In the spring of 1715, the Yamasee Indians and allied tribes in the lowcountry of South Carolina rose up against their European neighbors and began a campaign of terror and destruction. After two years of bloody warfare that claimed hundreds of lives, Colleton County had been completely depopulated, the colony’s treasury was empty, and South Carolina was on the brink of collapse. Three hundred years later, it’s time for a reappraisal of this pivotal, yet largely forgotten chapter in our state’s history.
The Yamasee (spelled variously) were/are a tribe of indigenous people who once lived in the vicinity of northern Florida and the original southern boundary of South Carolina (now Georgia). Although originally allied with the Spanish, the Yamasee broke ties with Florida, pledged friendship with the English, and moved northward into lower South Carolina in the 1680s. As late as 1713, the English government of South Carolina counted the Yamasee as being among their best allies among the various native tribes in the lowcountry. Our trade with the natives was not well regulated by the government, however, and our Indian partners suffered deceits, insults, and abuses at the hands of the English. Despite warnings to the contrary, many unscrupulous English traders also kidnapped Indians and sold them as slaves to other colonies. Tensions reached a breaking point in April 1715, when Yamasee warriors began a campaign of violence against the white settlers.
Between 1715 and 1717, the European immigrants of South Carolina lived in a state of martial law and fear. Every able-bodied white male was required to participate in the militia, and “trusty” African slaves were also drawn into the conflict. Settlers living on the southern frontier of South Carolina—modern-day Jasper, Beaufort, and Colleton Counties—died fighting or fled to the walled city of Charles Town (Charleston). Indian marauders reached as far north as Goose Creek (modern Berkeley County), and at least one hostile party came within a couple of miles of Charleston before meeting white resistance. In early 1717 the remnants of the Yamasee nation came to Charleston to beg for peace, and a treaty was signed in November of that year. After two years of conflict, the vast wilderness between the Savannah and Edisto rivers had been depopulated. The South Carolina government confiscated the Yamasee’s coastal territory north of the Savannah River and offered it to settlers as an incentive to restart the process of colonization.
Reliable mortality statistics from this remote era do not survive, but the losses were significant. The Yamasee were largely but not completed destroyed, losing approximately one thousand lives before retreating to northern Florida and modern southwestern Georgia. Approximately three hundred Carolina settlers were killed in the war, although the number may be higher. In addition, unknown numbers of European settlers quit South Carolina and relocated to other colonies or simply went “home.”
At the end of the war, South Carolina was in a desperate state. The hurricanes of September 1713 and September 1714 had caused significant destruction to urban Charleston and to the nascent plantations of the lowcountry. The Yamasee War drained the provincial treasury of its resources, demoralized the population, and scared off investors and settlers. Then in 1718 a series of pirates harassed our capital port, taking advantage of the weakened government. In the meantime, our Lords Proprietors in England—the titular owners of the Carolina colony—offered very little assistance to their floundering investment. Is it any wonder, then, that an armed contingent of colonists soon rebelled, and in late 1719 cast off the passive government of the Lords Proprietors in a bloodless coup d’état?
This spring marks the 300th anniversary of the beginning of the Yamasee War, so keep your eyes open for commemorations at various historic sites around the lowcountry. On June 13th 2015, for example, the public is invited to attend the grand opening of the St. James Goose Creek Chapel of Ease Historical Site, where Colonel George Chicken and the Goose Creek militia won a significant victory against a Yamasee raiding party on 13 June 1715. There’s already a historical marker near the site, but soon there will be a memorial park as well.
And, of course, you’re invited to join me at the Charleston County Public Library for an illustrated program titled:
“The Yamasee War: A Tricentennial Remembrance”
Wednesday, May 20th 2015 at 6 p.m.
2nd Floor Classroom, CCPL, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401.
For more information, please contact Dr. Butler at butlern[at]ccpl.org or 843–805–6968.