40 Acres and a Mule
The story of the barrier islands is also the story of slaves. Although Oglethorpe's original contract forbade slavery, the economic adventure of the young colony was considered a failure. Oglethorpe and the original 19 backers of the colony lost their contract and changes were made to introduce slave labor. Of the original crops (indigo, mulberry trees for silk, and vineyards for wine) only indigo proved successful. Prosperous planters made vast fortunes on the barrier islands up until the Revolutionary War, but not without importing large numbers of slaves to the barrier islands to grow and harvest their crop.
The next crop to flourish was live oak, sought after from the Revolutionary War to the War of 1812, because of the heavy, dense properties of the wood in creating superior vessels of war. The U.S.S. Consitution was constructed of this, and called Old Ironsides. The next crop to take hold was cotton - sea island cotton - a long-fibered variety which could be easily separated from the seed. Ossabaw, Sapelo, St. Simons, and Cumberland all became white with cotton. By the middle of the 1800's cotton peaked, demand and price declined. Some plantations converted to sugar cane, but the biggest decline came with the War Between the States.
Most of the lucrative plantations were deserted during the war, with slaves often forced to go inland. After the war, a number of barrier islands were taken over by squatters and plunderers. The Federal forces had pillaged many of the coastal plantations during the war. Many of the slaves returned before the owners dared come back. Attempts to bargain with sharecropping arrangements failed and the antebellum cotton plantations simply couldn't work without slave labor.
An order given by Sherman after the war granted land (in the form of 40 acre tracks) and a mule to freed slaves. Most of the barrier islands and parts of the Georgia mainland were thus divided up. Sapelo became the site of the largest community of freed slaves. Their dialect - Geechee (from West Africa) - is still spoken today. In South Carolina it is known as Gullah. Many members of this delightful community still try to hold on to the traditions, stories, and songs of their ancestors. You can find many interesting books and articles on the Geechee and Gullah peoples.