Rice to Ruin

"Rice to Ruin: The Jonathan Lucas Family in South Carolina 1783-1929" by Roy Williams III and Alexander Lucas Lofton

RICE TO RUIN. By Roy Williams III and Alexander Lucas Lofton. University of South Carolina Press. 448 pages. $59.99.

Shipwrecked soon after the American Revolution, Englishman Jonathan Lucas landed at Cape Romain about 40 miles north of Charleston. Coincidentally, Lucas was a millwright by trade and the rice fields nearby would benefit enormously from his expertise.

He invented a machine that would vastly speed up rice production, “on such a scale that Robert Mills (1781-1855), a Charleston native and Washington Monument architect, called them gold mines of the state.” The invention is said to have done for rice what the gin mill did for cotton.

Jonathan Lucas had two sons, Jonathan Lucas II and William (who had inherited their father’s engineering talents). His career was so profitable, thanks in large measure to the free labor of enslaved Africans, that he established “a great antebellum dynasty that eventually stretched to India and Egypt.” But all was doomed by the American Civil War. Without slave labor, the family fortunes quickly disappeared and were never recovered.

But the Lucas family footprints remain in South Carolina, especially in the form of antebellum houses, one of them called the Wickliffe House (1850) at 178 Ashley Ave. in downtown Charleston.

Authors Roy Williams III and Alexander Lucas Lofton have given us a meticulously researched account of the Lucas family, revealing how integral its members were to South Carolina history.

Reviewer Frances Monaco is a writer in Charleston.