James Island: a brief historical overview

Hand-drawn Map of James Island from the online collection at the Charleston Museum, where you see a larger image and can read about the history of this map.

by Gretchen Stringer-Robinson

James Island is more than fast-food eateries, banks, offices, schools, and subdivisions. The island once was home to American Indians, American Revolutionaries, possible pirate collaborators, Confederates, slaves, freedmen, and people just trying to make a living.

The actual island on which the City of James Island sits is a bit over 35 square miles.  It runs nine miles long and seven miles wide.

The Stono Indians

The Stono Indians inhabited the island, living among the native pine and hardwood, farming and hunting for food.  Archeologists have uncovered Native American artifacts from as far back as 600 B.C. on the island.

Stono Rebellion location on Highway 17, from Wikipedia Free Media Repository.

When the settlers came to the area in 1670, the Stono Indians initially got along well with the newcomers.  But as we all know, that didn’t last.  The idea of “owning” an animal was foreign to the natives and after they had killed livestock, the colonists started killing the natives.

There was an Indian rebellion of the Stono and the Kussoe in 1674 which (again, you guessed it), did not end well for the Indians. They were defeated, sold into slavery, and sent to the West Indies. By 1684, the natives had given their lands to the Lords Proprietors.

They didn’t like those northern winters

One of three settlements created by the colonists, James Towne was created in December of 1671 and populated with colonists from “New Yorke.”  They didn’t like those northern winters and they didn’t like the taxes, either.  So you see, we’ve had a Yankee influx from the very beginning.

There is no existing plat to show where the exact location of the town was on the island, and a survey done in 1685 does not show the town.  It is very possible that what is now McLeod Plantation was the site for the town; it was near the river and easily accessible.

The island we call James Island was initially called Boone’s Island, possibly after John Boone, who settled here in 1682.  In true James Island fashion, he was banished by the Lords Proprietors for helping the pirates who plagued the coast.  I certainly hope that’s true and that they paid him in treasure. I think we should start digging immediately.

Settlers were given ½ acre lots in the town and 10-acre lots for farming adjacent to the town.  About 1693, James Island appears in the public record. Usually the landowners harvested timber for ships and naval needs, or raised cattle and pig for export (once processed) to the West Indies.  The slave population was lower in the 17th century because of lower labor requirements.

In the mid-1700s, indigo and rice became the main cash crops in South Carolina.  This resulted in a slow increase in the slave population.

The American Revolution and the War of 1812

During this time, of course, the American Revolution affected the island.  Initially, the British held Fort Johnson but the fort was taken by William Moultrie in 1775.  When 50 British ships and 3,000 men were sent to attack Charleston, the fort and its 50 cannons helped hold them off.

Later, the British sent Sir Henry Clinton to James Island via Johns Island, and he and his men settled in near Wappoo Cut.   From there, they set up their siege lines to take Charleston, which they did in 1780.

The War of 1812 would see Secessionville (then known as “Stent’s Point”), and Lightwood Plantation (n/k/a McLeod’s Plantation) used for instructional camps.  A battery was built on Battery Island (southwest end of James Island) and on the marsh of the Stono River, known as Fort Palmetto.  No real military action occurred on the island although there was a skirmish on the Stono River.

Malaria and Cotton

Title: History of Sea Island cotton / from sketches by James E. Taylor. From Library of Congress Archives.

Throughout the 19th century, malaria waged its own war against the families of South Carolina.  Records show that the mosquito-borne disease was the main cause of death for children.  The planters would move their families to summer homes with ocean breezes in Johnsonville (near Ft. Johnson) or Secessionville by May 20th.

Slaves remained on the plantations; apparently they were not as affected by the disease. The planters’ families would return about mid-October or November, after the first frost.

It was in the mid-19th century that cotton “took over” James Island.  Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, invented in 1793, made cotton easier to clean. Cotton seeds had arrived in South Carolina from the Bahamas in 1786.  James Island’s timber had been thoroughly removed, so much so that plantation homes were shut in March because of dust storms rushing over the island.  The land was ready for a new crop.

Cotton made the land valuable again.  Sea island cotton was a finer grade than cotton from the Bahamas.  James Island grew long-staple cotton, and was one of the largest producers in the South.   Sea island cotton was worth up to six times more than upland cotton and many white planters became rich.

With its nearness to Charleston, and the money-making properties of the land, James Island became the most valuable of the sea islands. While this was a boon for the local planters, it was a bane to Africans who were shackled, forced into slave ships, and brought to the Americas.

