Cannon’s Point Plantation

This Hidden History was created by SCAD student Meagan McManus as part of her SCAD art history department coursework with guidance from art history professor Holly Goldstein, Ph.D., 2017.

The Cannon’s Point Plantation historical marker was dedicated in 2010. View the Cannon’s Point Plantation historical marker listing.

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1. Cannon’s Point Plantation Historical Marker, St. Simons Island. Courtesy of Meagan McManus.

2. Foltz Photography Studio, Painting of House at Cannon’s Point, St. Simons Island, 1931. Courtesy of the Georgia Historical Society.

3. Alfred R. Waud, Rice Culture on the Ogeechee, Near Savannah, 1867. Courtesy of The Library of Congress, https://www.loc .gov/item/2015647678/.

4. Cannon’s Point Plantation House, Cannon’s Point Preserve, St. Simon’s Island. Courtesy of Meagan McManus.

5. Cannon’s Point Plantation Detached Kitchen, Cannon’s Point Preserve, St. Simon’s Island. Courtesy of Meagan McManus.

6. Cannon’s Point Plantation Slave Cabin Ruins, Cannon’s Point Preserve, St. Simon’s Island. Courtesy of Meagan McManus.

7. Slave Cabin Interior, Ossabaw Island, 2017. Courtesy of Danielle Chan.

The following essay is by SCAD student Meagan McManus, 2017.

Who are the Gullah Geechee? Origins of Cuisine.

The Gullah Geechee culture is linked to specific West African ethnic groups who were enslaved on the sea island plantations of Georgia and South Carolina to grow rice, indigo, and cotton in the mid-1700s.[i] Although the islands along the southeastern U.S. coast contained the same collective of West Africans, the name Gullah has come to be the accepted name of the islanders in South Carolina, while Geechee customarily refers to the islanders of Georgia.[ii] Gullah also refers to ancestry in Angola. Due to the isolation on the islands, the Gullah Geechee community preserved many aspects of their African forefathers, including linguistic and cultural heritage and food customs.[iii]  Like all cultures, one of the most central aspects of the Gullah Geechee is their distinct cuisine, which not only can be traced back to West Africa, but also the plantation era. What distinguishes Gullah Geechee cuisine are the ingredients, where the ingredients are sourced from, and how they are prepared. Plantations like Cannon’s Point are what forced the culture of enslaved Africans to adapt and shift into what we understand as the Gullah Geechee culture today.

Cannon’s Point Plantation History:

In 1793, John Couper bought land located on the northeastern part of St. Simons Island and formed a plantation partnership, now recognized as Cannon’s Point, with a friend, James Hamilton. Couper was an avid horticulturist who surrounded his Cannon’s Point home with exotic plants from all over the world. He was one of the first to plant long staple cotton successfully, which made Cannon’s Point one of fifteen plantations that contributed to St. Simons’ saga as “Cotton Island.”[iv] It was also from Couper’s garden that Thomas Spaulding, a noted antebellum planter of Sapelo Island, secured stalks of sugar cane, marking the beginning of the sugar industry in Georgia.[v]

The family fortunes suffered reversals in the 1820s, and John Couper’s business failed in 1826. Hamilton paid off his partner’s obligations in exchange for a half interest in the river estate. The eldest of John Couper’s five children, James Hamilton Couper, acquired Hamilton’s half interest the following year and remained as manager. When he inherited his father’s acres on St. Simons Island, he emerged as a leading Southern planter, supervising some 1,500 slaves.[vi]

Plantations and Gullah Geechee Cuisine:

