The human history of Sapelo dates back at least 4,500 years. Archaeological investigations on the island have determined an
English colonization of Georgia beginning in 1733 led to an agreement with the Creek Indians by which the colony acquired the land between the Savannah River and the Altamaha River, with the Indians reserving
Early private owners of Sapelo included Patrick Mackay, who grew crops there before the Revolutionary War (1775-83), and John McQueen. In 1789 a consortium of Frenchmen who planned to develop the island for agricultural, live-oak timbering, and livestock operations acquired Sapelo. The French involvement on Sapelo was characterized by mystery, intrigue, and mayhem. Disagreements over the use of the island and mistrust over expenditures of funds led to the breakup of the six-man French partnership by 1795. One of the men, Chappedelaine, was shot and killed by one of his partners in a duel on the island; another partner, Dumoussay, died of yellow fever a few weeks later.
Nineteenth-Century Plantation Economy
In the first decade of the nineteenth century, Sapelo was acquired through purchase or inheritance by three men, all of whom left their imprint on the island. They were Thomas Spalding (south end), Edward Swarbreck (Chocolate), and John Montalet (High Point), the latter having married the daughter of one of the departed Frenchmen. By 1843 Spalding had acquired almost the entire island, except a tract of several hundred acres at Raccoon Bluff owned by the Kimberly-Street family.
Spalding left the most important legacy to Sapelo. He was one of the leading planters on the tidewater, an agricultural innovator, amateur architect, astute businessman,
African American Settlements
The Civil War (1861-65) ended the plantation economy, and Sapelo remained home to a large African American community during
Most of Sapelo was sold by Spalding descendants after the Civil War. In 1912 Detroit, Michigan, automotive engineer Howard Coffin
In 1934, due to financial reversals brought on by the depression, Coffin sold Sapelo to North Carolina tobacco
Approximately 115 people now reside on Sapelo, either permanently or temporarily, with the majority of them at Hog Hammock. That community still consists primarily of descendants of Thomas Spalding's slaves, and their diminishing numbers are a source of concern. Cornelia Walker Bailey, the most prominent spokesperson for the community, has long been a champion of preserving the rich West African heritage, from spiritual beliefs and folkways to the Geechee dialect once spoken by the island's African American residents. In 2000 Bailey published a "cultural memoir" of her life and the struggle to preserve these traditions, God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man.
Cornelia Bailey, with Christina Bledsoe, God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man: A Saltwater Geechee Talks about Life on Sapelo Island (New York: Doubleday, 2000).
Robert L. Humphries, ed., The Journal of Archibald C. McKinley (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991).
William S. McFeely, Sapelo's People, A Long Walk into Freedom (New York: Norton, 1994).
Patrick Reynolds and Tom Shachtman, The Gilded Leaf: Three Generations of the R. J. Reynolds Family and Fortune (Boston: Little, Brown, 1989).
Buddy Sullivan, Early Days on the Georgia Tidewater: The Story of McIntosh County and Sapelo (Darien, Ga.: McIntosh County Board of Commissioners, 1995).
Mildred Teal and John Teal, Portrait of an Island (1964; reprint, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991).
Buddy Sullivan, Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.