The innate value of a cotton crop resulted in a huge increase in the need for slaves. Cotton is labor intensive.  Slaves were needed to carry the marsh mud used for fertilizer to the plantations, and to spread the marsh mud (which was sometimes mixed with manure), to hoe and to pick the cotton. Cotton and Whitney’s cotton gin were not friends to the black man and woman.

The Civil War

In April of 1861 the first shot of the Civil War was fired at Ft. Sumter, from Ft. Johnson. You can visit the site of the first skirmish between Union and Confederate troops at Sol Legare Island  and the Battle of Secessionville (June 16, 1862), where Confederates successfully repelled a Union attack and saved Charleston.  Oddly enough, we live right on top of these sites with subdivisions and paved roads running alongside them.

The Civil War devastated the island. James Island, with its strategic value to Charleston, housed over half of the Confederate troops in Charleston.  Those troops needed supplies and so livestock and crops were used to feed them; homes were used and/or torn down for supplies. McLeod’s Plantation was used as a division hospital.

Fort Johnson, James Island, S.C. showing the face towards the channel From Library of Congress Archives.

When the Confederates evacuated Charleston and the surrounding areas, the Federal army moved in, occupying McLeod Plantation.  The brave men of the 54th and 55th Massachusetts, made up of free black men, were quartered in the slave quarters.  Ultimately, only six homes were left standing on the island.


Reconstruction brought more uncertainty to the island.  Congress directed that anyone who fought or worked for the Confederacy would be subject to seizure of his lands. In 1865, Major-General Sherman issued Special Field Orders No. 15, giving 40 acres from any confiscated lands in S.C. or Georgia to each freedman family.

This was a boon to the newly-freed slaves, but a disaster to the white planters.  Of course, five months later,  Andrew Johnson issued the Amnesty Proclamation and all lands not sold through the courts were returned to the original owners.

Lands seized by Sherman were under the control of the newly formed Freedmen’s Bureau and they were returned to the original owner if he swore a loyalty oath, had proof of ownership and proof of pardon.  White House Plantation was the first plantation on James island to be returned to its owner, E.M. Clark, although some of the freedmen were accommodated if their claims were proven valid.

The Freedmen’s Bureau controlled McLeod Plantation and used it as a regional office and Provost court.  By the end of 1866, most plantations (with the exception of McLeod Plantation) were returned to their original white planter-owners.

Two hundred, eight freedmen’s families were given land on James Island. Some were later abandoned, others were bought out; still others were accommodated by the white planters.  Some of these individuals did not stay on James Island, but went to Charleston or up North, hoping to make a living there.  Other freedmen and women moved to the island from other counties, to farm.  By 1880, there were 2,500 black residents on the island and 2,600 white.

The price of land was a problem back then too!

The white planters faced additional obstacles after the war: several of the older generation had died, and the younger generation did not have the experience in planting their ancestors had.  In addition, the land was not as valuable and labor was not certain, so cash advances on crops (to buy seed, rebuild, etc.) were difficult to negotiate.

It sounds horrible since no human should be regarded as chattel, but with the loss of the slaves the property owner’s assets were lowered, contributing to the difficulty in obtaining loans.

It wasn’t any easier for the freedmen.  Most had been trained in planting, but they had few (if any) assets.  If the white planters lacked experience, imagine a newly freed slave trying to negotiate for seed money.  Add to this flooding rains and infestations of caterpillars in 1867 and 1868,  and you have almost insurmountable obstacles for black and white alike.

By 1872, white planters routinely planted only a portion of their lands, rented some land to black farmers, and used stores which gave credit to black laborers up to their weekly wage, at 15%-20% interest.  By this time the black farmers were tenant farmers, cultivating between 5-20 acres.

Later, the white planters would form the James island Agricultural Society (July 4, 1872) to monitor the number of acres planted as well as the type of fertilizer used, planting dates, and method of cultivation.  Apparently this paid off because by 1880, James Island Sea Island cotton brought very high prices.

Land prices on the island rose again, since by 1880 no white planter owed any real debt. Northern speculators had come down, invested, and lost money; they did not stay.  Land could not be bought on James Island except at an exorbitant fee.

The labor and sacrifice of black planters

Black cotton farming family, from Wikipedia Commons.

At that time, there were 48 black planters who now owned horses, hogs, and cows as well as about 1,600 acres on James Island.  Their yield was estimated at 600 acres in corn, 200 acres in potatoes and corn, and 800 acres in cotton.  All this by hard labor and sacrifice.

Think about it, 15 years before they had no assets for seed money and were, in fact, considered assets themselves.  By 1870, blacks had other sources of income. A great example of this is Tony Stafford, who had a 14-year charter to run a ferry from James Island to Charleston.

