Courtesy of USA Rice Federation
The low-lying marshlands bordered by fresh tidal water rivers of the Carolinas and Georgia proved to be ideal for rice production. The soils were rich, reasonably flat and highly fertile. They also were so soft a man could hardly stand on them, with twice a day tides pushing fresh river waters onto the flood plains, nothing else could be grown there. By 1700, rice was established as a major crop for the colonists. That year 300 tons of American rice, referred to as “Carolina Gold Rice,” was shipped to England. Colonists were producing more rice than there were ships to carry it.

Rice farming’s extremely high hand-labor requirements are credited with having started the plantation era of the Southern States. Even with ox and mule-drawn equipment of those years, rice “farms” or plantations of only a few hundred acres required from 100 to 300 laborers to prepare the soil, plant, harvest and thresh their production-all by hand.

Technological improvements have evolved over the years to make American rice production the most efficient and advanced in the world. New mechanization and techniques have helped the American rice farmer reduce the costly time spent in the field to only seven man-hours per acre. Some Asian countries continue to require 300 man-hours per acre.

From its meager beginnings in South Carolina, rice has become a major U.S. agricultural product. Nearly 90 percent of the rice consumed in the United States today is produced within its borders. Presently, the United States is the world’s most advanced and innovative rice producer. The United States is also one of the largest exporters of rice in the world, and is respected worldwide for its abundant production of high-quality rice.

Map Courtesy of the Plantations Cape Fear Map – COPYRIGHT © 2003. All rights reserved. Presented by the North Carolina Office of Archives & History, in association with the University of North Carolina Press.

plantations-cape-fear

Courtesy of the NC Office of Archives and History, The Colonial Records Project
Golden Grains of White: Rice Planting on the Lower Cape Fear, by James M. Clifton
With the permanent settlement of the Lower Cape Fear in the 1720s by a group of wealthy South Carolina planters, a new agricultural staple was introduced into North Carolina—rice. Rice by this time had proved to be the “golden grain” of South Carolina as tobacco had earlier become Virginia’s “golden leaf.” These planters, from the St. James Goose Creek Parish about twenty miles up the Cooper River from Charleston, brought numerous slaves with them to the Cape Fear and acquired extensive holdings along the main river (about thirty miles in length) and for some distance up both the Northeast and Northwest branches of the Cape Fear. While much of this land was retained by the planters for their own development, a sizable portion of it was cut up into smaller sections and sold, and a number of plantations were developed shortly along both sides of the river. Thus was the Cape Fear settlement a land of large plantations from the beginning—the very opposite of most colonial settlements—an extension of the South Carolina plantation system and in a larger sense that of the West Indies, especially Barbados.

Naval stores—tar, pitch, and turpentine—brought the planters to the Cape Fear and remained their principal economic interest throughout the colonial period because of the enormous immediate returns these commodities brought on the planters’ investment. Rice, however, seems to have occupied a strong secondary position in the economy there from the beginning. Travelers in the area reported seeing rice growing as early as 1731; in the same year the Assembly established it as one of the official “commodities” of the colony, indicating its having reached some status as a crop. Marshlands suitable for rice culture—those of “a wet, deep, miry Soil; such as is generally to be found in Cypress Swamps; or a black greasy Mould with a Clay Foundation”—abounded along the Cape Fear river and its branches for a considerable distance inland.

No plantation records—planters’ journals, business papers, or correspondence with overseer or factor—have survived to shed any light on individual experiences or profits among the rice planters on the Lower Cape Fear. Only a few scattered bits of information give any idea as to the facilities on any of the plantations. It is known that Orton Plantation, southernmost of the plantations and historic home of “King” Roger Moore before his death in 1750 and later home of Governor Benjamin Smith in the early l800s, located in Brunswick County about midway between Wilmington and the mouth of the river, had a water-powered “rice machine” and mill as early as 1825. Clarendon Plantation, five miles below Wilmington in Brunswick, was advertised in 1834 as having a “brick barn with a framed mill house attached and two [water-powered] threshing mills.” Belvedere Plantation, immediately west of Wilmington in Brunswick and home of two governors, Benjamin Smith in the late eighteenth century before his purchase of Orton in 1796 and Daniel L. Russell in the late nineteenth century, had by 1831 “a threshing machine and other machinery” in “a barn, 110 feet long, 40 feet wide,… of brick, put up in the most substantial manner.”

The Civil War caused no disruption of rice planting on the Lower Cape Fear. Except for deteriorating facilities and badly worn or broken tools and implements, the rice crops continued to be produced as usual. The end of the war, however, brought almost total chaos to the rice industry there for the immediate moment. The rice planters found themselves suddenly dispossessed of several thousand slaves, and some even of their land. Orton, Kendall, Lilliput, and Pleasant Oaks, the four southernmost plantations and collectively making up a stretch of more than five miles along the river, were wrested from their owners by the Union military command in Wilmington and “set apart for the use of freedmen, and the destitute and refugee colored people,” a situation which continued from April until September, 1865, when a decree from President Andrew Johnson returned the plantations to their original owners. Undoubtedly the invading army had taken from the rice plantations what it needed in the way of livestock and supplies; however, it seems to have inflicted no sizable destruction on them as had occurred on some of those in South Carolina and Georgia.