Cannon’s Point Plantation is one of the many plantations that led to the evolution of the Gullah Geechee culture, specifically their cuisine. One of the main identifying factors of Gullah Geechee cuisine is how ingredients are sourced. In Dr. William S. Pollitzer’s book The Gullah People and Their African Heritage, he explains that the archaeological site at Cannon’s Point yielded secrets of the of the Gullah Geechee between 1794 and 1860.[vii] Through careful analysis of animal remains, Pollitzer found that the Gullah Geechee people used to supplement their rations of corn, meal, rice, vegetables, and a little pork with whatever they could catch on their own.[viii] It is estimated that non-domesticated animals may have contributed as much as forty percent of the meat to the slave diet on the low-country plantations of Georgia.[ix] Since the Gullah Geechee used local game and resources, diets varied based on their location. On the barrier islands, enslaved people consumed a variety of marine fishes, mollusks, and sea turtles, while enslaved people living near freshwater marshlands consumed freshwater fish and semi-aquatic turtles.[x] In both areas, small mammals such as rabbit, opossum, raccoon, and muskrat were hunted, along with a variety of birds and ducks.[xi] Through recovered artifacts such as gun parts, animal traps, and fishing gear, it can be determined that the Gullah Geechee were able to acquire these food items.[xii] In addition to hunting and fishing, gardening was another key source of food. Peanuts, okra, rice, yams, peas, peppers, sesame seeds, and sorghum are some of the many foods brought to America by West Africans, which can be found in a Gullah Geechee garden, alongside many other crops native to America.[xiii] The use of hunting, fishing, and gardening show that self-sufficiency in food supply is an integral part of the Gullah Geechee food culture.

The ingredients that were available to the Gullah Geeche are what define their cuisine. While there are many important ingredients, the most central to the culture is rice. Slavers not only dragged the bodies of enslaved Africans to the Americas but also imported their ancestral knowledge of growing and cultivating highly valued crops, rice being one of them.[xiv] The Gullah Geechee’s dependence on rice is the most significant way the Gullah Geechee express their cultural identity in food practices.[xv] In such cultures, a person is not considered to have eaten a full meal unless rice is included.[xvi] In 1992, Precious Edwards recognized the importance of rice and its centrality within the culture. “Rice is security. If you have some rice, you’ll never starve. It is a bellyful. You never find a cupboard without it.”[xvii] While the West African’s knowledge of rice cultivation drew the attention of plantation owners and slave traders, it is the same knowledge that gave them sustenance and shaped their food culture.

While the relocation of the Gullah Geechee caused many of their ingredients to change, their food preparation habits from the Old World continued into the New.  In West and Central Africa a starchy main dish of millet, rice, or maize is usually boiled in a large jar; a vegetable relish with a little meat and fish added is cooked in a smaller one.[xviii] The native Africans would gather around the food and take a ball of the starchy main dish then proceed to dip it in the relish.[xix] The African style of cooking and eating, passed down the generations, survived in America.[xx] Due to the limited number of available utensils and cooking facilities, slaves primarily created single pot dishes; the first ingredient, of course, was always rice.[xxi]  The Gullah Geechee believed that the best cooks were not only able to create a satisfying meal, but also perpetuate a culture that moves people back towards their African roots.

Gullah Geechee Cuisine Today:

Today, most Gullah Geechee cuisine is created in households. While there are a few Gullah restaurants, economics and changing tastes have made for more traditional soul food to be served with only a couple Gullah dishes sprinkled in.[xxii] While it is unfortunate that these foods are seldom prepared for the mainstream, Gullah Geechee cuisine is at the root of many southern dishes.

Gumbo, while most often associated with Louisiana, can most certainly trace its roots to the Gullah. The word gumbo itself means okra in the Umobundu language of East Africa. Anyone coming from Africa at that time most likely would have done so against their will through the southern parts of South Carolina and Georgia, right in the middle of Gullah country. [xxiii]

In addition to Gumbo, Savannah red rice is arguably one of the most well-known Gullah Geechee dishes. The red rice is made by cooking white rice with tomatoes instead of water, then celery, bell pepper, and onion are added, with occasionally some meat.[xxiv] The dish is one example how the original West Africans were able to use the ingredients they knew while incorporating what grew around them. If it has rice and some form of stewed vegetable, chances are it can be traced back to the Gullah Geechee.[xxv] The influence the Gullah Geechee has had in shaping the Southern culinary identity is undeniable; it should come of no surprise that a culture that built the foundations of our country is also responsible for the groundwork of Southern cuisine.

