Sapelo Island

The Sapelo Island historical marker was dedicated on January 25, 2003. View the Sapelo Island historical marker listing.


Historical Background

Created by SCAD student Dylan Wilson as part of his SCAD art history department coursework, with guidance from art history professor Holly Goldstein, Ph.D., 2014.

In accordance with the cultural tradition brought from their ancestral home in West Africa, following the birth of a child, the midwives on Sapelo Island went outside with the child’s father and buried the afterbirth:

Papa dug a deep hole and he buried the afterbirth. He put a big, heavy block of wood on top of the hole so that no animal could get to it, because you protected that afterbirth, you treated it with respect. This was the first part of you that went back to the earth. The rest of you would follow later, when you died, but the afterbirth went first, and that connected you to the earth then and to Sapelo. Wherever else you might go, Sapelo would be your true home.[i]

The story of the slaves and freedmen of Sapelo is one of displacement and resettlement, and this connection to the land – land that was worked by hand – has always been important. Contemporary visitors to Sapelo can explore this connection through the ideas of ownership and through photography of these empty spaces – spaces without markers or memorials yet full of history. By recognizing, documenting, and commemorating empty spaces, viewers can pause and reflect, questioning how we understand historical events, people, and places.

European settlers brought the earliest slaves to Sapelo Island in the 1700s, but it was during Thomas Spalding’s ownership of the island beginning in 1802 that Sapelo became an income-producing plantation. By his death in 1851, Spalding had acquired nearly the entire island.[ii] Of Spalding’s nearly 1000 slaves, the most famous is Bilali Mohammet (also spelled Ben Ali, Bul-ali, or Bul-Allah). He is respectfully referred to as “The Old Man” by elders in the Sapelo community.[iii] Bilali was the head overseer of the plantation and was so trusted that during the War of 1812, he was given arms and instructed to drill slaves in anticipation of British raids on Sapelo, which never occurred.[iv] It is documented that Bilali was a Muslim. According to Katie Brown, the last midwife on Sapelo and a descendent of Bilali, “Belali an he wife Phoebe pray on duh bead. Dey wuz bery puhticluh bout duh time dey pray an dey bery regluh bout duh hour. Wen duh sun come up, wen it straight obuh head an wen it set, das duh time dey pray. Dey bow tuh duh sun an hab lill mat tuh kneel on.”[v] When he died in 1857, a thirteen-page Arabic manuscript he had written was discovered (figs. 2-4). According to life-long Sapelo resident Cornelia Bailey, all of today’s permanent residents on the island can trace their heritage to Bilali either through blood or marriage.

To ensure a safe and orderly way of introducing slaves onto his remote island, Spalding encouraged settlement in family-oriented villages, or hammocks. Newly arrived slaves were assigned to a strong disciplined man or woman and under that tutelage were brought into the village.[vi] At one time or another, there were at least fifteen distinct Geechee communities on the island, some with as few as one or two families. Slave communities existed at Behavior/Bush Camp Field, Riverside, Bourbon, Drink Water, Hanging Bull, Jack’s Hammock, Mary’s Hammock, Moses’ Hammock, King Savannah, and Chocolate.[vii]

In 1835, Thomas Spalding gifted his daughter Catherine and her husband Michael Kenan a 1,500-acre tract of land and 86 slaves as a wedding present (figs. 5-6). This area became known as Kenan places, and the slaves here worked the cotton plantation until the start of the Civil War in 1861. The 1860 census shows that 118 slaves lived here.[viii]

On the eve of the Civil War in 1861, the slaves on Sapelo Island were moved to Baldwin County (Michael Kenan was from Milledgeville) in the central part of Georgia. General Sherman’s Order No. 15 in January of 1865 gave the blacks land and established their settlements on the lands of abandoned plantations on the coastal sea islands, including Sapelo.[ix] Three hundred fifty-two newly freed blacks returned to Sapelo in 1865. In 1865, those freedmen were distributed as follows: South End (owner Thomas Spalding II), 130 freedmen in 24 dwellings; Kenan Place (Michael J. Kenan), 100 freedmen; Chocolate and Bourbon (Randolph Spalding Estate), 122 freedmen. Before, during, and immediately after the Civil War, black settlements included: South End— including Shell Hammock, Bush Camp/Behavior, Hog Hammock, Drink Water and Riverside; Kenan, or Middle Place — Hanging Bull and Kenan Field/Lumber Landing; North End — Chocolate, Bourbon and later, Moses Hammock, Belle Marsh and Raccoon Bluff.[x]

