With a focus on the story of the enslaved, The McLeod Plantation Historic Site offers visitors the opportunity to explore the landscape of history from a new perspective.
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, a peninsula city and a sea island meet. Many of those who sit impatiently in the idling cars and trucks are unaware that they sit at the intersection of history and modern life.
Hidden just beyond the trees and shrubbery north of the highway, McLeod Plantation Historic Site stands amidst the oaks. Over 150 years ago, the family of William Wallace McLeod looked out the glass panes of the plantation house’s newly constructed windows. Despite its location just outside Charleston, until recently, few were aware of the significance of the land beyond the moss-draped live oaks. Little research had been conducted on the site owned and occupied by William Ellis “Mr. Willie” McLeod, until his death in 1990.
According to Cultural History Interpretation Coordinator, Shawn Halifax, the little research compiled on McLeod Plantation before its purchase in 2011 by Charleston County Parks & Recreation Commission (CCPRC), was largely inaccurate. Since that time, the commission has worked diligently to uncover and tell its story. It is a saga that is written in black and white, of rows of billowing Sea Island cotton, and a war that divided a nation. It speaks of an unjust social structure, an enslaved people freed from bondage, and a world forever changed.
Halifax explains that focusing on the enslaved rather than the McLeod family allows people to experience the plantation from a different point of view. “It allows visitors to hear the voices that were long silent and offers a clear and realistic understanding of what the place was like for the majority of people who were here.”
Though the land McLeod Plantation occupies has been found on records dating as far back as 1671, it was not cultivated until the mid-1700s. When Samuel Perronneau purchased the property, he commanded his executors to buy “such a number of slaves as to enable them to settle, plant, and occupy my plantation and lands [617 acres] on James Island.”
Growing in acreage and changing ownership many times over the next century, Edisto Island cotton planter William Wallace McLeod acquired the 914.5 acres of property in 1851. Evidence exists of an earlier home on the land, and outbuildings such as “the gin house” revealed to be constructed of material dating from the 1600s. McLeod’s new home on the site was erected in 1856 by men and women bound to him by the institution of slavery.
The plantation was a working property, says Halifax. “The present-day house was approached from the north side of the property via a tree-lined allée leading from the waterfront of Wappoo Creek. The waterway was not valued for the vista it provided, but as the vital conduit for the plantation’s goods to the world.”
McLeod vastly improved the soil by using experimental clay tile pipes for drainage, augmenting it with the fertile, organic plough [pluff] mud of the nearby marshes. He also introduced Sea Island cotton; a tall, long-fiber plant suited to the growing conditions of the coast. The plantation moved to the rhythm of enslaved men and women from the Gambia River region of Africa, whose labor provided as much as 100 bales of cotton from the 90 tons of cotton picked per year. It also made McLeod Plantation one of South Carolina’s largest producers of the unique cotton.
History is neither embellished nor diminished in the narrative of McLeod Plantation that 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, 74 enslaved persons were housed in 26 dwellings on the property. Plantation life was extraordinarily labor-intense for the estimated 50 to 60 men and women delegated to work the land. The rich Gullah/Geechee heritage of that population has been carefully preserved and is recognized as a part of the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor for its cultural and historical significance.
When tensions arose before the Civil War, McLeod joined the Charleston Light Dragoons to fight for the Confederacy. Following the mandatory evacuation of James Island in 1862, the plantation home was occupied by the Union Army’s New York 54th Infantry, the Massachusetts 55th Volunteer Infantry, and served as a Confederate field hospital, headquarters, and commissary.
Here, Martin Becker, a remarkable free black abolitionist, served as the 55th Infantry’s Quartermaster. A field office of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (better known as The Freedmen’s Bureau) was also housed on the site, offering food, clothing, medical and educational assistance for thousands of freed slaves and impoverished whites.
Current research has focused on the period beginning with the plantation’s purchase by William McLeod and follows the threads of McLeod Plantation’s past to the present. The result is a constantly evolving tapestry of the life and times of those who are forever inexorably tied to this land. Six 20’x12′ slave dwellings still exist on the property. Descendants of those enslaved lived in the houses up until the 1990s. Today, the dirt street on which the houses stand is named “Transition Row,” an apt acknowledgment of the tumultuous changes its inhabitants endured and overcame.
McLeod Plantation was the last James Island property to return to its prewar owners, but it never returned to the days of 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, and in place of farming, real estate provided 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.
The last of his line, Willie McLeod resided in the family home until the age of 90. He bequeathed the 37 aces on which it 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. CCPRC has invested an additional $7 million since that time in capital improvements.
On the back lawn of the main house, the McLeod Oak, thought to be at least 600 years old, has watched centuries of triumphs, turmoil, and tragedy. Gnarled by time and twisted by the wind, sturdy limbs stretch out as though yearning to tell all that it has witnessed. 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. In 2017, an experimental crop of Sea Island cotton was reintroduced to a small plot of land.
McLeod Plantation welcomes visitors to walk its paths and explore the complex relationships of those who lived on its soil. Less ornate than most of the Lowcountry plantations available for exploration, Halifax explains that by design, the McLeod Plantation allows visitors the opportunity to make their own natural and often spiritual connection to the site without the distraction of a refabricated environment. Included in admission to the historic site are 45-60 minute guided tours offered at 9:30 am, 10:30 am, 11:30 am, 12:30 pm, 1:30 pm, and 2:30 pm. Tour guides present themed tours that include sea island cotton cultivation and processing, Gullah/Geechee culture, and organized and individual resistance to slavery and its legacy.
Tours change as ongoing research reveals new information, and Halifax says that anyone with a connection to the plantation or a story to tell is encouraged to share that information with the staff. Providing an experience like no other, the CCPRC Historic Site is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm. Both guided and self-guided tours are available for the area that stretches approximately two-thirds of a mile. 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 ccprc.com or
call (843) 795-4386.
By Susan Frampton