People of the River: prehistoric settlement on the land where we live

By James T. Hammond

I grew up on my grandparents’ farms in the red hills of the South Carolina Piedmont. The two farms bordered each other on the banks of the South Tyger River, near Tigerville in northern Greenville County. It was common for farm boys to collect rocks shaped into stone age tools, anywhere from one or two, to dozens, depending upon luck and how diligently they pursued the artifacts. We were all amateur archaeologists, but knew little of the ancient cultures that competed for territory and resources in South Carolina for thousands of years before the first Europeans set foot on this coast.

Archaeologists and others have amassed a wealth of knowledge about the ancient people who lived throughout this state. And they have been immensely helpful to me in my efforts to understand who lived on this land before I did. Today, I live on my maternal grandparents’ farm, now a subdivision, on the shore of Lake Robinson, this water reservoir built in the 1980s by the Greer Commission of Public Works. My wife Elizabeth and I have 10 mostly wooded acres that we jealously guard from encroachment, a place we treasure as a haven for deer and other game animals. It is easy to imagine as we walk through these woods a hunter in buckskin carrying a spear or a bow, hiding near our path in wait for a passing deer.

My uncle John Barnette redeveloped the farm into a subdivision of more than two dozen homes. Like me, he had followed his father through the fields behind the mule pulling a plow, and sometimes discovered a stone that might be a stone tool. When he converted the land to residential use, he named the subdivision Arrowhead.

More than two decades ago, I was walking through the front yard of my grandparents' home, which had stood empty for several years. The ground and topsoil had gone undisturbed for a long time. I noticed an area about three feet square where there was no grass. In the center was a small pedestal of soil, with an easily recognized arrowhead sitting on top of it. The rains had beaten the soil away from the artifact which apparently had rested unnoticed in the topsoil for an unimaginable length of time. It was light brown, clearly shaped and sharpened to become a weapon. The material was a stone called Chert, a substance not native to the region, but traded for its utility among pre-Columbian tribes.

I sent a photo of the point to Tommy Charles, a retired archaeologist who has excavated sites in the Carolina Piedmont, and written much about the pre-historic record found in the Upstate soil.

"This is a Middle Archaic point, typical of the tapered stemmed Morrow Mountain type. It dates about 6,000 years old," he responded by e-mail.

Charles, a retired University of South Carolina archaeology professor, excavated a settlement site in northern Greenville County that had artifacts as much as 9,000 years. The site near Tigerville may have had human residents for millennia.

In 1996, Charles unearthed remnants of a village or camp he tentatively identified with a pre-Cherokee group known to archaeologists as the Connestees, who existed 200-600 in the current era. Remnants of a clay pipe had enough carbon in it to date it to about the year 550. But the site also yielded unrelated 9,000-year-old stone tools, suggesting human activity spanning more than 8,000 years.

When I showed my small collection of artifacts, Charles identified a stemmed point as a Late Archaic point, dating about 4,000-4,500 years before today. Another large, crude point is also Late Archaic, and a smaller stemmed point appears to be transitional from the Late Archaic into the Early Woodland period and should date about 3,000-3,500 years before today.

“I can't identify the broken items with any surety, but based on the chipping technology I think they are also Late Archaic,” Charles told me.

It struck me as truly remarkable that the same site might have been used by humans over thousands of years. The scale of that history is almost unimaginable given that European attempts to colonize the South Carolina coast started just 500 years ago. Tommy Charles addressed that premise: "Coming from the same site is typical," Charles said. "Most of our prehistoric stone tools are concentrated on ancient campsites rather than scattered across the landscape. There are probably many more at the site where these were found."

Traditionally, archeologists have categorized ancient artifacts and cultures on a scale dating back to the “Archaic Period, ca. 7500–4300 before the common era. But those categories do not account for the current and evolving thinking about human habitation in our region. Today, many archeologists are pushing their estimates back in time, as long ago as 18,000 years.

