When it becomes habit for us to be able to rattle off our individual histories it will calm our spirits…….
The McLeod Plantation is just over the bridge from downtown, on James Island. William Wallace McLeod, born on Edisto Island in 1820, bought it in 1851, and built the two story house that still stands at the site. William Wallace McLeod and I share a mutual ancestor, the McLeods of the Beaufort area – specifically, John McLeod who married Margaret Johnston in 1727, (source: St Helena Parish Register) through their son, Aeneas.
So, here I was, in a place of astonishing natural beauty, standing in the drive of an oak avenue (an Allee), so distinctive to the Carolina Lowcountry, a place so quiet I could sense the stories in the air. Stephanie Hunt described this place as “bearing the blood, bones, and memory of settlers, slaves, soldiers, and planters.”
Now, the plantation encompasses 60 acres of fields and woods. It once included most of James Island, and is one of the few complete and intact antebellum ensembles, including a main house, a slave street with five frame cabins, a kitchen, a dairy, gin house, barn and outbuildings that even include a four seater outhouse. According to Alphonso Brown of GullahTours, blacks continued to occupy these slave quarters even until 1990, when the last owner, William Ellis McLeod, well known as “Mr Willie” died, at age 105. It is open to the public only occasionally now.
The plantation first appeared on a 1695 map as a 617-acre plantation along the Wappoo and Stono rivers on James Island. Originally belonging to Morgan Morris, the land changed hands several times during the 18th century. Samuel Perroneau, who purchased the property in 1741 first cultivated the land. His daughter, Elizabeth, inherited a portion of the land with her husband, Edward Lightwood II in 1771, and it remained in the Lightwood family when their daughter, Sarah Lightwood Parker, and her husband, William McKenzie Parker II, began cultivating Sea Island Cotton. Though this long staple cotton was normally considered highly profitable, a combination of poor drainage and depleted soil soon made the plantation known as “pick-pocket place”. McKenzie increased the size of the plantation to 914.5 acres of land and 779 acres of marsh, and in 1851, sold the plantation to William Wallace McLeod, from Edisto, the island well known for its Sea Island cotton. It was he who tackled the drainage issues, and he who built the house that exists today.
The main activity on James Island was the raising of beef, which gave this plantation a different financial advantage when everyone else was struggling with cotton. Cotton and rice were planted here but not on a large scale. Indigo was also a major crop at the plantation. McLeod’s Plantation was mainly known for beef, and the slaves from the Gambia River region, according to Alphonso Brown, were expert horseman and cattle herders. They were America’s first cowboys! Cattle was grazed on lands, often islands and savannas called Cowpens in the Lowcountry, and there is a small island on Edisto Island that still bears that name.
With the coming of the Civil War and Union occupation of nearby barrier islands, McLeod moved his family to Greenwood, S.C, and a slave named Steve Forrest was placed in charge of the plantation in the family’s absence. McLeod joined the Charleston Light Dragoons in 1861 and was mortally wounded in 1864. The plantation house served as headquarters for General Gist’s Brigade, as well as Confederate unit headquarters, a commissary, and a field hospital until the island fell to the invading Federal army in the spring of 1865. When Confederate forces evacuated Charleston on Feb. 17, 1865, Federal troops used the plantation as a field hospital and officers’ quarters. The 54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiments, one of the first official black units in the United States Armed forces, were among the units that camped at the site. The front parlor was used as a surgical theater and many Union and Confederate dead were buried at nearby Battery Means and the old slave cemetery along the Wappoo banks in front of the house. After the Civil War, McLeod Plantation became headquarters for the Freedmen’s Bureau for the James Island district and in 1879, the McLeod family regained the property, and in 1918 William Ellis McLeod began raising potatoes, asparagus and dairy cattle.
“Mr. Willie,” as he was known, also knew to preserve this land, and arranged for it not to be sold to developers. This is rare earth as Georges Hughes, an older African American gentleman, who reenacted as a member of the 54th Massachusetts regiment, said, “McLeod is the last vestige of living history….It’s a sacred spot.” Indeed.
Oh my gosh. Why haven’t I been here? “It is open to the public only occasionally now.” This sounds like a great place to run artist retreats, and a blog about South Carolina. ;) Could be a wonderful historic tour. Let’s organize one ;)
Truly this is a place I must see. I will have to put it on my list with Somerset Plantation in North Carolina. This story of them building drainage fields reminds me of the story of the Ball Plantation. I think they were also in South Carolina, I do forget I read so many books about slaves. I think I would like to just come and lay on the grass all day…taking photos of this place. I am certain it is filled with whispering spirits.
It is strange to think of cowboys and cattle ranching in the low country, just as it is to think of Bison roaming around the place, but it’s true. There are some beef operations around the low country today. One of them is run by Michael Cordray of Cordray Farms and Deer Processing in Ravenel. It’s good beef and why wouldn’t it be? It is pasture raised, mostly on grass, by local farmers.
These old farms and plantations can tell us an awful lot about how people lived and ate and the best use of land. They can also show us what not to do – monocultures and such – that we have put aside in the industrial farming methods currently in use. Today we raise pine trees and deer it seems.
While I can’t say that the spirits jump out and say BOO, I don’t find them to whisper either. Walking along those roads and through fields and abandoned gardens at odd times is like listening not to whispering, but to something just not quite heard or understood. It’s always there though and always worth listening to.
I have found a marker for William Wallace McLeod in the cemetery at Biggin Church on Hwy 402 in Berkeley County S.C.
Was there a reason for being buried here and not on James Island?
Hello! Was is 1865? He was killed during the war and all I had was that he was buried ‘near Monck’s Corner’. Would love more details and a picture if you have one! Thanks for finding me!
What a good description of McLeod and it is thrilling that right now the buildings are being restored and preserved and it will be open to the public.
William Wallace McLeod is buried at Biggin Church. He was coming home from the war, caught influenza and died in Monck’s Corner. I’ll see if I can find a picture.
Thank you so much, Carol! You comment is a great addition!