, trying to prevent their defections to rival plantations in Florida, where the Spanish were promising freedom to workers who could help them gain ground against their enemy, Britain. Quash was one of those who stayed. Perhaps for his loyalty as well as his contributions, Quash won his freedom and was christened William Johnson. Eventually, he would buy two of his children out of slavery, oversee his own plantation, and manage his own slaves.

Eliza and Charles Pinckney were leaders among the low-country elite, but they were not the only white planters promoting Carolina indigo. Henry Laurens, a prominent merchant, slave trader, and planter of the time, promoted and defended the crop. Alexander Garden advanced the botanical knowledge about it. And James Crockatt lobbied the British government for laws that would subsidize indigo imports from the colony. We know about these men, and their way of life, because they composed the record. We have their letters and notebooks, their accounts of transactions, their pamphlets and public arguments. On occasion, such men saw fit to mention, in writing, a slave as essential as Quash. But legions of other slaves, bought and sold and mastered, are mostly absent from the record.

Reading the absence

So Feeser ventured farther into the darkness, piecing together obscure details unearthed from the archives, detecting the presence of slaves who supplied not only the toil but the knowledge of growing and using a difficult crop. To understand their contributions, Feeser examined every scrap of evidence she could find—a dye vat that survives from the period, for instance, and drawings depicting indigo production. The drawings probably had their own sort of bias, she says, having been rendered by whites, but they suggest the heavy toil and technical demands of indigo production. You couldn’t just toss the plants into a vat and wait for them to rot. The reeking soup had to be moved from vat to vat, aerated, and dosed with just the right amount of caustic lye or lime. Any misstep in the process could spoil the dye.

“It’s rather extraordinary to imagine the physical labor and also the expertise that went into this process,” Feeser says.

With her colleagues—Karen Hall, an ethnobotanist, and Kendra Johnson, a costume designer with an expertise in slave clothing—Feeser launched her own experiment with indigo. The plan was to sow and raise a crop of indigo at Woodburn Plantation, just a few miles from the Clemson campus, and then to turn the crop into dye, as Lucas Pinckney and her slaves had done. There is no evidence that planters ever grew indigo commercially as far west as Clemson, Feeser says, but the team decided to give it a try. Tim Drake gave his okay, and the group went to work. Matt Rink, a sculptor and Clemson alumnus, built a small-scale set of wooden vats, which are now on display at the plantation. Johnson researched the dress of slaves during the period and created a skirt like those the women would have worn. And Karen Hall mastered the process of making and using indigo dye.

But the crop itself failed to thrive, and Hall cites several reasons. “Number one, faculty members don’t have a lot of time to be there to help it along,” she says. “Number two, that land is pretty used up. It was cottoned to death, and it was red clay we were planting in. So it probably needed a lot more help than I gave it.”

Feeser and her colleagues lacked plants to process into dye, but they did glean some insight into Eliza Lucas’s early struggles with the crop. In a letter to her father, on June 4, 1741, Lucas described how a frost killed most of her seedlings, the first time she planted the indigo seeds he had sent her from Antigua:

I wrote you in [a] former letter we had a fine Crop of Indigo Seed upon the ground, and since informed you the frost took it before it was dry. I picked out the best of it and had it planted but there is not more than a hundred bushes of is come up which proves the more unluckey as you have sent a man to make it. I make no doubt Indigo will prove a very valuable Commodity in time if we could have the seed from the west Indias [in] time enough to plant the latter end of March, that the seed might be dry enough to gather before our frost. I am sorry we lost this season.

A few plants survived to make seed, and over the next several years Eliza Lucas and her slaves established productive crops, shared seeds with her neighbors, and proved that indigo could thrive in the low country

The other race of slaves

Some, perhaps most, of the slaves on the Lucas plantations were African. But Feeser found evidence that others were not. Especially in the early years of the indigo boom, Native Americans also worked on plantations as slaves, she says. Feeser found records referring to mustees—a term for people who were part black and part Indian—in the Lucas Pinckney household.

“In fact,” Feeser says, “one of their slaves was named Indian Peter, and for all I know he may have been all Native American.”

