The First People of the South Carolina Lowcountry
The Lowcountry of South Carolina once belonged to more than a dozen distinct groups of Native Americans whose existence is now barely remembered. In the decades after the founding of Charleston in 1670, the indigenous people of this area interacted regularly with White settlers from Europe and enslaved Africans transported from the Caribbean. Disease, warfare, and displacement gradually reduced their numbers, however, and the first people of the Lowcountry were virtually extinct by the middle of the eighteenth century. Their history is now largely forgotten, but their names remain fixed in our modern vocabulary.
My goal in this program is to provide a brief overview of a very complex topic that is imbedded within the sprawling backdrop of European exploration and settlement in North America. The material presented here is merely a primer, intended to stimulate and facilitate further study. In recent decades, a number of scholars have published dozens of books focused on the early history of the Native Americans who once populated the southeastern region of the present United States. Because most of that material focuses on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, the first people of the South Carolina Lowcountry are largely excluded. The bulk of their story is embedded in earlier generations.
At present, the best resource for exploring the history of Charleston’s first people is a book published in 1980 by Gene Waddell, titled Indians of the South Carolina Lowcountry, 1562–1751. You can find a copy of this limited-edition book in the South Carolina History Room at CCPL and in academic libraries across the state, or access a digitized version through the website of the College of Charleston. Mr. Waddell’s book is a trove of valuable information, but the material is arranged in a rather awkward fashion. While you might not find this book suitable for a leisurely reading, it nevertheless reflects a significant scholarly achievement and is worthy of our attention.
The geographic range of this conversation embraces what is commonly called the “Lowcountry” of South Carolina; that is, the coastal plain stretching approximately eighty miles inland between the Savannah River to the south and the Santee River to the North. Conveniently, this geographic range encompasses a landscape with a relatively homogenous history during the period of European exploration and colonization in centuries past. Both the Savannah and Santee Rivers appear to have formed cultural and political boundaries between the indigenous peoples that once inhabited this area and their neighbors to the south and north. The native people of the Lowcountry were also culturally and politically distinct from the inland tribes like the Catawba, Cherokee, Creek (Muskogean), Shawnee, and Chickasaw. Representatives of those larger, westerly groups certainly form part of the early history of South Carolina, but the seat of their respective histories lies beyond the Lowcountry and beyond the scope of the present conversation.
Many sources published in the past century describe the various tribes or bands of indigenous people of the Lowcountry as members of a larger collective called the “Cusabo,” but the modern use of that term is fraught with problems. The collective term “Cusabo” is an artificial construct inspired by a nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholarly obsession with classification. In reality, the people commonly called Indians who inhabited the Lowcountry in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries never identified themselves as constituent parts of a broad collective. The collective noun “Cusabo” is a convenient handle for conversations about the past, but it’s a modern invention based on a very thin veneer of historical evidence. When colonists of the early eighteenth century spoke or wrote about the Native Americans who lived among the coastal settlements of South Carolina, they frequently used some variation of a rather generic two-word phrase: “settlement Indians.”
The word “tribe” implies a unified community with a relatively stable identity over time, but this term might not be appropriate for conversations about some of the indigenous people who lives were fractured by interaction with European settlers in this area during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. French, Spanish, and English writers of that era frequently used the term “nation” to describe various native groups, but the surviving records do not explain how those people described or defined their own collective identity. Although “tribe” might not be the most historically appropriate term, its widespread familiarity renders it useful for the present discussion.
From a number of documentary records created by French, Spanish, and English settlers between 1562 and 1751, we find the names of more than two dozen groups or “tribes” of indigenous people residing within the Lowcountry of South Carolina. By comparing descriptions of these people and noticing similarities of names and locations over time, we can surmise that that these dozens of names represented at least nineteen distinct identities. Not all of these groups existed at the same time, however, and it’s possible that some of the groups described by sixteenth-century visitors formed part of differently-named groups encountered by seventeenth-century settlers.
For example, the earliest surviving descriptions of indigenous people along the southern coast of modern South Carolina, recorded by French and Spanish explorers between 1562 and 1576, contain references to at least seven distinct communities or tribes: Escamacu (the largest and southernmost tribe); Hoya (a much smaller tribe, near the Escamacu); Edisto (on the Broad River); Touppa (Broad River); Mayon (Broad River); Stalame (Port Royal Island); and Kussah (north of Port Royal).
