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King of the Sea Islands

U.S. presidents come and go. But from 1790 until the 1920's, the Lowcountry Sea Islands had their very own king. All hail King Cotton!

A Whole New Crop

Prior to the Revolutionary War, indigo was the favored crop of Lowcountry planters. The temperate, humid climate of the Carolina Sea Islands suited the plant well and, with the expertise of enslaved persons from West Africa (where the crop already thrived), the colonial Lowcountry found itself in an enviable position. Planters were routinely producing a plentiful supply of the unique deep blue dye much desired by the upper class folks back in the British isles. That all changed after the colonies split from their motherland, though, as the planters' customer base suddenly disappeared. Indigo was old news. A new crop was in order.

Enter cotton, but not without its own challenges. Typical short-fiber cotton was grown in the West Indies and required a long growing season. That worked fine in the tropical Caribbean, but not so well in the Carolina Lowcountry where frosts would often kill the plants before they could produce seed or fiber. During the particularly mild winter of 1785/86, though, a few hardy plants with unusually long fibers survived. Seeds from these plants were then used to develop a unique--and vastly superior--strain. In 1790, William Elliott produced a new hybrid at Myrtle Bank Plantation on Hilton Head Island, resulting in a higher quality cotton than had previously existed in the American market--and one that could grow well in the Lowcountry climate. Sea Island Cotton had been born, and was soon growing on the isles of South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida.

When Cotton Was King

The new Sea Island Cotton (Gossypium barbadense) was soon in high demand throughout the young United States. The uniquely long fibers produced softer, stronger thread than other cottons and was often mixed with silk and used for the finest cotton counts. This new crop commanded the highest price of all cottons, and Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin in 1793 increased the profitability of this growing industry even further. Before long, "King Cotton" became the primary contributor to the Lowcountry economy. So much so, in fact, that by the onset of the 19th century Beaufort, South Carolina's role as a major exporter of Sea Island Cotton had made it the wealthiest and most cultured town of its size in America.

Exploiting the hundreds of enslaved persons under their ownership, Sea Island planters reveled in their own increasing wealth. Although they could buy new seed each season, many became adept at selecting the very best seeds from their own previous year's crop to replant. Island planters came to treasure their particular cotton seeds, jealously guarding their "family secret" and passing the seeds down through the generations. But such success can't last forever, can it?

A Royal Decline

Many historians cite King Cotton as a major cause of the American Civil War. Some say the burgeoning cotton economy of the South led to envious strife with Northern states. Others emphasize the undeniable truth that the Sea Island cotton industry would not have been possible without the use of forced slavery--another major factor in the Civil War. This last point was tested when Union forces took control of the Sea Islands surrounding Port Royal Sound (including Hilton Head and the town of Beaufort) early in the war. As planters fled inland and abandoned their crops, the Union Army paid the former slaves on Hilton Head small wages to tend the remaining cotton fields. (While paying pennies to the workers, the army itself earned hundreds of thousands of dollars in profit from these crops during their four-year tenure in the Carolina Sea Islands.)

Following the war, many former planters chose to sell their vast Sea Island properties piecemeal rather than return themselves. As new owners chose to use their land in other ways--and without the benefit of "free labor" that slavery had provided--the Lowcountry's cotton industry saw serious decline. Adding salt to the wound, the arrival of the boll weevil in the early 20th century caused tremendous damage throughout the cotton-growing regions of the southern United States--particularly in the Sea Islands. By 1920, production of Sea Island Cotton on a commercial scale had ended.

Sea Island Cotton Today

Camelias and azaleas now fill my Hilton Head Island yard, although old maps confirm that Sea Island Cotton once grew throughout my neighborhood. But it isn't completely gone. About a hundred years ago, a few surviving seeds of that unique strain were sent to an agricultural research center in Texas, which crossbred those seeds with another cotton variety. As a result, products made with variations of Sea Island Cotton can still be found worldwide. Aside from textiles, "Sea Island Cotton" continues to be a popular scent for candles, soaps, and air fresheners. Long live the King!

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