Discover the community of Hog Hammock on Georgia’s Sapelo Island, the heart of Gullah culture founded by coastal Georgia slavery descendants.

It’s hard to believe that, in this coastal area of posh resorts, charming beach towns and family attractions, there were once thousands of enslaved Africans toiling in the fierce coastal heat. The foundation of an old plantation house or a crumbling slave cabin here and there are virtually the only structural reminders of this shameful period of history.

Sapelo Island lighthouse before restoration
Sapelo Island Lighthouse before restoration.

Over 100 tidal and barrier islands stretching from eastern Florida up through Georgia and South Carolina make up the Sea Island region.  Here, large family plantations growing cotton, indigo and rice were once a primary source of state wealth.  Slaves were valued due to their expertise farming similar crops in the grasslands and marshes in Africa.

Direct descendants of these African slaves became known as the Gullah (also referred to as “Geechee” in Georgia).  Over 500,000 Gullahs live today throughout the Sea Islands and coastal lowlands.  The unofficial heart of Gullah culture, and last remaining community, is Hog Hammock on Georgia’s Sapelo Island.  

But to understand what makes Gullah culture so unique and important to American history, one must look back to how their ancestors arrived on these shores – and survived.

Coastal Georgia Slavery

In the 18th century, rival tribesmen captured peoples throughout Central and West Africa, shipping them down inland rivers to coastal African ports. Many were members of the Ibo (also Igbo) people, whose traditional homeland was in southeast Nigeria between the Niger and Cross Rivers. Their captors were often rival tribesmen who traded with white slave traders for currency, goods and firearms.

After a horrific voyage across the Atlantic known as the Middle Passage, the Ibos would typically be brought into ports on the Southern U.S. coast or the Caribbean. They were forced into pens, given food and drink and encouraged to exercise, solely to make them attractive on the auction block. They were stripped, pinched and prodded by potential buyers. Then sold to speculators who, in turn, transported them to areas of demand.

Not everyone agreed with the practice of slavery. The abolitionist movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries succeeded in banning slavery throughout the Northern states. As early as 1749, even Georgia discouraged slavery within state lines. In 1798, slave importation was made illegal in Georgia.

Sapelo Island Georgia river, former slave ship route

An Illegal, Brutal Trade

But Southern states like Georgia were still too dependent on slavery.  Georgia plantation owners often resorted to secretive tactics to keep slavery intact. At high tide under the cover of darkness, slave ships would sneak through the tidal creeks directly to the coastal plantations.  One of Georgia’s best known ghost stories is about one of these ships, and the doomed Ibo slaves upon it.

By all accounts, slavery life on Georgia plantations and throughout the Sea Islands was brutal. They converted heavily wooded islands and lowlands into cotton and rice fields. This involved draining the salt marshes, cutting down huge trees and clearing stumps.  Many had experience with such work in Africa, but never under the slave master’s whip.

Few Georgia slaves dared to escape the plantations. Capture was almost certain. Even if they did escape, poisonous snakes or lack of food and fresh water brought them back. Escape or suicide also meant the abandonment of loved ones.

Civil War and End of Coastal Georgia Slavery

Georgia slavery and the coastal plantation economy came to an abrupt end when the Civil War erupted over the region. As Union ships blockaded the ports of Charleston and Savannah, plantation owners took their healthiest slaves and fled the islands, leaving the sick and older people behind.

But as the Confederacy collapsed, many of these healthy slaves ran straight into General Sherman’s troops during their destructive march through Georgia. Sherman ordered the slaves to return to the islands. After the war, Sherman issued Special Field Order #15, ceding most of the Sea Islands to former slaves. White settlers other then military personnel were forbidden to live there.

Many slaves didn’t make it back, becoming refugees along the war-torn Southern roads. Others migrated to surrounding cities. But several did return to reunite with the older slaves left behind. 

Birth of Gullah Culture

Many former slaves returned to farm the old plantation grounds, attached to the land they were once enslaved upon. Despite widespread poverty, the former slaves formed working communities that would become the nucleus of Gullah culture found today.

In 1865, President Andrew Johnson expanded terms of the Confederate pardon to include the return of property abandoned during the war. This meant white plantation owners could return to the islands and reclaim what had promised the former slaves barely a year before. These plantation owners assumed their impoverished former slaves would be happy to come back to work for them as sharecroppers.

