south carolina lowcountry flag

The First People: Native Americans in South Carolina

Many hundreds of years before what is now called South Carolina was given its name, the land was home to a vibrant tapestry of Native American tribes.

From the misty Blue Ridge Mountains to the sandy beaches of the Atlantic coast, dozens of unique cultures flourished along the rivers and forests of this fertile landscape.

The early 16th century found the region populated by Siouan-speakers like the Catawba and Wateree, Iroquoian groups including the Cherokee, and Muskogean peoples such as the Yemassee and Congaree.

Linked by extensive trade networks and bound together through ceremony, these sophisticated societies built permanent towns and cultivated the land’s bounty.

Stormclouds of Conquest

The endless forests and rolling river valleys of the Carolina interior were a universe unto themselves in the early 16th century, untouched by the world across the seas. But rumblings of the coming storm could be felt as Spanish ships appeared on the horizon.

In 1540, conquistador Hernando de Soto led an expedition inland from Florida in search of rumored Indian kingdoms rich in gold and silver. His company marched for weeks under the unrelenting Carolina sun before reaching the village of a chieftainess named Cofitachequi.

Hernando de Soto’s violent entrance in 1540

The Lady of Cofitachequi greeted De Soto with wary hospitality, providing the Spanish respite and food before hastening their departure from her lands. Her people were the first Carolinians to feel the avarice of the conquistadors. But they would not be the last.

Over the next decades, other fortune-seeking adventurers pushed into the region’s heartland, probing the rivers and forests for wealth while cataloguing the many tribes they encountered. Catawba, Cherokee, Chicora – names that would echo through history.

But it was not long before the facade of cordiality between natives and explorers dissolved into bitter division. Exotic diseases like smallpox, carried unwittingly by the Spanish, spread like wildfire through the densely populated settlements along the rivers.

The once-thriving villages were reduced to cold cinders populated only by the dead. The decimated survivors turned a wary eye towards these seemsly cursed foreigners who brought pestilence in their wake.

Mistrust hardened into hostility as further Spanish expeditions arrived under De Soto’s lieutenant, Juan Pardo. Skirmishes erupted in 1576 when Pardo’s men tried to subjugate the natives and bend them to their will.

Full-blown war engulfed the land as native rebels drove the Spanish from their fort at Santa Elena near present-day Parris Island. Vengeful conquistadors soon returned with armies of Indian slaves seized from Florida to wreak havoc across the Lowcountry.

By century’s end, many of the great chiefdoms encountered by De Soto just decades before had vanished without a trace, swept away in agony and fire. Only faded stories remained, relayed from one generation to the next around council fires.

But those stories kept alive the memory of the storm that came from the sea, a storm that was merely the beginning of sorrows for the people of the dawn.


The Expedition of Hernando de Soto ground its way through the sweltering Carolina backcountry in the summer of 1540, futilely seeking the rumored cities of gold.

Sickened by fever and hunger, the bedraggled conquistadors were on the verge of collapse when they stumbled upon an Indian village on the banks of a flowing river.

At the village edge, a reception party emerged headed by a tall, copper-skinned woman of noble bearing. She greeted the explorers in warm tones, identifying herself as the Queen Cofitachequi.

For two weeks, she indulged the ailing Spanish with great hospitality, provisioning them with fresh supplies for their journey ahead.

Before the expedition departed westward, the Lady of Cofitachequi described her expansive domain throughout the Carolina hills and valleys. The land was fruitful but lacked gold, she told De Soto.

Undeterred, the restless conquistador resumed his fruitless quest for treasure until its doomed end three years later on the banks of the Mississippi.

Cofitachequi lived on only in De Soto’s chronicles, but some historians have speculated her lands later formed the heart of the vast Cherokee Nation which dominated the Carolina interior for centuries. The true fate of the mysterious queen remains unknown, but her memory endures as the first Carolina native to greet the fortune-seekers from Europe with gracious charity.

Blood and Fire

In 1670, a fleet of English ships dropped anchor off the coast of present-day Charleston. Ashore, they found the ruined remnants of Spain’s failed colonies and entered into uneasy negotiations with surrounding tribes like the Etiwan and Kiawah.

