A Self-Made Woman: Eliza Lucas Pinckney

SEPT / OCT 2017: BY LILA DONOVAN

Elizabeth Lucas, nicknamed Eliza, was born on December 28, 1722 in Antigua as the daughter of Lt.-Col. George Lucas and Anne Lucas. She had two brothers and one sister. They sent Eliza away to boarding school where she received an excellent education. (In this time, most young women of her wealth went to finishing schools.)

In 1738, when Col. Lucas inherited three sugar plantations from his father, he moved his family from Antigua to South Carolina, because he believed Antiqua was unsafe due to tensions between Spain and England. They lived on the Wappoo Plantation, about 17 miles from Charleston. In 1739, Col. Lucas returned to Antigua to take care of political matters. Alas, such conflicts kept him occupied and prevented his return to his family.

Eliza’s mother suffered from bad health and died after they moved to South Carolina. This left Eliza in charge of the plantations, her siblings (often away at boarding school), and the slaves and overseers on this and their other plantations. In colonial times, teens weren’t as carefree as teens today in first world countries. In today’s world, we believe children and teens ought to have a childhood for education and exploration. Back then, children grew into adult responsibilities quickly. Teens either entered a trade, worked in the family business, or sold themselves into indentured servitude.

As a fortunate Southern Belle, Eliza had options. She reminds me of Scarlett O’Hara, except she wasn’t self-destructive like Scarlett. She documented and made copies of her letters to friends, family members, and acquaintance, and put the copies into “letter-books.”

Eliza passed on her letter-book written from 1739 to 1762 to her daughter; generations of the family’s women received it until the family in the 20th century donated it to a historical society in South Carolina. Eventually someone was wise enough to publish it for the world to read.

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Eliza taught the slaves in her plantation how to read, which was rare. She experimented with ginger, cotton, alfalfa and indigo. She eventually could market indigo, so by 1754 South Carolina could export over 1,000,000 pounds of indigo annually. When it came time for her to marry, Eliza’s father presented two wealthy potential husbands to her.

Independent-minded Eliza rejected them both and fell in love with a fellow plantation owner and politician, Charles Pinckney. Eliza had been excellent friends with him and his first wife. They married in 1744 and had three children. In 1758, Charles died of malaria. Eliza managed their plantations, took care of her children, and experimented agriculturally.

Eliza’s son became politically influent, George Washington was a pallbearer at her funeral, and for her contributions Eliza, in 1989 entered into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame.

I think one reason Eliza grew to be such an intriguing woman is because her father encouraged her. As I deep into history, I have found a lot of women that end up being great is because of their fathers.

Sometimes I come across parents in my suburb who are too indulgent with their older teen children and afraid to let them try things. It’s almost as if they’re saying their teen children are too weak to handle anything new, or they don’t have confidence in their abilities. Yet here’s a father three centuries ago who trusted his daughter with his affairs. It’s interesting that he didn’t trust a family friend or close relative with them… but his daughter. A modern equivalent would be if the owner of a Fortune 500 company made his untested 16-year-old daughter a CEO while he tends business overseas.

Her father’s trust in her is astounding. I have to wonder, did her earlier actions convince him he could entrust their empire to her… or did she rise to meet his incredible belief she could do it?

If you want to read more about Eliza Lucas, her letter-book is available on Amazon as the Letterbook of Eliza Lucas Pinckney, 1739-1762: Intriguing Letters by One of Colonial America’s Most Accomplished Women (Women’s Diaries & Letters of the Nineteenth-Century South).

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Lila Donovan is a Christian and a university student. She loves to read, draw, write, and has a blog.

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