The creation of a semi-permanent Spanish settlement at Santa Elena (modern Parris Island) in 1566 greatly disrupted the lives of the indigenous people living in that area. The largest tribe in the region, the Escamacu (later called the St. Helena people), rebelled against the Spanish in 1576 and triggered several years of warfare. Spanish forces retaliated against the Escamacu and their neighbors, and enlisted other indigenous tribes from south of the Savannah River to raid and enslave the rebellious people around Santa Elena. As a result of this bloodly conflict, sometimes called the Escamacu War, most or all of the indigenous people who had resided along the southern coastline of modern South Carolina moved either northward or westward. The introduction of European diseases in the 1560s, combined with several years of warfare during the late 1570s, also reduced the native population of the region significantly. During the final decades of the sixteenth century, it is possible, perhaps even likely, that the survivors of some formerly-distinct groups banded together to form new identities or amalgamated with other tribes as they moved away from the orbit of Spanish influence.
Santa Elena served as the capital of La Florida from 1566 to 1587, at which time Spanish forces largely abandoned the site and retreated southward to San Augustín (St. Augustine). Over the next twenty-odd years, Spanish agents sailing northward from the new capital continued to explore the coastline of modern South Carolina and encountered additional groups of indigenous peoples. In the vicinity of the harbor they called San Jorge (modern Charleston Harbor), Spaniards met with representatives of three distinct communities that we recognize as the Stono, Kiawah, and Etiwan people, who were associated with the Stono, Ashley, and Cooper Rivers, respectively.
These three tribes were still present in 1670 when English colonists began settling around Charleston Harbor. As these settlers pushed southward from Charleston, towards the former Spanish settlement of Santa Elena, they encountered three tribes that were apparently synonymous with those described in the sixteenth century—the Edisto, Kussah, and St. Helena (Escamacu)—and three new groups called the Wimbee, Ashepoo, and Combahee. To the west and north of Charleston, English colonists of the early 1670s encountered four additional tribes known as the Wando, Sampa, Kussoe, and Sewee. Another group known as the Witcheaugh are known only through a single document recorded in 1684, while the Bohicket people first appear on a map created around 1685.
Owing to the paucity of surviving records, it’s very difficult to draw any definitive conclusions about the culture and identity of these groups of Native Americans. The European settlers who came to this area in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries did not share our modern respect for the indigenous people. Few local writers bothered to record details about their lives and customs. Those who did often described the natives in condescending and prejudicial terms. Nevertheless, their sparse descriptions are still valuable today. The extant references, combined with archaeological evidence, suggests that most or all of these groups followed a residence pattern of seasonal migrations. Rather than constructing permanent homesteads and towns, they resided near the coast during the warm months of late spring and summer and retreated as much as eighty miles inland during the autumn, winter, and early spring. They engaged in limited planting activities, and relied heavily on hunting, fishing, and gathering food resources from the landscape. This lifestyle did not provide a great deal of food security, however, and therefore limited the size of their respective families and communities.
An early visitor to South Carolina returned to London and published in 1682 a physical description of the indigenous people he had encountered around Charleston: “The Natives of the Country are from time immemorial, ab origne Indians, of a deep chesnut colour, their hair black and strieght, tied various ways, somtimes oyl’d and painted, stuck through with feathers for ornament or gallantry; their eyes black and sparkling, little or no hair on their chins, well limb’d and featured, painting their faces with different figures of a red or sanguine colour, whether for beauty or to render themselves formidable to their enemies I could not learn. They are excellent hunters; their weapons the bow and arrow, made of a read [reed], pointed with sharp stones, or fish bones; their cloathing skins of the bear or deer, the skin drest after their country fashion.”
