Sapelo Island's Slave Descendants
by Amy Lyn Hedrick
İMay 2009

Sapelo Island has of course been peopled since the earliest known inhabitants of this continent at the earliest about 4,000 years ago.

The remaining inhabitants of Sapelo Island can all trace their family histories back to one man, Bilali Muhammad; the overseer of Thomas Spalding's land holdings.  Bilali's surname has been spelled many different ways; variations of Muhammad and Mohomet.  It is presumed that Bilali and his family were purchased from the Bahamas and brought to Sapelo due to his skills at cultivating cotton.  Most historians place his date of birth to about the year 1770 and that he was a Fula from Timbo, Futa-Jallon (present day Guinea-Conakry).  He was enslaved as a teenager and was owned for 10 years by a Dr. Bell in the Middle Caicos who was a Loyalist refugee during the Revolutionary War.  Sometime around 1802 Bilali was purchased, along with his wife and some children, by Thomas Spalding and brought to Sapelo Island.  Family stories differ in that Bilali's wife, Phoebe, was actually born in the Bahamas and that's where he met her and married and other historians say that the majority of the family was from Africa.  In an early interview of Katie (Grovner) Brown, she states that it is entirely possible that Bilali had more than one wife too.

For many years, researchers presumed that a journal found in the possession of [what is the man's name] was a personal diary kept by Bilali.  Decades of research went into trying to decipher the text of this diary as it was written in 1829 in an Arabic text.  Finally, it was determined to be a text of laws for Islamic living; something Bilali may have been schooled in shortly before he was enslaved.  It was reported that Bilali was fluent in many languages:  English, French, Fula, Gullah, and Arabic.

Bilali was brought to Sapelo with at least seven daughters; in all he and his wife Pheobe were reportedly the parents of 19 children, the other twelve were sons.  It has been suggested that the character Aaron in the works of Joel Chandler Harris (author of Unlce Remus and Br'er Rabbit stories) was modeled after one of Bilali's sons.  Currently, no record has been found of these sons.

The seven known daughters of Bilali were:  Hester, Margaret, Bintou (or Minto), Medina, Yaruba, Charlotte, and Fatima.  At least four families on Sapelo got their start from these daughters.  The 1870 census for Sapelo Island shows that some of these daughters were born in the 1770's, which would mean that Bilali was either much older than previous researchers speculated or the daughters just didn't know their real age.

Hester was recorded in the 1870 census as being 100 years old from the Bahamas.  She had a daughter named Sally Smith who married Sampson Hogg for whom the community Hog Hammock was named.  When the patriarch of this family died the descendants changed their surname to Hall.

Margaret was also recorded as being 100 years old and of the Bahamas.  She was married to a man named Sampson Hillery who was 110 years old and from Georgia.  During the 1880 census Margaret was listed as being a widow at 105 years old and she most likely died shortly thereafter.

Bintou (or Minto as she is named on her tombstone) was born about 1775 in the Bahamas and was married to Scipio Bell who was most likely deceased by the 1870 census as she was listed alone.  Cemetery records say she died 25 August 1890 and U.S. Freedman's Bank Account records support that Scipio was deceased before 1870.  In 1880 Bintou was listed as Binkel Bell age 90 years a widow of Georgia.

Medina was born about 1810 on Sapelo Island and was married to Sipio Jackson who was born about 1800 in Georgia.  They had at least one daughter, Jane Jackson, who married Caesar Sams.

With these daughters alone, a family tree of over 500 persons can be created, all having lived their lives on Sapelo Island, and nearly all of the persons living on the island today, can trace their genealogies back to Bilali Muhammad.

During the war of 1812 Thomas Spalding put Bilali in charge of a team of armed men to protect the property and lives of Sapelo Island.  The neighbors were shocked that Spalding would arm his slaves fearing an uprising; but nothing of the sort happened, and the island was not invaded by English troops.  It is unknown why Bilali did not take off with the English, after all hundreds of slaves were taken or freely left with the English to find their freedom.  Bilali may have realized that the freedom offered by the English was not the freedom sought, that he and his family were better off right where they were.  Not that they were happy being enslaved, but that this life of freedom may come at a price that wasn't worth the chance.

The Civil War was brought right to the doorstep of McIntosh County, Georgia.  Many persons lost their lives during skirmishes, many were "arrested" by the invading Union forces, and many more left as refugees to inland counties.  It was recorded that the people of Sapelo Island were marched to the state capitol of Milledgeville in Baldwin County, although no official record exists to document this; however, other descendants of these island plantations said that their ancestors were evacuated on a long land march inland where most of the families returned to their home or nearby their other displaced relatives.

