by Lee Ann Bain, VP Daniel Island Historical Society and licensed Charleston Tour Guide. www.charlestonhistoryblog.com
As you walk along the Wando River Trail on Daniel Island, you may notice an oak allee that stands immediately north of Governor’s Park. This was the site of Fairbank Plantation.
Fairbank Plantation began as two tracts given to Mary Morgan (140 acres) and Robert Daniell (105 acres) by the Lords Proprietors. In 1732, the property was sold to the Walker brothers and was called Fairbank at some point after that. Their neighbor to the south was the Lesesne Plantation. The two families became very close due to the limited number of plantations and people in the area. Their children would intermarry and own this property among themselves until 1798.
A home on this site was described in 1777 as “a good dwelling house, with 6 rooms, and every necessary out building, a large garden in excellent order, an orchard with great variety of choice fruit trees, 14 acres of corn, and about 3 acres of potatoes planted, all under a good fence.” South Carolina Gazette, June 9, 1777
It is believed that the Fairbank Plantation home was situated at the end of the allee of oaks leading to the Wando River. There was also a small building or group of buildings to the north of the oaks.
Throughout Colonial times, the plantation had two main commodities. First, was naval stores, which are goods used in building and maintaining ships. Pine trees found on Daniel Island provided an excellent source for resin, tar, cordage and pitch. These products were used to build boats and to keep them afloat. A cotton cord would be soaked in pitch and placed between the seams of the planks on a ship’s hull, while tar was used to preserve exposed wood and riggings. During archeological digs on Daniel Island, two tar pits were found near the Family Circle Tennis Complex and two additional pits have been discovered on Bellinger Island.
The second main crop at Fairbank was Indigo. This cash crop was introduced to the Carolina Colony by Eliza Lucas Pinckney. As a 17 year old, Eliza was looking for a crop to help support her family’s plantation and had been experimenting with the seeds that her father sent to her from Antigua. She had “greater hopes from the Indigo (if I could have the seed earlier next year from the West India’s) than any for the test of the things I had tryd.” After some setbacks by Mother Nature and her French “expert”, who tried to sabotage her process, Eliza produced a successful harvest in 1744. She shared Indigo seeds with her neighbors, and so began the Indigo boom in South Carolina. Growing, harvesting and producing Indigo was a very labor intensive procedure. The plant had to be harvested at the proper moment so that the vivid color was at its best. The extraction process was an intricate 4-step procedure in which the first phase required round the clock supervision. On top of that, the smell was unbearable.
“The stench of the work vats, where the indigo plants were putrefied, was so offensive and deleterious, that the ‘work’ was usually located at least one-quarter of a mile away from human dwellings. The odor from the rotting weeds drew flies and other insects by the thousands, greatly increasing the chances of the spread of diseases. Animals and poultry… likewise suffered, and it was all but impossible to keep livestock on, or near, the indigo manufacturing site.” –Kenneth H. Beeson, Jr…Indigo Production in the Eighteenth Century
Other issues, such as exposure to direct sunlight, which causes the color to fade and reduces the value of the crop, were critical for planters. Great attention had to be paid to the smallest details.
Even with all of this, Daniel Island planters were very interested in growing this crop on their plantations. “Indigo was the most important vat dye used by the British in the eighteenth century” and the sandy soil of Daniel Island was well suited for the crop. A planter, who invested in rice production, could also have Indigo fields. It was a good complement to rice since the growing season of Indigo was shorter than that of rice, and most of the intense work came during the ‘down’ months of rice production. By 1755, the southern colonies were producing over a million pounds of Indigo a year. It was a highly successful crop for about fifty years until after the American Revolution when the loss of the British bounty “incentive” and competition contributed to the end of Indigo production in South Carolina.
After the Walker/Lesesne families ceased to own the land, it would pass through several owners until 1803 when Paul Pritchard, Sr. purchased it for $5,000. Pritchard was a ship builder and used the land for his shipyard. By 1887, Fairbank was acquired by George Cunningham and became part of his conglomerate of land holdings on Daniel Island.
(This article originally appeared in the October 2015 edition of Daniel Island Life Magazine)
1803 survey of Fairbank Plantation, done in preparation for sale to Paul Pritchard, overlaid on 1995 map (Image courtesy of Michael Dahlman)
Indigo plant at Middleton Plantation (Image courtesy of Lee Ann Bain)