Colonization to Revolutionary War

When European colonists settled here they changed the landscape of this country. They not only introduced new crops such as wheat and peaches, but also incorporated destructive farming methods. In the late 1600s and early 1700s an English agronomist named Jethro Tull introduced the idea of tilling the land. This process made nutrients in the soil more quickly available to crops, allowing them to grow faster, as well as killing weeds. Though revolutionary at the time, today we know that tilling the land will slowly lead to the erosion and loss of topsoil. During this period Africans were taken violently from their native lands and forced to labor in American fields. Enslaved not only for physical labor, their knowledge of land and how to grow such African crops as rice, sesame, and okra, were appropriated. Africans either brought with them or developed many agricultural techniques such as hulling rice and curing tobacco without which Carolina could not have developed into the successful farmland it was.

Plants in this Section May Include:

African Rice

Oryza glaberrima/Oryza sativa

Globally, there are only two species of domesticated rice — Asian rice, Oryza sativa, and African Rice, Oryza glaberrima. It has been well-researched and reported that West Africans produced rice well before the Portuguese brought Asian rice to Africa in the 15th century. It is the African variety of rice that made the journey across the Middle Passage of the Atlantic first during the slave trade and became the first commercial crop of the New World in the 1600s. Later Asian rice joined it. One particularly well known type of Asian rice heavily planted in the Carolinas is the famous Carolina Gold which thrived along the coast. 

Enslaved West Africans were critical to the success of the rice crop, as with the success of many other African crops that are inextricably linked to southern identity and foodways. They brought with them the critical knowledge and expertise required to construct the sophisticated irrigation and drainage systems to cultivate rice in the tidal regions of South Carolina and Georgia, a climate and terrain that was most suited for rice production. From about 1690 to the middle of the 19th century, Carolina Gold from southern rice plantations was a major export to Europe. 

Thomas Jefferson was a fan of African rice and even tried upland planting of the crop in Virginia, without success. Some researchers believe that he helped spread the seeds of a variety of Oryza glabberima known as hill rice, or upland red bearded rice, across the south. It did not need to be planted in watery fields and is the variety that many enslaved people grew in their personal gardens. By World War I, however, this variety had all but disappeared in favor of cheaper imports of Asian rice.

Carolina Gold resurfaced in the mid-1980’s when a small group of enthusiasts and researchers gained access to some seeds stored at North Carolina State University. The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation was founded and re-cultivation of the historic rice began. It is now grown in small quantities in Georgia, South Carolina and it, along with a few other varieties, are produced, milled, and widely distributed by Anson Mills, headquartered in Columbia, South Carolina.

Black-Eyed Pea, Cowpea

Vigna unguiculata

These legumes were an important form of sustenance on slave ships on the trans-Atlantic voyage from Africa to the West Indies and Americas. Originally cultivated for use as feed for livestock, thus the name “cowpea,” the earliest record of this West African crop’s appearance in the western world is in 1674. On their march through the south, Sherman’s troops omitted the desecration of black-eyed pea crops, which were thought to be animal feed, and left them to prosper in the fields and become a nutrient dense food source for the enslaved and free alike in the Confederate South. 

Like other native West African foods that are synonymous with the South (okra, greens, rice, sesame/benne, etc.) black-eyed peas were introduced to plantation owners through their enslaved cooks. Another Southern staple, Hoppin’ John (the combination of rice, black-eyed peas, and pork) combined with greens is considered to bring good luck when eaten on New Year’s day. In addition to the American South, they are found in cuisines across the Middle East, Africa, India, Greece, Portugal, across South America, and in some far-eastern countries like Vietnam. 

Like okra, black-eyed peas are self-pollinating and do not rely on insects to ensure steady blooming. They grow best in sandy soil and warm climates, perfect for the southern growing zones. Almost lost as a widely planted crop in the South, George Washington Carver is credited for the black-eyed pea resurgence in the early 1900s as he encouraged the plant, along with peanuts, to be used as a rotation crop in farming to restore nitrogen to the soil and ensure the success and abundance of other cash crops.

‘Carolina African Runner’ Peanut, Ground nut, Goober, Goober pea, Pindar, Ground pea

Arachis hypogaea 

The first peanut (which is really a legume, or pea, rather than a nut) introduced to North America, was called the ‘Carolina African Runner.’ It was brought by enslaved Africans as sustenance during the Middle Passage voyage in the 1600s. The plant is native to, and was domesticated in, South America and was then introduced to West and Central Africa during the early period of the transatlantic slave trade in the 1500s. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Carolina African Runner and similar older varieties were largely displaced by newer varieties of peanuts. These include Runners, which make up about 85% of US peanut production and have large kernels. Runners are frequently used for peanut butter. Other varieties include Spanish peanuts, which have smaller kernels and are used for candy, Virginia peanuts, usually used for roasting, and Valencia peanuts, which are popular for boiling.   

An important source of protein and vitamins, enslaved Africans grew peanuts in their provision gardens, which were allowed on many plantations to supplement the meager food offerings given by plantation owners. By the 1830s, the peanut had developed crossover appeal and there were entire plantations dedicated to growing the important cash crop. By the 1800s, housewives reserved peanut oil for lamp fuel, soap, and as a shortening substitute. 

African American scientist George Washington Carver was critical to the “goober’s” transference from simple sustenance to one of the most important cash crops. During his time as the head of the Agriculture Department at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama during the late 1800s, Carver insisted that the American South needed to expand beyond its dependence on cotton and rice as primary resources. He found more than 300 food and industrial uses for the peanut and led its surge as one of six leading crops in the U.S. by 1940.

