Rice Cultivation: Life at Governor James Grant's Mount Pleasant Plantation

Rice was cultivated at many British East Florida estates between 1763 and 1784. It never rivaled indigo as a commercial crop during the first decade of British rule in Florida, nor was it as profitable and extensive as naval stores production became after 1775. It is probable, however, that rice would have become an increasingly significant export crop if the British had retained control of East Florida at the conclusion of the American War of Independence.

The essay that follows examines the creation of a rice plantation in the final years of the British occupation of the province. It is based on letters written to James Grant, the first governor of the province, by Dr. David Yeats, the former governor's plantation agent in East Florida. The letters are preserved in Treasury 77, the Papers of the East Florida Claims Commission, at the National Archive, Kew, England .

Surveyor's map of Mount Pleasant Plantation, 1784, a rice plantation owned by James Grant, governor of East Florida, 1764-1771. The site is now along Highway A-1-A at the intersection of Mickler Road. Courtesy of the National Archive, Kew, England.

Highway A-1-A and the intersection of Mickler Road, twenty miles north of St. Augustine. The Mount Pleasant Plantation rice field built in 1782 was located immediately south of Mickler Road between A-1-A on the left and Neck Road on the right.

“A capital rice planter”

In July 1780 an advance party of fifteen enslaved black men, a driver and fourteen laborers, was sent to the headwaters of Guana River, twenty miles north of St. Augustine. Only a sand dune separated this land from the Atlantic Ocean, but British planters who had seen the property praised its potential, especially "a large body of very fine fresh marsh with a clay bottom adjoining the high land." The high land appeared promising for provisions, but the marsh had a special attraction for rice cultivation.

The workers were given orders to clear trees and brush from 100 acres of the high land adjacent to marshes and to plant it in provisions crops. They were also instructed to prepare log cabins for a larger group of workers who were to be transferred from the governor's indigo plantation fifteen miles to the south by the end of December.

With the exception of sixty acres of indigo, the acreage at the Villa was planted entirely in provisions crops in 1780. Corn was selling in St. Augustine for between six and ten shillings per bushel, up from less than three shillings in 1774. Flour, beef, corn, beans, and rice, had all escalated in value due to the high demand for food by large numbers of Loyalist refugees who had escaped the wartime violence in the colonies to the north of East Florida seeking protection of the King's Troops in St. Augustine.

Development of the new plantation proceeded with remarkable rapidity. By December, after only five months at the site, the workers had cleared the palmetto, oak, pine and cabbage trees on the high ground and completed the log cabin shelters. Dr. Yeats wrote: “we could not plant the rice as the ditching takes too much time. We had to plant corn, do the [indigo] vats, indigo houses and overseer's house. We do not have a name for the new plantation yet, but we have cleared 120 acres and are now fencing and burning brush and preparing for planting, ensuring for a crop by the end of March.”

By February 1781, more than fifty workers had settled at the new estate at the head of Guana River. Only one black driver named Old Will and seven other workers remained at the indigo plantation they had created in 1768. Dr. Yeats wrote that Will was "in charge of between thirty and forty acres of provisions which he can tend with the plough, and nearly as many of Indigo which must be managed with the hoe." The other workers were housed at the new settlement at the head of Guana River and helping with spring planting under the direction of a white overseer, William Brockie. Some of the men journeyed each day to work at naval stores production at a pine barren tract north of the new estate in a section called the Diego Plains.

Rather than "cut the bread of idleness," Yeats reported, he traveled to the new settlement every two weeks to lodge for one or two nights in the overseer's house with the overseer. The promising estate had acquired a name by then: Mount Pleasant Plantation. The newly cleared land had all been planted in provisions by the end of March, along with a field of indigo, and ten acres of rice. Yeats boasted: "I now have great hopes of success."

During 1781 Yeats put the strongest men to work preparing a rice field in the drainage basin between the corn fields, while the others labored in the provisions and indigo fields. Deep in the marsh the men blocked off the brackish water that pushed ahead of the ocean tides and soured the soil with salt residue. They compacted an earthen barrier that measured 1,000-yards long, twelve feet wide, and four feet high at the south end of the rice field that functioned as the lower dam. It stretched all the way across the lowland expanse between the corn fields facing each other on the high ground. A large wooden floodgate was constructed in the center of the dam to drain water from the field when appropriate. Yeats said he "hired a white carpenter for the purpose of making our trunks and floodgates. Since the Dams are finished, every rain freshens the lands since Salt water is Cutt off." The “trunks” mentioned by Yeats were cypress logs hollowed out to function as culverts or water pipes to drain water off the fields when needed. Workers opened the stoppers, either simple plugs or hinged lids, on the alternate ends of the trunks to begin and end the flow of water.

