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
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
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
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.