On the topic of enslaved Native Americans, and their contribution to the indigo industry, the stories have been rather quiet, Feeser says. “Indian slavery, frankly, is not discussed as much as it should be in South Carolina’s history. I suppose that may be because the numbers pale, alongside those of African slaves. And part of what happened is that those Indian slaves who were enslaved earlier in the colony’s history often intermarried with African slaves.”

As she tracked the scant evidence through a thicket of colonial records, Feeser realized not only that native slaves probably helped produce the indigo but that free Native Americans were trading for indigo garments and cloth. Dyed fabrics and garments came back to the colony in shipments of provisions and trade goods. For natives and Africans alike, clothing dyed with indigo had special significance.

“There were things they could communicate about their own power and agency through what they wore,” Feeser says, “and that blue was a part of that.”

Native Americans favored cloth and ready-made garments from Britain, trading deerskins that found their way into gloves and breeches back in England. “When you look at trade records from the period, you can see that quite a lot of what the Native Americans got was dyed blue,” Feeser says.

Blue Stroud, a type of cloth made in the Stroud area of Gloucestershire, was one of the natives’ favored materials for match coats, a kind of mantle or a wrap worn around the shoulders, and in a belted garment similar to a loincloth.

“I don’t mean to suggest that they were taking on purely European modes of dress,” Feeser says. “They were enhancing and making their own textiles and garments, which is true of what slaves were doing too, as much as possible.”

The power of pigment

Today, we take pigment for granted. Modern chemistry and commerce supply, at low cost, any color we desire. But in the colonial period, pigment came dear. It was difficult to find and extract, and difficult to use. The most cherished red, cochineal, required that people collect by hand teeny-tiny bugs from cactus plants. Like gemstones or precious metals, well-colored fabrics asserted one’s standing in the social order. Sports fans, decked out in the colors of their teams, have something in common with eighteenth-century consumers. The passion for color was serious business, Feeser says, and blue was the most popular color of all.

As indigo planters shipped more cakes and canvas bags of dye from the colony, and British manufacturers stepped up production of textiles, the once-scarce blue, an emblem of nobility in the imported silks and fine woolens of the upper crust, began to spill downward through the classes, Feeser says, into the common cloth of working-class families and then into the coarser goods of servants, too. Indignant “blue bloods” from the gentry complained that ordinary folk were dressing above their station, threatening the social order.

In the colony, the social status signified by clothing was a matter of law. The 1740 Slave Code specified how much a master could spend to clothe a slave and what types of fabric a slave could wear.

But by midcentury, blue was out of the bag, and, on both sides of the Atlantic, indigo wove its way into the culture. The records of John Dart, a merchant and the commissary general for South Carolina, show that his office distributed indigo seed to settlers headed for the frontier and supplied British-made fabric and clothing to people in every walk of life, including poor and wealthy whites, sovereign Native Americans, and slaves. Many of those goods, Feeser says, had been dyed in England with indigo produced in South Carolina. The colony’s indigo traveled a circuit, making fortunes at both ends of the loop.

A smear campaign

Not every British merchant was happy with the boom. Carolina indigo faced a smear campaign by opponents with a vested interest in dyes imported from French and Spanish colonies in the Caribbean and Central America. These more southerly climes, the critics argued, offered the optimum growing conditions and hard-won expertise that South Carolina lacked.

Carolina indigo, they claimed, would always be inferior.

The public relations war over indigo reminds Feeser of a similar clash over wine two centuries later: During the 1960s and ’70s, the European wine establishment and its U.S. importers used an almost identical campaign to discredit their new competition from upstart American vintners.

Feeser acknowledges that not all Carolina indigo came from scrupulous planters with high standards, but some of it did, and she suspects that the good stuff was probably equivalent to the best from Britain’s rivals. British manufacturers may even have padded their profits by substituting Carolina dye for the more expensive French or Spanish versions, assuming that no one would know the difference.

“I’m convinced that South Carolina indigo was in every type of textile that was made at the time,” Feeser says. “It’s actually really hard to figure out whether something was dyed with Spanish, French, or what they called Carolina indigo.”

Whatever the merits of the smear campaign, colonial Britain generally bought the notion that Carolina indigo was second-rate, a poor man’s substitute for the real thing. “So the bulk of it wound up in cloth that made its way to the lower echelons of society,” Feeser says.

