Sapelo Island: Georgia’s Historic Treasure

January 8, 2015 Updated: January 8, 2015

For years I’d heard about an island near Savannah that is inaccessible by road, and whose natural habitat was largely undisturbed by modern encouragements. One day, on my return from a trip to Savannah, I convinced my husband to make an unscheduled stop to visit the island.

That day, after speaking to an employee of the Department of Natural Resources, I quickly learned that, as a visitor, there was no such thing as an impromptu visit to the island.

One of the major hurdles for any visitor is the fact that the ferry transports people to the island only on two scheduled trips a day.

Another issue involves what I refer to as the need for a sponsor/guide on the island. Initially, I thought that this sponsor requirement was strange given that I knew the majority of the island was owned by the state of Georgia. Since my subsequent visit to the island, almost a year later, I understand the need. Eventually,I contacted a private tour guide and scheduled a trip last week.

The guide told me to make certain that I list his name on the ferry log as the individual I was scheduled to visit. He told me that the departure time for the ferry was 8:30 a.m., and reminded me that it didn’t return to the mainland until 12:00 p.m.

When my husband and I arrived, the ferry had already docked, and an elderly man standing near the entrance of the boat was quietly playing the harmonica. The music coupled with the view of the water created a serene atmosphere.

As I approached the plank to board, I was pleasantly and firmly told by a park ranger that I needed to sign the log.

I complied and also told the ranger who I was scheduled to meet on the island for a tour.

Once on board, the man playing the harmonica took a seat near us and shared that he grew up, and now lives on the island. Much to our surprise, his demeanor belied his 87 years. Once he told us his age, I was briefly deaf to conversation, because I was busy staring at his face, searching for signs of an age beyond 70. 

During the ride, he talked about the alligators that walk defiantly across the road.

He reminisced about a bygone era when the residents of Sapelo were free to take full advantage of nature and use its resources without government control. He talked about turtle egg soup, and selling alligator skins.

The boat ride was about 25 minutes, and eventually, as we neared the island, I could see in the distance, cars and people gathered near the pier. Once we disembarked, I noticed that two other couples were also seeking our tour guide, who soon introduced himself, and directed us to the van.

We were off to a good start when the guide teased my husband, who sat in the front passenger seat, for trying to buckle
his seat belt. “You’re wearing a seat belt on Sapelo Island?”” the guide said with an incredulous smile. He then informed us that, “We only have one road the loops around the island.”” He continued, “You don’t have to have a
driver’s permit and you don’t have to have car insurance.””

As we drove to our first site the guide shared that he grew up on the island and the Black residents can trace their ancestry to the slaves that inhabited the Sapelo plantations. He showed us the historic slave burial ground of Behavior Cemetery that was established in 1805, and shared stories about the cemetery’s namesake before we moved on to our next destination.

We visited a number of historic sites, including Hog Hammock were the 70 residents, part of the Gullah culture, and descendants of the slaves now live. The community was established in 1857 and consists of a little over 400 acres. Our guide informed us that the residents could easily sell their land and property for small fortunes, but they have all made a conscious decision to keep their property. History and legacy are not for sale.

Someone asked what people do on the island for entertainment. Our guide told us about church activities, a festival, the beach, fishing and visiting with neighbors. When we were showed the now-closed school house, I asked, with indignation, why all the children didn’t have access to a local education. My concern was met with a reasonable, albeit surprising explanation. “We only have two school-aged children, and they are educated on the mainland.”” It was at that time that our guide, half jokingly, offered land to anyone willing to move to the island and have about five kids.

After riding for awhile, we stopped at the general store that the owner was in the process of opening when we arrived. While it is likely very valuable in providing the community with some basic staples, it was the smallest store I’ve ever seen. Ever. However, the store was huge compared to the post office. Our guide, of course knew people everywhere we went. Life on an island. Someone brought up the issue of whether or not there was a problem with crime.

Our guide stated that everyone knows everyone so crime is not an issue. When there is an occasional a dispute of some sort, we just talk to each other and work it out, he said. It was at that moment that I fully appreciated why, as visitors, we needed to identify ourselves at the ferry.

Our guide was truly one with nature. During the ride, he humorously talked about the alligators that frequently walk defiantly across the road. (Words cannot describe my joy when I realized that we had fortuitously selected a time to tour the island when the alligators weren’t as mobile. Yippee!!)

I had the opportunity to see something for the first time, an eagle’s nest. We were in the woods. We were all staring up at the nest, high up, seemingly near the sky. It was quiet. No cars humming past us. No sirens screaming for attention. The generic noise of a city was absent. Just quiet. Stillness. I looked at that nest for a long time, and just listened to pleasant sounds of nature. We traveled to the beach and other places on the island. Eventually, we arrived at our final stop of the tour, the plantation of tobacco heir, R.J. Reynolds. While the mansion was worn by time, the opulence was present in the pools, the many rooms, bowling alley and library.

Although others may have developed Sapelo’s slave empire, prior to Reynolds’ purchase of a portion of the island in 1934, the island’s inherently compliancy in America’s original sin influenced my ability to gaze in wonder at the trappings of wealth without thinking of the people who labored for the benefit of others. While the other members of our group
continued to roam about the mansion, soaking in the physical beauty of the structure through perhaps a different lens, my husband and I looked at the books in the library.

I sat on the window sill of R.J. Reynolds’ library and later, a couch, because I could. As the ferry began to move slowly toward the mainland, we were escorted by some seagulls perched on the pier and others drifting on the wind. As Sapelo grew smaller and smaller in the distance, I reflected on all that I had heard and seen that day.

The population of descendents of the original residents of the island is dwindling; and I feel certain that the pressure of new ownership is an ever present force in the Hog Hammock Community. The history of Sapelo should not be allowed to vanish into a small replica of some major city. History demands the preservation of Sapelo’s rich legacy. What is there to do and see on Sapelo Island? Visit and see.

Laverne Lewis Gaskins is an attorney who lives in Georgia, and in her spare time enjoys traveling and writing.