Although the various indigenous people of coastal South Carolina might have shared a number of general physical characteristics, we know almost nothing about their language. The Lowcountry landscape of the twenty-first century includes more than a hundred place names of indigenous origin, but no other texts or documents survive to provide further information about the grammars and vocabularies that they used. Clues embedded in their respective tribal names and place names suggest the presence of at least two distinct languages within the Lowcountry. One was probably related to Siouan family of languages, and the other was perhaps related to the Muskhogean family or languages. There were perhaps several languages and dialects in use across the Lowcountry in the late seventeenth century, but there are no records to enable scholars to reach more definitive conclusions. Most of the known tribal groups in this area were able to communicate with each other to some degree, however, and it’s likely that the indigenous population of the Lowcountry, like their neighbors in other regions, were multilingual people.
The members of these fifteen groups (Ashepoo, Bohicket, Combahee, Edisto, Etiwan, Kiawah, Kussah, Kussoe, St. Helena, Sampa, Sewee, Stono, Wando, Wimbee, and Witcheaugh) were largely friendly to the European settlers of the late seventeenth century and the enslaved people of African descent transported from the English settlements in the Caribbean. Their collective willingness to tolerate this foreign influx was motivated, to a large degree, by their desire to gain protection from hostile Indians to the south and west who were allied with the Spanish government in St. Augustine. On several occasions in the 1670s and 1680s, local Indians banded with Carolina colonists to drive away the hostile Westo people who came from south of the Savannah River to kill and enslave the indigenous people allied with the English.
The Westo were not the only group to cause problems for the early Carolina colonists, however. The Kussoe people, centered around the upper reaches of the Ashley River, began to push back against English encroachment in 1671, followed by the Stono in 1674. For this resistance, the colonial government punished the rebellious natives with violence. Those who resisted were sold into slavery and shipped to English settlements in the Caribbean, while the survivors were increasingly displaced. Such clashes, combined with exposure to European diseases and vices, caused the native population to decline rapidly. The author of another pamphlet published in 1682 informed English readers that none of the Lowcountry tribes had more than fifty bowmen, and one—the Stono—had only sixteen hunters.
The stability of the indigenous population was further eroded during the early years of English colonization by the expanding footprint of plantations and cattle herds. The rebellious Kussoe people, for example, were forced to surrender their traditional homelands in 1675 and moved farther to the north and west. Around that same time, the Etiwan, Wando, Sampa, and Sewee voluntarily removed to a sort of informal reservation on the Wando River near modern Cainhoy. Similarly, the helpful Kiawah people abandoned their traditional base on the Ashley River in the early 1680s and removed to the island that now bears their name. In the spring of 1684, representatives of eight other tribes (Edisto, Ashepoo, Combahee, Kussah, St. Helena, and Wimbee) signed an agreement to surrender their land rights to the provincial government of South Carolina.
The conflicts and removals of the 1670s and 1680s marked the beginning of the decline of the Native American population within the Lowcountry of South Carolina. In the autumn of 1686, Spanish soldiers and their Indian allies burned a trail of destruction from Port Royal to Edisto and Wadmalaw Islands, destroying both property and people. Most of the indigenous population of this area disappeared in the violence, and the uprooted survivors shuffled northward onto increasingly crowded lands. Between the winter of 1697 and the spring of 1700, hundreds of White colonists, African slaves, and native Americans perished in a series of mortal fevers that swept through the Charleston area. Meanwhile, most of the Sewee people were lost at sea when they attempted to row a fleet of canoes to England. Another round of fatal sickness in the summer of 1706 further weakened the local population and induced a squadron of Spanish and French ships to attempt an invasion of Charleston. Native American allies west of the Ashley and east of the Cooper provided valuable assistance to the English on that occasion, but their numbers continued to shrink. An Anglican minister reported to London in 1706 that each of the surviving tribes of Lowcountry Indians included no more than fifty people.
White colonists in early South Carolina traded and bartered freely with the Indians living among their settlements, but a law ratified in 1707 required them to obtain a license to trade with the larger groups of Native Americans residing beyond the Lowcountry. The provincial government hoped this law would prevent unscrupulous traders from defrauding and enslaving the neighboring tribes, abuses which provoked reprisals that threatened the peaceful inhabitants of South Carolina. Such efforts proved insufficient, however, and a general Indian revolt commenced in the spring of 1715. During the so-called Yamasee War, which was led by a distant tribe that had moved into South Carolina thirty years earlier, some of the Native people who had once allied themselves with the English turned against their White neighbors, while other Lowcountry natives fought with the colonists against the hostile Indians.
