When it becomes habit for us to be able to rattle off our individual histories it will calm our spirits…….-Whoopi Goldberg
James Island, South Carolina.
Twenty years after acquiring McLeod Plantation from the Willie McLeod estate, the Historic Charleston Foundation sold it for $3.3 million to the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission. It is now open as an historic site, and it is interpreted through the eyes of the African Americans who also lived here.
The following post is a repost of an earlier one…..
It was hot and steamy that August when I arrived in Charleston from North Carolina, on pilgrimage. I became fascinated with my own family’s history in college and had memorized the people and the places for years, on paper. I was here for a full week, guests of gracious people, and I was determined to see for myself, and to get a sense of place. It is part of being an artist I suppose, feeling a place, letting your awareness listen with all its wordless ability. There was more to know than I could get in a book, or online. I needed to walk on the land, and breathe the air, in the places they lived.
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 (St Helena 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.