Flood gate for inundating rice field (at top) with fresh water from the impoundment pond (at bottom). A trunk, possibly a hollowed-out log, lies beneath the earthen dam between the two wooden gates. From Harper's Weekly (January 7, 1867). Courtesy of the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia, Athens, Ga.

rice cultivation

Rice Cultivation on the Ogeechee River, near Savannah, Georgia. By Art Ward, Harper's Weekly (January 5, 1867), p. 8. Courtesy of Jerome S. Handler and MIchael L. Tuite Jr., "The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record," produced by the Digital Media Lab at the University of Virginia Library and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Online at http://hitchcock.itc.virginia.edu/Slavery/.

One mile to the north of the lower dam the laborers used shovels and hoes to throw mud and dense vegetation on a long pile of soil they compacted into a twenty-foot wide and four-foot high earthen barrier to block the southerly flow of the Guana River. Measuring between 300 to 400 yards long, the upper dam enclosed a narrow neck of the marsh and was positioned between the corn fields on the high ground to the east and west. Above the upper dam, where the Guana River originated, lay a large expanse of low-lying wetlands. Blocking the normal flow of the Guana River backed water into this wetland and created a 1,000-acre reserve pond of fresh water that could be flooded onto the rice field through the same system of hollowed-out cypress trunks used to drain the field at the south end.

Looking north beyond Mickler Road at golf and residential complexes built in a mix of marsh and hammock typical of the area. Enslaved Africans once worked in these marshes digging drainage ditches and packing dams to create rice fields. Today, developeres use machines to dig canals and dredge lakes to lower the water level. The dredged soil is packed on adjacent higher ground for golf course sites and building lots. Wetlands thus become dry lands and former rice fields are transformed into residential complexes.

While the dams were being constructed, workmen also moved into the intervening marsh to dig a center drain. When finished, the ditch measured six feet wide by four feet deep and ran the entire one-mile distance between the two dams. Three intervening east and west ditches were dug to feed water into the center drain and provide water control for eight separate fields of approximately 220 acres. Dirt from the ditches was packed on both banks to form division dams. When fresh water was needed, the trunks in the upper dam could be opened to flood water from the reserve pond down the center ditch and out the three connecting lines to the separate fields. Draining excess water was achieved by opening the flood gate in the lower dam when the ocean's tide was low. Gravity pulled the excess water through the ditches and center drain and on down the Guana. Care had to be taken to close the flood gate before the incoming tide brought brackish water.

A map of the newly named Mount Pleasant Plantation, drawn in 1783, shows the two trunks that were built into the upper dam during construction. Flooding the fields via these trunks served two important purposes: 1) to irrigate the fields during periods of drought and maintain the life of the thirsty rice plants; and 2) to drown the weeds as they grew around the base of the plants, saving untold hours of tedious hoeing in the mucky soil. Three trunks were built into the lower dam to help drain the water from the field.

Surveyor's map of Mount Pleasant Plantation, 1784, a rice plantation owned by James Grant, governor of East Florida , 1764-1771. Courtesy of the National Archive, Kew, England. Additional map work by Curtis Perrin.

Delays in implementing rice production were encountered when it was discovered that the soil was not perfectly fresh. Rice plants that sprouted from seed soon wilted and died. The workers were instructed to "turn the soil often, let the rain fall, drain it and repeat the process." Additional water was flooded on the field in an attempt to "wash" salt from the soil.

A thirty-acre segment of the field was deemed fresh and ready for spring planting in late 1781. Because a cooper was needed to construct barrels for the rice, Yeats sent one of the slave's, known as "Rainsford's Tom," to train under another cooper during the entire summer of 1781. In September Yeats reported: “he can now make turpentine barrels, which is more difficult than Rice [barrels]."

While the Guana rice field was being prepared, Yeats wrote numerous letters to James Grant informing him of progress (Grant was then commanding British forces in the West Indies ). He rejoiced when enough of the 300 acres of clay marsh had been sufficiently drained to permit the workers "to turn the plow into [the field] when we please." On January 12, 1782 , Yeats pronounced the rice experiment a success. Although plagued by drought and a low water level in the reserve pond, fifty bushels of "exceedingly fine rice" had been harvested from a three-acre plot. With enough water in the reserve pond to support at least 200 acres of rice in the next crop, and with provisions bringing record prices at the St. Augustine market, Yeats had visions of a prosperous future.

