The History of Rice Farming within the Cape Fear Region


Author: Ana Johnson

The historical impact of rice has been recognized in the Cape Fear Region for numerous decades. The rice culture that was started among plantations became one of the most prosperous economies in the country. Rice cultivation was mainly nurtured between 1731 to 1930 in the Lower Cape Fear Region. During this period, rice became the most extensive product to export to other countries.

A popular crop among the area was “Carolina Gold Rice.” This heirloom rice was originally indigenous to the Carolinas and classified as a nutty, sweet flavor with a rich texture. This form of rice significantly contributed to the rice culture in North Carolina and was widely distributed to other areas within the South and across America. 

Within the Carolinas, the coastline was the ideal location to cultivate rice and indigo. This is where fresh tidal rivers bordered the marshlands, and the soil was rich and relatively flat. By 1726, Charleston, South Carolina, was exporting around 4,500 metric tons of rice, making it a significant plant. This discovery came as no surprise as the Gullah/Geechee people and Sierra Leoneans were the success of this industry.

Over the scope of 5,000 acres across the Cape Fear Region, there were about 28 rice plantations in 1860. An enormous amount of enslaved hand labor was needed to develop the rice system within these structures. The basic requirements for tidewater rice farming included ditching, reaping, the threshing mill and the main flood gates. 

In addition, Eagles Island was a pinpoint location for rice farming. The island lies between the Brunswick and Cape Fear Rivers of Southeastern North Carolina. It is estimated that 50% of the area was under rice cultivation and the greatest expanse of rice was around 1,613 acres.

Throughout the 19th century, the conditions to cultivate rice had drastically changed due to rapid property development and climate change. The erosion had affected around 15% of the remaining rice fields, and the embankments were almost destroyed entirely. The rice fields and canals deteriorated rapidly, mainly because of ditch erosion. After the 1850s, the industry recognized it could generate rice for a lower price in areas such as California and Texas. Now, the boundaries of 18 rice fields can be identified in Eagles Island. And roughly eight ditch extrapolated fields can be digitally restored.

According to the USA Rice Federation, rice has become a major U.S. agricultural product since its meager beginnings in the Carolinas. 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.

Information provided by James McDaid Kapetsky, Ph.D. “The Remains of Tidewater Rice Farming as a Cultural Resource in the Lower Cape Fear Region.”