A Colonial Rice Plantation
From planting to harvesting
Cattle were the foundation of the Drayton family's wealth. Thomas Drayton, the progenitor of the Drayton family in South Carolina and father to Drayton Hall's founder John Drayton, raised cattle on a 402-acre tract on the Ashley River. (Today this property is Magnolia Plantation and Its Gardens.) The money Drayton earned from cattle enabled him to purchase more land and more slaves and eventually allowed his family to become planters rather than ranchers. By the time of his death in 1717, Thomas Drayton had built an estate that counted several plantations, more than 1,300 head of cattle, nearly 150 horses, 46 enslaved people-Native Americans and people of African descent — and a large rice crop.
At 23 years old, John began to make the transition from rancher to planter. No one knows when the first rice crop was planted at Drayton Hall, but the process began after 1738. Just as it took many years to construct the house, the construction of the rice fields would have been a labor-intensive undertaking. Dirt walls called 'banks' had to be built to keep salt water out and a series of ditches and gates had to be constructed to move fresh water in. Just fifty acres of rice fields might involve almost 5,000 feet of ditches.
Rice involved more than just planting and harvesting. The fields were flooded at certain times of the year, and then drained back out. Additionally, the fields had to be weeded, birds had to be kept away, and after harvest, the rice had to be flailed, hulled, and polished before being packed into barrels and shipped out. This would typically be accomplished around Christmas, but sometimes took until February. A few days off and then the work would begin on next year's crop.
The rice likely would have involved at least half the enslaved people, if not more, who worked at Drayton Hall; it is thought that women played a larger role in rice cultivation than men. If not involved directly with the rice crop, enslaved people also filled support roles. Coopers made barrels; blacksmiths made tools; carpenters made houses, barns, sheds, and other dependencies. Animals were kept, including cows, pigs, and chickens. A family of cooks was continually busy, and nothing was wasted. Animal parts that could not be eaten could be made into shoes or candles or even used in the construction of buildings — animal hair was mixed into plaster, and tallow was used to make molds.
As the colony became more important and wealthier, so did John Drayton. Drayton Hall went from being a country seat to being a seat of power as John rose through the ranks of the colonial government eventually becoming a member of the Royal Governor's Council. His sons were educated as English gentlemen; his house contained the most fashionable furnishings imported from England or made to English designs; and an English-style garden greeted guests coming up from Charleston along the Ashley.