Sapelo Island Slave Times

Sapelo Island, the fourth largest Georgia barrier island, is 17,650 acres in area and embraces an unspoiled wealth of natural history in its salt marsh, maritime forest, beach and dune areas. Initially, Native Americans settled Sapelo Island as long as 4,000 years ago. The most significant and visible remains of the succession of American Indian cultures that developed on the island are the shell rings located on the northwest side of the island. Europeans first appeared on the scene in the early 16th century. The Spanish, with their African slaves and servants, established garrisons and missions on the island. It was not until the late 1750's that the British crown and its representatives in Georgia finally settled on Sapelo. Marry Musgrove, the wife of an Indian trader on Sapelo and Ossabaw, claims that Grey Elliott, a colonial officer, purchased the island in 1760. In 1762, Sapelo was sold to Patrick Mackay, an Indian agent. Mackay owned and operated the entire island as a cotton and cattle plantation.

In 1784, the Mackay's heirs sold the Island to John Mcqueen. After only five years, Mcqueen sold the entire island and the use of his slaves there to Francois Dumoussay, a Frenchman from Paris. He established The Sapelo Company made up of five Frenchmen who operated the island as a cotton and beef plantation. The Sapelo Company owned numerous slaves.

When the company folded and they sold their divided assets, the slaves were sold with the land parcels. By the end of the French era, the island was divided into five separate divisions consisting of four plantations and the lighthouse: North End, South End, Kenan Track, Raccoon Bluff, and the lighthouse Track. From the 1790s until 1843 the island had many different owners. Edward Swarbreck (C. 1760-1844), one owner of the North End track/Chocolate Plantation, had slaves build the surviving tabby ruins at Chocolate (C. 1818-1820). The main house, commissary, barn and slave houses are one of the largest examples of tabby buildings remaining on the Georgia coast.

All of the early owners operated the North End as a cotton plantation and owned many slaves. Thomas Spalding and his family (1774-1851), the major plantation figure in the history of Sapelo, owned nearly 500 slaves on Sapelo and elsewhere, including his mainland plantation home, Ashantilly, near Darien. In the 1820 census, he had 350 slaves, and in 1830, 406 at all locations. In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, the census indicated that the Spalding family had a total of 252 slaves living in 50 slave houses. Combined with the 118 Kenan family slaves, it is estimated there was a total of 370 enslaved people on the island on the eve of freedom.  

Randolph Spalding, with his siblings, held more than 650 slaves, thereby comprising the largest number of slaves in McIntosh County in the 1860 census. This combined family ownership probably made the Spalding family one of the largest slave-holding families in the state. This was evidenced by Spalding's cotton production. During this time, his 200 bales of cotton were the largest number produced on any plantation in the county.

During the Civil War, General Robert E. Lee ordered all the coastal islands abandoned. However, in 1865, many former slaves returned to the island after the end of the war. Many of them expected land as promised by General W.T. Sherman in his famous Field Order No. 15, of January 16, 1865. When this was rescinded by President Andrew Johnson later that year, the freemen lost their legal claims to land under that field order. The applications for land can be found in the records of the Freedmen's Bureau.

Post-civil war times were turbulent for the newly-freed black men and women and whites. In the late 1860's some plantation owners were not able to maintain their antebellum lifestyles. Plagued by financial problems, some owners began to sell plots of land to family members and eventually to the black families who were formerly slaves on the Island.