“Carolina’s Golden Fields: Inland Rice Cultivation in the South Carolina Lowcountry, 1670-1860” (Cambridge 2020) is the first book written by Hayden Smith ’95, and it wouldn’t exist without dirt. It’s possible the same could also be said of his career as an environmental historian.
“(Retired Furman history professor) A.V. Huff started his History of South Carolina class by passing around three Ziploc bags of soil and asking students, ‘What is this?’ Smith said. ‘He said, ‘It is these three types of soil that define South Carolina.’ That started my curiosity toward the environment and how it related to understanding history.”
In the bags were clay loam from the upstate, sandy loam from the midlands and pluff mud from the lowcountry. It was pluff mud that provided the nutrients for rice cultivation in the Charleston area, which in the two centuries leading up to the Civil War became South Carolina’s first successful type of plantation agriculture and its biggest economic driver.
“Most people outside of the lowcountry or just South Carolina in general don’t realize that rice was the central cash crop which defined this area, just as cotton defined … other parts of the South,” Smith said. “It brought a tremendous amount of wealth.”
In “Carolina’s Golden Fields,” Smith, an adjunct history professor at the College of Charleston, explores the rise and fall of inland rice plantations, which were built with profits derived from a crop Europeans had little idea how to grow until the Africans they had enslaved showed them how.
“The story of rice owes a lot to the enslaved people, not only for their labor but also the culture that they brought,” Smith said. “People in Africa were growing rice centuries before Europeans even understood the process … European colonists began to observe their practices and took those practices and capitalized on them on a much greater scale in a plantation setting.”
Smith’s research dives into the complexity of successful inland rice cultivation and how dramatically the landscape had to be altered to accommodate it.
Unlike tidal rice cultivation, which uses ocean tides to push and pull fresh water from the fields, inland rice cultivation relied on a system of damming streams and small rivers and then strategically releasing water. The method made far more area available for growing the crop by essentially removing all of the vegetation across vast swaths of land and digging miles of canals, which was a labor-intensive process, to say the least, without electricity or machinery.
“Enslaved people were forced to clear all the woodlands, the cypress swamps. They cleared whatever vegetation was in the way. Then they had to dig the land, reshape the land to create dams, embankments and canals, and were forced to work the land in a series of tasks year-round,” Smith said. “And on top of that, they’re battling disease, any sort of deficiencies in their diets that they may have, exposure to the weather. It was quite a monumental task to be able to create these rice fields.”
After graduating with a degree in history from Furman, Smith, who grew up in Tallahassee, Florida, went on to earn a master’s from College of Charleston and Ph.D. from the University of Georgia. In addition to Huff, he credits Walter Kenneth Mattison Professor of History Lloyd Benson and Professor of History Steve O’Neill ’84 for having a “huge influence” on his appreciation for history.
“It was a great department,” Smith said.
Rice cultivation has been almost completely absent from South Carolina since the 1920s, but its effects on the state linger in the architecture and culture of the lowcountry. Asked if growing rice would have been sustainable without enslaved labor, Smith said, “Probably not.”
“But that’s the ongoing discussion in Southern history. Were the cash crops sustainable without slavery? You could argue to some degree yes,” he said. “The cotton industry and the tobacco industry continued after the Civil War and emancipation, but the labor that was used was still exploited in a variety of different ways, whether was through wages or through control in general.”
The massive profits rice produced, which to a large degree built Charleston, would certainly not have been possible, however.
“The amount of wealth that was generated from the rice cultivation was used as a stepping stone to accumulate more and more capital, specifically with the land,” Smith said. “Tidal rice acreage was probably some of the most expensive real estate in the United States after the American Revolution, or at least during the antebellum period. And without that capital that was accumulated during the colonial period through the efforts of inland rice, then these families wouldn’t have been able to afford that real estate at a later date.”
“Carolina’s Golden Fields: Inland Rice Cultivation in the South Carolina Lowcountry, 1670-1860” is available for purchase here.