The History of Carolina Gold Rice
While other American patriots were vehemently discussing our young nation’s future at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Thomas Jefferson, then serving as American Minister to France, was busy smuggling. Jefferson believed in an agrarian republic, saying that government would remain virtuous, as long as we remained agricultural. He considered it to be the greatest service to add a useful plant.
After several months in France, Jefferson had gone on a three-week detour across the Alps to find out what kind of rice the Italians were growing, hoping that it would thrive in South Carolina. Under threat of the death penalty, he had smuggled as much as his coat and overcoat pockets would hold. His pride in this bit of horticultural espionage was so great that Jefferson listed this accomplishment alongside his own drafting of the Declaration of Independence.
Today it might seem extraordinary that Jefferson risked imprisonment – and his life – for a few grains of rice, but he truly believed that they might hold the seeds of America’s future. “Agriculture,” Jefferson wrote that summer, was “the surest road to affluence and best preservative of morals.” He was certainly not wrong about the affluence of agriculture, especially the agriculture of rice.
At the time of Jefferson’s smuggling episode, South Carolina had already been growing rice for some time. Historical statistics indicate that in 1698, ten thousand pounds of rice were exported; in 1699, one hundred thirty thousand pounds; and in 1700, three hundred ninety-five thousand pounds. This was almost a forty-fold increase in just three years. It was said that in 1700, the volume of rice waiting on Charleston docks for export overwhelmed the available ships. By 1747, rice accounted for 55% of the total export value of South Carolina. During the early part of the 1800s, planters in Georgetown County grew as much as 45 million pounds of rice a year on as many as 45,000 acres of rice fields. Joshua John Ward, of Brookgreen Plantation, has been credited with growing half of all the rice in Georgetown County, South Carolina, while Georgetown County was growing half of all the rice in America.
For the low country of South Carolina, this meant rapid economic expansion. The local landowning population was by far the richest single group in colonial America and, by extension, on average it was probably the wealthiest in the world. Nowhere else in America did a segment of the population live so well.
But where did the rice come from? In 1685, a two-masted brigantine sailing from Madagascar encountered a tropical storm and put in to Charles Towne, South Carolina, for emergency repairs. While waiting for his ship to be made seaworthy, the captain, John Thurber, befriended a man by the name of Dr. Henry Woodward, a ship’s surgeon, and gifted his new friend with a peck of seed rice. At the time, Dr. Woodward owned Abbapoola Plantation on Johns Island, and it was there that he planted his rice. It flourished.
Soon, South Carolina would be introduced to rice varieties from throughout Asia, Europe, and Africa, and it seems almost certain that enslaved Africans brought their own local varieties with them. In spite of the diverse varieties of rice introduced, it appears that the original seed, which had a golden hue when ripe, became known as Carolina Gold. This name gained popularity in the period preceding the American Revolution. Carolina Gold quickly became the most celebrated variety.
As the crop matures and the grain hardens, a most remarkable visual transformation occurs in the Carolina Gold rice fields. The stems and leaves, which are lime green, contrast sharply with the grain heads, which turn to a golden brown. Best appreciated in low ambient light in the early morning or late evening, the fields become a sea of shimmering, glittering gold. A gentle breeze can add to the effect. Hence the name is derived from the plant’s appearance as well as that of the grain.
Carolina Gold would remain a dominant commodity on the coastal rivers of South Carolina until the time of the Civil War. There is little doubt that the rice industry, with its dependence on a large, regimented, low-cost labor force, could not have flourished without the institution of slavery. Without the knowledge and skill of their enslaved West Africans, plantation owners could no longer maintain the difficult and delicate work of growing rice. By the 1900s, rice production was basically nonexistent. The last commercial crop of rice in South Carolina was planted in 1927. It would be almost 60 years before the state would see a rebirth of its famous grain.
In 1985, Richard Schulz, a former surgeon, embarked on an ambitious experiment to grow rice on his newly acquired land, Turnbridge Plantation. His extensive search for Carolina Gold seed rice ended in the gene bank of an agricultural research station. The staff was generous enough to let Dr. Schulz take some home with him.
It had been 300 years exactly since another surgeon in South Carolina had been gifted with a peck of seed rice. From that moment, it would take Dr. Schulz three long, hard years to yield a large enough harvest so that he could indulge himself in actually eating some of it. On that occasion, he had this to say, “At long last, the fabled grain could be tasted. Tricia, my wife and co-worker, arranged a reintroduction banquet at the Oglethorpe Club in Savannah in December 1988. Four dozen friends joined to discover that rice did, indeed, live up to its reputation. A variety of rice dishes, all the way through to rice pudding dessert, confirmed, without a doubt, that Carolina Gold was indeed something very special.
Junior Member of the Carolina Gold Chapter.