Monday, September 30, 2013

Touring Sapelo Island - a riveting history

A great way to see Sapelo island and learn more about the complicated history is to take a tour. On our second day on the island we got an early start and headed back to the ferry landing to join the tour group that was arriving on the first ferry. Our tour guide was knowledgeable Yvonne Grovner, master sweetgrass basket maker and resident of the island.

Spanish moss framing the purple blazing star growing around the airstrip
The oldest Native American civilization in the state of Georgia can be found on Sapelo Island. Known as the Sapelo Island Shell Ring Complex, this site consists of three doughnut-shaped Indian mounds built from successive layers of different types of shells, and has been radiocarbon dated at 2170 BC. The rings rise approximately 20 feet above the tidal marsh and the largest of the three has a diameter of 255 feet. Theories regarding the formation include that they were built as monuments or that possibly they were the result of the Native Americans living in circular villages and discarding their trash behind their homes to form a protective surrounding wall over time. (This was not a stop on our tour as we were on the south-end tour, but visits to this site and more can also be arranged.)

The excavated cross-section of a shell ring, source:
Fast forward to 1526 when Sapelo Island was speculated to be the site of San Miguel de Gualdape, the first European settlement in the present day US. If true, it would also be the first place that a Catholic mass was celebrated. The name Sapelo originates from the word Zapala given to the area by Spanish missionaries who lived on the island from about 1573 to 1686. Officially a part of the Guale missionary province of Spanish Florida, after 1680 several missions were merged and relocated to the island under the mission Santa Catalina de Guale.

When the English first colonized Georgia in 1733 an agreement with the Creek Indians gave the land between the Savannah and Altahama Rivers to the British while reserving Sapelo and several other barrier islands as hunting lands for the Indians. Not long after another treaty resulted in the cession of Sapelo, Ossabaw, and St. Catherines islands to the royal colony.

Previous owners include Patrick Mackay, who grew crops there before the Revolutionary War (1775-83), and then John McQueen. In 1789 a consortium of Frenchmen purchased the island with plan to develop it, but disagreements over expenditures led to the breakup of the partnership and the death of two of the men in 1795; one was shot and killed in a duel, another died of yellow fever.

A portion of Sapelo Island’s residents today are direct descendants of the 400 slaves from West Africa and the West Indies brought to the US by Thomas Spalding. The future Georgia Senator and US Representative bought the island in 1802 and developed it into a plantation, selling live oak for shipbuilding and cultivating Sea Island Cotton, sugar cane and rice. Spalding’s plantation house (now known as the Reynolds Mansion and since rebuilt/restored several times) was built on the south end of the island, and the remains of an enclave of slave houses and plantation barns can still be seen today on the north end. Our tour brought us to Behavior Cemetery, established in 1805 and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

After passing a gorgeous purple field of Liatris, blazing star (the field also doubles as the island’s airstrip), our next stop was Long Tabby. Site of the 1809 old tabby sugar mill (of which the ruins are still visible), this is also where the island’s post office is located. We had stopped in the previous evening to watch the sun set, but arriving with the tour allowed us to explore the science center and check out the ‘swimming pool’; now filled in and a garden, as they just couldn’t keep the alligators and deer out. Ten years after the sugar mill was built Spalding ordered the construction of the brick lighthouse on the south end, and after fifty years of island ownership, he died returning from a convention to assert Georgia's position on the abolishment of slavery.

Ruins of the old tabby sugar mill at Long Tabby
During the Civil War most of the slaves were ferried to the mainland and marched to Milledgeville to avoid the Union army. Afterwards many of the freed slaves managed to return to Sapelo Island where they created five settlements with acreage they had purchased through the Freedman’s Bureau (established by Congress during Reconstruction to provide aid to newly freed slaves). Those communities were Hog Hammock, Raccoon Bluff, Bell Marsh, Shell Hammock and Lumber Landing. The First African Baptist Church was organized in 1866 at Hanging Bull, eventually moving to Raccoon Bluff which was also the site of a black school (the church can be seen on the north end tour). Our next destination was Hog Hammock, and after a tour of the community including First African Missionary Baptist Church, we stopped at the general store. Mrs. Bailey, the author of “God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man” just happened to be resting on the porch, and our tour guide’s cookbook was for sale there along with cold drinks and snacks.

First African Missionary Baptist Church
In 1912, the Spalding heirs sold Sapelo (except for the communities) to Henry Coffin of Detroit, who had been brought to the region by the International Road Races in Savannah. Coffin was chief engineer of the Hudson Motor Company and entertained such influential guests on Sapelo such as presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, as well as aviator Charles Lindbergh (he landed his plane in 1929 on the airstrip we passed that morning). During the time the Coffins owned the island miles of roads were built, creeks were bridged, old fields were cultivated, large tracts were set aside to graze cattle and improvements were made to the island, such as the addition of artesian wells.

Deer browsing next to the crumbling greenhouses near the Reynolds mansion
Due to financial reversals brought about by the Great Depression, Coffin sold the island to tobacco heir Richard J. Reynolds Jr. of Winston-Salem (NC) in 1933 (son of the founder of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company). During the 30 years that Reynolds utilized Sapelo as a part-time residence, the five African American settlements were forcibly consolidated into just one - Hog Hammock. The residents worked as servants in the Reynolds Mansion, found part time work at the timber and road operations on the island or were forced to search employment on the mainland. Reynolds established the Sapelo Island Research Foundation and provided facilities and other support for the University of Georgia Marine Institute (founded in 1954). Having separated from his third wife Muriel in 1959, he lived alone for two years, engaging in increasingly erratic behavior. After his death of emphysema on December 14, 1964 in Lucerne, Switzerland, Sapelo was deeded to the state of Georgia by his widow Annemarie Schmidt Reynolds.

Our tour continued in the Reynold’s Mansion and to the Sapelo Island lighthouse; we felt it was a great value considering it was a near three-hour tour, complete with transportation, commentary and entry to the mansion and lighthouse (note, verify beforehand what your tour entails, usually it is either the lighthouse or the mansion, not both). However, we were immensely grateful that although the rest of the tour group was boarding the ferry back to the island, we still had two days of Sapelo before our return trip.

More on Sapelo Island:
An Introduction, Nanny Goat Beach and the Hog Hammock community
The Sapelo Island lighthouse
Tour the Reynolds Mansion
Your guide to visiting Sapelo Island


  1. Labdien Liene...this is fascinating history! Loved reading it....

  2. What an interesting post. I haven't been to Sapelo Island --but have been to St. Simon's Island in GA and also Cumberland Island... Loved reading all of the history on that island. Thanks so much for all of the great info.


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