He lamented not having moved to the head of Guana River sooner, but he knew that an earlier move would have placed the workers in danger of bandit raids. Yeats said that a rebel named Peter Brown had recently landed on the beach near the new settlement. A British gunboat on the St. Johns River reached the site in time to drive the invaders away, but Yeats mounted a steady watch on the beach. He informed Grant: "I think I can depend upon the Negroes and that they will not be taken willingly, indeed they know very well they cannot be better treated anywhere."

Yeats prepared a three-month supply of provisions in sealed casks in the event of an invasion by rebels or Spanish troops. He also readied a flat which could "at a moment's notice" transport the workers to St. Augustine . Danger existed, but Yeats was confident it would not "prevent us from prosecuting our plan of making you [Grant] a capital Rice planter and leading the way in that article as you formerly did in Indigo."

By June 1782 fields of corn and peas, sweet potatoes, and rice showed "exceeding promise." The birth of four children at the new plantation convinced Yeats that the site was a healthy one. With the rugged work of establishing the plantation out of the way, additional hands were assigned daily tasks at Grant's other tract in the Diego Plains where naval stores were being produced.

The 1783 map of the Mount Pleasant site shows thirty-seven "Negro Houses" on alternate sides of what are today Neck and Mickler roads. The houses were surrounded by an eighty-acre corn field. Beyond the worker's quarters, south of the bend in the road where the "Indian Tumulus" can still be found, was the dwelling house for the overseer, two corn storage buildings, three coops for fowl and pigeons, and a well for fresh water. The overseer's complex included a kitchen garden and a natural orange grove.

Surveyor's map of Mount Pleasant Plantation, 1784, a rice plantation owned by James Grant, governor of East Florida , 1764-1771. The site is now along Highway A-1-A at the intersection of Mickler Road . Courtesy of the National Archive, Kew, England.

A unique feature of Mount Pleasant Plantation was the avenue planted with Chinese tallow trees. The trees were described as "very thriving [with] thousands of seedlings in beds and ready to plant." The trees produced a "large quantity of seed each year," which in China was used to make candles. On the 1783 map, the thirty-acre grove in the southwest corner of the tract may be where the Chinese tallow trees were located.

The changeover from indigo to rice cultivation prompted significant changes in work routines. In January through March, when some workers were preparing fields of corn and indigo, others were at work in the rice marsh. Horses were used for the initial plowing, but after that the field hands used long hoes to break up the large clods and form trenches. Workers sowed the seed in trenches, perhaps following the same techniques they learned from their parents in Africa : making an indentation in the soil with the heel, dropping in seed, and covering it with the sole of the foot.

Weeding Rice Field, U.S. South, 19th century. Source: Charles C. Coffin, Building the Nation (New York, 1883), p. 76. Courtesy of Jerome S. Handler and Michael L. Tuite Jr., "The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record," produced by the Digital Media Lab at the University of Virginia Library and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Online at http://hitchcock.itc.virginia.edu/Slavery/.

When planting was completed, water was flooded onto the fields and left there for about one week until the seeds sprouted. Water was then drained and the tender plants were left to grow. As soon as weeds began to appear around the stalks of the young rice plants, workers returned with their hoes. The fields were flooded again and the water left to stand for several weeks to kill insects and weeds, then drained so the plants could draw nourishment from the direct sunlight. Repeated hoeing would have been followed by a final flooding so that water could support the heads of grain as they filled out. When the grain was ripe, water was drained for the final time.

Harvesting began immediately. Brandishing rice hooks, short-handled sickles, the workers cut the stalks and stacked them to dry before tying them in bundles and carrying them from the fields to the barn yard or threshing area. Men and women swung short wooden sticks with flails attached to separate grain from stalk (or rice straw), a process known as threshing. Like so much of rice cultivation in the American South before mechanization became prevalent, the techniques and tools were modeled directly on African practices.

rice harvesting

Rice Harvesting, U.S. South, 1859, using a short-handle sickle. Harper's Monthly Magazine (1859), vol. 19, p. 729; accompanies article by T. Addison Richards, "The Rice Lands of the South) (pp. 721-38). Copy in Special Collections Department, University of Virginia Library. Courtesy of Jerome S. Handler and Michael L. Tuite Jr., "The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record," produced by the Digital Media Lab at the University of Virginia Library and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Online at http://hitchcock.itc.virginia.edu/Slavery/.

