ON THIS DATE in 1723, Eliza Lucas was born. At sixteen in 1739 the South Carolina plantation owner’s daughter tried to cultivate indigo, a blue-dye-producing plant. Indigo had flourished in the West Indies but proved initially resistant to the soil of South Carolina. Lucas was supervising three plantations and looking after three younger siblings while her father was away, but remained steadfast in her belief that the stubborn crop would grow. “I make no doubt indigo will prove a very valuable commodity in time,” She wrote in 1741.
Although it took five years to harvest the first successful indigo crop, the plant would revive South Carolina’s economy after tobacco, the previous leading cash crop, had all but wrecked the soil. There was a huge demand for the dye in Great Britain, where it colored the fabric of military uniforms and dress coats. In the years before cotton became king, indigo was South Carolina’s second-most-profitable crop, after rice.