A long-forgotten piece of history is hidden on Johns Island, South Carolina. It’s located along Maybank Highway near the intersection of Pennys Creek and Stono River. A four-chambered structure is set among scrub brush, black gum trees, and live oaks. The colonial tint is still visible at its base. It’s partially covered with moss, bald cypress root, and a layer of moss. The mortar ridges between the bricks have a color that is similar to the ocean. It’s called indigo.
The squares were arranged back-to-back in this crumbling vat to process the plant at a time when demand for the dye was high. Indigo was the second most important cash crop in South Carolina for 50 years, starting in the late 1740s. The pigment was once so highly valued that it was called blue gold and was used as currency, even as a bartering for enslaved people. Indigo processing was forgotten after the Revolutionary War. It was relegated as an oddity to the edges of agricultural conversations.
As the demand for housing increased on Johns Island, archaeologists discovered more brick vats, which provide a rare glimpse into the colonial era of the state. Farmers, textile dyers, and fabric artists are promoting indigo today as an environmentally friendly, renewable alternative to petroleum-based dyes. Indigo is becoming more popular as residents become aware of its past prominence. They are now cultivating the plant and experimenting with all its uses. The Lowcountry has experienced a surprising blue-hued renaissance with the crop’s revival.
Wearing a wraparound dress the color of the morning sky and shod in rain boots, textile artist-turned-indigo farmer Leigh Magar squelches through the wet, muddy, pulpy mess that heavy machinery has made of the terrain. She has heard that indigo vats, built in the 1740s, sit on land that is scheduled to become a housing development, and she wants to see for herself whether the remnants, for which she has such reverence, are still intact.
The old second-growth forest, which once covered the vats, has been removed and ground down. Magar sees opportunities where developers see trees as obstacles. She uses the bark and pulp of oak trees to create a yellow color. Magar, standing on top of a pile that was once foliage, says: “Look at this potential dye. It’s a waste.”
Magar also gathers wild indigo to create what she calls “seed-to-stitch” artistry. It’s similar to farm-to-table dining. Her work is a tribute to the history and culture of the crop. She grows the plant, turns it into dye, then uses it to color her chosen fabric. She then begins creating. Magar creates everything from dresses to pocket squares.
The air in her field near her home is already swarming with gnats by mid-morning. Swarms of mosquitoes also surround Magar and her apprentice. The humidity is still oppressive despite their wearing large straw sunhats. Indigo is grown in two rows of 150 feet each, perpendicularly to the main road on the island. The two men are doing their weekly picking. They use sharp scissors and clip the branches of the plants until they have filled two tubs.
Magar will only take as much as she needs each week. She is careful to get as much growth as possible before the plant blooms. The plant’s energy will be directed to seed production once the buds have bloomed. This means that the pigment in the leaf becomes less powerful.
She has tried many different techniques of growing and dying over the years. Magar says, “You have to work with your hands all day.” You’re in the soil, the earth, and with the plant. It becomes much more than just a plant.
Cultivating indigo, for her, is a way to preserve and transmit what she can about this landscape. By growing indigo in a slow, methodical, and traditional manner, without any machinery, she pays homage to the enslaved people who were responsible for the production of indigo three centuries earlier.
She explains, “I feel it’s my call.” “I felt that I needed to confront the truth of history in order to continue my indigo artwork, and this has led me to read, research, and learn.”
Portuguese records from 1342, after they arrived in West Africa and before the trans-Atlantic slavery trade was established, detail West Africa’s textile production, dyeing of fabric, and cloth trade. When people were taken from their homelands and forced into slavery, they brought the knowledge of indigo farming to the United States.
Production skyrocketed. Profits from labor-intensive indigo were made by enslaving and importing Africans (also known as black ivory) whose labor and knowledge of indigo were exploited, just like in French and Spanish colonial times. Enslaved people were responsible for the entire enterprise, including planting seeds, packing dye cakes, and sometimes changing the color of clothes from white or brown to brilliant blue. In 1775, South Carolina exported more than 1 million pounds of indigo per year.