Good times come and go and in 1883, a heavy rain of over five inches destroyed the cotton crop; 1885 brought a hurricane with 125 mph winds, 1893 brought not one, but two hurricanes and, for good measure, a blight on the cotton crop.  By the 1890s, inland cotton had improved enough to adversely affect the price of Sea Island cotton.

While many black and white planters continued to farm the land, growing potatoes and other “truck crops”, cotton was no longer an option. A boll weevil invasion beginning in 1910 destroyed the last of the Sea Island cotton business by 1922.  James Island was no longer as valuable as farm land, but the location remained the same: close to Charleston.

Bridges and cars and subdivisions change the scene

Progress was made even while the cotton industry was dying and land owners looked for other income.   A permanent bridge over the Wappoo was built in 1899.  Automobiles appeared although the roads were often made of mud and oyster shells.  The Wappoo Bridge was replaced with a concrete construction in 1956.


Title: 4. PERSPECTIVE VIEW OF SOUTH (REAR) AND EAST SIDE – McLeod Plantation, 325 Country Club Road, Charleston, Charleston County, SC From Library of Congress Archives.

Sale of land for development became a new source of income.  William Ellis McLeod sold an option for land to the Country Club of Charleston in 1922 and the golf course was built by 1926.   The island’s first subdivision was Riverland Terrace, built on 75 acres beginning in 1925.


The 1940s would see lots for sale in the Country Club Subdivision, as well as the development of Woodland Shores, Wappoo Hall, and Lawton Bluff, even though Lawton Bluff would not be accessible by bridge until 1961.  Centerville was developed in 1952 and Bay Front appeared in 1956.

By the end of ’56, there were twenty subdivisions on James Island, including Laurel Park, Lee-Jackson Heights, McCall’s Corner, Clearview, Eastwood, King’s Acres, Teal Acres, Greencrest Acres, Old Orchard, King’s Acres, Bur-Claire, Riverview, Secessionville, and Clark’s Point. With subdivisions came schools and churches and commercial development.  Subdivisions were built on, over and beside old batteries and other historical sites.

Remembering the past, looking to the future

James Island continues to grow at a frantic pace and it is important to remember the past.  Future columns will explore the history of various churches, schools, organizations, and the contributions of our citizens.  Native Americans, slaves, settlers, planters, entrepreneurs, and families, all have contributed to make James Island one of the best places to live in South Carolina.  There’s a whole lot of history crammed into our 35 square miles.



Bostick, Douglas W. A Brief History of James Island: Jewel of the Sea Islands. Charleston S.C.: History Press, 2008.

Hayes, Jim. James and Related Sea Islands. Charleston, S.C.: Jim Hayes, 2001.

Bostick, Douglas W., and Monica Beck and Susan Kammerand-Campbell.  “Proposed Restoration & Interpretation McLeod Plantation James Island, South Carolina,” Sea Island Historical Society, 1999.

Edit on 1/19/2017: December of 1860 was changed to April of 1861. Thanks to Adam J. Moore for the correction. Also, “St. Johnson” was changed to “Ft. Johnson”. The new sentence reads: “In April of 1861 the first shot of the Civil War was fired at Ft. Sumter, from Ft. Johnson.”

Gretchen Stringer is our History Correspondent and an Adjunct History Instructor at Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College and Central Carolina.


10 thoughts on “James Island: a brief historical overview

    1. Editor’s note: I’m guessing you’ll just have to print the web page! I haven’t figured out how to get a print button for these pages…if you’re in a PC environment, probably click three dots in upper right hand corner or something like that and look for “Print”. I think it varies from computer to computer, so you may have to poke around a bit to find it! Good luck and thanks for reading!

    2. I’ve added a print button to all our pages, so you should be able to just click on the Print button at the bottom of the page!

  1. I read your article with great interest and want to invite you and your readers to take advantage of McLeod Plantation Historic Site’s daily tours which are included with the cost of admission. The interpretive staff constantly researches the history of the site and the people who lived there through oral histories and primary historical sources. As a result, much of the history found on the internet regarding McLeod Plantation’s history has been amended, updated, and, in some cases, disproven. We will look forward to sharing the incredible stories of the site with you when you are able to visit!

  2. Gretchen Stringer-Robinson · Edit

    Hello Mark! What a wonderful invitation! McLeod was going to be my next article and so if I may, I will be contacting you soon. It is a beautiful site and from what I’ve seen so far, the restoration/preservation was really well done.

  3. I am a licensed tour guide with the city of Charleston and REALLY enjoyed this article. I learned a lot…especially with the early history of the island. One correction…you mentioned the first shots were fired Dec 20th 1860. That was actually when the Ordinance of Succession was signed. The first shots came from JI in April of 1861

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