However, after the Civil War, many of the newly freed men on Sapelo did not want anything to do with the old communities that they had lived in during slavery, and began abandoning them. The settlements at New Barn Creek and Behavior on the south end of the island closed in the 1870s, in addition to the settlements at Bourbon Field and Hanging Bull on the east and west sides respectively.[xi]

In 1871, a partnership of freedmen including John Grovner, William Hillery, and Bilali Bell purchased 666 acres of land at Raccoon Bluff for $2000 (fig. 7). Census data shows that sixteen freedmen owned land at Raccoon Bluff by 1880.[xii] In 1885, landowner Amos Sawyer of Northampton, Massachusetts sold to Caesar Sams sixty acres at Lumber Landing, on the southwest side of the north end on the Duplin River. Most of the Lumber Landing tract remained in this family until Reynolds acquired it in 1956. Also in 1885, Sawyer sold a fifty-acre tract on the west side of the island, south of Chocolate, to Joseph Jones, whose descendants were the Walker family. This area became the Belle Marsh settlement.[xiii]

According to the census, the freedmen population peaked at 539 in 1910. The five largest communities were at Raccoon Bluff (population 194), Hog Hammock (population 163), Shell Hammock (population 52), Lumber Landing (5 households), and Belle Marsh (3 households).[xiv] A soil map from 1929 points out the approximate locations of structures – houses, Behavior Cemetery, the First African Baptist Church, Howard Coffin’s restored plantation house, and the lighthouse (figs. 8-12).

When tobacco heir R.J. Reynolds bought Sapelo Island from Howard Coffin in 1934, the land deeds carefully pointed out the areas of land that Reynolds was not buying. The excluded areas included the five freedmen communities mentioned above, Behavior Cemetery, and the tract of land where the island’s lighthouse stands (figs. 13-14). Reynolds wanted to turn the north end of the island into a private hunting preserve with limited access, so he began offering residents land swap deals to move to Hog Hammock. First, Belle Marsh closed in 1950, followed by Lumber Landing in 1956. Shell Hammock closed in 1960, when Reynolds wanted to build apartments there for the University of Georgia marine scientists.[xv]

In her memoir God, Dr. Buzzard and the Bolito Man, Cornelia Bailey recounts her family moving out of Belle Marsh and closing the community:

Papa stared a long time at that view. The pecan trees in our front yard were bearing, they were full of pecans that were ready to drop, and the sun was turning the marsh all golden. Belle Marsh was the first black community on Sapelo that was closed, but it wasn’t the last, and Papa was never quite right again. You move a man out of his domain and he’s not gonna be happy.[xvi]

The final freedmen community, Raccoon Bluff, closed in 1964. Residents were promised a house with electricity and a bathroom in Hog Hammock. What they received was actually much less. Eddie Hall and Allen Green, a man noted for his basket making, were the last two residents of Raccoon Bluff.[xvii]

Today, there are fewer than fifty permanent residents in Hog Hammock. Old age, a lack of jobs, and a recent property tax increase have threatened to completely eliminate the Geechee people from the island.[xviii]


[i] Cornelia Bailey with Christena Bledsoe, God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man (Doubleday: Random House Inc., 2000), 77.

[ii] Buddy Sullivan, Sapelo: A History (Darien: McIntosh County Chamber of Commerce, 1988), 10.

[iii] Bailey with Bledsoe, God, 132.

[iv] Sullivan, Sapelo, 46.

[v] Federal Writers Project, Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies Among the Georgia Coastal Negroes (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1940), 161.

[vi] William S. McFeely, Sapelo’s People: A Long Walk Into Freedom (W.W. Norton and Company, 1994), 57.

[vii] Buddy Sullivan, “Sapelo Island Settlement and Land Ownership: An Historical Overview, 1865-1970,” Occasional Papers of the Sapelo Island NERR (2013): 1.

[viii] Ibid., 7.

[ix] Sullivan, Sapelo, 46.