Beyond the reach of rice

As indigo transformed the clothing of British common folk, Native Americans, and African slaves, it also began to transform the landscape of colonial South Carolina. From the beginning of the colony, rice had been king, the staple that built fortunes in Charles Towne and other British settlements. But rice needed low, soggy ground and rarely thrived outside the coastal zone. The first experiments with indigo, by planters including Eliza Lucas, took root in low-country rice plantations, on patches of high ground unsuitable for rice. Indigo, the planters hoped, would help them exploit off-season labor as well as unused land. From the planter’s point of view, this makes good practical sense: Keep the workforce busy when it’s not working rice.

But Karen Hall, Feeser’s collaborator who studies people’s relationship with plants, has a different take. “The slaves were already having to grow their own food,” she says, “so adding indigo was probably adding insult to injury for them.”

For planters and merchants, though, indigo was a money-maker. The crop soon outstripped its low-country knolls and rises, and planters moved inland, clearing and sowing new fields. From the late 1740s until the Revolutionary War, the colony surged westward on an indigo tide.

“That meant the land itself was transformed in order to accommodate plantations and farmsteads,” Feeser says. “But it also meant that the Native Americans increasingly were pushed out of areas that had been their homeland, and more slave labor was brought into the colonies. So indigo was part, and I would say a big part, of the ultimate transformation of South Carolina from a place known for what was possible in the low country to a place known for what was possible in the midlands and upstate areas too.”

The great dispossession

Feeser documents a long series of trades, concessions, alliances, skirmishes, and wars in which the colonists outmaneuvered or overpowered the natives, forcing them out of their hunting grounds and farms. At first, commerce and cunning were the primary instruments of land acquisition. British officials, keen to avoid a bloody conflict with the natives, frowned on the outright theft of native land. So colonists acquired Native American tracts in trade for manufactured goods, especially textiles, or by agreeing to protect a tribe from its enemies.

But as the number of colonists increased and appetites for indigo profits grew voracious, whites began taking land by force, carving out farmsteads and large plantations, working the land with African slaves. As dispossessed natives left their homelands, heading toward some reservation or distant frontier, many of them probably wore garments dyed indigo blue. And the slaves and white farmers who replaced them? They wore indigo, too.

The indigo boom continued to expand across the state until the Revolutionary War, which brought a halt to indigo exports to England. During and after the war, India came to dominate the world’s indigo production, and South Carolina’s indigo era was over. By that time, Feeser says, indigo had already left an indelible mark on the land and its people.

Today, slavery is long gone. The indigo industry is long gone. But their absence remains almost palpable, like that ghostlike absence in the dress Feeser saw in the Museum of London.

“Indigo became our state color a few years ago,” she says. “I wanted people to know about all of the colors that contributed to that blue, metaphorically speaking. When we look at blue in South Carolina today, I am hoping we can see the red and the black alongside the white. These are the colors that made the blue.”

Indigo Flowers
Indigo Flowers
The indigo plant itself is pretty: a shrub with frond-like branches, seedpods curved like tiny smiles, and delicate, coral-pink flowers. Photo by Karen Hall.
Fermenting IndigoIndigo FlowersIndigo GrainsIndigo SkirtAndrea FeeserA Cherokee visit to LondonThe Old PlantationSlaves making dye from indigo.WoodburnTim DrakeEliza Lucas Pinckney’s Indigo-Patterned WrapA Small-Scale Set of Wooden VatsIndigo PlantsIndigo Flowers

Andrea Feeser is an associate professor of art and architectural history in the College of Architecture, Art, and Humanities. At the time of this writing, Karen Hall was the director of the South Carolina Master Naturalist Program and state coordinator of the South Carolina Master Gardener Program, and a faculty member in the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Life Sciences. Kendra Johnson is an associate professor of theater, specializing in costume design and costume technology,Department of Performing Arts, College of Architecture, Art, and Humanities.

Feeser’s book, Red, White, and Black Make Blue: Indigo in the Fabric of Colonial South Carolina Life, is scheduled for release in November from the University of Georgia Press.

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