Arachis hypogea is self-pollinating and grows as a bushy plant with the foliage above ground. Once the plant has matured and bloomed, the stems burrow underground and bear fruit, the beloved peanut. It grows best in sandy or sandy-clay subsoil, perfect for the conditions in the deep South.

This historic Carolina African Runner was all but lost until 2013, when Clemson University horticulturist Dr. Brian Ward, along with University of South Carolina food historian Dr. David Shields, worked to revive 20 frozen seeds discovered in a lab at North Carolina State University. Through their successful cultivation work, chefs across the south who are committed to utilizing and preserving culinary history often use the newly reintroduced peanut in new preparations to introduce them to new generations of diners. 


Indigofera tinctoria

This colorful species comes from Africa and Asia and was introduced to North America with the first English settlers in the late 17th century. The leaves of this plant are soaked in an alkaline solution in order to extract a true-blue dye that can be used on various fabrics. This crop was very common in the South Carolina Low Country and was mostly grown with other crops such as rice and cotton.

Though indigo is mostly thought of as a source of dye, if prepared properly it can be eaten, though it was never commonly used for that purpose.


Abelmoschus esculentus

Like many other foods that are part of the fabric of the American diet, particularly in the South, okra was introduced to plantation owners through their enslaved cooks. Okra is an African crop which arrived on the shores of the New World, likely through Louisiana, with the slave trade in the 1600s. Later, it was adopted by French immigrants who referred to it by its African name, gumbo. It has maintained a place in American agriculture due to its ability to survive the hottest southern months and still produce a substantial fruit crop. 

These drought and heat tolerant plants are self-fertile and produce impressively large cream-colored flowers with burgundy centers. Each flower yields a fast-growing fuzzy, green, slender pod.  The fruit should be harvested within 2-3 days after developing, otherwise as the pod continues to grow, it becomes unpleasantly “woody” and stringy. 

A member of the mallow family (Malvaceae), along with cotton, hibiscus, durian fruit, and chocolate, okra gets a bad rap as too slimy to enjoy. The mucilage (slime) is beneficial as a thickener for soups and stews. Other preparations include sliced and crisply fried okra, as an ingredient in southern succotash, and as a key component in gumbos of southern Louisiana. In the Antebellum South, enslaved people dried the seeds and used them for coffee, which was widely adopted by plantation owners during the Civil War. 


Prunus persica

Although peaches are native to China, they are an important crop in the United States’ botanical history. The first peaches were brought to Florida in the 1550’s by French and Spanish explorers. Because they were delicate and couldn’t be easily transported without damaging the fruit, peaches were mostly a backyard crop in the South with major production only occurring in the Northeastern United States close to large population centers. Major production in the South didn’t occur until the late 1800s.

While peaches are usually thought to be a “Southern” crop—think Georgia, “The Peach State”—California is the #1 producer in the United States. South Carolina and Georgia are second and third, respectively. Because most original varieties of peaches did not travel well in unrefrigerated environments, mass production was difficult. But by 1875, a young plantation owner and horticulturist put Georgia on the peach map. Samuel Rumph developed the Elberta variety (Prunus persica ‘Elberta’), a new firmer breed of peach that seemed to withstand traveling a distance. His discovery changed the industry in many ways. Not only was the fruit hardier, the trees easily adapted to a variety of soil and climates across the continent and was eventually prevalent everywhere peaches were grown. Rumph also contributed to the success of the industry by inventing a way to pack the peaches on ice in crates. This led to the development of the first refrigerated rail cars, which were crucial to food transportation.

Unlike many other fruit trees like the apple and pear, peach trees are self-fertile. They do not rely on neighboring trees for pollination.  Trees are capable of pollinating themselves with the help of pollinator insects. Besides peaches, other fruits in the genus Prunus include cherries, almonds, and plums. These fruits are often eaten as-is, but are also popular processed into jams and used in a variety of desserts. Peaches are categorized by how easily the flesh is separated from the stone. Freestones release the pit easily and are the popular variety for eating as-is. Clingstones are generally smaller and sweeter and are usually found only in farmer’s markets and orchards. This variety is more often used to make jellies. In fact, all commercial peach jelly uses clingstone peaches. 


Sesame, Benne

Sesamum indicum

Benne, or sesame, seeds were another important crop that became a North American mainstay as a result of the African slave trade. Thought to have been introduced through slave ships arriving from the Caribbean to Charleston, South Carolina in the early 1700s, benne seeds, primarily ground into oil as a replacement for olive oil, became another cash crop planted on plantations as another way to augment profits of the successful rice and indigo industries. Thomas Jefferson even noted the importance of the benne seed in South Carolina, writing in the 1770s that sesame was brought to South Carolina from Africa through the slave trade.

Benne thrived in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia and eventually became a foodway staple across the region. It can be consumed at every growth stage: the tender leaves were used for medicinal purposes and also prepared like greens, the petite green, okra-like pods enriched broths, the seeds were ground into flour, used to enhance the flavor of other boiled greens, and the mature dried seeds produced a deeper, nuttier flavor when toasted than what we now know as sesame. They are also the star ingredient in the historic and popular Benne Seed Wafer.  Further, benne seeds offered another valuable source of protein and were sometimes used as a replacement for the ground nut (peanut) in certain recipes. 

As with the Carolina African Runner Peanut among other nearly extinct heirloom crops from the colonial era and slave trade, the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation has worked to revive the production of the original benne seed. Many small farms across the south, like Anson Mills in Columbia, South Carolina are committed to the work of trying to reintroduce these historic foods into the mainstream.  

Next: Revolutionary War to Civil War

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