So Close Yet So Far – McLeod Plantation
Once defined by the distance between them, the lives of the men and women of James Island’s McLeod Plantation are revealed to be woven together, creating a tapestry of time.
As the lights flash, the rails are lowered, and the bridge opens to allow a vessel to pass beneath it on Wappoo Creek. Traffic comes to a stop. Here, where a peninsula city and a sea island meet, the cars and trucks brought to a standstill on Folly Road idle alongside the businesses and shopping centers of James Island’s busy, modern community.
Hidden just beyond the trees and shrubbery north of the highway, McLeod Plantation Historical Site stands, a place where over 150 years earlier, the family of William Wallace McLeod would have peered out at commuters through the glass panes of newly constructed windows. Located just outside Charleston, a city heralded for its rich history, the McLeod historical site’s significance was appreciated by only a select few, until recently, when research expanded the ranks of those privileged to know of the land beyond the moss-draped live oaks. Little research had been conducted on the site before the death of the last owner, William Ellis “Mr. Willie” McLeod, in 1990.
According to Cultural History Interpretation Coordinator, Shawn Halifax, when the property was purchased in 2011 by Charleston County Park & Recreation Commission (CCPRC), it was discovered that the little research that had been compiled on the McLeod Plantation was largely inaccurate. Since that time, the commission has worked diligently to uncover its story. It is a saga told in black and white; of rows of billowing Sea Island cotton and a war that divided a nation; of an unjust social structure, an enslaved people freed from bondage, and a world forever changed.
Though the land McLeod Plantation occupies has been found on records dating as far back as 1671, it was not until the mid-1700s that Samuel Perronneau became the first owner to cultivate it. He commanded his executors to purchase “such a number of slaves as to enable them to settle, plant, and occupy my plantation and lands [617 acres] on James Island.” Other crops were grown, but Perronneau discovered the soil to be unsuited for the type of cotton he planted, so his land yielded a disappointing crop.
Growing in acreage and changing ownership many times over the next century, the land was finally acquired in 1851 by Edisto Island cotton planter William Wallace McLeod. His purchase spanned 914.5 acres of property, yielded directly from Perronneau’s daughter. He named it McLeod Plantation. Though evidence exists of an earlier home on the land, and outbuildings such as “the gin house” have been found constructed of material dating from the 1600s, McLeod’s new home on the site was constructed in 1856, by men and women bound to him by slavery.
McLeod Plantation was a working property, says Halifax, and bore little resemblance to the columned summer mansions of landowners with primary residences in downtown Charleston. The dwelling was approached from the north side of the property via a tree-lined allée leading from the waterfront of Wappoo Creek, a waterway valued not for the vista it provided, but as the vital conduit of the plantation’s goods to the world.
McLeod vastly improved the soil by using experimental clay tile pipes for drainage and augmenting it with the rich, organic plough [pluff] mud of the nearby marshes. He planted a different cotton plant than his predecessor, a variety known as Sea Island Cotton. Originating in South America and spreading up to South Carolina from the barrier islands of Georgia, the tall, long-fiber plant was better suited to the growing conditions along the coast.
The plantation moved to the rhythm of the enslaved men and women from the Gambia River region of Africa. Their labor at one time yielded 100 bales of cotton from the 90 tons of cotton picked per year, making McLeod Plantation one of South Carolina’s largest producers of Sea Island cotton. In addition, the plantation grew sweet potatoes, peas, and corn, as well as operating a dairy, sand mine, and timber farm.
The narrative of McLeod Plantation explores the lives of its people: men and women, black and white, those enslaved, and those who held them in bondage. Records indicate that in the 1860s William McLeod owned 74 slaves, housed in 26 dwellings on the property. The rich Gullah/Geechee heritage of McLeod Plantation’s enslaved population has been carefully preserved and is recognized as a part of the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor for its cultural and historical significance.
Plantation life was extraordinarily labor-intense for the estimated 50 to 60 men and women delegated to work the land. Most planters of the time were of modest means rather than among the elite “gentleman farmers,” often stereotypically depicted. No evidence has been found of William McLeod’s employment of an overseer, and it is thought that he most likely physically participated in much of the difficult agricultural work.
As a supporter of South Carolina’s secession from the Union, when tensions rose prior to the Civil War, McLeod joined the Charleston Light Dragoons to fight for the Confederacy. In 1862, during the mandatory evacuation of James Island, his family relocated to Greenwood, SC. The home served as a Confederate field hospital, headquarters, and commissary before its occupation by the Union Army’s New York 54th Infantry and Massachusetts 55th Volunteer Infantry. Martin Becker, a remarkable free black abolitionist, served for a time as the 55th Infantry’s Quartermaster. Also housed at McLeod was a field office of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (better known as The Freedmen’s Bureau), offering food, clothing, medical and educational assistance for thousands of freed slaves and impoverished whites.
Current research has focused on the time period beginning with the plantation’s purchase by William McLeod and follows the threads of McLeod Plantation’s past to the present, revealing a constantly evolving tapestry of time. Six of the 20’x12’ slave dwellings still exist. Today, the dirt street on which the dwellings stand is aptly named “Transition Row,” acknowledging the tumultuous changes its inhabitants endured and overcame. Descendants of those enslaved lived in the houses up until the 1990s.
McLeod Plantation was the last James Island property to return to its pre-war owners, but it never returned to prosperity. Though the descendants who remained would never again enslave or be enslaved, there would be many more years of injustice and inequity. The boll weevil stole away cotton as a cash crop. Societal changes drastically restructured everyday life. In lieu of farming, real estate was sold or rented to provide the family income. Changes made to the original home, including the columned, south facing entrance, were financed by land sales in the early 20th century.
As the last of his line, Willie McLeod resided in the family home until the age of 90, leaving the 37 acres on which his home was situated to the Historic Charleston Foundation, with the stipulation that it be preserved. It would change hands several more times before being purchased for $3 million by Charleston County, with widespread support from the community. CCPR has invested an additional $7 million dollars since that time, in capital improvements.
The land has yet to reveal all that it knows of the years before and after the McLeod’s came to hold it. As the past continues to be uncovered, buildings are stabilized and restored, and stories recorded, McLeod Plantation welcomes visitors to walk its paths and explore the complex relationships of those who lived on its soil—so close together, yet so far apart.
On the back lawn of the main house, the McLeod Oak, thought to be at least 600 years old, has watched over centuries of triumphs, turmoil, and tragedy. Gnarled by time and twisted by the wind, its huge limbs stretch out as though yearning to tell all that it has witnessed. Under the careful stewardship of CCPR, it will surely have the opportunity, as will anyone with a connection to the plantation. All with a story to tell about the plantation are encouraged to share any information with the staff.
Providing an experience like no other, the CCPR Historic Site is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 9:00am to 4:00pm. Both guided and self-guided tours are available for the area that stretches approximately two-thirds of a mile from the Pavilion and Gullah cemetery near Wappoo Creek, to the last home on Transition Row. Visitors may enrich their experience by downloading the free Transition to Freedom app or by borrowing a device from the Welcome Center.
For more information about programs, events, and rentals, please visit CharlestonCountyParks.com or call (843) 795-4386.
By Susan Frampton