rice barge

Once the rice stalks were dried in the field and tied in bundles, they were loaded on barges and carried on the most convenient waterway to a landing near the threshing area. Copy in Special Collections Department, University of Virginia Library. Courtesy of Jerome S. Handler and Michael L. Tuite Jr., "The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record," produced by the Digital Media Lab at the University of Virginia Library and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Online at http://hitchcock.itc.virginia.edu/Slavery/.

rice threshing

Rice Threshing, U.S. South, 1866, using wooden sticks with flails to separate grain from stalk. Leslies Illustrated Newspaper, October 20, 1866, p. 72. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ 62-61966. Copy in Special Collections Department, University of Virginia Library. Courtesy of Jerome S. Handler and Michael L. Tuite Jr., "The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record," produced by the Digital Media Lab at the University of Virginia Library and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Online at http://hitchcock.itc.virginia.edu/Slavery/.

 

Women took over the processing next, holding in their hands the large coil-woven flat baskets that inclined slightly upward at the outer edges and were known as fanning baskets. Grain was placed on the baskets and tossed gently upward into the air to winnow or blow the chaff away before the grain particles fell back into the basket. Larger baskets were filled with the grain and lined up for the final step in the rice harvest.

A woman in South Carolina winnowing chaff from grain using a fanning basket. Courtesy of the Georgia Department of Archives and History, Atlanta, Georgia..

The most labor intensive phase of the rice harvest was known as pounding. Grain left in the fanning baskets after winnowing was poured into hollowed out logs, the wooden mortars that could be seen outside the door of nearly every slave cabin in coastal Carolina and Georgia . Women used long wooden pestles to pound the rice grains until the outer husks and inner cuticles broke off. They worked communally and rhythmically with other women, following the African pattern of pounding in unison, tossing the pestle upward and letting go with both hands while clapping the hands together before catching the tool on its downward cycle and plunging it into the grain at the bottom of the mortar. Pounding the outer husks off the grain increased the commercial value of the product. Water and steam powered threshing and pounding mills eventually replaced hand labor throughout the Carolinas and Georgia , but at small estates like the one on the upper Guana the volume of the harvest was so small in the early years that the work would have been done the old and hard way, by hand.

Two South Carolina women pound outer husks from rice grain. Courtesy of the Georgia Department of Archives and History, Atlanta, Georgia.

Pounding rice using a wooden pounding tool and a hollowed out log. Courtesy of the Georgia Department of Archives and History, Atlanta, Georgia..

If the experience of rice cultivation at John Moultrie's estates at Matanzas and Tomoka Rivers was the norm for East Florida, the workers at Mount Pleasant harvested two cuttings of rice each year. Rice plantations were expensive to initiate because of the labor intensity required, but once established they continued to produce as long as the dams and canals were kept intact and the fields were maintained. Had Mount Pleasant continued to operate under Grant's ownership beyond 1784, it is probable it would have become as profitable as his indigo estate, Grant's Villa, had previously been.

Before the end of 1784, however, all planting efforts at the Villa and Mount Pleasant Plantations had ended. East Florida had been ceded back to Spain at the Treat of Paris, and nearly all the British planters decided to evacuate the province. The enslaved men and women who created the rice estate took down the cabins they had only recently constructed, placed them on rafts along with barrels of rice and corn, and shipped it all to the Bahama Islands . The men, women and children owned by James Grant were also transported to New Providence Island, from where they were sent to South Carolina and sold to rice planters.

The upper dam for the Mount Pleasant rice field later became a portion of Mickler Road . The lower dam was built one mile to the south (to the left on this photograph). Rice was planted between the dams. Guana River can be seen on each side of the road, where a culvert now permits water to flow unimpeded. When the dam was completed in 1782 fresh water was collected in a 1,000-acre holding pond on the north side.

Rice Dam Today

Rice Field Today.

View of Sawgrass and Marsh Harbor residential complexes located north of Mickler Road. Marshes here were turned into dry land through dredge and fill development. On the upper left of the photograph, across Pablo River, the Prudential Insurance and Mayo Clinic buildings can be seen, along with J. Turner Butler Boulevard.

Aerial photograph taken in 2002 of a former rice field located on the south shore of the St. Marys River at its juncture with the Little St. Marys River. Constructed by enslaved Africans in 1768 and farmed until the American Civil War, the rice field is now part of White Oak Plantation.

 

Close up of the old rice field at White Oak Plantation on the St. Marys River.

Bibliographic Information

A Note On Sources

The above essay was taken from Daniel L. Schafer, Governor James Grant's Villa: A British East Florida Indigo Plantation ( St. Augustine , FL : The St. Augustine Historical Society, 2000).