More than 236,000 acres of rice fields spanning 160 miles once covered coastal South Carolina, according to a recent mapping project that used modern tools to document the massive footprint of the Lowcountry’s antebellum rice culture.
Building the ponds and dikes and maintaining them with slaves could be deadly work, with disease such as malaria, extreme heat and even alligators constant threats.
“Imagine the labor it took two centuries ago to convert our woodland swamps and coastal marshes into agricultural fields and how these workers learned to use the river tides to water and drain these fields,” said Ernie Wiggers. “It is an uncomfortable story to tell because enslaved people provided the labor.”
Wiggers, a wildlife biologist who led the project, said the revised acreage — which is more than double previous estimates — contextualizes the human and ecological toll of “forced conversion” of land for agriculture.
South Carolina, at one point, was the country’s No. 1 rice producer. But turning swamps into rice fields and managing the labor-intensive crop, Wiggers said, came at a “huge cost” in the lives of slaves for hundreds of years before the system collapsed following the Civil War.
Wiggers recently retired after 22 years as president and CEO at Nemours Wildlife Foundation, which manages 10,000 acres of permanently conserved private land near Yemassee in northern Beaufort County, where rice was once grown.
Until now, the size of rice farms, and thus their impacts on the people who built them, had been underestimated, ranging from 50,000 to 70,000 acres, he said.
With partners Clemson University and Folk Land Management, Wiggers and Nemours produced the first complete map of the Lowcountry rice fields. That effort has revealed that 236,112 acres was in rice production, with fields stretching from the Atlantic coast inland to Interstate 95. If the dikes associated with those fields were lined up north and south, Wiggers said, they would stretch farther than the entire distance of the Eastern Seaboard.
Evidence of the historic use of the land, which produced the “Carolina gold,” remains on the landscape today — if you know what to look for.
“These are historic rice fields that have reverted back to natural marsh,” said Wiggers, pointing to land as he drove across Harriett Tubman Bridge over the Combahee River, where straight lines indicating canals — telltale signs of past rice growing — are visible from Highway 17.
Ecological questions remain
The old rice fields that remain, Wiggers said, create ecological questions for today’s landowners.
Should the land be conserved for the wetlands and their historic meaning, as they are at Nemours? Or should they be restored to a natural, wild state? The first step in answering these questions is to know the extent of the fields and where they are, which is why the mapping effort is important.
Today, at Nemours, recreation and research has replaced rice growing.
The place also is ideal for monitoring sea level rise.
“These are the kind of things we need to start working on and studying,” Wiggers said. “We’re going to lose some of these artifacts if sea level rise continues the way they are projecting. So anything to identify these resources now is very important.”
If ocean levels are rising, Wiggers added, it creates all kinds of questions for the Lowcountry, including where will the water go?
At Nemours, the water will likely end up in inland areas, he said. “So that might be where our future marshes will be.”
With sea level rise, not only is the high water mark increasing, the low tide levels are increasing. The changes in low tides, Wiggers said, may result in losing management over tidal rice fields because they can’t be drained due to the lack of low tides.
One day at Nemours earlier this year, multiple species of ducks zoomed across the wetlands. Wood storks, great blue herons, white pelicans and cormorants are regular visitors as well. The old rice impoundments attract the birds. And biologists manipulate water levels in old ponds, just as they did before. But the purpose is to understand how the changes affect species habitat, not to grow rice.
“If it’s a bird that needs water to live, we have it,” said Beau Bauer, a Nemours staff biologist.
Here you can still see the gradual transition from natural tidal marshes inland to pine-dominated savanna forests. Eight bald eagle nests have been counted. Alligators cruise in the nearby Combahee River.
“It’s absolutely spectacular,” Wiggers said.
Working conditions brutal
But 200 years ago, when coastal South Carolina was the largest producer of rice in America, this beautiful landscape would have been a brutal place to work. King cotton may be better known, but rice production, Wiggers noted, “made the plantation owners very wealthy” at the expense of the workforce.
