Forgotten Fields documents the development of inland rice plantations in the South Carolina Lowcountry, from the inception of this agricultural system at the turn of the eighteenth century to the decline of inland rice after the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865). As the first major cash crop agricultural system in Carolina, inland rice cultivation proved to be the foundation of the colony’s plantation complex. This system launched rice as a profitable export and enabled South Carolina planters to participate in the wider Atlantic World economy. It also significantly increased planter dependence on enslaved African labor.
Inland rice cultivation was a complex endeavor that relied on a large enslaved labor force, controlled water flows from reservoirs, distinctive land topography, and specific soil types. Scholarship about South Carolina’s early rice economy has long focused on tidal rice cultivation methods that harnessed the ebb and flow of adjoining tidal rivers near the coast to cover and drain fields. In contrast, inland rice cultivation relied on human-made reservoirs to flood rice fields as part of the crop’s cultivation cycle. Although tidal rice cultivation was experimental in practice until the end of the colonial period, tidal irrigation did not become prominent until after the end of American Revolution in 1783.
This exhibition details how the South Carolina Lowcountry first transformed into a plantation complex in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with an emphasis on how European planters and enslaved Africans worked within the ecological boundaries of the Lowcountry landscape to construct this lucrative agricultural system.
Inland rice cultivation took place in a variety of terrains that could support the crop with reservoir-based irrigation, including upland small-stream floodplains as well as brackish tidal rivers. Clearing thousands of acres of forested swampland and building impounded reservoirs for inland rice cultivation required tremendous labor and skill. Though English settlements in Carolina included; enslaved American Indians and Africans starting with the founding of Charles Town in 1670, the growth of South Carolina’s plantation-based economy at the turn of the century increased planter interest in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This led to significant growth in the population of enslaved Africans in the southeastern coastal plain. These captives were tasked with transforming the natural landscape of the Cooper-Ashley-Wando River Basin of the Lowcountry into plantations. By 1708, the South Carolina colony featured a black population majority.
Inland rice cultivation began as a relatively simple process of damming streams to form reservoirs and clearing land downstream to plant rice. As demand for the crop grew and the value of land increased, the system became more complex. Enslaved laborers had to refine established inland fields and carve out new rice landscapes, while also adapting and redirecting existing water systems to flow in and out of reservoirs, canals, and rice fields.
In the process, planters and slaves formed the Lowcountry's distinctive task labor system. In contrast to the supervised work day of the gang system commonly practiced throughout American plantation slavery, the task system allowed planters or overseers to organize field work through individual daily assignments, or tasks. This system provided slaves some independence to address their own subsistence needs after their daily task was completed, but it also gave planters less responsibility to maintain basic care for enslaved laborers.
As the first significant plantation-based agricultural system in colonial South Carolina, inland rice cultivation led to massive rural development and increasing demand for backcountry infrastructure. In the process, Charles Town became a central trading destination in English North America and South Carolina became a model mercantilist colony. The accumulation of capital launched the colony’s economic expansion and led to the growth of systems that facilitated cultural and social exchange in the area.
Influenced by dramatic political and economic currents and shifts occurring throughout the Atlantic World, inland rice plantations became landscapes where individuals not only endured strenuous labor conditions and launched a major cash crop export, they also constructed distinctive American identities drawn from European, African, Caribbean, and American Indian influences. While these multinational interactions, exchanges, and adaptations were significant in shaping the Carolina colony, they inevitably occured within the increasingly rigid race and power hierarchies of chattel slavery in English North America.