[x] Sullivan, “Sapelo Island Settlement,” 2.

[xi] Bailey and Bledsoe, God, 49.

[xii] Sullivan, “Sapelo Island Settlement,” 2.

[xiii] Ibid., 3.

[xiv] Ibid., 4-5.

[xv] Bailey and Bledsoe, God, 261.

[xvi] Ibid., 102-103.

[xvii] Ibid., 263.

[xviii] Kim Severson, “Taxes Threaten Community Descended from Slaves,” New York Times, September 26, 2012, 16A.

1. Sapelo Island historical marker near the Meridian dock. Courtesy of Dylan Wilson.

2. The Ben-Ali Document. Courtesy of the University of Georgia Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

3. Detail of the Ben-Ali Document. Courtesy of the University of Georgia Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

4. Detail of the Ben-Ali Document. Courtesy of the University of Georgia Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

5. Hand-drawn map on a land deed between Thomas Spalding and Catherine Kenan (nee Spalding). Buddy Sullivan Papers, Box 4, MS2433. Courtesy of the Georgia Historical Society.

6. 1835 land deed between Thomas Spalding and Catherine Kenan (nee Spalding). Partial list of the 86 slaves Catherine was given as a wedding present. Buddy Sullivan Papers, Box 4, MS2433.Courtesy of the Georgia Historical Society.

7. 1871 land deed between Hugh Street and the William Hillery Company. First purchase of land on Sapelo by freedmen. Buddy Sullivan Papers, Box 4, MS2433.Courtesy of the Georgia Historical Society.

8. 1929 soil map of Belle Marsh. Soil survey of Georgia, USDA Soil Surveys of Georgia, 1901-1954. Courtesy of the Digital Library of Georgia.

9. 1929 soil map of Hog Hammock. Soil survey of Georgia, USDA Soil Surveys of Georgia, 1901-1954. Courtesy of the Digital Library of Georgia.

10. 1929 soil map of Lumber Landing. Soil survey of Georgia, USDA Soil Surveys of Georgia, 1901-1954. Courtesy of the Digital Library of Georgia.

11. 1929 soil map of Raccoon Bluff. Soil survey of Georgia, USDA Soil Surveys of Georgia, 1901-1954. Courtesy of the Digital Library of Georgia.

12. 1929 soil map of Shell Hammock. Soil survey of Georgia, USDA Soil Surveys of Georgia, 1901-1954. Courtesy of the Digital Library of Georgia.

13. 1949 land deed from R.J. Reynolds outlining the freedmen communities on Sapelo. Buddy Sullivan Papers, Box 4, MS2433. Courtesy of the Georgia Historical Society.

14. 1949 land deed from R.J. Reynolds outlining the freedmen communities on Sapelo. Buddy Sullivan Papers, Box 4, MS2433. Courtesy of the Georgia Historical Society.

15. Air Strip. Courtesy of Dylan Wilson.

16. Miller Pump Road. Courtesy of Dylan Wilson.

17. Former site of Lucy Robert’s house in Raccoon Bluff. Courtesy of Dylan Wilson.

18. South End house. Courtesy of Dylan Wilson.


Further Reading

Bailey, Cornelia and Christena Bledsoe. God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man. New York: Random House, 2000.

Crook, Ray, Cornelia Bailey, Norma Harris, and Karen Smith. Sapelo Voices: Historical Anthropology and the Oral Traditions of Gullah-Geechee Communities on Sapelo Island, Georgia. Carrollton: State University of West Georgia, 2003.

Johnson, Michele Nicole. Images of America: Sapelo Island’s Hog Hammock. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2009.

McFeely, William. Sapelo’s People: A Long Walk Into Freedom. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994.

Morgan, Philip, ed. African American Life in the Georgia Lowcountry: The Atlantic World and the Gullah Geechee. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010.

Savannah Unit, Georgia Writers’ Project, Work Projects Administration. Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies Among the Georgia Coastal Negroes. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986.

Sullivan, Buddy. Sapelo: A History. Darien: McIntosh County Chamber of Commerce, 1988.

Sullivan, Buddy. “Sapelo Island Settlement and Land Ownership: An Historical Overview, 1865-1970.” Occasional Papers of the Sapelo Island NERR (2013): 1-24.