On Johns Island in South Carolina, tucked along Maybank Highway, not far from where the Stono River meets Pennys Creek, sits a long-obscured piece of history. The remains of a four-chambered brick structure are set among black gum trees, live oaks and scrub brush. At its base, partially covered by moss and bald cypress roots, the tint that enchanted the colonial world is still visible. The ridges of the mortar in between the bricks emit a blue hue, the color of the ocean: indigo, a name that refers to the shrub, the dye the plant produces and the color itself.
This crumbling vat, with squares aligned back to back, was built to process the plant when the demand for indigo dye was at its height. For 50 years, starting in the late 1740s, indigo was a major South Carolina cash crop, second only to rice. At one time, the extracted pigment, dried and shaped into circular cakes, was so prized that it was sometimes called blue gold, and used as currency—even as barter for slaves. After the Revolutionary War, indigo processing fell into obscurity, relegated to the fringes of the agricultural conversation (if it was ever mentioned at all) as a historical oddity.
In recent years, as demand for housing on Johns Island has led to the excavation of previously fallow land, more of these brick vats are being uncovered, giving archaeologists and historians rare insight into the time when the state was a British colony. Today’s farmers, textile dyers and fabric artists in the region are championing indigo as a sustainable, regenerative alternative to modern-day, petroleum-based dyes. As more residents learn about indigo’s former prominence, they are beginning to cultivate the plant and experiment with its many uses. With the crop’s resurgence, the Lowcountry is in the midst of an unexpected, blue-hued 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 second-growth forest that once hid the vats has been ripped out and ground down. Where developers saw the trees as obstacles, Magar often sees opportunity. To create a yellow pigment, she uses bark and pulp from oak trees. “Look at all this potential dye—it’s good material wasted,” Magar says, standing atop a pile of mulch that used to be foliage.
In addition to the indigo she grows on her property, Magar gathers wild indigo for what she calls seed-to-stitch artistry. The concept is similar to farm-to-table dining: As her way of paying homage to the history of the crop, her work involves growing the plant, processing it into dye and then coloring her chosen material with it. After that, she begins to create. Magar makes everything from dresses to pocket squares.
A lifelong South Carolinian, Magar has always had a connection to the land and the state’s textile history. The women in her family worked in the cotton mills. She attempted to get away from the long shadow that the physical labor of cotton cast, and for nearly two decades she worked as a milliner and owner of Magar Hatworks in Charleston, where she created finery for high-end retailers and customers. Over time, Magar became enchanted with the indigo color, but it wasn’t until she closed her shop and moved out to Johns Island with her partner that she understood the plant’s importance to the region. With seeds she received from a hermit monk, she grew her first indigo crop in 2015.
In her field, not far from her home, the mid-morning July air is already filled with gnats. Throngs of mosquitoes buzz around Magar and her apprentice, too. They don big straw sun hats to shield themselves from the worst of the heat, but the humidity is still smothering. Their indigo grows in two 150-foot-long rows perpendicular to the island’s main road. This is their weekly picking session, and the two use sharp scissors to clip the plant’s branches until they fill two tubs.
Magar only plucks the amount she needs for the week, careful to catch as much of the growth as she can before the plant begins to bloom. Once the buds flower, the plant’s energy is directed toward seed-making, and the pigment in the leaves becomes less potent.
Over the years she has experimented with different growing and dyeing techniques. “You work with your hands every day,” Magar says. “You’re out there in the soil and the earth with the plant, nurturing it. It becomes so much more than a plant.”
In some ways, cultivating indigo is her attempt to preserve and pass on what she can of this landscape. Doing so in a traditional way, slowly and methodically without machinery, honors the enslaved laborers responsible for indigo production three centuries ago.
“I feel like it’s my calling,” she explains. “I just felt deep inside that in order to continue with my indigo work, I had to face the truth of history, which has inspired me to learn, read and research.”
Portuguese records from after their arrival to West Africa in 1342, before the establishment of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, detail West Africa’s textile production, fabric dyeing and cloth trade. Hundreds of years later, when people from that region were stolen from their homeland and enslaved, they carried the knowledge of indigo cultivation to the United States, where the native Indigofera caroliniana and Indigofera lespotsepala thrived.
Commercial success of the indigo crop in South Carolina is often credited to Eliza Lucas Pinckney, who was 18 years old in 1740 when she instructed enslaved people on one of her family’s plantations outside of Charleston to experiment with seeds sent by her father, then the governor of Antigua, one of Britain’s sugar colonies in the West Indies. The seeds came from the Caribbean or West Indian variety, Indigofera suffruticosa. It was on the family’s Wappoo Plantation that young Eliza Lucas, the enslaved laborers and neighboring peers experimented with and developed the cultivation of the Caribbean strain of indigo, which produced more dye and became the preferred plant for production. With her indigo crop as dowry, she married Charles Pinckney, and they shared their seeds with other plantation owners.
Production skyrocketed. As in the French and Spanish colonies, profits from the labor-intensive indigo production hinged on imported and enslaved Africans, referred to as black ivory, whose labor, and often prior knowledge of indigo, was exploited. The enterprise, from planting seeds to packing finished cakes of dye, and occasionally transforming the color of cloth from brown or white to brilliant blue, would be the charge of the enslaved, who are usually absent from the history books. By 1775, South Carolina was exporting more than one million pounds of indigo annually.
