The First South Carolina Americans [1]

See also:
Kansas Indians
Massachusetts Indians
New Hampshire Indians
Oregon Indians
Pennsylvania Indians

In Colonial days the area now covered by the State of South Carolina was the home of at least 28 separate and distinct tribes of Indians, many of whom spoke radically different tongues of at least five linguistic stocks. Although the culture of these people exhibited variation, it was based primarily upon the production of food crops. Corn, beans, and pumpkins were the most important, but peaches, figs, and melons were later adopted. Next to agriculture, hunting and fishing were prominent Indian pursuits, and hunting became more so after contact with the white race. Communal plantations and individual gardens were cultivated, a wide range of foods was prepared, some textiles were made, and there was some feather weaving, although dressed deer skins furnished material for most Indian garments. To a relative degree, basketry was advanced; stone implements were of a high order; pottery was unglazed and fragile, but well designed; dugout canoes were in general use. Along the coast and among the Siouan tribes of the eastern section, houses were of bark; rectangular log, or mat dwellings were in use among the Cherokee and other advanced tribes. Well-fortified towns with strong palisades and a town house were almost universal. The dome-shaped town house was the council chamber, temple, and community center. Inside burned a fire, replenished ceremonially once a year. Dancing celebrated all important occasions, the chief festival being the busk, or harvest ritual. The proverbial games were 'chunghee' and a ball game something like lacrosse. Ceremonial smoking preceded both peace and war deliberations. Common to the entire area appears to have been a ceremonial purge known as the black drink.

Intertribal warfare was almost perpetual, but related tribes were as a rule united into confederacies. Government was by the old man of the clan, not necessarily excluding the existence of a chief. A few tribes were so much under the sway of their chiefs as to be virtually under dictatorships.

Though their religion was polytheistic, a supreme deity was recognized. Shamanism and witchcraft, however, were extensively practiced. In certain respects the Indians were living in the Stone Age; in other particulars they had advanced far beyond it. No greater historical fallacy exists than that of depicting the advanced Cherokee Indian as a nomadic wanderer living in a skin tepee and wearing a Dakotah war bonnet.

Passing over the conflicting accounts of the Spanish and French, and beginning with the period of English colonization, one finds the following tribes and confederacies among the Indians in the province: Along the coast from the Savannah River to Charleston dwelt a feeble group of minor tribes known collectively as the Cusabo. This confederacy included the St. Helena Indians, the Wimbee, Combahee, Ashepoo, Edisto, Bohicket, Stono, Wando, Etiwan, and Kiawah. Behind them a little farther up the country lived the Coosa or Kussoe, often included as Cusabo. This tribe was the first to resent white incursion and its hostility resulted in an abortive war about 1672.

The Cusabo and all the other Low Country Indians lived in constant terror of the Westo, a restless tribe of newcomers who had settled near the middle of the Savannah River area and were popularly reputed to be man-eaters. For several years this nation was signally favored by the Lords Proprietors to the great dissatisfaction of the settlers who, in 1680-1682, defeated their dangerous neighbors in a war of annihilation. Only about 50 Westo survived to retire across the river into the territory of the Creek.

The defeat of these Indians was accomplished with the assistance of the Savannah, a band of immigrant Shawnee from the Cumberland. Settling on the Westobou River, to which they subsequently gave their name, they were the favored allies of the province until, about 1708, they became dissatisfied because of the cruelty and dishonesty of the traders. Despite the protests and even punitive measures adopted by the government, they left the province in large bands and removed to Pennsylvania. The Saluda, who migrated to the same region from the Saluda River about 1711, contemporaneously with a number of Savannah, were probably an independent band of that tribe.

Another Savannah River tribe was the Apalachee, 1,300 of whom were brought from Florida as free Indians by Governor Moore in 1704, following his expedition against the Spanish and their red allies. These were colonized a few miles below the present North Augusta near New Windsor. They remained in alliance with the province until the Yamasee War, the survivors retiring into Georgia at the end of the disastrous conflict.

Higher up the river lived a Yuchi band known as Hogologee or Hog Logge. Another band of Yuchi occupied territory below Augusta, and it has been suggested by Dr. John R. Swanton that the Westo themselves were still another subdivision of this tribe.

With the virtual disappearance of the Cusabo, the lower Savannah River country was thrown open to settlement by the Yamasee, a tribe that had been partly civilized by the Spaniards but had forsaken their interest for that of the English about 1684. They were loyal allies of Colonel Barnwell in the Tuscarora War of 1711, but revolted in 1715 because of gross abuses at the hands of the traders. Practically all of the other tribes joined them, and the white settlers were for a time in great danger. Upon their defeat they returned to Spanish territory but continued, for many years, to make raids upon the outlying white settlements. They have special significance for South Carolina literature through William Gilmore Simms's historical novel, The Yemassee, an unusual study of primitive life in the southeast.

About the headwaters of the Savannah, the Saluda, and the other rivers of the western South Carolina Piedmont, and extending inward and downward as far as the fall line and westward beyond the mountains, was the vast territory claimed by the Cherokee, that remarkable nation of Iroquoian Indians, who, for so many years, were the staunch allies of the white government. The history of their war against the colony in 1760 and their subsequent part in the American Revolution, as allies of the British, is well known. Withdrawing to northern Georgia they acquired white blood and white civilization at an early date, but actually retained a slender strip of land in South Carolina as late as 1816.

Up the coast from Charleston and along the Santee and Pee Dee Rivers and their tributaries, lived a number of Siouan tribes related to the Dakotah of the Western plains. They were less advanced than their traditional enemies, the Cherokee. This tribal group, which formed a loose confederacy headed by the Catawba Nation, included Sewee (sometimes classed as Cusabo), Santee, Sampit, Winyah, Peedee, Cheraw, Congaree, Wateree, Waxhaw, Esaw, and the Catawba tribes themselves. It perhaps included the mysterious 'Hooks and Backhooks,' who were mentioned by John Lawson as being enemies of the Santee. After the Yamasee War the remnants of the smaller Siouan tribes began migrating up the rivers and uniting with the Catawba, who, in 1743, were composed of groups speaking 20 different languages and dialects, according to Adair. Undoubtedly these people included several non-Siouan bands as well.

Following the Yamasee War, the Catawba never again forsook their alliance with the government and furnished warriors in every war in which the white people became engaged. As early as the Revolution they had become pitifully reduced in numbers, yet today they still preserve their tribal identity. Of the 200 or more in the State, only six or seven claim to be full-blooded Indian. On their tiny reservation in York County they continue to make the beautiful pottery for which they have established a deserved reputation. Though influenced to some extent by modern designs, their work is an interesting survival of an old Indian ceramic art.

Smallpox, war, and the cruel practice of Indian slavery reduced the aboriginal population of South Carolina almost to the vanishing point. Nevertheless, there are several small friendly groups that never deserted their original territory. These people, variously styled as Croatans, Red Bones, and Brass Ankles, are found in widely separated parts of the State, particularly in Dorchester, Colleton, Clarendon, Chesterfield, Marlboro, and Marion Counties. Similar though smaller groups exist in many other sections. The 'Turks' of Sumter County undoubtedly possess some Indian blood. Most of these mixed-blood remnants are found on the wide scrub-covered sweeps of the Sand Hill belt or in the dense swamps of the coastal rivers. They are generally small farmers who depend to a large extent upon hunting and fishing for their livelihood. Though independent and secretive, they are staunch friends once their confidence is gained.

  1. Governor Bernet R. Maybank and the Works Progress Administration, Federal Writers Project, South Carolina, A Guide to the Palmetto State, American Guide Series, 1941, Oxford University Press, New York


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