Island History

tabby construction on Sapelo Island

Note: The following information about Sapelo Island is adapted from “A Sapelo Island Handbook,” published in 1990 and now out of print. The letters (e.g., Q, P, etc.) are points on the map of Sapelo Island excerpted from the Handbook.  If you are interested in a PDF of the original document, please contact Kristin McNair.


The earth beneath our feet has always promoted a feeling of stability, solidity and permanence. If we could embark on a journey back through the ages, a different picture would emerge.

Between 500 and 200 million years before the present (B.P.), the southern Appalachians were formed, born of a complex interaction between the land mass that became the North American continent and the land mass destined to become Africa.

During the next 50 million years, erosional forces weathered the Appalachians to a softer form and part of the soil was carried to a lower level, forming the Piedmont.

By about 150 million years B.P., the two continents separated and the elevated Piedmont itself was now subject to erosional forces. The coastal plain, composed mostly of alluvial sand, began to form. The margins of the coastal plain were composed of the sands destined to provide the building material for the sea islands and barrier beaches of Georgia, and another set of influences now began to have an impact.

As the Atlantic widened with time and formed linkages with other oceans, it became more and more influenced by solar energy and the winds’ unhindered fetch, to become an actively circulating, high energy system. During the Pleistocene Epoch, beginning some 2 million years B.P., another set of factors also began to influence the coastline. A series of ice ages or glaciations occurred, interspersed with interglacial periods. When a major part of the world’s water was locked up in ice sheets, the sea level fell more than 100 meters below its present level. During the interglacials it sometimes rose significantly above its present level. During this period of oscillating sea levels, coastal plain and continental shelf sediments were subjected to much sorting and reworking by the high energy of the ever-widening Atlantic.

There are periods called still stands when the water level is comparatively stable, this level being dependent upon the amount of water locked up in the ice sheets. These still stands are important to the formation of saltmarshes and barrier islands. During a still stand the following processes occur: in the high energy zones sand is deposited as barrier islands, while in the low energy zones behind the islands clay deposition occurs. Marsh develops and more clay is trapped and held in the marshland. Only a small clay input occurs in present times, and very little sand is now carried out to sea by the rivers. Most of the movements we see in marsh muds and beach sands are resuspension and redeposition of materials, which have been in the coastal zone for a very long time.

There is another, and more dynamic scenario applying to the periods between still stands. During glacially controlled, transgressive (rising sea level) or regressive (falling sea level) periods, and also in periods when the earth’s crust in a particular area is being deflected upwards or downwards, there is no longer a stable sea level. This sea level change brings rapid changes to the coastline. The sediments are moved across the shallow continental shelf in response to the rise and fall in sea level. The marsh and barrier beach systems become very unstable, narrowing or widening and sometimes disappearing altogether as their location moves across the gentle slope of the continental shelf.

There is a rather difficult contradiction relating to the present sea level. On an extended time scale of thousands of years, the present islands and marshes are well developed and reflect a still stand for the last five thousand years. However, on a scale of tens of years we know that the local sea level is rising quite rapidly (as much as 3-6 mm per year or 1-2 ft per hundred years). Each of these observations appears to be true, stressing the great complexity of attempting to relate long-term geological changes in the face of the earth to the short-term, sometimes geologically minor, changes so important to human values.

Throughout the later part of the Holocene transgression (5,000 years B.P. until today) sea level has been high enough for sediments carried in the water to be deposited on the now underlying Pleistocene age Sapelo Island sediments to form new saltmarshes and beaches over the old ones. However, even these newer sediments are primarily old sediments reworked. Clays and fine sands make up the marsh deposits which form in the more sheltered areas. These are subjected to scouring and rapid water flows only in the areas of the sounds or tidal creeks and are held and trapped by the saltmarsh vegetation. The beaches are formed on the seaward weather face of the older island from the fine sands of the shallow continental shelf which are brought shorewards by the action of waves and currents that erode and redistribute the bottom materials of the continental shelf. Once deposited on the face of the island, these sands become influenced by wind, waves and longshore currents.

These then are the forces which have shaped Sapelo Island, the center more raised and dating back to the previous high stand during the Pleistocene (somewhat more than 40,000 years B.P.). The sea retreated and Sapelo was left as a mainland ridge. As inundation once more occurred, Sapelo became an island again and the modern Holocene islands of Blackbeard, Cabretta and Nannygoat (3-4,000 years B.P. to present) came into juxtaposition with the Pleistocene island. Low-lying saltmarsh areas formed in the lee of each of the islands. The beaches still present mute testimony to the forces bearing upon them, as sloughs form temporarily in the shifting sand. Dunes build and erode, new beach forms while old beach washes away, occasionally exposing underlying earlier Holocene muds. The processes of island movement are so active that, whereas Cabretta was separated totally from the main island in the 1930’s and could be circumnavigated by a 6-ft draft vessel, nowadays a short bridge closes the visibly narrowed and shallowed gap. Blackbeard is still totally separate and is thought to be representative of features present on Sapelo and Pleistocene times.