Historians have now realized that the indigo boom was a result of Black labor. White Lowcountry elites profited and took credit for the success. In her book “Red, White, Black Make Blue”: Indigo in Colonial South Carolina Life the historian Andrea Feeser states that, “Indigo sparked the interest and curiosity of those who studied and loved plants. It allowed them to accumulate intellectual capital as well as financial capital, but also contributed to the expulsion of natives. The shrub was a blessing to many, but also a curse for others. Under torture, slaves provided the knowledge and labor that helped make the Lowcountry wealthy, but it cost them their lives.
Magar and the apprentice, with bins of indigo, return to Magar’s artist studio located at the back of the house, approximately a mile away from the field. The two begin by pulling up chairs to strip the leaves off the stems. When they’ve collected enough leaves, the transformation begins. Magar loads leaves into a large wood mortar. She loads the leaves into the mortar with two handfuls, then uses the pestle to mash the leaves until the sludge is blue-green. The material is rolled into small patties that are smaller than historical indigo cake. They then spread them evenly on a plate and let them dry in the sunlight.
The South Carolina Lowcountry was in ruins after the Revolutionary War. It had been at the center of many conflicts between British loyalists against American patriots. Indigo fields lay fallow. Indigo was cultivated by a few planters and artists in small quantities for 300 years. In 1880, petroleum-based dyes were developed to simulate the popular blue color. They were easier, faster and more efficient.
Yet some never stopped planting indigo. Sheena MYERS, who cultivates and harvests her indigo in Adams Run in South Carolina on a half acre plot, considers it a family tradition. She recalls how her grandparents cultivated the plant and other plants in bygone days. She is now a passionate advocate for indigo and loves recommending it as a way to reconnect with the land to young people who are looking for artisanal skills. Indigo is also being revived by consumers concerned about the effects of petroleum-based dyes and their impact on communities that make clothes.
“The history of the crop is so… I cannot put it into words. Many people are unaware that this crop was grown by African Americans and how valuable it was for slaves. Nobody grows it or talks about it any more. Myers says that many people believe it is just ink. If you’re looking to learn about history and get your hands dirty, indigo would be the way to go. Many of the dyes we use today are not natural, but man-made.
Myers’ crop for this year is robust and tall. After being harvested and dried, the average height of each bush is five feet. She uses a simple technique of extraction in which she covers the sun-dried plant branches in water until they start to emit color (boiling water and adding some salt speed up the process).
Sometimes growers are unable to handle the indigo they have and pass some of it on to other colleagues. Indigo is spread by hand-to-hand passing of seeds along the South Carolina coastline.
Indigo dye is not a product that every producer wants. Not all farmers have the same experience. Joy Mills, who lives in Cross, South Carolina and is a little further upland, had a much more difficult time with the plant.
She admits, “When I started indigo it was very difficult.” Her early attempts to germinate plants failed. I’m not lying to you. The onion and indigo progeny were tiny. They are about the size a pinhead. It’s common to soak seeds in water before planting, and many practice scarification–damaging the seed coat so that the water better penetrates it–but that didn’t work well for Mills, an herbalist who is interested in the potential healing properties of indigo.
Her counter is covered in tinctures, honeys, and oils. Potted plants are scattered throughout her five-acre property. She has a 10-foot-tall Confederate Rose Bush, Hibiscus mutabilis a perennial shrub that is cultivated for the showy flowers. The leaves of this plant were used to treat tuberculosis and can be used in expectorants. Nepeta Cataria is commonly known as catnip. It can be made into a tea to relieve muscle spasms. Indigo is a key part of her arsenal, as it’s being tested for psoriasis types and peptic Ulcers. According to reports, the roots and stem can be used to relieve congestion caused by a cold or bronchitis. It is used for treating insect bites, skin conditions and inflammation. Mills believes that when people discover other uses for indigo, and reconnect with nature, their appreciation of the plant will increase.
Artists turned farmers are inspired by nature and work in their small pockets of the Lowcountry to experiment, investigate, and appreciate the potential of indigo. The modern work of these artists allows South Carolina to fully acknowledge and understand its contributions to global economics during the 18th Century.
They are now part of a network of informal indigo farmers that stretches from the Lowcountry all the way to Mississippi, where the crop is being experimented with. Indigo’s journey, from West Africa to Charleston, is essential to understanding its importance both locally and globally. It was cherished by those who worked for it as well as the people who cultivated it. Growers and artists are re-telling a story that has been almost forgotten, and are making an indelible impression on the Lowcountry landscape.