Sapelo Island Georgia

But this time, the former slaves resisted. They chose to live in their own communities, existing on whatever they could catch from the sea, or grow in tiny backyard plots. Some even formed land companies to consolidate black-owned farmlands. Individual businesses and schools also sprung up. 

Without a stable workforce, many plantation families gave up their lands and businesses for good.

What is Gullah Culture?

The word “Gullah” originally referred to a unique creole dialect used by slaves to secretly communicate across the islands.  The word’s origin is believed to derive from “Angola,” the nation many slaves came from. While “Geechee” is believed to come from the Ogeechee River near Savannah, Georgia.

The definition of Gullah culture expanded to include African folk traditions, music, cuisine, fishing and farming methods, and religious beliefs.  These mixed together with regional influences into a unique cultural gumbo only found in this part of the South.  Eventually Gullah culture came to define specific people who trace their roots directly back to the original slaves.

Despite their suffering, the original Georgia slaves preserved and expanded upon many of their African traditions. Some of the more notable traditions involved death and the afterlife. 

Behavior Cemetery Gullah Tombstones Hog Hammock Sapelo Island
Behavior Cemetery in Hog Hammock, Sapelo Island

Gullah Culture and the Afterlife

Slaves would often speak about spirits from Africa, which they called “h’ants” or “fixuhs,” coming to visit their homes. To protect themselves from the bad “h’ants,” they would often paint a blue ring around their doorways. 

Some slaves could detect these spirits better than others. Especially babies born with a special “caul,” or membrane, over their eyes that enabled them to see ghosts. Naturally, most of the plantation owners dismissed the slaves’ beliefs.

The original slaves had unique burial customs, which can still be seen in places like Behavior Cemetery on Sapelo Island. When a relative died, his or her body couldn’t be removed from the house until the preacher said a few words. After burial, the graves were kept mounded by members of the family. Symbolic objects of the deceased were placed on or around the headstone, which was kept clean and shiny to attract protective African gods.

As a sign of daily recognition of their ancestors, the slaves would pour libations on the ground. This tradition is seen in one form or another throughout the Sea Islands today.

Where is Gullah Island?

Many people around the world have heard stories of an island where the Gullah live.  While there is no official “Gullah island,” the heart of Gullah culture is arguably Hog Hammock on Georgia’s Sapelo Island – the last remaining Gullah community.

Sapelo Island is located near the port city of Darien, Georgia.  This 12 mile long, 3.1 mile wide island has witnessed nearly every phase of North American human history.

Sapelo Island’s known history dates back to the Archaic Period of Prehistory (2,000-500 BC).  The original Native American residents named the island Sapelo, later changed to Zapala by Spanish missionaries.  The Native American Shell Ring, one of the most unique ceremonial mounds in the country, remains as a symbol of their presence on Sapelo Island’s north end.

Plantations on Sapelo Island

In 1757, the Creek Indians transferred ownership of Sapelo and neighboring islands to the Royal Colony of Georgia.  A series of English and French plantation owners called Sapelo home until the early 1800s when Thomas Spalding, an accomplished businessman and Georgia state representative, was among three men who acquired most of Sapelo Island.  

Spalding was an agricultural innovator who would eventually acquire most of Sapelo for his massive farming and milling operations.  Spalding introduced sugar manufacturing to Georgia via the cultivation of sugarcane.  He used tabby (cement made from crushed oyster shells) to build a sugar mill on Sapelo – material so durable his mill ruins can be seen on Sapelo today.  He also commissioned a lighthouse, still the second oldest brick lighthouse in the country. 

Chocolate Plantation Tabby Ruins Sapelo Island Georgia

Sugar, rice and cotton production turned Spalding’s Sapelo plantation into an empire.  At its height, Spalding’s family owned nearly 400 slaves on Sapelo Island alone.  

Gullah Land Ownership on Sapelo Island

After the Civil War, many of Spalding’s former slaves purchased land on the island.  They established their own Gullah communities with colorful names like Raccoon Bluff, Lumber Landing, Shell Hammock, Belle Marsh and Hog Hammock.  They established their own church and school, and lived a life of subsistence farming, timbering and oyster harvesting.