With no machinery, using shovels, mules and carts, slaves cleared cypress, tupelo and gum tree forests in the swamps and built rice impoundments, said Wiggers, working in disease-ridden wetlands where alligators and snakes proliferated.
Citing one detail as an example of the challenging conditions, Wiggers said that the enslaved people were moving and working in pluff mud — the soft soil that will suck your shoes off in a second and “doesn’t slip off your shovel very well.”
“Everything had to be done on the backs of enslaved Africans,” he said.
The hand labor, in extreme temperatures, is thought to have caused the deaths of many enslaved men, women and children, according to the mapping project and study. Whereas death rates for slaves on cotton and tobacco plantations dropped to 33% by the 1780s, chronic malaria and pneumonia was still killing about two-thirds of enslaved people on Lowcountry rice plantations up until the Civil War, according to the mapping study, which was published last year in “Land,” a scientific journal.
What it took to build rice fields from the swamps over such a vast area, Wiggers said, isn’t fully appreciated. And the size of the successful rice growing operations also reveal the farming and water management expertise of the slaves.
West Africa natives, who had knowledge of rice cultivation, were specifically sought for the work in South Carolina and elsewhere, according to the study.
Technology a game changer
For the mapping project, Nemours provided students, who worked out of the office of Green Pond’s Folk Land Management, with the necessary mapping and computer equipment.
Wiggers decided to attempt to map the rice fields because he and his Nemours colleagues continually ran into infrastructure related to Rice’s heyday at the 10,000-acre Nemours plantation in Yemassee.
And to his surprise, despite the sizable acreage of rice fields along the South Carolina coast, Wiggers said, “Nobody had ever mapped it out.”
“We thought with modern-day mapping techniques, we could make a go of it,” he said.
Historical maps showed ditches and canal structures but modern-day mapping tools, particularly lidar technology, detected previously undetected rice fields.
Lidar, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging, is the same technology used to study ancient Mayan land uses in Central America. It shoots a laser at an object and measures how long it takes reflected light to return to the receiver. It’s particularly effective because it can penetrate tree cover. Once the digitization process for the rice fields was complete, people visited the sites to verify the information.
In South Carolina, inland areas were the first to be converted to rice, Wiggers said, and that’s where the mapping found the greatest unknown acres because they had been covered by forest and other vegetation.
Today, of the 236,112 acres of rice fields that were documented, about 39,000 acres of tidal rice fields still have dike and water infrastructure and are managed for wildlife, such as Nemours. The rest of the tidal fields have reverted back to tidal marsh. Much of the inland fields have been grown over and reverted back to bottom lands, hardwoods and forest.
Rachel Frankhouser, a University of South Carolina Beaufort student at the time who worked on the mapping project as an intern at Nemours, said elevated surfaces can be evidence of a dike.
She was honored to be a part of the mapping project.
“I get to show what the enslaved people did — kind of get them credit for all the work they did,” she said.
Production to preservation
In the late 1600s and early 1700s, tidal swamps bordering rivers were cleared and diked to grow rice. During its peak, 5 million bushels of rice were produced in the United States, and 70% was produced in South Carolina.
But the system eventually collapsed after he Civil War ended in 1865 because of the loss of free labor and storms that damaged infrastructure. In soft, Lowcountry soils, it also was too difficult to transition to machinery.
As the rice culture began declining, wealthy sportsmen started purchasing many of the plantations as hunting retreats, including Nemours, which is part of more than 300,000 acres of private land that’s been protected within the 1 million-acre Ashepoo, Combahee and South Edisto, or ACE, Basin.
Wiggers frequently discusses the findings of the mapping project with the public in on-site natural classes and with community groups.
“Our primary mission is ecological research,” he said, “but as you learn things, you need to share that knowledge so people can further understand the world they live in.”