Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

A Businessman in Crisis: Col. Daniel Jordan and the Civil War

Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

A Businessman in Crisis: Col. Daniel Jordan and the Civil War

Article excerpt

IN DECEMBER 1859, WHEN COL. DANIEL W. JORDAN BOUGHT Laurel Hill, a rice plantation on Waccamaw Neck, he joined the creme de la creme of South Carolina's well defined antebellum social strata.' For generations, rice plantations had rewarded their owners with fabulous wealth, political influence, and social exclusivity, and nowhere in the U.S. was rice production concentrated like it was along the fresh water tidal stretches of the four rivers emptying into Georgetown's Winyah Bay-a third of the country's total production.2

Plowden C. J. Weston, from whom he bought the plantation, was one of these "rice princes." Educated at Harrow and Cambridge, Weston owned three plantations other than Laurel Hill, and when he died in 1864, he left a library valued at over $15,000 ($149,000 today)3 and a wine cellar containing 110 dozen bottles of wine.4 Unlike these established planters, however, Col. Jordan, 49, who was from North Carolina, had not inherited great wealth, nor was he dazzled by its brilliance. While the trappings of the rice plantations-the long avenues of live oaks, the great houses, the elegant furnishings, the ordered gardens, and the liveried servants-had obvious appeal for him, Laurel Hill was strictly an investment.

During the eight years he owned Laurel Hill, Col. Jordan was tested as few men are in business, and his decisions had to be made virtually alone. Like many of his fellow planters, War, Emancipation, and floods wiped out his entire investment in rice, a tremendous loss. Yet he survived, invested again in other businesses, and eventually prospered. Without his propensity to accept risks, he might have suffered less; on the other hand, without his personal courage and creativity, he would never have prevailed. Combining intellect, intuition and tough pragmatism, he had both the head and soul of an entrepreneur.

Col. Jordan had prospered in the 1850s as a turpentine producer, although earlier in his career he had known failure as well as success. These experiences had taught him several important lessons that he used to derive a business strategy. He observed that with volume production of commodities such as cotton, turpentine, and rice, unit costs could be reduced significantly. The key was to use labor specialization, task repetition, and incentives to gain efficiencies. Consequently, it was important that he become, and remain, a large slaveowner, and one of the trademarks of his businesses was that they were geared for volume. Another lesson, this one more painful, was that while borrowed money was a convenient source of capital, financial leverage was potentially dangerous because lenders seemed to want their money most at the very time that borrowers were least able to pay. If possible, therefore, a borrower needed access to emergency cash. Finally he had seen that while one's life might be disrupted by events beyond his control, perseverance and flexibility were invaluable tools for survival. In December 1859, as he celebrated the purchase of Laurel Hill with a "Montezuma" cigar and a glass of champagne, he had no inkling that these principles would be so quickly, and so severely, tested.

As a young man in Eastern North Carolina in 1833, having heard stories about the fantastic cotton yields of the newly opened western acreage, he joined the thousands of would-be planters in a mass migration from their worn out Carolina and Virginia farms to Alabama and Mississippi.5 Unfortunately for him, his timing was bad. After three years of moderately good crops, he had built his Mississippi plantation to about 500 acres and 40 slaves. By 1836, however, he was vulnerable, having borrowed heavily to finance his business-$20,000 to $25,000 (approximately $418,000 today). In mid-1837, burdened with the weight of private speculation combined with the demise of the Second Bank of the U.S., the fragile economy finally collapsed, resulting in the catastrophic "Panic of 1837." Col. Jordan lost his farm, his slaves, and his bride's considerable inheritance, and by the time he returned to North Carolina in 1840, he was literally bankrupt. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.