Culture // 4 min Read

Rice Story

Written by Palmetto Bluff

Jun 22, 2023

By Luana M. Graves Sellars

Sometimes the smallest thing can tip the tides of history. During the Colonial era, the cultivation of a single, tiny grain shaped the geography and economy of the Lowcountry for centuries to come: rice. Yet, to accurately chronicle the history of the region, you must include the story of the transatlantic slave trade, one of incredible strength and endurance. Slave labor and West African technological farming traditions significantly influenced the transformation of the Southeastern colonies, and later, the nation. The incredible success of rice in America rests largely on the shoulders of enslaved people. Yet, it’s a story often forgotten and overshadowed by the “Cotton is King” era that followed in the nineteenth century. Rice cultivation in Colonial America created the vast wealth that built the affluence, influence, and political clout that South Carolina and much of the southeastern states enjoyed. It was this wealth that bore and bred several constitution signers in 1787.  

Early in the 1700s, the British crown demanded that South Carolina colonies grow rice and indigo (the latter, primarily to dye uniforms). These alternating crops precipitated the need for increased and continuous streams of labor. Harvest after harvest, attempts at farming rice failed until West African enslaved labor and farming technologies arrived in the Lowcountry.  

Slave traders began to search for specific skills in the slaves they captured. They deliberately sought West Africans that were highly educated and well-versed in cultivating rice and paramount was the type of engineered farming necessary for it to thrive. The value of this knowledge increased output, demand, and purchase price. 

South Carolina’s coastline, with its sea islands, has the perfect topography and temperature for rice. In the early 1700s, Charleston, Beaufort, and Georgetown Counties were the primary rice growing regions. But as the tremendous profits became evident, rice fields stretched from southern North Carolina to northern Florida. By the late 1700s, Georgetown County was the largest producer of rice worldwide.

Carolina Gold rice was the ubiquitous strain for nearly two centuries. A long-grain rice with a golden hue, the original plants come from Africa. A unique blend of soil and freshwater lends itself to the rich, nutty scent and flavor. Eventually, Carolina Gold became the world’s standard for quality, and the increased demand led to pressure for increased production. A combination of wealth, location, and free labor commenced the plantation era. As a direct result, Charleston’s harbor became the most active slave port in the United States. 


Rice requires continuous moisture and intermittent flooding, often to a foot or more in depth. In West Africa, water was controlled by hollowing out a large tree, similar to a natural pipe system, to block or release water flow, like a floodgate. Enslaved people brought this technology to the Lowcountry, and it developed into what is called the “rice trunk.” Farms still use these water management systems today.   

The entire process of cultivation was extremely dangerous. Laborers had to clear huge cypress and gum trees that grew up to eight feet in diameter and had a thick, condensed root base. Clearing a field could take up to seven years. Enslaved people prepared the soil and harvested by hand, often in deep, swampy water. They commonly encountered alligators and poisonous snakes. And after they readied the land for cultivation, they had to construct elaborate irrigation systems. Ringworm, severe skin ailments, malaria, and yellow fever were rampant. Death was common in these dreadful conditions and fueled a constant turnover of laborers.  

Slave labor was divided by gender, similar to West African tradition. Men cleared the swampy fields of cypress and gum trees, built trenches, and manned rice trunks. Women protected and planted the seeds with their bare feet, harvested the crops, and separated the husk from the grain. Even very young children worked, banging pots to scare away birds. 

Tens of millions of pounds of rice were produced in the Lowcountry each year for nearly two centuries. 

The rice story is a vital chapter in American history. Today, the Lowcountry’s lush landscapes often include wide expanses of open terrain, which in more cases than not, are abandoned rice fields that were cleared tree by tree by the hands of enslaved men. 

Palmetto Bluff is no different. As you enter the gates and drive the tree-lined road, you pass over what looks like a bridge. It is actually where you’ll find a remnant of the rice history and slavery story: a rice trunk. 

Culture / Palmetto Bluff Growing Outdoors

Photographs by Summer Pagatpatan Palmetto Bluff is a wilderness playground for families, a gateway to the outdoors, to living life close to nature. Palmetto Bluff Growing Outdoors, or PBGO, encompasses the ethos of this extraordinary place. CampGO is PBGO’...

Apr 2024

Sporting Life / A Comparison of the May River & Crossroads Golf Courses

Discover the May River and Crossroads Golf Courses at Palmetto Bluff Positioned within the enchanting Lowcountry landscape, Palmetto Bluff boasts an array of world-class amenities, with its golf courses standing as a testament to the community's commitment to...

Apr 2024
palmetto bluff

Culture / Behind the Bluff with Fitness and Wellness Director: Jeff Ford

Jeff’s Journey to the Palmetto Bluff Fitness and Wellness Team Palmetto Bluff is located amidst the serene landscapes of the Lowcountry, a tranquil haven where wellness intertwines seamlessly with nature's splendor. Jeff Ford, the Palmetto Bluff Club's Direct...

Apr 2024

Real Estate / Make the Move to the Lowcountry

5 Benefits of Living in South Carolina Known for its charming small towns, pristine coastline, and natural beauty, the South Carolina Lowcountry is one of the most popular places to live. The Lowcountry is a unique and desirable place to live, offering an arr...

Apr 2024

Sporting Life / Crossroads | A Shotmaker’s Playground

Photographs by Patrick O’Brien Words by Rob Collins Designer Rob Collins of King-Collins offers a first look at Crossroads, Palmetto Bluff’s new nine-hole reversible golf course. It is a feat of design. One routing, The Hammer, is a whirlwind of angles and u...

Apr 2024

Architecture & Design / Resurrecting Stones

Story by Katie Epps Photographs by Joel Caldwell Beneath Palmetto Bluff’s sprawling oaks lie twelve cemeteries that serve as the final resting places for hundreds of people and nine dogs. Five of these cemeteries were started as burial grounds for enslaved...

Mar 2024

Real Estate / Discover The Grove: A Premier Enclave for Nature-Inspired Living

Putting Down Strong Roots The Grove seamlessly combines curated style with courtyard living, welcoming the lush beauty of the Lowcountry at every doorstep. With twelve homesites meticulously designed to maximize outdoor living, Palmetto Bluff Builders offer...

Mar 2024

Culture / Meet Palmetto Bluff Club Members Shayne and Jason Hollander

How did you meet? Shayne: Jason and I both attended the University of Southern California. We met through our mutual friend Mike, a USC connection. I was always very captivated by Jason, his wit and charm.  Jason: Shayne’s first job in college was working ...

Mar 2024
palmetto bluff activities

Sporting Life / Sticking to Your New Year Resolutions: How to Stay Active at The Bluff

Create Lasting Habits With These 6 Palmetto Bluff Activities As the new year sets in, many of us find ourselves determined to stick to those resolutions we set just a few weeks ago. Whether it's getting fit, staying active, or embracing a healthier lifestyle,...

Mar 2024
palmetto bluff homes

Real Estate / Real Estate Spotlight: 29 Wintercress Rd, 213 Davies Rd, and 18 Flicker St

Discover These Three Luxury Palmetto Bluff Homes Palmetto Bluff is a private community nestled in South Carolina's Lowcountry. All properties at The Bluff blend the comfort of coastal living with the luxury of a modern Lowcountry estate. Built to be family...

Mar 2024
Community Villages
Palmetto Bluff Club
On The Water
The Arts Initiative
About Us