In the early 20th century, much of Sapelo Island minus the black communities was sold to Howard E. Coffin, an automotive engineer and industrialist. Coffin opened his own farming and timbering operations. He also improved Sapelo’s road and water infrastructure (in addition to founding the posh resort of Sea Island nearby).  

Coffin eventually sold his Sapelo Island property to tobacco heir Richard J. Reynolds, Jr., who founded a maritime research center and used Sapelo as a part time residence.  It was Reynolds who consolidated the various black communities into one, at Hog Hammock.  Reynolds built a school, homes and a church for the residents.  But he also plowed over ancestral lands throughout the rest of the island, erasing gravesites and other elements of Gullah culture.

Hog Hammock

Nearly 97% of Sapelo Island today is owned by the State of Georgia, with a large wildlife preserve,  R.J. Reynolds’ marine research center (now the Marine Institute at Sapelo Island) and the Reynolds Mansion (now a state park) still attract visitors.  But the tiny community of Hog Hammock remains one of the few places populated almost entirely by direct descendants of slaves.  

Hog Hammock’s residents often refer to themselves as “Saltwater” (or island) Geechee.  Their tiny, 427-acre community is on the National Register of Historic Places. It has its own small store, churches, restaurant, ancestral cemetery, and vacation rentals.

International visitors once sought an audience with longtime resident Cornelia Walker Bailey, the famed writer, historian and preservationist of Gullah culture.  Her passing in 2017 was a blow to Sapelo cultural tourism, but the Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society continues her mission, offering lodging and tours of the island.

Gullah Culture Today

But in reality, the future of Hog Hammock is fragile.  Sapelo Island is still only reachable by boat, with limited opportunities for Gullah residents.  Consequently, steady migration toward the mainland and large cities has continued.  In addition, surrounding coastal development has brought stiff property tax increases which most Hog Hammock residents can not afford.

But increased interest in broader Gullah culture might provide a lifeline for places like Hog Hammock.   Influential young chefs regularly promote Gullah cuisine, along with restaurants in Savannah and Charleston, South Carolina.  In turn, national food TV celebrities like Padma Lakshmi and Kardea Brown have inspired Gullah “food tourism” throughout the Sea Islands.

In short, Gullah culture and communities like Hog Hammock are a time capsule of sorts to America’s shameful slavery past.  With today’s limitless digital learning and a travel-obsessed society, this cultural connection to the African motherland can hopefully stay alive.

 Gallery of photos from Hog Hammock and Sapelo Island:

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This Post Has 11 Comments

  1. Nancy

    i am planning to visit some of the islands off Georgia, this is exactly what i was looking for…thank you so much…

  2. I am so very fascinated by the cultures of black people. I first heard the Gullah language and was so taken in I want to learn more. Thank you for the article.

  3. Anita Perteete

    I was in Sapelo Island this past summer. I loved it, the air is fresh, the people their are very nice. We had fresh fish, clams and blue crabs, straight out of the waters. I picked a few of the bay leaves on the island, went and explored the chocolate plantation, and everything I could explore while their. I felt like apart of it, and can,t wait to go back.

  4. Dianne Marshall-Holdip

    Are we caught in a time-warp or is this real? Do they vote and who takes responsibility for them. Are they not entitled to the benefits of any citizen of the US? How does one begin to move this from the surreal much less to even begin to analyse it?

  5. E Lozano

    There was a brief news item early this morning on CNN regarding the ‘Georgia Island’ inhabited by descendants of slaves currently living on some Georgia island that has no roads or other amenities. Is it being kept secret? Am unable to locate the specifics, nor has it been mentioned again.

    1. themoonlitroad

      I didn’t see it but I imagine they were talking about Sapelo Island.

  6. Paula Vaughan

    Hello – Just jumping in here… I’m not certain where the information on this page is from specifically, but would like to share the resource, God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man: A Saltwater Geechee Talks About Life on Sapelo Island, Georgia by Cornelia Walker Bailey. Ms. Bailey’s memoir is unparalleled in her transmission of Georgia Sea Island supernatural beliefs and customs. A phenomenal work!

    1. themoonlitroad

      Thanks, Paula – I actually met Cornelia many years ago. Her book isn’t the source used here, but anyone interested should check it out.