SGA leadership tours Sapelo Island

Submitted by Sammy Smith (

SGA leadership touring Sapelo Lighthouse.

When the SGA leadership visited the coast in February 2010, many of us also toured Sapelo Island with archaeologist Dr. Ray Crook, who has worked on the island for decades. We took the morning ferry out underovercast skies, watched the sun arrive with us at the island dock, and returned to the mainland late in the afternoon. We took a break to enjoy a Geechee lunch at mid-day.

We met at the Sapelo Island Visitor Center, which is next to the ferry dock north of Darien. The Center has some informational displays, a telescope we used to spot the incoming ferry to time our exit into the chilly wind to wait for the ferry’s arrival, and books and souvenirs for sale.

We were very lucky to take the “new” ferry, a 70-foot long catamaran named the Katie Underwood. Ms. Underwood was the last midwife on the island, who delivered babies there through 1968. The Katie Underwood began ferry service in 2006.

On the island, our first stop was Long Tabby, which is also where the Sapelo Island Post Office is, along with DNR offices, and the tabby ruins of Thomas Spalding‘s sugar mill, built by 1809. Spalding also owned Ashantilly, the plantation on the mainland where we convened our SGA meeting the day before. The sugar mill had a warehouse-dock combination right next door, for shipping the sugar. The dock is gone except for some pilings, and the warehouse is mostly gone above ground. Ray also told us the plantation architecture is atop a prehistoric occupation. In fact, this is true for many plantation buildings on Georgia’s barrier islands. A good spot is a good spot to anyone, we figured, whether you were staying for a few months to gather food from the estuaries in 1000 BC or build a tabby sugar mill in the early AD 1800s.

The lighthouse at the south end of the island has deep red and brilliant white stripes; it is one of five remaining lighthouses on Georgia’s barrier islands. The lighthouses were built to make commercial shipping safer. US lighthouses are all painted with distinct, unduplicated patterns so mariners never will confuse them. The building contract for the first lighthouse at the south end of Sapelo was let in 1819. This lighthouse was inactivated after damage by a hurricane in 1898; it was restored and reopened in 1998. The most difficult part of the restoration was reconstruction of the interior curving staircase; each step had to be made and installed before construction of the next one up could begin. Apparently, the 1820 facility grew to include a keeper’s house, cistern, and oil house. Also near the lighthouse is the foundation of an 1898 gun emplacement.

We made a brief stop at the Reynolds Mansion to take photographs. The mansion is owned by the state, and you can rent a room there. According to the Mansion website:

The original Mansion was designed and built from tabby, a mixture of lime, shells and water, by Thomas Spalding, an architect, statesman and plantation owner who purchased the south end of the island in 1802. The Mansion served as the Spalding Plantation Manor from 1810 until the Civil War. It fell into ruin after being damaged by Union attack during the Civil War and was later purchased and rebuilt by Detroit automotive engineer Howard Coffin in 1912. Tobacco heir Richard Reynolds purchased the property in 1934, donating land and facilities to the University of Georgia for marine research. Following Reynolds’ death in 1964 the Mansion and most of the island was obtained by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources in 1975. Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve and University of Georgia Marine Research Facilities are still located on the island.

The wing of the Mansion in the pictures encloses a swimming pool. Facing this wing, a sharp-eyed archaeologist spotted an orange tree from the lovely gardens that once surrounded the Mansion. Only remnants of it remain. Archaeologists learn to spot “foreign” vegetation that indicates deliberate planting or horticulture by prior human inhabitants.

Next Ray took us to Behavior Cemetery. Once a slave community with dispersed homes rather than a centralize layout, Behavior is now abandoned and most of the structures are now below-ground archaeological features. The Behavior cemetery is still in use. In fact, a funeral was held the day before we arrived. According to the National Park Service website:

Behavior Cemetery is a unique post-Civil War African American burial ground located in the center, south end of Sapelo Island. It is one-and-one-fourth miles west of Hog Hammock, the sole surviving African American community on the island. The cemetery reflects African American burial customs. Early grave markers include short posts at either end of the graves and epitaphs on wooden boards nailed to the surrounding trees, while more recent tombstones are made of local cement, with some granite and metal funeral home markers.

Ray also taught us the proper way to enter a Geechee cemetery. Geechee refers to the descendents of slaves still living on Sapelo (and in other coastal areas), and maintaining some of their African linguistic and cultural heritage. Geechee peoples believe that spirits occupy the grave yard, and to enter one must first ask the spirits’ permission. Geechee people choose not to live near a cemetery, to keep a safe distance from the spirits.

As Ray has noted (“Gullah-Geechee Archaeology: The Living Space of Enslaved Geechee on Sapelo Island,” in the March 2008 Newsletter of the African Diaspora Archaeology Network:

Geechee people have lived on Sapelo Island for about 250 years. Their exceptionally strong sense of place is permanently connected to the island where they “catch sense” in their youth and are buried when they die. Here they tilled the fields and harvested gardens, fished the tidal creeks, hunted game and gathered plants along the marsh edges and in the forests, and engaged in a variety of work activities. [page 2]

After a Geechee lunch, this one characterized by yellow and orange foods (including canned corn, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, yellow poundcake), we drove north up the west/inland side of the island, wallowing through deep mudholes that had been filled by rains over the previous two days. We stopped at Kenan, a prehistoric archaeological site that Ray told us is the largest mapped archaeological site east of the Mississippi River. The site is civic-ceremonial and residential. Most people lived in homes scattered across a huge area.

