Sea Island Cotton Project

McLeod Plantation Historic Site has begun a planting project involving Sea Island cotton (Gossypium barbadense). Although varieties of this species are still grown in other places in the world, it was long believed the Sea Island cotton varieties that made the Lowcountry famous were extinct. The 37-acre property on James Island was originally purchased by William Wallace McLeod in 1851 as a Sea Island cotton plantation. The last time Sea Island cotton was grown here was in the 1920s, ending with the arrival of the boll weevil, a beetle that feeds on cotton buds and flowers.

The Sea Island Cotton Project is a partnership between your Charleston County Parks, the Friends of McLeod, local attorney and James Island resident Bill McLean, and local botanist and author of "A History of Sea Island Cotton," Richard Porcher.

Inspired by Porcher's book and the mystery of what happened to the local varieties of the cotton, McLean embarked upon a search for Sea Island cotton seed from the Lowcountry. He successfully located and acquired Bleak Hall seed originating from Edisto Island at a USDA seed repository. Looking for a convenient location to plant, he approached CCPRC about growing the cotton at McLeod Plantation Historic Site. One quarter of an acre was planted at McLeod Plantation Historic Site on May 22, 2017 in the site's former cotton fields near the main house. 

“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.”
“Planting cotton at the site was suggested by Richard Porcher during a lecture to Friends of McLeod in 2010,” said Jerry Owens, of the Friends of McLeod. “However, planting Sea Island cotton did not become a latent possibility until after CCPRC rescued McLeod in 2011 and Bill McLean secured local varieties of Sea Island cotton seed. The Friends of McLeod are proud to assist in ensuring the success of this project.”

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 90 tons of Sea Island cotton, making it the most productive plantation on James Island.

“While it is exciting on one hand to have Sea Island cotton growing here once again, it is equally important to acknowledge the cultivation of this cotton was accomplished through the oppression of millions of people for generations,” said Shawn Halifax, site historian and cultural history interpretation coordinator for CCPRC. “This calls for solemn remembrance, too.”

“Volunteers this year planted one seed per hole. However, historically, enslaved men and women at McLeod, like Hannah and Gable Gathers, planted several seeds per hole. When the plants were about 5-6 inches tall the plants would begin to be “thinned.” Hannah and Gable walked the rows, removing the weakest plants in the bunch over the course of several weeks. Thinning to quickly left the plants susceptible to being blown over.”

“Volunteers this year planted one seed per hole. However, historically, enslaved men and women at Mc