Seeking security against Spanish Florida to the south, many Lowcountry peoples cautiously welcomed the newcomers. The fragile peace quickly shattered, however, as relentless colonial expansion encroached upon native lands.

Open warfare erupted in 1674 when the Stono people rose up against the invaders. Ruthlessly crushed by the settlers, hundreds were sold into Caribbean slavery while the survivors fled west. And so it continued over the next decades, a cycle of tension, betrayal, and bloodshed.

By the early 18th century, once-powerful tribes like the Wando and Sewee had faded into the mists of history. Their names remained fixed upon the land, but their people were gone. Only echoes and shadows lingered in the forests and river valleys they had called home since time immemorial.

The Long Defeat

By the early 18th century, many of the once-mighty tribes of the Carolina interior had faded before the endless tide of colonial expansion. But new alliances were rising along the frontier, bound by shared grievance against the English settlements that had uprooted their world.

The Yamasee, refugees driven southward from settlements along the Oconee River, established new towns at Port Royal and Pocotaligo. Joining forces with the Apalachee, Apalachicola, and other displaced peoples, they stewed in growing resentment against the Carolina colonists’ endless land hunger.

Traders from Charleston and frontier farmers increasingly encroached upon the Yamasee’s new lands. Demands for deerskins and Native American slaves drove the Yamasee people deeper into debt and dependency.

Yamasee braves attack

Insults mounted upon injury until the Yamasee’s simmering rage could no longer be contained. In the spring of 1715, their fury exploded as war parties fell upon the unsuspecting frontier settlements scattered along the southern Carolina wilderness.

The raging hostilities engulfed the colony from Port Royal to the Stono River as tribes which had once welcomed the English now took up arms against them. Plantations were ravaged and hundreds of colonists slain before the community could mount an organized defense.

From their stronghold at Charleston, the provincial militia regrouped and launched relentless counterattacks against the precariously allied tribes. Lacking the English firepower, their unity shattered, the Indian forces were gradually beaten back after over a year of bitter warfare.

By 1717, the smoldering ruins of Yamasee territory were firmly under colonial control once more. But the people of Carolina would never be the same. The colony’s insatiable greed had made enemies of those who once called them friends.

The nightmarish conflict changed Carolina forever, but the repercussions would ripple through all the coming centuries of relations between colonists and Native Americans. In the end, both sides lost a part of their soul.

As the 18th century progressed, the dwindling tribes that remained were increasingly caught up in European conflicts like the French and Indian War. Cherokee lands were ravaged when they sided with the British against the French.

After the Revolutionary War, the fledgling American nation turned its attention to a policy of Indian Removal. Through coercion and deception, tribe after tribe ceded their homelands in fraudulent treaties. The once free peoples of the land were driven westward by the unrelenting march of colonialism.

King Hagler

The restless winds of war howled through the Carolina interior in the 1750s as British and French empires collided in the forests. Caught in between were the Catawba people under their stalwart chieftain King Hagler.

king hagler

From his village on the banks of the Catawba River, Hagler walked a political tightrope to preserve his tribe’s neutrality and security amidst the imperial land grab.

Allying with the British against mutual Indian enemies, Hagler negotiated guarantees of Catawba sovereignty and vast hunting grounds.

But French agents continued encroaching upon Catawba territory, undermining Britain’s promises. So in 1759 Hagler made the fateful decision to reverse course and join the French cause in driving the British from Carolina.

Victory eluded him. The French were crushed in 1760, leaving Hagler exposed before vengeful British colonial authorities.

But the chief’s diplomatic skill saved his people again. At a tense negotiation in 1763, he secured renewed British commitments to Catawba land rights and autonomy.

Tragically, just days after his diplomatic triumph, smallpox claimed Hagler’s life. But the resilient legacy of accommodation and defiance he embodied would guide the Catawba’s survival for generations to come. Under Hagler’s leadership, the people persevered through the storm winds.

