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South Carolina Gold Rice Cultivation, A Woman’s Experience

a photo of Elizabeth Allston Pringle



Elizabeth Allston Pringle was a Southern belle at the time of the American Civil War and the daughter of the Governor of South Carolina. When the Civil War ended, leaving her family impoverished, she and her mother opened a school. Motivated by sentiment, Elizabeth bought the plantation she grew up in, White House, and the plantation, Chicora Wood, where she lived as a married woman until her husband’s untimely death. Both plantations still exist in Georgetown County, South Carolina, an area known as the Lowcountry. It was in hopes of paying the plantation mortgages that in the early years of the 20th century, she decided to re-cultivate old rice fields that had long since succumbed to the encroaching wild. She was a farmer, a foreman, and an entrepreneur at a time in history when women did not hold such positions.

 We might have forgotten Elizabeth Allston Pringle if her journal hadn’t been serialized in the New York Sun. This was another way Elizabeth made money to pay the mortgages on her beloved properties. The Sun journal was later published in a book called A Woman Rice Planter. The 1992 edition, published by the University of South Carolina press, is illustrated by famed artist Alice R. Huger Smith (whose paintings are in Charleston’s Gibbes Museum of Art) and has an introduction written by South Carolina historian and writer Charles Joyner.

Book cover of the autobiography A Woman Rice Planter

Elizabeth Allston Pringle’s Journal

Reading A Woman Rice Planter, you may find the humor in some stories involving black characters to be condescending. I believe the Jim Crow era in which it was written had an unfortunate but partial influence on the author’s outlook. However, if you read it thoroughly, I believe you’ll also see Elizabeth’s respect for blacks rising through this surface attitude. I get a sense that she felt they were all in this together, enjoying the bounty of the Lowcountry and enduring the caprice of its climate with faith and cheerfulness. I read A Woman Rice Planter as research while writing The Bad Death, an antebellum vampire novel set on a Lowcountry rice plantation. Two things stay with me from repeated readings.

One is its detailed description of old rice-growing practices. Second is Elizabeth’s love for the beautiful world around her. She was an excellent writer. Her descriptions shine through, transcending ink and paper and time. Here’s an entry from June 1, 1903:

Rice barn at chicora wood

Rice Barn at Chicora Wood

“The evening is beautiful; the sun, just sinking in a hazy, mellow light, is a fiery dark red, the air is fresh from the sea, only three miles to the east, the rice-field banks are gay with flowers, white and blue violets, blackberry blossoms, wistaria, and the lovely blue jessamine, which is as sweet as an orange blossom. Near the bridge two negro women are fishing with great strings of fish beside them. The streams are full of Virginia perch, bream, and trout; you have only to drop your line in with a wriggling worm at the end, and keep silent, and you have fine sport. Then the men set their canes securely in the bank just before dark and leave then, and almost invariably find a fish ready for breakfast in the morning. There is a saying that one cannot starve in this country and it is true.” 

Elizabeth’s accounts of her workers’ labor, their hunting and fishing, socializing, and storytelling helped me give life to The Bad Death’s Gullah heroine, Anika, and her friends and neighbors. The Bad Death’s antagonist, Julian Mouret, relies on his working partnership with his mother, Elisabeth. She shares her son’s respect for the Lowcountry’s wild strength. I’d be lying if I said Elizabeth Allston Pringle didn’t partly inspire me when writing Elisabeth Mouret. Elizabeth Pringle was strong, independent, spiritual, and wise. So is Elisabeth Mouret. Anika finds in Miss Elisabeth a formidable foe and improbable ally. Miss Elisabeth is one of my favorite characters in The Bad Death. And Elizabeth Allston Pringle is one of my favorite characters in US history.


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The Bad Death Bibliography

Adventures of an African Slaverby Captain Theodore Canot

I based Herbadale Farmington, the retired slaver, on Captain Theodore Canot. The book is his memoir of trading in Africa. It is a weirdly exuberant book. Canot didn’t have any sense that what he was doing was wrong. Absent that shame, the book reads like a travelogue of Africa and a series of adventures. He relates the customs and personalities of tribes without a missionary’s condescension. Tribal chiefs selling their war hostages as slaves considered Canot a business colleague and treated him as an honored guest.

Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect by Lorenzo Dow Turner

Gullah is a term referring to descendents of West African slaves who’ve lived for generations in coastal South Carolina and some of coastal North Carolina and Georgia. Isolated for centuries, they retained their unique culture which includes a language. In the early 20th century, Lorenzo Dow Turner interviewed Gullahs and studied the language. He traced words and speech patterns back to several African languages. His book enabled me to incorporate the Gullah language and snippets of African languages into dialogue in The Bad Death.

