The human history of Sapelo dates back about 4,500 years. Archaeological investigations on the island have determined an extensive Native American presence on Sapelo during the Archaic Period of pre-history (2,000-500 B.C.). The name Sapelo itself is of Indian origin, called Zapala by Spanish missionaries who established themselves on the island from ca. 1573 to 1686. The Franciscan mission of San Josef was situated on the north end of the island at or near the Native American Shell Ring, a pre-historic ceremonial mound which represents one of the most unique archaeological features on the Georgia coast.
The first private owner of the island was Patrick Mackay, who grew crops there before the Revolution. The estate of Mackay sold Sapelo to John McQueen, then, in 1789, Sapelo was acquired by a consortium of Frenchmen who wished to cultivate Sea Island cotton, cut live oak timber for sale to naval shipbuilders, stock the island with slaves and raise cattle. French involvement on Sapelo was characterized by mystery, intrigue and mayhem. Disagreements and mistrust over use of land and money led to the breakup of the six-man French partnership in 1795. One partner, Chappedelaine, was killed in a duel on the island by one of the other partners while another, Dumoussay, died of yellow fever soon after.
In the first decade of the nineteenth century, Sapelo was acquired through purchase or inheritance by three men, Thomas Spalding (south end), Edward Swarbreck (Chocolate), and John Montalet (High Point), the latter having married the daughter of one of the departed Frenchmen. By 1843, Spalding had acquired virtually the entire island, except a 600-acre tract at Raccoon Bluff. It was Spalding (1774-1851) who left the most important legacy to Sapelo. He was one of the leading planters on the tidewater, an agricultural innovator, amateur architect, astute businessman and leading citizen of McIntosh County. Spalding introduced the cultivation of sugar cane and the manufacture of sugar to Georgia. He built his own sugar mill, reintroduced the use of tabby as a primary building material on the coast, contributed important techniques for the culture of Sea Island cotton and gradually developed Sapelo into an antebellum plantation empire. Spalding and his children owned 385 slaves on Sapelo in the 1850s.
The Civil War ended the plantation economy and Sapelo became the home to a large African-American community during the Reconstruction and postbellum periods. The William Hillery Company, a partnership of freedmen, bought land at Raccoon Bluff as early as 1871. Over time, many of the former slaves purchased land on Sapelo and established permanent settlements, including Hog Hammock, Raccoon Bluff, Shell Hammock, Belle Marsh and Lumber Landing. The First African Baptist Church was organized in 1866 at Hanging Bull, eventually moving to Raccoon Bluff, which was also the site of a black school. Sapelo’s blacks engaged in subsistence agriculture, timbering and oyster harvesting in the Duplin River estuary. Most of Sapelo was sold by Spalding descendants after the Civil War.
In 1912, Detroit automotive engineer Howard E. Coffin (1873-1937) consolidated the various holdings on Sapelo and bought the entire island, except for the black communities, for $150,000. Coffin owned Sapelo for twenty-two years. He rebuilt the south end mansion into one of the most palatial homes on the coast from 1922-25, this being a tabby-stucco structure originally built by Spalding in 1810. Coffin engaged in large-scale agriculture, sawmilling and seafood harvesting. He also built roads, drilled artesian wells and added other improvements to the island. Many distinguished visitors were guests of the Coffins on Sapelo, including two presidents, Calvin Coolidge (1928) and Herbert Hoover (1932), and the aviator Charles A. Lindbergh (1929). During this period Coffin and his young cousin, Alfred W. Jones, established the Cloister resort on nearby Sea Island.
In 1934, due to financial reversals brought on by the Depression, Coffin sold Sapelo to North Carolina tobacco heir Richard J. Reynolds, Jr. (1906-1964). Reynolds utilized the island as a part-time residence for thirty years. Reynolds’ most important contribution was his establishing the Sapelo Island Research Foundation and providing the facilities and other support for the University of Georgia Marine Institute, begun in 1953. Reynolds’ widow, Annemarie Schmidt Reynolds, sold Sapelo to the state of Georgia in two separate transactions in 1969 and 1976, the later sale resulting in the creation of Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve, a state-federal partnership between the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.