Many of those enslaved decided to join the cause for their freedom.  Hundreds of men enlisted into various U.S. Colored Regiments; personal family records state that the following men from Sapelo Island enlisted:  Mars (or March) Carter, Sam Robert, Jim Walker (who enlisted with the name James Spalding), Peter Maxwell, Mart Jackson, Fuller Wilson, Quatner Johnson, Mart Wilson, James Lemon, and a man named John Johnson was shot while trying to swim out to Union boats. 

No record was found by me in military records for a Mars or March Carter or any Carter from Coastal Georgia.

A Samuel Roberts enlisted as a private in Company A of the 33rd U.S.C.T. from St. Simons Island on 19 December (the year was not listed but the muster roll was started 31 January 1863), he was 19 years old and enlisted for 3 years as did nearly all of the men.

Military records index 5 men that enlisted in the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops who were born on Sapelo Island:  James Lemon and Peter Maxwell enlisted in 1862 from St. Catherine's Island.  Shederick Mungen and Lee Spalding enlisted from Beaufort, South Carolina in 1862 and 1864 respectively.

There were numerous men named James Walker who enlisted, although none were recorded as being born near McIntosh County.  There were also numerous men named James Spalding and Spaulding.  One record actually states he was from McIntosh County and that his name appears on record as Spalding and Spaulding suggesting all of these records are for the same man.  This James Spaulding was 32 years old, 5'7" of dark complexion with black eyes and curly hair who was a mason born in McIntosh County.  He enlisted on 5 November 1862 from St. Catherine's Island in Company A of the 33rd U.S.C.T.  The next card in this file reflects that James Spaulding was 40 years old and was listed on the muster roll of the 1st U.S.C.T. South Carolina Infantry Company A as a private on 31 January 1863.  This record states he enlisted on 5 November 1862 from St. Catherine's, and the fourth card in this file states that this is the same man, that he was in both regiments and was absent from service and was detailed as a nurse in Beaufort, South Carolina at the regimental hospital.

Lee Spalding was 16 years old, 5 foot tall with a black complexion, black eyes, and black hair when he enlisted in Company A of the 33rd U.S.C.T. on 1 June 1864 at Beaufort, South Carolina.  His record states he was born in Sapelo Island, his occupation was as a field hand and that he was a regimental musician.  He was mustered in by Brevert. Brig. Gen. Littlefield at Charleston, South Carolina on 25 March 1865 as a fifer.

There were two men named Martin Jackson that enlisted but they were from Monroe Co. Tennessee and Hoosick, New York.  The former died at a regimental hospital in Tennessee.

No record was found for a Fuller Wilson but there was record of a March Wilson who was born in McIntosh County and enlisted in the 33rd and another March Wilson born in Darien who enlisted in the 21st U.S.C.T. Infantry.  There was also a Harkless Wilson born in Darien that enlisted in the 33rd and Andrew Wilson born in McIntosh County who enlisted in the 33rd from St. Simons Island.

James Lemon was 28 years old, 5'8" with a dark complexion, black eyes, and curly hair when he enlisted on 5 November 1862 on St. Catherine's Island in Company A of the 33rd U.S.C.T. (he was also a member of the 1st South Carolina).  James was a boatman that was born on Sapelo Island and was appointed a corporal on 1 March 1864.  The next card in his file says he was 24 years old when he was mustered in on 31 January 1863 at Beaufort, South Carolina.  A note date 5 May 1865 Savannah was placed in this file requesting 15 days furlough for James to return to Sapelo Island because he left his wife in slavery, she had since escaped and was in a destitute condition at Sapelo and James wanted to bring her provisions.

No record was found for a Quatner Johnson enlisting, no Johnsons were indexed as being born near McIntosh County, yet there were about 33 men with this surname who were from Georgia.

Shederick Mungen was 40 years old, 5'7 1/2" with a black complexion, black eyes, and black hair when he enlisted at Beaufort on 14 December 1862 in Company B of the 33rd U.S.C.T.  His record says he was born on Sapelo Island and was a laborer by occupation.  He was not free as of April 1861 and he died in a hospital on Coles Island on 11 or 16 September 1864 of dropsy.  A death certificate was placed in this file but unfortunately it was for the wrong man.  The certificate in Shed's file was for a Shedrick Murphy who died on 26 December 1864 at 20 years of age.

Peter Maxwell enlisted on 5 November 1862 from St. Catherine's Island into Company a of the 33rd U.S.C.T.  He was a 33 year old field hand born on Sapelo Island; 5'4" with a dark complexion, black eyes, and curly hair.  The next card in his file says he was 22 years old when he was mustered into Company A of the 1st SC U.S.C.T. on 31 January 1863.  On 4 January 1864 Peter was absent from service as he was detailed as a gun man on the Steamer John Adams.  On 22 April 1865 he was reported sick in the hospital at Savannah but was present with his regiment by May.  On 10 November 1865 a furlough of 20 days was requested for Peter so that he could visit his family on Sapelo Island; it was stated that he had never had any furloughs the entire time he was enlisted.




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