Sapelo Island which lies just off the coast of Georgia, north of the mouth of the Altamaha River, is the fourth largest and most pristine of the Georgia barrier islands. It is a reserve that is made up of salt marsh, maritime forest, and beach and dune areas.

History of Sapelo Island

The earliest inhabitants of Sapelo Island were prehistoric Indians.  Shell middens, mounds, and pottery fragments provide ample evidence of their presence from 4000 BP up through the influx of Europeans during the eighteenth century, when they were known as the Guale.  Artifacts excavated from the Shell Ring, on the northwestern side of the island, have been carbon-dated to 4120 ± 200 BP.  Excavations at Kenan Field, on the northeastern side of the island, have shown that a village there covered at least 60 hectares, and artifacts recovered there have been carbon-dated to AD 1155 ± 75.

During the 17th century, Spain established missions in what is now coastal Georgia as part of their effort to convert the native Indians to Christianity and to guard their sea routes to Mexico.  One of the missions on the coast was named San José de Zápala, from which the name Sapelo is derived.  Although archaeological surveys on Sapelo have located a number of sites where fragments of their pottery attest to the influence of the Spanish in the area, no architectural remains of a Spanish mission have yet been identified on Sapelo.  Spanish presence in the area declined during the latter part of the 17th century, and by the time that Georgia was established as a British colony in 1733 the coast was occupied by the Creek Indians. (read more)

Sapelo Island Microbial Observatory

The Sapelo Island Microbial Observatory (SIMO) is investigating the diversity of prokaryotes, their physiological and genetic characteristics, and their biogeochemical activities in a salt marsh/estuarine ecosystem in the southeastern U.S. This project was funded in October, 2000 by the National Science Foundation.

Like other coastal environments, the Sapelo Island salt marshes play essential roles in processing materials from both the land and sea.  In the coming decade, knowledge of prokaryotic communities and their metabolic capabilities will be critical for establishing linkages between species composition and biogeochemical function in coastal ecosystems. (read more)

Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve

In 1975, the state of Georgia nominated the Duplin River Estuary as a national estuarine sanctuary, and in 1976 the state matched the federal funds provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and completed the purchase of the south end of Sapelo Island, establishing the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve (SINERR).  The Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve (SINERR) occupies 2390.74 ha, slightly more than one-third of the area of Sapelo Island.  It contains the Duplin River watershed, primarily intertidal salt marsh with some small upland tracts, and the upland maritime forest, marsh, dune and beach areas of the southern end of the island, and a lighthouse built in 1820.  The lighthouse has recently been restored to working condition using private funds. (read more)

Sapelo Island National Estuarine Reserve

Human activity on Sapelo Island spans over 4000 years. The earliest inhabitants were Paleo-Indians who used the island to fish and hunt. Their legacy is evident by the numerous shell middens located throughout the island, including a shell ring 15 feet high and 200 feet in diameter. In the early 1800's, Sapelo Island underwent significant change when Thomas Spalding, the son of a Scottish trader and planter, bought the island and developed it into a plantation. An amateur agriculturalist, Spalding sold live oak for shipbuilding, introduced irrigation ditches, and cultivated sea island cotton, corn, and sugar cane. (read more)

Pictures of Sapelo Island

Other Sapelo Island Resources

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