The British set up a system in the early Georgia colony to produce raw materials to supply the mother country. Georgia depended on getting every item it could not produce through Great Britain. For survival and success in the new world, the colony had to be as productive as possible with its farming endeavors. Indigo was a crop that was grown.
Indigo produced a dye used for coloring fabrics. Suffice it to say it would be hard to pinpoint its exact origin. The British cultivated indigo on the west coast of India. It was not a native plant to Europe and seeds were brought back there to begin cultivation. It was found to be the coloring agent in the cloth that wrapped the Egyptian mummies and was seen in use around the world by Marco Polo in his early travels. It was found in Baghdad, Venice, Brazil, Cairo and Istanbul. It was an import item of trade used instead of currency in some cases.
The British began to pay the colony a bounty for each pound of quality indigo during the 1740s. Seeds were given to the Salzburgers at Ebenezer by General Oglethorpe. For nine years before 1763, Savannah exported 8,149 pounds including that from Ebenezer. Georgia doubled its exports in the next nine years. South Carolina produced over 50 times more pounds than Georgia. Ebenezer’s trial crop in 1754 sold as “of best kind” according to Rev. Rabenhorst from “Detailed Reports.” Indigo was a very profitable crop. In 1759 indigo brought over 3 shillings per pound. Production costs were high due to rotting wood in the processing apparatus. Indigo declined after the Revolutionary War because of the end of the British bounty, synthetic production of the dye and the rise in demand for cotton exports after the invention of the cotton gin.
Indigo was produced in Ebenezer on the plantations (areas outside of the main town like Goshen, etc.). It was planted at Bethany and in that area it is believed that Indigo Bay is named for this long forgotten plant. Some old-timers recall seeing the plant in the swamps.
Indigo production followed a seasonal schedule. In March or April the seeds were planted in loamy soil (often new ground). By late June or July the plants were 3 to 4 feet tall in full bloom. The plants were cut three to four inches from the ground with reap hooks. The plants put on a second crop that was cut in late fall. Some plants were always left to mature for seed for the next year.
The cut foliage was placed in vats (boxes) made of cypress or pine, covered with water and left alone to ferment for eight to 10 hours. Vats were 14-20 feet long, 18-24 inches wide and 18 inches deep flooded with 15 inches of water two to three inches above the foliage. Tandem vats were sometimes used: the right one held water; the first vat on the left was called the steeper. Yellow fluid from the steeper flowed to another vat called the battery. The fluid was aerated by hand with scoops, ladles and buckets for 30-60 minutes. Limewater (an alkaline catalyst) was added. The pigment oxidized, turned blue, solidified and settled to the bottom of the vat. Liquid was ladled off. The blue mud like substance was poured into canvas sacks to drain and was pressed with paddles and boards into a mold (which was a boxlike form) until it formed flat cakes which were dried in the shade and cut into pieces. When dry enough to handle, the cakes were placed in sacks or barrels away from air until coated in thick white mildew. Cakes were then air dried again in the shade to harden completely. The dye was then packed into barrels for export through Savannah. Yield was 6-8 pounds per batch. The Salzburger second drying stage produced a far superior product much desired for market.
Although Indigo is no longer a crop in Georgia, a few people cultivate a plant or two as a novelty. This is my father’s plant in the photograph. When you buy jeans to wear and the color is labeled “indigo,” the name of the color came from this original source of plant dye for fabrics.
This article was written by Susan Exley of Historic Effingham from information in the museum archives. If you have questions, comments or photos to share, please call her at 754-6681 or email: email@example.com