eaufort County Council [last year] approved the purchase of 100 acres along the Okatie River that was the site of a Yemassee Native American village known as Altamaha. ...... “Part of the site was settled in 1690 as a town called Altamaha, named after the chief of the Yemassee tribe. What remains of the town, located along the Okatie River, lies beneath land that was planned as a future phase of the Heyward Point development. The site also could contain traces of civilization that existed on the land 4,500 years ago, according to archaeologists.”
This is an excerpt from the March 2005 Archaeological Society of South Carolina newsletter. Now, over a year later, the development of Heyward Point is underway and sure enough when the earth was moved, a town was found.
Archaeologists working at Heyward Point in Beaufort County, SC, have unearthed the remnants of Altamaha Town, the principal settlement of the Yamasee Indians in South Carolina. Eric Poplin, Vice President of Brockington Cultural Resources Consulting, led the team that has exposed the first houses associated with the Yamasee in South Carolina, and continues to examine other portions of this important Native American settlement. Pottery fragments and the remains of fish, deer, and bear indicate the Yamasees’ continued reliance on traditional technologies and foodstuffs, while numerous beads, gunflints, musket balls, and bottle glass demonstrate their intimate relationships with the early Carolina colonists and the market economy of the British Empire. The Yamasee were the primary Native allies of the Carolina colony, providing Indian slaves for early plantations, deer hides for the expanding skins trade, and military assistance and protection from Spanish colonists and less friendly Native American groups. Altamaha and nine other towns were occupied by the Yamasee circa 1700-1715. In 1715, war between the Yamasee and the Carolina colonists would resulted in the Yamasee leaving Carolina forever, settling first in Florida and eventually in Cuba. The ongoing investigation of Altamaha Town provides an opportunity seldom available to study Native American lifeways within an extremely narrow timeframe and the interactions of these Native Americans with the expanding British colony of Carolina.
“We have been told that this is one of the most extensive archeological digs ever conducted in the state of South Carolina,” stated Skeet Sherman, President of the organization now developing Heyward Point. “This project has been a true attribute to Heyward Point and the people with Brockington have taken great care to preserve and study what the Native American settlers left behind on this land.”
Construction of the amenities and Phase Two homesites will commence this year and there are plans for dedicating areas of the Riverhouse, which is in close proximity to the archeological dig, and the Commons House to cultural and educational centers in which some of the artifacts and information regarding the Altamaha Town and Yamasee Indians can be explored.
The acreage included the “60-acre Altamaha town site, which served as the seat of the Yemassee people from the 1690s to 1715 and is listed in the National Register of Archaeological Sites since the late 1970s.” Also included in the site are two cemeteries, one white and one black, as well as American Indian mounds that were used as burial sites.
The Yemassees lived in South Carolina for less than 35 years, from 1684 to 1715. Prior to that, they lived in the coastal area of the Altamaha River, in present southern Georgia. According to Dr. Larry Ivers, “the Yemassee nation was actually composed of two separate nations: Guale and Yemassee.”
By 1680, the Yemassees were living north of St. Augustine, in Spanish Florida. Following a dispute between their chiefs and the Spanish governor, in the winter of 1684-5, the Yemassees moved to the coastal area just north of the Savannah River.
The Yemassee Towns
At first, there were two Yemassee towns, those of Altamaha and Pocotaligo, in what is now Beaufort County. Other Yemassees settled on St. Helena Island and Hilton Head Island. After Spanish raids, some fled to the Ashepoo River area before returning to Port Royal Island about 1700. By 1703, they were joined by more Guale Indians from Spanish Florida.
By 1715, there were 10 Yemassee and Guale towns in the Indian land of Beaufort and Jasper counties. Ivers listed the upper Yemassee towns of Pocotaligo, Huspah, Tomomtley, Euhaw and either Salkehatchie or Sapello. The Yemassee towns were probably Altamaha, Okatee, Chechessee, Tullifinny and Posabo.
A survey of the Yemassee population in 1715 listed 415 men, 345 women, 234 boys, 223 girls, making a total of 1,215 Indians. At the same time, the population of the Port Royal region was estimated at between 300 and 400 African-Americans and whites.
By 1707, with increasing white settlement of the coastal regions, the Charlestown government established a reservation for the Yemassees, including the mainland between the Combahee and Savannah Rivers.
Appearance Of Indian Towns
The 10 Yemassee towns were primitive, even by the standards of those days. They consisted of clearings and rough log huts with thatched roofs of palm fronds. There were forms of communal living and congregating by families.
The sketch accompanying the text of Ivers’ talk showed a Yemassee Indian town close to a river or creek bank. There were also rectangular huts with thatched roofs; round huts, raised off the ground on a square platform (presumably for restoring crops, such as corn). In the center of the town, on a raised hill of earth, was the round community building called the town house.
The Town House
The description corresponds to a contemporary account by a white trader at the Pocotaligo Indian town in 1715: “That evening, the Pocotaligo traders returned to their houses and the Indians provided the visitors with a good supper and beds in the large, round community building called the town house.”
A Yemassee town was distinguished by numerous open spaces. Several family huts were often close together, but separated by open spaces from other families. There were open spaces for growing crops, playgrounds for children, trees scattered throughout the town, which was located on the banks of a navigable creek or river.
William Green, in an unpublished thesis for the University of South Carolina Department of Anthropology, wrote “the town of Altamaha appears to have been composed of dispersed residential clusters of households.”
Yemassees Sought To Return
After defeat by South Carolinians, black and white, fighting together, the remaining Yemassees fled to Spanish territory, north of St. Augustine. The Huspah king made several efforts to contact South Carolina leaders, stating his people wanted to return to South Carolina in peace. A second attempt was made in 1719, in which Col. John Barnwell went to Florida, but it also failed. By then, the Huspah king had gained Spanish support to make him head king of the Yemassees.
Yemassee Indians continued to raid the Carolina Lowcountry for 13 more years. Ivers stated that “only a few brave settlers dared establish plantations at Port Royal prior to 1733. They were often harassed by small-scale Yemassee raids and ambushes. The Yemassees never did give up their 50 white captives, mostly women and children from Port Royal and St. Bartholomew’s, until June 1720. The black captives were never released.
The article “County buys Indian Land dating back more than 300 years” by Gerhard Spieler, Gazette Columnist, was originally published on Sunday October 17, 2004. Gerhard Spieler’s articles have been printed in The Gazette since 1972.
Heyward Point is a gated, large homesite community located on Callawassie Road near Callawassie Island and Spring Island.
For more information regarding Heyward Point, please contact Laura Becker Maxfield at (843)379-7710 x 1008. www.heywardpoint.com