The dark history of South Carolina’s beguiling blue dye
Indigo was once so vital to the state people called it “blue gold.” As interest in the dye reignites, historic sites are shining a light on its past.
Published March 7, 2023
10 min read
At Charleston landmarks such as McLeod Plantation and the Aiken-Rhett House, visitors learn how cotton and rice powered South Carolina’s economy in the 17th and 18th centuries. It’s less known that indigo was also such a vital crop for the British colony that planters called it “blue gold.” The leggy, subtropical bush produced an enchanting blue dye that was sent back to England to produce household items, military uniforms, and even Union Jack flags.
Though indigo disappeared in the American South after the Revolutionary War, it’s now making a comeback in and around Charleston. Travelers can take artisan-led workshops on how to harvest and dye with the plant, and most of all, visit historic sites which explore the ugly past of this beautiful color.
Exploring indigo’s dark history
Revered by ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans for its association with power, authority, and the sacred, indigo belongs to the pea family. The British attempted to grow it as early as 1607 in Jamestown, their first colony in Virginia.
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But it wasn’t until 16-year-old Eliza Lucas (Pinckney) came along that the crop took off. In the 1730s, Eliza’s father, a lieutenant governor stationed in Antigua, put her in charge of the family’s three plantations (and 60 enslaved people) outside of Charleston. Skilled in botany, she had her father ship her some indigo seeds.
“There was absolutely no one in the Carolina colonies that knew anything about indigo plants,” says Andrew Rodrigues, a historian at the Gullah Museum in Georgetown, South Carolina. “Her father sent an expert [African] dye maker from one of the French islands, and he taught Eliza and the [enslaved people] how to process indigo.”
Indigo soon became South Carolina’s second best cash crop. “Along with rice, it made South Carolina the wealthiest of the 13 colonies,” Rodrigues says. At one point in the 1700s, more than a million pounds of it a year were harvested, processed, and packed into cakes to be shipped back to Britain, a $40 million value today.
Enslaved laborers made the indigo bonanza possible. They were forced to work in giant brick vats where the fermenting smell and stagnant water attracted flies and mosquitoes, and with them, the constant threat of cholera, yellow fever, and malaria. It took some 180 pounds of leaves to produce one pound of indigo dye.
“There’s a reason why enslaved labor was used,” says Jeff Neale, director of preservation and interpretation at Middleton Place, a circa-1675 Charleston-area plantation where rice and indigo once thrived. “No one else would do it; conditions were horrible.”
Blue gold returns to the Carolinas
After American independence in 1776, Britain took its indigo business to India and U.S. farmers stopped growing the plant. Most denim makers and other manufacturers turned to chemical dyes.
Then, about a decade ago, natural indigo started resurging. Books including The Indigo Girl by Natasha Boyd, a novel about Eliza Lucas, spurred interest in its history. Textile artists, moving away from polluting petroleum-based dyes, rediscovered the ancient plants.
Despite the crop’s ubiquity in colonial times, the Otranto Plantation Indigo Vat, in Berkeley County, South Carolina, is one of the only tangible sites left behind. A historical marker spotlights two 14-by-14-foot brick basins where indigo would have been processed. “During its heyday, the dye was brewed in vats as large as swimming pools,” Neale says.
Today, Middleton Place grows indigo again, and museum employees give demonstrations on dyeing and explain the brutal labor required to dig reservoirs for water, plant, harvest, and process the indigo.
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The Gullah Geechee people, descendants of enslaved Africans forced to work plantations in coastal South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, still live on the islands and Lowcountry along the southeastern United States coast. Today, the Gullah Museum in Georgetown explores the region’s history.
Other traces of indigo appear in unexpected places through South Carolina’s Lowcountry. Many homes are accented with sky blue paint, often called “haint blue.” Enslaved people started the custom, covering their doors, shutters, and entryways with a potion made of indigo, dirt, lime, and milk. It was meant to ward off evil spirits, or “haints.” Today, the shade remains popular on Southern porch ceilings.
How to get your hands blue
Travelers can try indigo crafts themselves at workshops and retreats run by artisans in and around Charleston.
Caroline and David Harper started CHI Design Indigo in Charleston about nine years ago, focusing on eco-conscious fashion as well as historic preservation. Before starting her business, Caroline had attended an indigo workshop in Japan, only to realize the plant was native to the Carolinas. The Harpers now hold indigo classes and retreats throughout the year.
Leanne Coulter and Rhonda Davis run Daufuskie Blues studio out of a 1930s schoolhouse on remote Daufuskie Island, South Carolina, accessible only by ferry from Hilton Head. “I was shocked to learn indigo was here in our backyard, growing wild,” Davis says. “It’s leftover from the days of indigo plantations.”
And textile artist Leigh “Madame Magar” Magar offers one- to three-day workshops on her property on Johns Island near Charleston, which once held an indigo plantation.
At the workshops, students learn the basics of dyeing, folding pieces of fabric and cinching them with string, then dipping them into vats of blueberry-hued indigo. The cloth comes out looking greenish before exposure to the air turns it a rich blue.
Indigo isn’t restricted to the South. Kenya Miles first discovered it while living in California. “A friend from El Salvador said people there were using indigo, and we were trying to do sustainable work,” she says. Miles learned how to work with it, and now lives in Baltimore, Maryland, where she runs Blue Light Junction, a studio with a color lab and dye garden. “People are hungry for indigo,” she says.
Barbara Noe Kennedy is an Arlington, Virginia, writer specializing in history, culture, and social justice issues.
Caroline Gutman is a photographer based between Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Washington D.C. Follow Caroline on Instagram to see more of her work. These photos were produced with support from the Pulitzer Center.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.