Extant records created in the aftermath of the Yamasee War include the names of just five surviving tribes of Lowcountry Natives—the St. Helena, Edisto, Kussoe, Kiawah, and Etiwan. The survivors were scattered across the landscape from Port Royal to the Wando River, living among and between the expanding number of agricultural plantations. In subsequent years, their numbers continued to decline as their independence and cultural identities faded. During the second quarter of the eighteenth century, South Carolina’s settlement Indians were repeatedly harassed by hostile warriors from northern tribes like the Seneca who were allied with distant French colonists. On several occasions during that period, tribal representatives came to Charleston to ask the provincial government to provide them with a place of refuge. The final known reference to the St. Helena, Edisto, Kiawah, and Kussoe people appears in such an appeal made in 1743. Eight years later, in 1751, the governor of South Carolina named only the Etiwan as a band of local Indian allies.
Vestiges of these various tribes no doubt survived across the plantation landscape of the Lowcountry beyond the middle of the eighteenth century, but the written records of that era contain no further references to the indigenous people that once dominated this region. In the autumn of 1770, Lieutenant Governor William Bull (1710–1781) noted their conspicuous absence in a letter to the British Secretary of State in London. “I cannot quit [my discussion of] the Indians, without mentioning an observation that has often raised my wonder. That in this province, settled in 1670 . . . then swarming with tribes of Indians, there remains now, except a few Catawbas, nothing of them but their names, within three hundred miles of our sea coast; no traces of their emigrating or incorporating into other nations, nor any accounting for their extinction by war or pestilence equal to the effect.”
William Bull’s 1770 letter provides a useful perspective on the disappearance of the Lowcountry natives during the colonial era, but he was certainly not the most informed contemporary source of information related to that complex topic. There were others at that time, living on the colonial frontier, who might have described the nuances of the story with greater insight. Their valuable perspectives, however, do not survive among our written history. Nevertheless, we can surmise that the pressures of colonial encroachment and inter-tribal violence forced the individual bands of indigenous people across the Lowcountry to shift their residential patterns and adjust their identities and languages. As other tribes did across North America during the age of European colonization, those who survived great hardships within the South Carolina Lowcountry banded together with other vestigial groups to form new identities, or migrated beyond the Lowcountry to join more robust communities elsewhere. This scenario, while difficult to document using traditional historical resources, leads us to a concluding statement:
The first people of coastal South Carolina were reduced from prosperity to obscurity between 1562 and 1751 as European encroachment shattered the framework of their traditional existence. Despite this virtual annihilation, the various tribes mentioned in today’s program are not completely extinct. Their legacy survives in the lineage of individuals scattered across our local community and across the nation at large. More generally, we recall the identities of the Lowcountry’s indigenous people whenever we traverse the local landscape, from Awendaw to Wespanee, from Abbapoola to Yeshoe, and scores of other places with similarly mellifluous names. The lost tribes of the South Carolina Lowcountry may have evaporated centuries ago, but they still form an important part of our shared history.
 For a discussion of the documentary evidence for the term “Cusabo,” see Gene Waddell, Indians of the South Carolina Lowcountry, 1562–1751 (Southern Studies Program, University of S.C., Columbia, S. C. 1980), 114–19.
 Waddell, 3, 171–83.
 For a discussion the tribal territories, culture, and political organization, see Waddell, 3–6, 34–57, 57–74.
 Alexander Salley Jr., ed., Narratives of Early Carolina, 1650–1708 (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1911), 156, quoting from [Thomas Ashe], Carolina, or a Description of the Present State of that Country (London, T. A. Gent., 1682).
 For a discussion of language clues, see Waddell, 23–33.
 Waddell, 14–15, provides population estimates for the period 1562–1756.
 See Waddell, 4–5, 201, 237–38, 247, 262.
 Waddell, 5–6, 11, 291–92
 Lieutenant Governor William Bull to the Earl of Hillsborough, 30 November 1770, transcribed in H. Roy Merrens, ed., The Colonial South Carolina Scene: Contemporary Views, 1697–1774 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1977), 268.