History matters! The acclaimed historical novel, The Last Laird of Sapelo, shares the story of the Spalding legacy on Sapelo Island during the antebellum years. It attempts to explain why the Geechee descendants returned to the remote barrier island off the coast from Darien, and have since struggled to claim the promise made to their ancestors by Thomas Spalding—they and their family members would always have a home on the island and never taken from the island. The Spalding family lost control of Sapelo in 1912.
Sadly, in the decades since the turn of the 20th-Century, their hold on their property and homes on Sapelo has been slipping away. In 1910, the census recorded just under 500 Geechee residents lived on Sapelo. By this broadcast video from 1995, less than 70 still lived on the island. Today, there are fewer than 40. How soon will they all be gone and only a historical marker will remain to tell thier story?
Their legacy, heritage and history matters. Racism is not always visible. I point the finger at R. J. Reynolds Jr., who bought the island in the 1930s and by any means necessary merged the Geechee residents to the present community of Hog Hammock (Hummock) to suit his vision for the island’s 15,000 acres. In the subsequent decades, the growing encroachment of “mainlanders” on the island and the growing financial strain has squeezed the vast majority of the Geechee descendants off the island. Rather than fight to stay, more and more of the younger Geechee members have opted to sell their family’s property and move inland. The voices of the older generation grow weaker with the passing of each year.
Unless something changes, only a history marker will speak for the proud Geechee heritage of Sapelo.
So why is it so important to understand the history of the proud Geechee descendants–the enslaved workers brought originally to Sapelo Island by Thomas Spalding beginning in 1800 but chose to treat them as valued workers on Sapelo. Spalding promised the Geechee families that they would never be sold from the land and would always have a home on Sapelo. The Spalding descendants remembered and honored that promise, as did the Geechee descendants who returned to Sapelo following the War Between the States as freed men and women. The Spalding family returned as well but they sought new enterprises as the fields on Sapelo grew subsistence crops, not cotton and sugar cane any longer. The Spalding family heirs sold the island in 1912 to Howard Coffin of Hudson Motor Cars fame, and life on the island would never be the same since.