The Right Coast

February 22, 2005
A Visit to Mansfield Plantation in the South Carolina Low Country
By Gail Heriot

One hundred and fifty years ago, rice was king in the South Carolina Low Country. There were about two hundred rice plantations along the Waccamaw, the Pee Dee and the Black Rivers near Georgetown, and they were responsible for about half the nation's rice output. Now thought of as a bit of a backwater, the Low Country was then home to an astonishingly large proportion of the wealthiest men in the country (and an equally astonishing number of slaves). To give you an idea: According to the census, in 1860, less than 900 slaveowners in the entire country owned more than 300 slaves. About a third of them were rice plantation owners--despite the fact that the land devoted to the cultivation of rice was tiny when compared to that devoted to cotton or tobacco, the more familiar Southern cash crops. Nationwide, fourteen slaveowners had more than 500 slaves, nine of whom were rice planters, including Waccamaw River planter Joshua Ward, the only person to own more than 1000 ... uh ... other persons. Maybe that's why they called the rice "Carolina Gold."

Slaves provided not just the labor for these vast plantations. They provided the original know-how. Prior to their coming to South Carolina, Europeans knew nothing of the intricacies of rice cultivation--the building of rice fields and dikes, controlled flooding, threshing, pounding, etc. Neither did the Indians, who occasionally gathered wild rice, but did not grow it themselves. It was the Africans who knew what to do. By the time of the slave trade, rice had been extensively cultivated in West Africa, especially in the Senegal-Gambia region, for centuries. And while not all slaves coming to America were knowledgeable about rice cultivation, some were, and they could and did teach others. Over time, improvements were made, but the methods remained fundamentally based on the West African example.

Today it's all gone. The carefully cultivated rice fields have been taken back by the wild. And it wasn't just the demise of slavery that ended it (although that was an important factor). Rice cultivation in South Carolina didn't end until about 1930, when South Carolina's soft-bottom rice fields lost out to the firmer-bottom rice fields of Louisiana and Texas, which could better support the weight of modern machinery.

What's left are the swamp creatures--wild boar, deer, herons, wild cats, bittern, ducks, raccoons, oppossum, and a few alligators--and, of course, the stately plantations homes built by slave carpenters, some of whom had been sent to Britain by the plantation owners to learn carpentry. This past weekend, I stayed at a bed and breakfast at one such home--Mansfield Plantation. Built in 1718 along the Black River, Mansfield comes complete with a live oak allee and a now run-down row of slave homes. (If you think the picture on the web site looks familiar, it may be because you saw it in Mel Gibson's "The Patriot.") Old out-buildings--the kitchen and an old schoolhouse--have been converted to beautiful (and romantic) guest bedrooms. Breakfast is served in the elegant dining r00m in the "big house."

Back in the 19th century, Mansfield was owned by the Parker family. And so it is today. John and Sally Parker recently purchased (or should I say re-purchased) what had been John's ancestral home. They are now in what will likely be the never-ending process of caring for, restoring, and improving this little piece of American history. Fortunately, it's not all work for them. When I arrived on Saturday, they were entertaining some of John's old college friends with an oyster feast and they kindly allowed me to join them. True Southern hospitality. You can't get that at the Hilton, you know.