The Vanishing Dawn

The 19th century dawned ominously for the remnants of Native tribes still clinging to their homelands in South Carolina. Once masters of the land, they now eked out an existence on the frayed edges of an endlessly encroaching colonial society.

The young American nation looked hungrily upon the millions of acres still occupied by native peoples across the South and West. Through coercive treaties backed by military force, Indian removal became the official policy of the Washington government under President Andrew Jackson.

Between 1820 and 1840, the few remaining Eastern tribes in South Carolina were pressured into ceding the last of their ancestral territories to the state government. By 1840, even the once mighty Cherokee had been driven entirely from Carolina, forced west along the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma Indian Territory.

representation of the Trail of Tears

Only the bedraggled Catawba Nation still clung to a tiny 600 acre reservation along the Catawba River in the northern interior. But even they were not safe. By the late 1800s, the Catawba had lost their reservation and been reduced to a state of landless poverty on the fringes of the plantations and farms they once ruled.

Scorned as vagabonds and drunkards, the marginalized Catawba hired themselves out as day laborers while desperately trying to maintain what few shreds of their culture remained. Ancient pottery techniques were passed down through the generations, and families clung to language, religion, and oral history away from white scorn.

But day by day, decade by decade, the Native people of the Carolinas were edged closer to oblivion. Their world of yesteryear had vanished, swept away by the political and social forces far beyond their control or comprehension. They faced the future as outsiders in their own land, walking ghosts traversing the Lost Horizon.

The Road to Recovery

The early 20th century saw the scattered and decimated Native American tribes of South Carolina struggling to maintain their cultural identities in the face of legalized discrimination and government repression. But slowly the tides began to turn.

catawba river
Catawba River

In 1913, the remnants of the Catawba Nation were able to repurchase a small portion of their ancestral lands along the Catawba River, establishing a new reservation. But the tribe still faced dire economic circumstances.

Many Catawba left the area in search of jobs, while those who remained were subject to South Carolina’s discriminatory state laws that prohibited Indians from voting or attending white schools. The state also heavily regulated the Catawbas, requiring permits for residency and land ownership on the reservation.

In the 1920s, New Deal economic programs provided some relief, along with increased freedom to practice traditional crafts like pottery-making and basket-weaving without state interference. Catawba pottery in particular became a driver for cultural preservation and education.

After WWII, the state finally granted the Catawba and other Native American residents of South Carolina full citizenship rights in 1945. But the oppressive federal policy of Indian Termination threatened to destroy tribal identities through forced assimilation.

In 1958, the Catawba incorporated themselves to try and prevent termination of their tribal status by the government. It was a defensive posture aimed at simply preserving the survival of their people in an increasingly hostile nation. But the years of hardship had failed to break the resilient spirits of Carolina’s native peoples. A brighter future lay ahead.

The Long Road Back

The 1960s proved a pivotal turning point for the Native American tribes of South Carolina and across the nation. Inspired by the civil rights movement, Indians began organizing and asserting their legal rights after centuries of oppression.

In 1961, the Catawba sued the federal government over inadequate compensation for their forced removal in the 1840s. It took 22 years, but the Catawba finally won a $50 million settlement, helping fund a revival of education, social services, and economic development for the tribe.

Buoyed by a new generation of lawyers and activists, the Catawba also began fighting for federal recognition and self-governance. After filing for federal acknowledgment in 1975, the Catawba’s status was finally clarified by Congress and the Department of Interior.

In 1993, the Catawba achieved full federal recognition as a sovereign Native American nation, gaining powers of self-government and control over tribal lands. The reversal of termination policies allowed the tribe to reestablish cultural institutions reflecting their unique history in South Carolina.

Other native groups like the Pee Dee Indian Nation, Waccamaw Indian People, and others also began state recognition processes to gain rights and preserve their heritage. Building partnerships with universities, the tribes uncovered more of their lost history through archaeology and oral histories.

After centuries of removal and repression, South Carolina’s first nations began working as equals with state and federal agencies to protect sacred sites and control their own destinies. Their perseverance through adversity serves as an inspiration for indigenous rights movements across the globe. What was once lost, they found again.