LeConte-Woodmanston Plantation

The former plantation site of the famous LeConte family offers a variety of experiences for naturalists, including exploring the restored rice fields and gardens that belonged to the family and looking for wildlife that frequent the second-growth cypress swamps. Botanists with an interest in historic gardens will enjoy their time here.


Woodmanston, a 3,354-acre rice plantation, was established in 1760 in St. Johns Parish by John Eatton LeConte. It was one of the largest in the South. The 63.8 acre historic site, surrounded by pine plantations and Bulltown Swamp, protects the heart of the plantation where the main house and gardens were located. A nature trail leads from here over a trunk canal to former rice fields and a cypress swamp. With restored trunks in the dikes, the former fields can still be flooded using gravity flow, just as they were 240 years ago. LeConte-Woodmanston Plantation was unlike most coastal plantations that used tidal waters to flood their fields. The swamp water is dammed, then drained into the rice fields. Managers of the site plan to grow rice again as an educational tool. Hikers can explore the old fields and Bulltown Swamp blackwater ecosystem and cypress forest along the top of the centuries-old dikes, which were constructed by slaves from clays found in the swamp.


Bulltown Swamp is the headwaters of the South Newport River, which flows into Sapelo Sound. Vegetation at the site is the result of wild regeneration of land that has experienced farming and logging. More than 25 varieties of tree can be found on the property, including pond and bald cypress; overcup, live, laurel, water, and cherrybark oak; sweet and black gum; and Ogeechee lime. The understory consists of red titi, wax myrtle, holly, and plum, and vines include Cherokee rose, smilax, trumpet creeper, and jessamine. Wet areas support swamp lily, iris, ferns, primrose-willow and pickerelweed.


Wildlife is plentiful, and it is common to observe deer, raccoons, opossums, armadillos, wild hogs, pileated woodpeckers, ibis, vultures, and kingsnakes. Waterfowl is abundant in the swamps during migratory seasons, as are otters during the entire year. Alligators are surprisingly absent.


Three generations of LeContes lived at Woodmanston, along with at least 200 slaves. John Eatton LeConte was the grandson of Guillaume LeConte, a French Huguenot who migrated to New York in the 1690s to avoid religious persecution, and the nephew of Thomas Eatton, a prominent Savannah merchant who may have influenced LeConte to invest in Georgia. John Eatton LeConte had a brother, William, who founded Sans Souci Plantation in Bryan County. Naturalist William Bartram traveled through the property in 1773.


John Eatton LeConte was an early supporter of the American Revolution, and was entrusted with delivering rice and sterling to Boston patriots who were suffering from the British embargo of Boston Harbor. During the Revolutionary War, the original plantation house was burned by British troops in November of 1778 as they advanced on Midway down the Fort Barrington Road. Sometime before 1789, another house was built at the plantation. It was fortified and featured a palisade stockade. In 1789, this “fort” was attacked by Indians and was successfully defended by LeConte and his slaves. LeConte later had two sons, Louis, born 1782, and John Eatton LeConte Jr., born 1784.


Around 1812, Louis married Ann Quarterman of Midway and acquired Woodmanston. Louis, a graduate of Columbia College in New York, planted and nurtured the 1-acre floral and botanical garden of international repute at Woodmanston, and fathered two sons, John and Joseph, who were to go on to international fame as educators and scientists. His family is considered to be Georgia’s most distinguished family of scientists. Both sons graduated from Franklin College, which was to become the University of Georgia. John was the first president of the University of California, and received national acclaim for his work in the field of physics. Joseph, an authority on ornithology and geology, achieved the greatest fame of all the LeContes, and published 200 scientific articles and seven books. He graduated from the first graduate course ever offered by Harvard University, studying under famed scientist Louis Agassiz.


Joseph became an expert on coral formation, which he studied with Agassiz in the Florida Keys. With his friend John Muir, Joseph co-founded the Sierra Club. Joseph’s greatest expertise might have been as an ornithologist, and with his brother John, he published the first list of all bird species in the state of Georgia, a catalog of 273 species.


Louis LeConte not only ran a productive rice and cotton plantation, but he excelled in growing many unusual native and exotic plants, and was one of the first to cultivate Camellia japonica outdoors in the South. His garden was “the richest in bulbs I have ever seen,” wrote Alexander Gordon in Gardener’s Magazine. His son Joseph wrote in his Autobiography of Joseph LeConte that his father’s “beautiful garden became celebrated all over the United States, and botanists from the North and from Europe came to visit it, always receiving welcome and entertainment, sometimes for weeks at his home.” Joseph recalled that some of the camellias were “trees” that were 1 foot in diameter and 15 feet tall.


Louis LeConte’s brother, Major John Eatton LeConte Jr., was at one time a co-owner of Woodmanston and considered the foremost authority on the natural history of Georgia at that time. John Eatton also was an accomplished artist—called “the Audubon of the turtles”—and collected many specimens of plants and animals that reside in the natural history collections of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. He was well known for his studies of American insects. Some of his paintings are in the collection of the University of Georgia. His son, John Lawrence LeConte, became a leading entomologist of the latter half of the nineteenth century. Two bird species are named for him: the LeConte thrasher (Toxostoma lecontei), and the LeConte sparrow (Ammospiza leconteii). The LeConte sparrow winters in southeastern Georgia and was named for John Lawrence LeConte by John James Audubon. Not only do two birds carry the LeConte name, but so do two mountains (one in the Smokies and the other in the Sierras); many other landmarks in the Sierras including a lake, a falls, a divide, and a dome; a glacier in Alaska; three species of plants; three fossils; a pear tree (Pyrus lecontei); a mouse; a school; three university buildings; and three avenues (located in Athens, Atlanta, and Berkeley, California).


After Louis LeConte’s death in 1838, the estate was divided into smaller tracts for his heirs and the gardens were soon neglected. After 1843, no member of the family resided in the old plantation house. During the Civil War, the plantation was raided and destroyed. Over time, the property was neglected, was farmed and logged, and became a pine plantation and reclaimed bottomland, and the plantation was lost.


Hard work and initiative rediscovered Woodmanston. An avid amateur horticulturist, Col. Claude A. Black, who learned about the plantation in 1971, began a dedicated search for the garden site. Finally, in 1973, he and a friend, William Fishback, found traces of the old garden: two sabal palm trees (one live, one dead), an ancient red seedling (Norman Red) camellia plant, and a few crape myrtles. Brunswick Pulp and Paper Company planned to log the site, but Black convinced the company to hold off. An organization was quickly formed to preserve the site, and it was placed on the National Register of Historic Sites. In 1977, the C.B. Jones family donated the tract to The Nature Conservancy and Brunswick Pulp and Paper donated the timber rights. The title was transferred to the Garden Club of Georgia, which transferred it to the LeConte-Woodmanston Foundation in 1993. The Foundation continues fundraising activities and restoration work at the historic property, and plans to build a visitors center.