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Gullah and Geechee

While on our recent trip through the “Golden Islands” of Georgia and South Carolina we took the opportunity to visit Sapelo Island, Georgia.  Sapelo is only accessable by boat or seaplane.  It was during “the day” a fine plantation growing premium Sea Island Cotton.  The island provided Live Oak timbers that were in demand for ship building in the era of sail, and some sugar cane.  Sea Island Cotton was the most expensive and desirable long staple fiber because it took dye well and provided an exquisitely soft textile cloth.  Of course, all this was accomplished by enslaved Africans.  The plantation was owned by Thomas Spaulding, a prosperous Georgia legislator, who is reputed to have owned some 350 slaves.

At the end of the Civil War, many of the enslaved population then freed, chose to remain on the island and gained ownership of some land.  They lived all around the island and because of the limited contact with the outside world maintained the Gullah language and traditions.  Gullah is really a English-influenced dialect of the African language they brought with them from their homeland in Western Africa.  Geechee is another name for the same language used by the Gullah people who call themselves Geechees. Efforts  by Lorenzo Dow Turner in the 1930’s and 40’s to study the language revealed that many of the words are found among the Seminoles in Florida as well as among the Seminoles who were forced to relocate to Oklahoma.  Some of the Seminoles served with the US Army and were recruited from a population in Coahilla Province in Mexico.  Three of the Gullah were awarded Medals of Honor in the 1870’s.

The lauguage is rapidly dimming but fragments are still clearly evident on Sapelo.  This island was owned after the Civil War by Howard E. Coffin, owner of the Hudson Car Company and later by R. J. Reynolds, Jr, the tobacco tycoon.  Spaulding’s plantation house is still there, has seen numerous renovations, and is available for tours, weddings and for use as a B&B for a reasonable fee. 

One interesting anomaly is the cluster of residents who live in an area called Hog Hammock.  A hammock in this sense is a geologically elevated area above the tidal marsh typically containing a grove or clump of trees.  Hogs apparently used to inhabit this area before it was turned into a community.  Apparently RJ Reynolds wanted to gather all the small property residents into one area and encouraged them to take his offer by promising to provide electricity to all in the community.

Wild Georgia schrimp, oysters and other seafood are a popular in the community.  Sapelo Island is home to the Sapelo Island Research Foundation, begun by Reynolds in 1949 for the ecological study of salt water marsh habitats. 

Sapelo, like Tangier Island and Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay, is one of the few places in the US that proudly claims a unique historic language, Gullah.    

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