Restaurants with Gullah Geechee Influence in the Savannah Area Include:

Narobia’s Grits and Gravy: 2019 Habersham Street

Randy’s Bar-B-Q: 750 Wheaton Street

Sisters of the New South: 2605 Skidaway Road

Wall’s Bar B Que Restaurant: 515 E York Ln

[i] Althea Sumpter, “Geechee and Gullah Culture” New Georgia Encyclopedia (2016). Web. 11 May 2017.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Matt Rodbard, “9 Things to know about Gullah Geechee Cuisine.” Zagat, February 29, 2016. https://www.zagat.com/b/9-things-to-know-about-gullah-geechee-cuisine.

[iv] Bert Ferguson Thompson, St. Simons Island: Enchanting Golden Isle (Macon, GA: Island House Publishing Co, 1988), 22­–23.

[v] Unless otherwise noted the information from this paragraph can be found at James E. Bagwell, Rice Gold: James Hamilton Couper and Plantation Life on the Georgia Coast (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2000), 10–12.

[vi] Information from this paragraph can be found at “James Hamilton Couper.” Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 4, Gale, 2004, p. 270. Gale Virtual Reference Library, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=GVRL&sw=w&u=sava50554&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CCX3404701540&it=r&asid=8a98a591120a5bf72d816b2527056406. Accessed 11 May 2017.

[vii] William Pollitzer, The Gullah People and Their African Heritage (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1999), 175

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Philip D. Morgan, African American Life in the Georgia Lowcountry: The Atlantic World and the Gullah Geechee (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011), 171.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Wilber Cross, Gullah Culture in America (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishing, 2008) 177.

[xiv] Donald Card and Stu Card, Savannah Food: A Delicious History Charleston, (SC: The History Press, 2017), 84.

[xv] Josephine A. Beoku-Betts, “We Got Our Way of Cooking Things: Women, Food, and Preservation of Cultural Identity among the Gullah.” Gender and Society 9, no. 5 (1995): 543.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Pollitzer, 175.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Cross, 177.

[xxii] Rodbard.

[xxiii] Card, 86.

[xxiv] Ibid., 87.

[xxv] Ibid., 86.

Bagwell, James E. Rice Gold: James Hamilton Couper and Plantation Life on the Georgia Coast. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2000.

Beoku-Betts, Josephine A. “We Got Our Way of Cooking Things: Women, Food, and Preservation of Cultural Identity among the Gullah.” Gender and Society 9, no. 5   (1995): 535–55.

Card, Donald and Stu Card, Savannah Food: A Delicious History Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2017.

Cross, Wilber. Gullah Culture in America. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishing, 2008.

“James Hamilton Couper.” Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 4, Gale, 2004, p. 270. Gale Virtual Reference Library, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.dop=GVRL&sw=w&u=sava50554&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CCX3404701540&it=r&asid=8a98a591120a5bf72d816b2527056406. Accessed 11 May 2017.

Morgan, Philip D. African American Life in the Georgia Lowcountry: The Atlantic World and the Gullah Geechee. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011.

Pollitzer, William S., The Gullah People and Their African Heritage. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1999.

Rodbard, Matt. “9 Things to know about Gullah Geechee Cuisine.” Zagat, February 29, 2016. https://www.zagat.com/b/9-things-to-know-about-gullah-geechee-cuisine.

Sumpter, Althea. “Geechee and Gullah Culture.” New Georgia Encyclopedia. 19 October 2016. Web. Accessed 11 May 2017.

Thompson, Bert Ferguson. St. Simons Island: Enchanting Golden Isle. Macon, GA: Island House Publishing Co, 1988.