Marker Monday: Sapelo Island

Image Courtesy of Dylan Wilson

This week’s #MarkerMonday highlights Thomas Spalding and his role in shaping the history of Sapelo Island, one of Georgia’s barrier islands.  Sapelo Island is situated north of St. Simons Island and south of St. Catherines Island.

Spalding was a planter, architect, builder, and politician who was born in 1774 on St. Simons Island to a family of Scottish descent. When Spalding was 12 years old, his father planted an experimental crop of Sea Island cotton on St. Simons Island, making his family one of the first to test the crop in the region. Sea Island cotton is a type of cotton with long, strong fibers that is easily separated from the seed.

Portrait of Thomas Spalding (1774-1851) attributed to John Maier. Georgia Historical Society, A-0750-001.

In the first decade of the nineteenth century, Spalding acquired the south end of Sapelo Island, which became its own plantation. The innovative Spalding became the first cultivator of Sea Island cotton on Sapelo Island. He also introduced to Georgia both sugar cane as an agricultural asset and the process of manufacturing sugar from raw cane. In addition, Spalding reintroduced tabby, a type of cement made with oyster shells, as a building material for Sapelo and the surrounding region. Appropriately, he is known to have constructed a sugar mill out of tabby. Spalding was also an adept writer, and he willingly shared his planting practices through articles in local agricultural publications, such as Southern Agriculturalist.

Today, Spalding’s former home of Sapelo Island is state-protected, 97 percent state-owned, with the remainder under private ownership, and it is only accessible by boat or aircraft. It is home to the University of Georgia Marine Institute, the Reynolds Mansion State Park, and Hog Hammock – the last known remaining community of Geechee culture.


Explore the links below to learn more about Thomas Spalding and Sapelo Island.

GHS is proud to house the Spalding Family Papers, 1772-1940, and the Lorene Townsend Howard Collection on Sapelo Island (Ga.), which discusses the history of Sapelo Island.

Full Marker Text

Hidden Histories: Sapelo Island

New Georgia Encyclopedia (Sapelo Island)

New Georgia Encyclopedia (Thomas Spalding)

The Original Progressive Farmer: The Agricultural Legacy of Thomas Spalding of Sapelo

Sapelo Island Wildlife Management Area

Further Reading

The Georgia Historical Quarterly has published several articles about Sapelo Island which can be accessed on JSTOR. If your library does not have access to JSTOR, you can go to www.jstor.org and create a free MyJSTOR Account.

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