Geologists perceive time differently from other scientists and from laymen, and their view of the world can put a different perspective on our surrounding. The “other” scientists look for occurrences which can vary from instantaneous to seasonal and more rarely, yearly. The geologist commonly looks for changes over thousands and/or millions of years, with the result that his view may not hold the fine detail of the other scientists. However, his results are more free from seasonal and annual variations, and show long-term trends in an environment, rather than those fluctuations which may be the result of short-term and finite variations such as temperature, rainfall and industrial stress.

Sapelo is a system which has provided the wherewithal for a group of talented geologists to test their mettle, and they used the skills and information gathered here to develop theories on barrier island formation and origin and sea level variation. This is discussed in the section devoted to the Institute history and Appendix I.

The Indians

Sapelo Island has been the site of man’s activities for well over three thousand years. Since 1974, Dr. Lewis Larson, the State Archeologist, and others from West Georgia College have been involved in the archeology of the Sapelo sites, and their Sapelo Papers* [* Sapelo Papers: Researches in the History and Prehistory of Sapelo Island, Georgia. West Georgia College Studies in the Social Sciences Vol. XIX, 1980] present a fascinating, albeit fragmentary, perception of a people and life style long gone.

The occupation sites of the aboriginal inhabitants were situated where there was convenient access to freshwater, tidal streams and saltmarsh, apparently not by the seashore. The food fragments found in the middens have indicated the consumption of animals found at the marsh edge and in the tidal creeks. The fish remains are those of fish such as catfish and mullet likely to be caught by trapping, impoundment or netting. Assuming the fish population has not changed significantly, this means that the early inhabitants failed to benefit from the large sportfish such as speckled trout, channel bass and black drum.

There is a large shell ring (Q) of Indian origin to be found on the western side of the island between the more modern ruins at Chocolate (P) and those at High Point (R). This ring is deceptive for the casual observer because its current composition implies a diet largely comprising oysters, with some clams and whelks. In fact, mammals such as deer, raccoon, dog and opossum, together with fish, are now known to have been the major components of the Indian diet. However, since the vertebrate remains are more subject to weathering, they become less visually and volumetrically dominant with the passage of time. This ring stands three to four meters high and is slightly more than a hundred meters in diameter. It appears to be the result of an accumulation of refuse, probably from dwellings arranged in a circular patter. Excavations have identified hearths and what appear to be house floors in the body of the shell ring. Bone pins and pottery have also been found here. By contrast, the central area was kept so clean of refuse that it must have been by deliberate intent. Radiocarbon dating has given an approximate age for the materials of the ring, and two of the dates estimated are 3,700 years B.P. ± 250 years, and 4,100 years B.P. ± 200 years.

Other Indian sites on the island which have been examined are Bourbon Field (T) and Kenan Field (L). Bourbon Field is an aggregate village area which has been plowed extensively in the recent past for agriculture, and is still being plowed today to provide open pasture for grazing by deer and turkey. Shells and pottery sherds with a variety of tempering inclusions and stamped and cord-marked patterns can be readily found on the soil surface, over a wide area. Almost two hundred disturbed shell middens have been counted at Bourbon Field.

Kenan Field was the location of a 158-acre Indian village, occupied between approximately 1,000 A.D. and 1,600 A.D. It remains are still to be found among the planted pines covering Kenan Field. The most prominent feature is a large burial mound but there is also a smaller mound and a long, low earthen embankment running east to west about five hundred feet south of the large mound. Excavations have indicated the former presence of two large buildings, separated by a plaza; these were presumably of significance for political and ceremonial events in the village. The structures were most likely platforms, with the larger of the two being about 150 feet long and 100 feet wide and probably roofed. They have been detected only by examination of subtle evidence left in the soil and are not readily discernable today. It appears that food was prepared in certain areas of the village and consumed in others, and that there were specific areas apparently devoted to specific occupations. All these pieces of evidence argue for a structured and formal arrangement to the activities of the village.

The Spanish

References to the Spanish occupation of the islands are somewhat sketchy. In fact, the Spanish largely ignored this whole area, after its initial exploration, until spurred into action by French settlement.

Jesuit missionaries were brought to the Guale coast by Menendez de Ariles after he expelled the French from Fort Caroline. They stayed only until 1570 when, after an Indian uprising, the Guale missions were abandoned. There appears to be no firm evidence of a Jesuit mission on Sapelo although popular literature refers to one.