Historians now understand that the prosperity that indigo created was bought on the backs of Black labor, even as white Lowcountry elites took credit for and profited from the success. In the book Red, White, and Black Make Blue: Indigo in the Fabric of Colonial South Carolina Life, historian Andrea Feeser writes, “Indigo ignited the curiosity and interest of those who loved and studied plants, allowing them to accrue intellectual as well as monetary capital, yet contributed to the alienation of natives from their land. The shrub enriched many lives but simultaneously impoverished many others.” Under the duress of torture, enslaved people provided the knowledge, labor, precision and endurance that made the Lowcountry rich but cost many of those in bondage their lives.
“I have to face this pain of South Carolina,” Magar adds. “I can’t continue to work with it and deny that pain, especially as a white woman.”
Magar and her apprentice return to her artist studio, located on the back of her house, about a mile from the field, bins of indigo in tow. The two pull up chairs and start stripping the leaves from the stems. Once they have enough, the transformation process begins. Magar loads the leaves into a large wooden mortar. Two handfuls are enough to fill the vessel, and then she takes the pestle and pounds, mashing the plant’s leaves until they’re blue-green sludge. Once it is mostly liquid, the pair rolls the material into half-dollar-size patties, smaller than the historical indigo cakes, evenly spacing them on a platter and leaving them to dry in the sun.
After the Revolutionary War, the South Carolina Lowcountry, at the forefront of many of the conflicts between British loyalists and American patriots, was left in ruins. Indigo fields lay fallow. For 300 years, indigo barely survived, being cultivated in meager quantities by small numbers of planters and artists. Beginning in 1880, the popular blue hue could be simulated with petroleum-based synthetic dyes, which also were simpler, easier and more efficient to work with and obviated the need for a large labor force.
Yet some never stopped planting indigo. For Sheena Myers, who grows her indigo on a half-acre plot in Adams Run, South Carolina, cultivating and harvesting it is a tradition. She remembers when her grandparents nurtured the crop as well as other plants from bygone times. Now she’s an energetic advocate of indigo, and enjoys recommending it to the seemingly increasing number of young people seeking a craft that gets them back to the land. Consumer concerns about the impact of modern petroleum-based dyes on the communities tasked with making clothes, and the industry’s impact on climate change, are also spurring the indigo revival.
“The history behind the crop is so … I can’t put it into words. A lot of people don’t even realize that it’s an African American crop, and how important it was to the slaves. Nobody talks about it anymore; nobody grows it anymore. A lot of people think it’s just ink,” Myers says. “If you want to get into your history and be hands-on with it, I feel like indigo is the best way to go because a lot of the [colorful dyes] we have now are man-made, not derived from plants.”
Myers’ crop this year is tall and robust. The average height of each shrub, now that they’ve been harvested and strung up to dry, is about five feet. She uses a simple extraction technique in which the sun-dried branches of the plant are covered in water (boiling the water and adding salt speeds up the process) until they emit color.
At times growers have more indigo than they can handle, and they pass a bit of the plant on to their peers. This is the way indigo spreads: seeds passed from hand to hand making their way up and down the South Carolina coast.
Not every farmer has the same cultivation experience, and not every producer is interested in the indigo’s blue dye. A little farther upland and inland, in Cross, South Carolina, Joy Mills had a more challenging journey with the plant.
“When I first started doing indigo, it was hard as hell,” she admits. Several of her early attempts at plant germination failed. “I’m not going to lie to you. It was like me trying to figure out how to start an onion seed.” Indigo and onion progeny are tiny, about the size of 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.
A counter inside her home is covered with tinctures, infused honeys and oils. Her five-acre property is dotted with potted plants. At the very front, she has a ten-foot-tall Confederate rose bush, Hibiscus mutabilis, a perennial shrub cultivated for its showy blooms. Parts of the plant can be used as an expectorant, and the leaves were once used for treating tuberculosis. Nepeta cataria, commonly known as catnip, can be brewed into a tea that is said to soothe muscle spasms in the intestinal tract. She considers indigo, which is being studied as a treatment for types of psoriasis and peptic ulcers, essential to her medicinal arsenal. The roots and stem are reportedly used to clear congestion when experiencing a cold, bronchitis or asthma. Known for its ability to reduce inflammation, it is sometimes used to treat insect bites and skin disorders. When people learn alternative uses for indigo and reconnect with the land, appreciation for the plant will only increase, Mills says.
Inspired by nature, artists turned farmers work in their little pockets of the Lowcountry as part of a new artisanal movement experimenting with, investigating and appreciating the potential of indigo. Their modern labor means that South Carolina’s past contributions to the global economy during the 18th century can be fully acknowledged and understood.
Their work makes them part of an informal indigo network that now stretches out of the Lowcountry to places like Mississippi, which is also experimenting with the crop. Indigo’s journey from West Africa to Charleston is integral to the understanding of its importance locally and globally, to those who treasured it as well as those who toiled for it. Today’s growers and creators are finding new ways to tell an almost-for-gotten story, and they are leaving an indelible mark on the Lowcountry landscape.
This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.