In the year 1671, the Council of Province ordered a town to be established on James Island. McLeod’s Plantation (not called McLeod’s at that time) became a part of James Island around 1696. The property was first owned by Morris Morgan in 1696 and had about 617 acres. There was no formal building on the property except for a few slave quarters. Duel residency existed, and most plantation owners had homes elsewhere, usually in the city. From the Colonial period well into the 20th century, most of James Island consisted of blacks. Around 1720, St Andrews Parish records reported around 215 white taxpayers and nearly 2500 slaves. The slaves were left to oversee and cultivate the property. Dual residency allowed the slaves to practice and perpetuate many African traditions, cultures, and languages. For example, sweeping the yard to keep the snakes away is still a common practice in some of the rural areas of the low country. The Gullah language survived and can still be heard today among friends and families, young and old. Charleston and Beaufort form the nucleus of the Gullah speaking area. The practice of root medicine is still used by many blacks and whites. It is a practice that was brought with the slaves from Africa. Benin, West Africa is still known today for its practice of root medicine and witchcraft. Root medicine was used for good and bad, but evil and greed made it more bad that good. Except for a few white doctors who would secretly help slaves before and after freedom, there were many blacks who knew the art of root medicine. These blacks who used their knowledge for good were not feared and would be considered as “herbalist” today.
The main activity on the 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 the large scale as other plantations. McLeod’s Plantation was mainly known for beef. The slaves from the Gambia River region were expert horseman and cattle herders. They were America’s first cowboys. Indigo was also a major crop at the plantation, but the process of changing the indigo plant into the blue dye made the slaves sick and many died of cancer. The rivers were the major modes of transportation, and these Africans were highly prized for their skills as boatsmen. The job as a boatsman gave a measure of independence to a slave.
Not much is known about McLeod’s Plantation during the early colonial period. Morris Morgan is listed as the first owner of the property in 1696. Six hundred and seventeen acres of land became a Royal Grant to Captain David Davis in 1703, and in 1706 Davis sold the land to William Wilkins. In 1741, Wilkins sold the property to Samuel Perronneau. It is believed that Perroneau was the only one to have cultivated the property. None of the previous owners, including Perronneau, ever lived on the property, but they did have slaves living there. In 1770, two hundred and fifty acres was either sold or given to Edward Lightwood II, Perronneau’s son-in-law. It was Lightwood who built the first main house and outbuildings. The house was approached from the South by an oak alley that extended northward to Wappo Creek.
Lightwood was a “broker” in slave trading and owned 53 slaves. Lightwood’s daughter married William McKinzie Parker I in 1796. When Parker’s mother-in-law died, he purchased the estate. Parker was involved in the slave trade industry and owned several vessels. Like Perronneau and Lightwood, Parker also worked the plantation. In 1851, the plantation was sold to William Wallace McLeod. By this time, the property had increased to 914 acres of land and 779 acres of marsh. McLeod built the present house around 1854-56. Exactly what happened to the Lightwood house is unknown. Speculations are that it was either destroyed or pulled down. Around 1860, McLeod owned approximately 74 slaves and 23 slave cabins that were located around the plantation. The five remaining 20′ by 12′ wooden slave cabins, the diary, and the kitchen building are believed to date from the Lightwood/Parker period (1770-1850). The old slave bell, used to call in the slaves from the field, still hangs from the giant oak tree near the “big” house.
William Wallace McLeod served in the Civil War and moved his family to Greenwood, South Carolina. He left Steven Forrest, a slave, in charge of the plantation. McLeod died in the war in 1864. Shortly after, Mrs. McLeod dies leaving a boy, still in his teens, and two young girls as owner of the plantation. During the war the house fell to the Federals. The house was used as a Federal Office Headquarters and a hospital for the Black units of the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Regiment. After the war, the house was the Headquarters for the Freedmen’s Bureau. Freed slaves from all over the island pitched pineburough shelters and camped on the plantation in order to be within easy reach of their free rations and “their forty acres and a mule.” Unlike other parts of the South, tenancy was preferred to share cropping. It gave the black farmers freedom from white exploitation and the hope of accumulating money to purchase their own land. This plan proved to be very successful for blacks, well into the years after slavery.
Young, McLeod Jr. Arrived back at his father’s home in 1879, after congress failed to pass Sherman’s “Field Order #15” (Mule & forty Acres of Land Concept). It was said that McLeod Jr. was forced to apply for an escort of Union Soldiers to lead him through the crowd of insolent Negroes who thronged around the house.
After greedy carpetbaggers dismantled the Freedmen’s Office, black families continued to maintain quarters in each room of the house. They took possessions, and used the house as they chose, with no regard for owners or property. McLeod later was able to establish ownership and dispose of the blacks. In 1895, Dr. Bert J. Wilder, who had been a surgeon for the Union Army, visited Charleston and told McLeod that the drawing room of the house served as his operating room for the blacks soldiers of the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Regiments. Those who died were buried in the slave graveyard. (A site behind the fire station near the James Island Bridge).
Willis Ellis McLeod, who was born in 1885, became owner of the property in 1918 and lived there until his death in 1990 at the age of 105. The McLeods continued to sell and rent properties to blacks long after the war. The slave quarters which dates back to the Lightwood/Parker period and are some of the oldest original wooden slaves quarter in the south. Blacks continued to occupy these slave quarters until around 1990 (not a misprint). Of all the plantations in the South, the blacks at McLeod were the “last to leave.”
The plantation is owned by the Historic Charleston Foundation. The Foundation is planning to open the plantation to the public in the near future. Until then, Gullah Tours is one of the few tour companies authorized by the foundation to show the plantation.