Southern History Series: The Yamasee War

In previous articles in the Southern History Series, we have explored the race war which broke out between the Powhatan Indians and English settlers in Virginia and the race war that was King Philip’s War between the Wampanoag Indians and the Puritans in New England. These race wars were decisive in shaping White racial attitudes toward the Indians in both regions.

The pacifist Quakers in Pennsylvania dealt with the racial threat to their society by inviting the Scots-Irish to settle the Pennsylvania backcountry and establish a buffer state between Philadelphia and the local Indians. This allowed them to preserve their consciences intact without having to get their hands dirty. It was the Scots-Irish who spearheaded the colonization of the Southern backcountry from Pennsylvania to Georgia and who engaged in the most brutal conflicts with the Indians. It is important to keep in mind when exploring this era that no one on the Southern frontier in the late 17th and early 18th centuries had read Locke and that the fancy theories of the Enlightenment didn’t begin to gain traction in the American colonies until the American Revolution. By this point, the men of the “East” were largely shielded from racial conflict with the “savages” by the men of the “West.”

In terms of Indian policy, there were already regional cultural differences on display in colonial America: the Puritans attempted to convert the Indians and assimilate them into a multiracial Calvinist New England by setting up praying towns for them which were destroyed in King Philip’s War, the Quakers invited the Scots-Irish and the Germans to settle their western frontier, the Virginians initially tried to get along with the Indians until the 1622 Jamestown Massacre and further south in Carolina (the colony was only later split into South Carolina and North Carolina) the Indians were dealt with largely by enslaving them as the original workforce in the colony or selling them to slave traders in the Caribbean.

The following excerpts come from Robert M. Weir’s book Colonial South Carolina: A History:

“Concluding a report in 1770, he observed, “I cannot quit 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 the few Catawbas, nothing of them but their names, within three hundred miles of our sea coast; … nor [is there] any accounting for their extinction by war or pestilence equal to the effect.” Expecting the same thing, whatever it was, to befall the Catawbas, he soon tried to make arrangements for his nephew to acquire their lands.”

In 1670, South Carolina had been teeming with Indians, but they had largely disappeared from the colony by the 1740s. The Indians of South Carolina were decimated by European diseases and alcoholism. They were also quarrelsome and destroyed each other in tribal warfare. A large part of it though was due to the fact that South Carolina was established from the outset as a Slave Society:

“South Carolinians were the Indian slave traders of the North American continent. In fact, so many Indian slaves were exported from the colony that in 1715 Connecticut and some of the other New England colonies specifically barred their importation from Carolina. Historians have therefore frequently assumed that most captured Indians were sent to the Caribbean and elsewhere. Undoubtedly many were, but substantial numbers also remained in the province. In 1708, for example, the total slave population was approximately 4,500; 1,400, or about one-third, were Indians. …

Like other diseases, alcoholism struck Indians especially hard. Why is not yet entirely clear. What is certain, though, is that some Indians continued to live among White settlements in South Carolina. Traces of them appeared in the record, especially in the seventeenth century, when they commonly served as hunters who, it was said, would keep a planter’s table supplied with game for a mere trifle. By the 1740s, however, some ministers were reporting that there were few if any Indians left in their parishes.”

The conflict between South Carolina and the local Indians came to a head in the Yamasee War in 1715 which wiped out about 7 percent of the White population of the colony. It was one of the most devastating wars in American history although not as deadly as King Philip’s War in New England:

“The Yamasee War of 1715, however, appears to have been different and perhaps unique in character. Some contemporary South Carolinians blamed Spanish authorities for instigating the conflict; and Spaniards in Florida certainly provided a refuge for the Yamasees after the uprising failed, though modern scholarship tends to minimize the role of the Europeans and attribute greater responsibility to the Creeks. Some historians have implied that the term “Yamasee War” is something of a misnomer that should signify no more than that the Yamasees, who were located near settlements in the southern part of South Carolina, attacked first. The most significant point, these scholars sensibly suggest, is not who started the war but the fact that before it was over about fifteen tribes were leagued against the whites.”

The Yamasee War was a race war that was started by the Indians. It involved not only the Yamasees but the Muscogee, Cherokee, Catawba, Apalachee, Apalachicola, Yuchi, Savannah River Shawnee, Congaree, Waxhaw, Pee Dee, Cape Fear and Cheraw tribes. On the side of South Carolina, Virginia and North Carolina sent troops to support the war effort:

“In addition, the nature of the attacks suggest that for perhaps the only time in the colonial period, Indians in South Carolina both believed that they could wipe out the white settlements and attempted to act on that belief …

Significantly, a eltter addressed to the governor of South Carolina was found on one of their dead after an early battle. It warned him to leave the province because the Indians intended to retake their country and they had, or soon would have, all the Indians on the continent with them. …”

In a bold move which had lasting regional consequences, the alliance of Indian tribes launched a White genocide against the English settlers of South Carolina:

“The Yamasee War was the Indians’ supreme effort at resistance in South Carolina and, in the end, it obviously failed. Leaving behind Pocotaligo and their other towns, the survivors withdrew to Florida, from which for many years they continued to harass the southern frontiers of their old homeland.”

The Yamasees and other tribes lost the war and quit South Carolina and emigrated to Spanish Florida. In 1733, the colony of Georgia was founded to act as a buffer state in which slavery was originally banned between South Carolina and Spanish Florida.

The Cherokees lingered on in western South Carolina until the American Revolution in which they fought on the side of the British:

“Shortly thereafter, a full-scale Indian war broke out on the frontier, Williamson raised the militia as rapidly as he could and by the end of July had nearly 1,200 men. Marching to attack the Cherokees, he was ambushed early on the morning of August 1 as his force crossed the Keowee River, but he pushed on to devastate the Indian settlements east of the Appalachian Mountains. Meanwhile, General Griffith Rutherford and Colonel William Christian led North Carolinians and Virginians, respectively, in laying waste the more remote Indian towns. Badly battered, the Indians in 1777 agreed to the treaty of Dewitt’s Corner ceding the area that was to become the four westernmost counties of South Carolina.”

South Carolina was devastated by the American Revolution which was simultaneously a frontier war with the Cherokee, slave rebellions incited by the British on the plantations, fighting between the South Carolina militia and British forces, conflict between British forces and the Continental Army as well as a civil war between Patriots and Tories in the backcountry.

Note: John Locke actually wrote South Carolina’s original constitution, but the course of South Carolina in the 18th century shows how little influence he ultimately had on the trajectory of the colony.

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