What Today’s Entrepreneurs can Learn from Eliza Lucas Pinckney, the 18th Century Innovator-Entrepreneur

  • We all love to sport our favorite blue jeans. And for that color, we can give credit to Eliza Lucas Pinckney, a little-known entrepreneur who was ahead of her time.
What today’s entrepreneurs can learn from Eliza Lucas Pinckney, the 18th century innovator-entrepreneur
Reading Time: 4 minutes

“I have the business of 3 plantations to transact which requires much writing and more business and fatigue of other sorts than you can imagine, but lest you should imagine it too burthensome to a girl at my early time of life give me leave to assure you I think myself happy.” Eliza Lucas Pinckney

We all love to sport our favorite blue jeans. And for that color, we can give credit to Eliza Lucas Pinckney, a little-known entrepreneur who was ahead of her time. Born in the 18th century, when women entrepreneurs were rare to see around, Eliza (1722-93) single-handedly launched the indigo industry in South Carolina as she was determined to see the valuable tropical crop succeeding. She did not budge from experimenting in the early 1740s to see her mission reaching its goal. Her hard work paid off as her plantings produced enough seeds to make the plant which is used in the textile industry for its deep-blue dye. Within a decade of Eliza’s experiment, planters in the Palmetto State were exporting a massive quantity of the dye annually and the crop became a major pillar of the entire southern economy.  

Eliza’s credit lies in the fact that she made dye an affordable crop even though indigo was expensive to grow. It also gave the then colonized states a new cash crop and reiterated women’s key role in building the American economy over ages. Eliza’s determination sowed the seeds of nationalism which inspired an entire generation during the American Revolution of the later half of the 18th century.  

Eliza Pinckney’s life: 

Elizabeth Lucas Pinckney (known as Eliza) was born on December 28, 1722, on the island of Antigua in the British Leeward Islands in the Caribbeans. She grew up in one of her family’s sugar plantations on the island. Eliza was the eldest child of Lt Colonel George Lucas, a former British Army lieutenant-colonel and lieutenant governor of Antigua, and Ann Lucas. She had two brothers — Thomas and George — and a sister Marry. The siblings were sent to London for schooling and although education was less preferred for girls, Eliza emerged as an exception. Her ability was recognized, and she even wrote to her father that education would make her happy in her future life.  

Elizabeth settled in the American South after her stint in England. She trained herself in managing plantations (she did it as a teenager) that are dependent on enslaved laborers. Her extraordinary journey to become one of the USA’s wealthiest and most respected women who changed the concept of women empowerment in the 18th century still serves as an inspiration for many in this country and across the world.  

Father’s support for Eliza and her emergence as a business pioneer: 

 Eliza’s father played an important role in her life as he encouraged her to read more and this led to her getting a good education in her formative years. It was when George was recalled to Antigua in 1739 after a conflict started between England and Spain — called the War of Jenkins’ Ear — and because both his sons were absent as they were in England for schooling, the responsibility came on a teenage Eliza to look after the family’s agricultural properties, including the Wappoo plantation which was close to the Wappo Creek. Eliza spent hours reading at her father’s library to better her knowledge in botany and agriculture. She also taught her sister and two other women slaves who later taught in a small school on the estate that she had set up for the children of slaves.  

Eliza got valuable advice from her father who was stationed outside, and he started sending her seeds from the Caribbeans to experiment on the soil in the US. The young woman was determined to find a profitable crop that would see the family’s Wappoo property getting easier on debt. In 1740, George sent his daughter some indigo seeds that were more known in the East like in Japan, China and India and Eliza, after considerable efforts, managed to yield an indigo crop. This was a massive moment for the Anglo-American economy as the French and the Caribbeans had outlawed the exportat of indigo seed in order to maintain their hegemony.  

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In 1744, Eliza married Charles Pinckney, a renowned lawyer born in the Carolinas. He was quite senior to Eliza but enthusiastic about the indigo business and he even spoke to French prisoners in Charleston jails in South Carolina to know more about planting indigo and preparing it for export. Eliza and Charles had three children and in 1753, the family relocated to England and Charles was appointed as the colonial agent for South Carolina. They later settled in Ripley.  

George Washington served as pallbearer at her funeral: 
In 1758, the Pinckneys returned to Charleston with their daughter Harriot. However, the same year, Charles died of malaria. Eliza, then 36, continued to live in the Carolinas while her sons — Charles Jr and Thomas — stayed in England. Later, she lived with Harriot at Hampton, a plantation on the Santee River in South Carolina. In 1793, America’s first president George Washington visited the family after her death in Philadelphia and served as a pallbearer at her funeral. Both of Eliza’s sons earned names in their lifetime. While Charles Cotesworth Pinckney became a Federalist presidential candidate in 1804 and 1808, the other son Thomas served as a governor of South Carolina and ambassador to Great Britain.  

Lessons to learn from Eliza Lucas Pinckney: 

The life journey of Eliza Lucas Pinckney offers a number of lessons to learn. Apart from the fact that she was a woman achiever at a time when such success stories were hard to see, she also had other great legacies. 

  1. Eliza showed that no age is a factor to learn things if you are interested in doing them. She took responsibility for managing her family plantations when she was a teenager and made it big. For those entrepreneurs who have found the task of carrying forward their family ventures at an early age, Eliza is a case to get inspired from. 
  1. Eliza did a brilliant thing in copying all her conversations and letters into a letter book from the time she started working on the plantation till her death. She organized her writings into multiple volumes that came up with great details about different periods of her life. This is a great way of leaving behind a rich legacy. If you keep a record as an entrepreneur by writing down your journey, then it can serve as a guidebook for others after you made it big.  
  1. Eliza was not just another businesswoman but also an agricultural innovator who had left a profound impact on her nation. She pioneered such a game-changing agricultural practice that changed the economy of her colonized country for the better. The foundation she laid made a massive contribution towards giving the indigenous economy a new shape and made her a sort of national hero. Such amalgamation of business with nationalism is not often found but Eliza proved that a business venture can be something really big, bigger than just profit-and-loss transactions. 
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