of Sapelo Island
earliest inhabitants of Sapelo Island were prehistoric Indians.
Shell middens, mounds, and pottery fragments provide ample
evidence of their presence from 4000 BP up through the influx of
Europeans during the eighteenth century, when they were known as
the Guale. Artifacts
excavated from the Shell Ring, on the northwestern side of the island,
have been carbon-dated to 4120 ± 200 BP.
Excavations at Kenan Field, on the northeastern side of the
island, have shown that a village there covered at least 60 hectares,
and artifacts recovered there have been carbon-dated to AD 1155
the 17th century, Spain established missions in what is now coastal
Georgia as part of their effort to convert the native Indians to
Christianity and to guard their sea routes to Mexico.
One of the missions on the coast was named San José de Zápala,
from which the name Sapelo is derived.
Although archaeological surveys on Sapelo have located a
number of sites where fragments of their pottery attest to the influence
of the Spanish in the area, no architectural remains of a Spanish
mission have yet been identified on Sapelo.
Spanish presence in the area declined during the latter part
of the 17th century, and by the time that Georgia was established
as a British colony in 1733 the coast was occupied by the Creek
Mary Musgrove, a niece of
the Creek chief who served as interpreter for James Oglethorpe,
claimed ownership of three of the Georgia barrier islands, St. Catherines,
Ossabaw and Sapelo. During
the latter part of the eighteenth century, ownership of Sapelo passed
through several hands, including a group of Frenchmen who established
plantations at several locations on the island.
Although some crops were cultivated, cattle seemed to be
the major interest of these early plantations. The French
syndicate failed, and ownership of most of the island eventually
passed to Thomas Spalding, who had learned how to run a successful
plantation from his father and was a leader and innovator in the
cultivation and processing of sugar and in the cultivation of Sea
Island long-staple cotton.
He was a promoter of tabby construction, using it in his
home, the South End House, a sugar cane mill and several other buildings
on Sapelo. The present-day
Reynolds Mansion was built on the foundations of Spalding's South
End House, incorporating some of the original exterior tabby walls.
The first Sapelo Lighthouse was built on the southern end
of the island during the Spalding era.
During Spalding's tenure,
much of the land on Sapelo was cleared for cultivation or pasture.
A network of ditches and canals, still evident today, were
dug to drain the swampy interior of the island.
Thus whatever natural climax forest existed on Sapelo Island
largely disappeared during the 1800s, both from upland areas and
from the inland swamps. Originally these ditches and canals directed water into the
intertidal salt marshes around the island; today, with artesian
wells no longer flowing the canals only fill during periods of heavy,
extended rainfall or at times of high spring tides when salt water
flows into the canals from the marsh.
Thomas Spalding died in 1851
and a long period began during which ownership of Sapelo passed
through many hands, many of them descendants of Thomas Spalding.
During the Civil War the island was abandoned by its owners
and was occupied by only a few former slaves.
Union troops blockading the southern coast frequently visited
Sapelo to hunt and enjoy a change of surroundings.
After the war the barrier islands were set aside as reservations
for former slaves, and black communities were established at several
sites on Sapelo Island. One
of them, Hog Hammock, is still an active community.
During the next forty years, various tracts of land changed
hands and several attempts to reestablish profitable agricultural
In 1912 Howard Coffin
of Detroit, developer of the Hudson motor car, purchased much of
the island and set out to restore the island's agriculture and many
of its buildings, including the South End House.
With his cousin Alfred W. Jones as manager of Sapelo, Coffin
built the dock at Marsh Landing, several freshwater ponds, established
an oyster and shrimp cannery on Barn Creek, established an oyster
farming project in the waters between Sapelo and Little St. Simons,
and built a saw mill to provide lumber for buildings and boats. He built a marine railway on South End Creek so that his many
boats could be repaired and serviced on the island and built the
greenhouse which still stands, though in disrepair, near the South
End House. He also
had a keen interest in hunting, and raised ring-necked pheasant
and turkeys which he and his guests would hunt, aided by dogs from
the Sapelo kennels. He
introduced the Chachalaca (Ortalis vetula) to Sapelo as a
game bird; native to Central America, the birds adapted well to
the environment on the island.
They were well established on the island as recently as the
late 1970s, but are now seen only occasionally.
J. Reynolds, Jr., heir to a tobacco fortune, purchased Sapelo from
Howard Coffin in 1934. In
many ways, he continued the work done by Coffin, maintaining and
enlarging the dairy herd, continuing cultivation of crops in fields
on the south end of the island, and trying to make the Sapelo Plantation
a self-supporting enterprise.
He redesigned and rebuilt most of the buildings in the quadrangle
complex that now houses the University
of Georgia Marine Institute, remodeled the interior
of South End House (the Reynolds Mansion), refurbished buildings
at Long Tabby to be used as a camp for underprivileged boys, and
for several years opened the Big House and the apartments in the
quadrangle complex to vacationers as an exclusive resort.
by his lifelong interest in the sea, in the early 1950s Reynolds
invited Eugene Odum and Donald Scott, faculty at the University
of Georgia, to prepare a proposal for the use of Sapelo and its
surrounding marshes for basic research on the productivity of coastal
waters and marshes, which led to the establishment of the
University of Georgia Marine Institute
in 1953. From a modest
beginning, the Marine Institute undertook much of the early research
on salt marsh ecosystems, describing the biology, hydrology and
geology of the waters and marshes around Sapelo Island.
1969 the northern half of Sapelo Island was sold to the State of
Georgia to be administered by the Georgia Department of Natural
Resources (DNR) as the R. J. Reynolds Wildlife Refuge.
In 1975, the state of Georgia nominated the Duplin River
Estuary as a national estuarine sanctuary, and in 1976 the state
matched the federal funds provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration (NOAA) and completed the purchase of the south end
of Sapelo Island, establishing the Sapelo
Island National Estuarine Research Reserve (SINERR).