Many ruins of the Chocolate plantation are still standing, but only two still have a roof, and therefore any protection from the elements. One is a Sears Roebuck Catalogue Home. The other This presents a difficult historic preservation situation, especially if funds are few or non-existent, as with this state-owned site. As Ray Crook noted in the 2008 newsletter article cited above,

During the late 1790s, the Chocolate tract was farmed by Lewis Harrington with the labor of 68 slaves. In 1802 that property became jointly owned by Edward Swarbreck and Thomas Spalding, who leased out at least a portion of the tract until 1808. Swarbreck, a Danish sea merchant with Caribbean connections who traded in cotton and other commodities, including slaves, then directed his attention to Chocolate. His plantation layout followed a familiar and very formal design…. The Big House, built of tabby, overlooked the Mud River and expansive salt marshes. His residence was flanked by outbuildings and other support structures. Two parallel rows of slave quarters, spaced some 10m apart and separated by a broad open area 50m across, were constructed behind the Big House. Vast agricultural fields extended to the north and south. Evidence of at least nine slave quarters, typically tabby duplexes with central chimneys and finished tabby floors, each side measuring about 4.3m by 6.1m, survives today as ruins and archaeological features at Chocolate. These represent an enslaved population of some 70 to 100 people distributed among at least 18 households…. [page 3]

Deteriorating, roofless structure at Chocolate Plantation.

Archaeological research at Chocolate is detailed in a 2007 report by Nicholas Honerkamp, Ray Crook, and Orion Kroulek titled “Pieces of Chocolate: Site Structure and Function at Chocolate Plantation (9MC96), Sapelo Island, Georgia” and downloadable here. They write that:

Besides presumably raising cotton, there is direct evidence that Swarbreck (or at least his slaves) grew sugar cane and had it processed into molasses and sugar at Thomas Spalding’s sugar mill located on the southern end of Sapelo. In a 12 January 1815 letter to Charles Harris, reproduced here in Appendix A, Swarbreck discusses the virtues of Thomas Spalding’s sugar mill, and the considerable value ($17,600) of the quantity of sugar and molasses that Swarbreck saw in Spalding’s “Curing House.” Swarbreck also mentions that he was sending an example of his own finished product: “Agreeable to your wish, I Present you with a small sample of sugar & molassis that I brought from sapelo Island, manufactur’d by Mr. Spalding from my own Sugar cane which place I left the 7th Inst.”

Tabby construction at Chocolate during Swarbreck’s tenure was an enormous undertaking, unparalleled at any other place on Sapelo Island. Preparation of the tabby mixture – consisting of equal parts of shell, lime from burned shell, and sand – involved collecting salt-free oyster shell from shell midden deposits found at nearby Native American archaeological sites (such as at the Shell Ring and at Long Row Field), transporting it to the construction site, burning a portion of the shell for lime, and preparing the mixture with sand and water to be poured into wall forms to cure. Roughly 1050 cubic meters (~37,000 cubic feet) of shell was brought into Chocolate to construct Swarbreck’s tabby buildings. This volume equals the oyster shell that would be represented in about 350 Native American shell middens, each measuring 3 meters in diameter and 50 centimeters in height. [pages 7-8]

From Chocolate Plantation, we continued farther north to the Sapelo Island Shell Rings, which, for many of us, was the high point of our adventure. This feature is just what it sounds like—a ring of shell deposits. Actually, there are three rings near each other on this part of Sapelo, but we only visited the largest, which is huge at over 100 yards across and more than 9 feet high (larger shell rings are known, though, just not on Sapelo). In the 1950s, archaeologists Antonio Waring and Lewis Larson dug a trench through this shell ring, which reveals that the deposits show layering, with some layers of mostly shell, and other layers with more dark, humic materials mixed with the shell. Probably, because they were mined for their shell to make tabby and road fill, there were more shell rings along the coast than can be found today. Shell rings date (mostly) to the Late Archaic, over five thousand years ago. Evidence suggests people lived atop the ring and discarded the shell between their houses. Most of the shell is oyster, but many other shellfish species are included, including the bones of terrestrial and other marine creatures.

What a great day we had touring Sapelo! Most of us were rather tired as we took the ferry back to the mainland en route to returning to every-day life, but we were also sad to end our adventure on one of Georgia’s barrier islands.

Thank you

Many people made this trip possible, and are owed a big debt of thanks. Thanks!

SGA Board Member Kevin Kiernan did the organizing of the whole weekend. DNR manager Fred Hay organized vehicles and helped with all aspects of our on-island time. Members of the Geechee community opened the cemetery to us and cooked our lunch and brought it to us. And, Ray Crook gave us the benefit of his decades of research, not only on Sapelo, but also along the coast.

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Online reading on Georgia’s barrier islands

Dr. Crook’s webpage, with downloadable copies of his reports and articles, published since the 1980s.

Dr. Crook’s article on Jekyll Island, on website.

Ginessa Mahar’s article on Late Archaic shell rings on St. Catherines Island on this website.

Some University of Georgia Laboratory of Archaeology Laboratory of Archaeology Series Reports detail coastal research.

On Sapelo Island’s past, by the Georgia DNR and by Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve.

On Sapelo, including Chocolate Plantation.

On tabby, a mix of sand, shell, lime, and water that hardens somewhat like cement.


It is with great sadness that the SGA notes that Dr. Ray Crook passed away on January 18, 2012 at his residence on St. Simons Island.

Where to find it