Apollo’s Angels: A History of Balletby Jennifer Homans

This comprehensive and entertaining trip through time helped me contrast Anika’s modern ballet (as performed by her possessing spirit) and the ballet as it was recognized by the other characters in The Bad Death trilogy.

A Woman Rice Planter by Elizabeth Allston Pringle

Elizabeth Allston Pringle was a remarkable woman. A native of Charleston from one of South Carolina’s leading families, she came of age during the Civil War. In the early 20th century she decided to plant rice as a cash crop, something that hadn’t been done profitably since the South lost the War. Her relatives thought she was nuts to try it, not the least of which because she was a woman. She not only did that, but she kept a journal of her experience. The journal was serialized in a northern newspaper and later became this book. Ms. Pringle wrote lyrically of the beauty of the South Carolina Lowcountry. She writes in detail of rice growing cycles and she tells of her daily interchange with the Gullah people who worked for her. This book was a great help in setting The Bad Death’s environment and plotlines.

Black Aprilby Julia Peterkin

Black April is a novel entirely peopled by Gullahs. Julia Peterkin was the wife of a white landowner when she wrote it in the 20s. She captures the Gullah language and culture beautifully. The characters speak Gullah and are so real. The story’s unannounced character is the landscape itself. The novel’s atmosphere is so rich it practically drips on your head. You can smell it and taste it. I wound up using Black April as research for the atmosphere in The Bad Death.

Blue Rootsby Roger Pinckney

Blue Roots helped me realistically understand Gullah root medicine and magic.

Charleston Houses and GardensPhotos by N. Jane Iseley, Text by Evangeline Davis

This was great research for the grand houses and interiors in The Bad Death.

Charleston Receiptscollected by The Junior League of Charleston

These recipes go back to the 19th century (called receipts back then) and are unique to the region. This cookbook set Eugénie’s dinner party table with pine bark stew, partridge pie, and rice wine.

Chronicles of Chicora Wood by Elizabeth Allston Pringle

Elizabeth Allston Pringle, writer of A Woman Rice Planter, wrote Chronicles of Chicora Wood as a memoir of her childhood and homage to her mother. Chronicles gave me ideas for fleshing out Miss Elisabeth, Julian’s mother.

Cooking the Gullah Way, Morning, Noon, and Nightby Sallie Ann Robinson

Ms. Robinson’s cookbook includes folk remedies and stories of her days growing up on Daufuskie Island (one of the sea islands Gullahs have called home for centuries). Her cookbook gave Marcus and Anika crabmeat-stuffed flounder and Julian roasted oysters. It gave the nurse Risa mullein to make a compress for Chloe’s sore muscles. This book also taught me the method for corning fish used by Anika’s friends and neighbors.

Down by the Riverside, A South Carolina Slave Communityby Charles Joyner

Joyner wrote a comprehensive account of the way Lowcountry rice plantations worked, right down to the daily allotment of food given to field hands. It was invaluable research for being able to give The Bad Death’s environment an authentic feel.

Historic Charlestonphotos by Peter Vitalé and Steven Mays, written by Shirley Abbott

Beautiful photos and great info.

Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cookingby John Martin Taylor

The Lowcountry is coastal South Carolina, where the rice plantations made folks rich for centuries. Well, not only did the land produce rice, it was so full of fish and fowl that the Lowcountry became known for unique cuisine. John Taylor’s cookbook set Julian’s table with benne crackers, okra soup, and hoppin’ John.

The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old Southby Catherine Clinton

This book recounts the complex and contradictory world of the plantation mistress. Legally powerless, she often managed all aspects of plantation business during her husband’s absence. She acknowledged that white men slept with slave women, while somehow remaining blind to the practice if it occurred in her own home. She worked very hard, but all colluded in the illusion that she was dainty and sheltered. I found The Plantation Mistress instrumental in writing the white women characters in The Bad Death trilogy.

The Swamp Fox, Francis Marionby Noel Gerson

Francis Marion was a rich plantation owner in the Lowcountry who became a Revolutionary War hero. His strength was his ability to track and skulk through the vast grassy, swampy landscape in order to spy on and jump British soldiers. Gerson’s book is a novelization of his life. I always thought Julian would have had similar experiences in the war and probably knew Francis Marion. I wrote The Bad Death with that back story in mind.

Thomas Jefferson, an Intimate Historyby Fawn M. Brodie

This bio was controversial at the time because of Ms. Brodie’s treatment of Sally Hemings as a legitimate figure in Jefferson’s life (a slave long rumored to have been his mistress). The book humanized Jefferson by discussing the challenges and conflicts of his personal life. I based a lot of Julian’s character on Jefferson’s strengths and supposed shortcomings.

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