The Franciscans arrived in 1573 and there is a reference to the presence of the convent of San Jose de Zapala (the first mention of the name to become Sapeloe/Sapelo), which in 1616 housed six priests, on subsequently being martyred by the Indians. It is assumed that with the abandonment of Santa Catalina de Guale on St. Catherines in 1686, the area became too fraught with risk and that San Jose was also deserted.

Spanish ceramics have been found at Kenan Field, Bourbon Field, to the north of the large shell ring, and at High Point. An unusual occurrence is the absence of cultigens, particularly maize, contrasting with other Spanish sites in the surrounding counties.

The British

When Georgia was established as an English colony in 1733, the Creek Indians granted the British the coastal land between the Savannah and Altamaha rivers and reserved hunting rights on Ossabaw, St. Catherines and Sapelo for themselves.

Oglethorpe engaged Mary Musgrove, the half-Indian, half-British niece of the Creek emperor, as his interpreter. Widowed twice, Mary married the Reverend Thomas Bosomworth, an exceptionally ambitious man, and it was presumably under his influence that a Creek chieftain named Malatchi bestowed the islands of St. Catherines, Ossabaw and Sapelo on Mary in 1747. The Bosomworths’ plan was to develop the islands into great plantations but the colonial authorities rejected their claim of ownership, based on the established policy of limited land grants. There was also a claim by Mary for money owed to her for her interpretive services for Oglethorpe. Local Indian relations were disrupted for more than ten years by the dispute. Henry Ellis, who was appointed governor in 1760, astutely settled the problem by negotiating a new treaty with the Creeks, giving St. Catherines to the Bosomworths and selling Ossabaw and Sapelo to provide the money required to reimburse Mary without ever acknowledging the land claim.

Sapelo’s first owner was Grey Elliot, a land speculator who purchased the island from the Crown on the 17th of May 1760 for £725 sterling. It was surveyed and mapped in the same year by Henry Yonge and William de Brahm.

In 1762 Elliot sold the island to Andrew Mackay, who began agriculture on a large scale. Upon his death in 1769, relatives of Mackay’s widow, William and Lachlan McIntosh, assisted her in maintaining the property and it was still under cultivation at the time of the American Revolution. Sapelo still lies within McIntosh County.

In 1784 John McQueen of South Carolina purchased the island from the Mackay estate, but he lived beyond his means and in 1789 sold Sapelo proper, together with Little Sapelo, Blackbeard and Cabretta Islands to Francis Marie Demoussay Delavauxe for £10,000.

The French

The next year in 1790, in the Liberty County court, a petition was filed to divide Sapelo into five equal shares. The co-partners were French noblemen fleeing revolutionary France, and the names that appear on the records appear to have been anglicized. In 1793 another joined the group but returned to France soon after. One of the partners bought Jekyll Island and moved there; two died in 1794; and only two were left on the island, de Boisfeuillet and the Grand Closmesle.

The de Boisfeuillet family remained at their home called Bourbon for many years. But ultimately, after the death of his wife, de Boisfeuillet left the island to be near his much loved married daughter, Natalie. In the late 1790’s the share owned by the Grand Closmesle was sold to the Marquis de Montalet, a former planter who left Santa Domingo after the uprising there. Upon the death of his young wife, the Marquis moved to Sapelo and build his house called “le Chatelet”. In time this name has become corrupted to “Chocolate”.

The era of de Montalet is one of the more gentle passages in Sapelo’s history. With his companion, the Chevalier de la Horne, he devoted his time to the cultivation of their garden, fruitlessly searching for truffles (aided by a pig on a leash) and training Cupidon, their black chef, in the production of culinary masterpieces worthy of a cordon bleu. Their slaves provided enough cotton for them to be in a position to purchase a few luxuries, wine and brandy, but there was apparently no pressure to make a fortune; gracious living was the prime requirement. The ruins of his house still remain.

Others lived and built at Chocolate after the French: Captain Swarbreck, Senator Rogers, and finally the Spalding heirs. Consequently the tabby ruins seen today represent the complex accumulations of several short-lived eras.

Thomas Spalding

In 1802 Thomas Spalding purchased 4,000 acres on the south end, concurrently with de Montalet’s occupation at Chocolate. He brought in many slaves purchased in Charleston and proceeded to clear and plant. He supplied live oak for shipbuilding, planted long staple (Sea Island) cotton, sugarcane, and corn, and drained the interior of the island by a series of ditches. Spalding was a politician, banker and agriculturalist but his great love was farming and its improvement, and he was most influential and generous in relaying information and advice. Crop diversification and rotation were themes he stressed in writings. He is considered the father of the sugar industry in Georgia and the tabby walls of his sugar mill still mark the site of his enterprise.

