McLeod Plantation Historic Site, owned by the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission (CCPRC), is a 37-acre property open to the public on James Island in Charleston, SC. It was originally purchased by William Wallace McLeod in 1851 as a Sea Island cotton plantation. Until last year, that species of cotton (Gossypium barbadense) had not been grown at the site since the 1920s, when the arrival of the boll weevil, a beetle that feeds on cotton buds and flowers, decimated the crop.
Inspired by the book “A History of Sea Island Cotton” by local botanist Richard Porcher, James Island resident Bill McLean embarked upon a search for Sea Island cotton seeds. Though the seeds were believed by many to be extinct, McLean successfully located and acquired seeds collected in the 1930s from nearby Edisto Island, at a USDA seed repository. He then approached CCPRC about growing the cotton at McLeod Plantation Historic Site.
“Sea Island cotton, along with rice, had a very important influence on the development of the Lowcountry and Charleston,” said McLean. “Locally produced Sea Island cotton was the finest and most valuable cotton fiber ever produced anywhere and provided the desired genetic traits of the finest cottons grown in the world today. It has taken on legendary status.”
With a partnership between CCPRC, McLean, Porcher, and the Friends of McLeod non-profit organization, the Sea Island Cotton Project was started. Visitors to McLeod Plantation Historic Site can view an interpretive demonstration garden maintained by volunteers.
Contributing to its historic significance, McLeod Plantation Historic Site was a very significant agricultural site. In 1860, enslaved families like the Dawsons, Forrests, and Gathers harvested 180,000 pounds of Sea Island cotton, making it the most productive plantation on James Island. Nearly 80 pounds were harvested from the plants cultivated in 2018.
Today, McLeod Plantation Historic Site is an important Gullah-Geechee heritage site carefully preserved in recognition of its cultural and historical significance. The site’s buildings include homes that make up Transition Row, where enslaved families and their free descendants lived during the 19th and 20th centuries.