The original South End House was designed by Spalding to withstand the heat and hurricanes. He used tabby for his building material (1 part lime, 1 part sand, 1 part shell, and 1 part water). He wrote, “I have made my walls 14 inches thick, below the lower floor two feet, and for the second story 10 inches and beyond that I would not erect tabby buildings.” He was considered to have made some of the best tabby of the time.

In 1824 a hurricane swept the island and it was claimed that the “sea (was) breaking in broad surges across and over the small field in front and onto the steps” (of the South End House). Crops and livestock suffered enormous losses, and estimates of lives lost vary between one and nine. The slaves were all safe because of the foresight of Bu Allah, a black Moslem and Spalding’s highly trusted and respected right-hand man, whose untranslated diary remains to this day an errant part of Sapelo’s historical record. Spalding disliked slavery, but found it expedient to employ slaves. However, he insisted that days should be short and temporary labor be hired for hazardous work.

The Spalding family lived on Sapelo for nearly half a century and eventually acquired ownership of nearly all of the island. However, after the demise of Thomas Spalding in 1851, the island became only a part-time home for the heirs. Vacated at the outbreak of the Civil War by its owners, Sapelo had its share of squatters during reconstruction. By the time the Spalding heirs finally regained their property, the mansion had deteriorated so far that it was no longer habitable. The family built smaller houses in the Barn Creek area and the land was disposed of with time.

In 1907 a hunting club from Macon acquired some of the south end including the ruins of the old South End House. They rebuilt the center section of the house to make a gracious house with a colonnaded front porch.

Howard Coffin

In 1912 Sapelo was purchased by Howard Coffin, one of the founders of the Hudson Motor Company, and a man of great public spirit and inventiveness. Sapelo provided him with a challenge and he enthusiastically set about revitalizing the island.

He set up a canning industry for oysters and shrimp to provide employment for the island’s black community, descendants of Spalding’s slaves. Sea island cotton and food crops were planted and he built roads, sank artesian wells, and brought in cattle. Chachalaca (a pheasant-like bird) was imported from Guatemala as a game bird and its call can still be heard from time to time in the forest.

Coffin engaged archeologists to examine the Indian mounds, shell rings and various ruins because he was intrigued by the evidence of earlier inhabitants.

At first Sapelo was used as a vacation retreat for the Coffins and they lived in the partially restored South End House with the addition of the outdoor swimming pool and some additional columns. In 1925-28 the house was completely restored and a second story added as we see it today. With the building of a luxurious home they finally took up residence on the island remaining there only a few years because Howard Coffin’s energies became directed toward the development of the Sea Island resort, adjacent to St. Simons Island.

Coffin built many of the buildings present today: the greenhouses, docks, the dormitory (once an administration building), and two of the older houses on the south end. An inside swimming pool was added to the main house complementing the older outside pool; the water garden near the Institute and the north end duck ponds, fed by artesian wells, were all part of his vision for Sapelo.

Richard J. Reynolds

In 1933, Sapelo was purchased by Richard J. Reynolds of North Carolina, an heir of Reynolds Tobacco of Winston-Salem. A Lieutenant Commander in the Navy during the war, Reynolds was a private man who believed in using his wealth to help others. He provided a gymnasium for Todd Grant School in Darien and set up a Boy’s Camp on Sapelo, intended for the underprivileged children of the district.

The South End House was decorated with murals by Meneboni. The ballroom with its circus decorations and tented ceiling and the gentle jungle decorations of the room overlooking the indoor pool still provide delight.

New buildings were added to the south end. Reynolds built two elaborate boathouses and removed earlier farm buildings replacing them with a quadrangle of much more glamorous coach houses, dairy and house barns, and a second story picture theater. These buildings surrounded an unusual “turkey fountain” decorated with cast cement turkeys. This whole assemblage is the complex now housing the principal activities of the Marine Institute. Reynolds also built seven additional houses in the south end area. These, together with the earlier houses built by Coffin, now house Marine Institute faculty.

During his tenure of the island Reynolds was involved in some experiments of his own, introducing Brahmin cattle and diking some marsh areas in order to ascertain their potential for agriculture.

It was Reynolds’ profound interest in using the island for basic research which led to the formation of the Georgia Agricultural and Farming Research Foundation in 1949. The charter was amended in 1959 to rename the organization the Sapelo Island Research Foundation, which was more appropriate in light of the activities it supported. Richard Reynolds continued to be a benefactor, and also a host and sponsor for conferences in marine and estuarine science. After his death in 1964, the Foundation established by him continued to assist the Marine Institute’s endeavors.