Christopher Judge, an archeologist and professor at the University of South Carolina-Lancaster, writing in the South Carolina Encyclopedia Online, explains that from eight thousand years ago through three thousand years or so, people in eastern North America experienced a population explosion and occupied habitats away from the major rivers. Their tools changed, adapting to new conditions.[1]

“Mobility was more than likely restricted by the establishment of territories and boundaries as populations became dispersed across the landscape. A worldwide increase in temperature about six thousand years ago likely also affected the lifestyle of prehistoric people,” Judge wrote.

From five thousand to three thousand years ago, Judge wrote, is known for innovations, including tribal societies, clay pottery vessels, shell rings, and soapstone disks and vessels.

As I learned more about the history of the Cherokee in our region, I often wondered why their towns in South Carolina were clustered at the headwaters of the Savannah River, and there were no recorded Cherokee villages of consequence eastward in the drainage of the Saluda, Enoree and Tyger rivers.

The recent archaeology in that region has demonstrated that settlement on an undetermined scale had existed, but much earlier in time.

Place names and names of rivers and streams often memorialize the people who live in the northwestern section of the state. Sometimes they left their names behind as they pursued their nomadic ways. According to David Duncan Wallace in his 1961 history, the Saludas arrived in South Carolina, and lived along the river that has its headwaters in the mountains of Greenville County. But by 1712, this nomadic band had relocated to Pennsylvania. In 1730, they were still living among the Shawnee people at Conestoga, Pennsylvania.[2]

Wallace described the Cherokee as the most powerful of the tribes in the period following first contact with Europeans, but qualified his assessment by saying the people of the Blue Ridge mountains could “barely hold their own with the shrewd and warlike Creeks.” The Creeks and Chickasaws were part of the vast Muskhogean confederation that spread across Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. The Cherokee came into conflict with the Creeks as the Cherokee spread their people and influence into the mountainous southeastern toe of the Appalachians. [3]

The Catawbas, whose influence likely extended to the Savannah River at their peak power, came into contact and conflict with the rapidly growing white population much sooner than the Cherokee. And their geographical position had them sandwiched between the European invaders and their Cherokee enemies. East and South, they had to compete with the land-hungry white people. North and West, their traditional hunting lands were contested by the Creeks and the Cherokee.

Wallace states that smallpox and whiskey took more Catawba lives than their wars. Wallace estimates that in 1700, the Catawbas could field 1,500 warriors. By 1750, the warrior class had collapsed to 400, and further shrunk to 150 by 1787. They could no longer fend off invaders or hold territory.[4]

The Cherokee, relatively secure in their mountain redoubt, pushed their people and influence South, out of the Tennessee River Valley, to the rolling hills in the headwaters of the Savannah River. Comparing the earliest observations by the Spanish led by DeSoto with later maps and accounts suggest that they were effectively colonizing what had previously been Catawba territory. For a brief period of about 200 years, the Cherokee seemed destined to preserve their territory and remain a force that could negotiate and trade with the white invaders.

John Ehle, writing in “Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation,” estimated that in 1770, about 12,000 Cherokee people inhabited portions of Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. (In contrast, South Carolina’s population in 1773 had swollen to 175,000, comprising 65,000 white people and 110,000 black slaves.)

Cherokee warrior-age males numbered perhaps 3,000, and about 2,000 women were of child-bearing age. But maintaining such a vast stone-age empire by a relatively small population was no easy task. Ehle describes a regimentation that included groups of 20 to 40 warriors being sent out periodically on patrol, in search of interlopers and enemies. Making war was hereditary among the indigenous people of America. It risked the lives of leaders and family protectors. But failure to act risked death or slavery to the entire tribe. The Cherokee themselves had mounted a major assault on their Catawba foes, taking 500 Catawbas prisoner, and sold them in the slave markets at Charleston, to be shipped off to plantations in the West Indies.[5]

The Cherokee and Catawba fought over a large swath of the Carolina Piedmont, at times setting aside buffer land to keep the peace, and at other times brutally depopulating whole regions in war and slave-trading. The lands surrounding the Tyger River basin seem to have been such a place.

Before it became known as Lake Robinson, the region comprised the free-flowing South Tyger River, thousands of acres of farms, pastures and woodlands.

Until the Cherokee tribes in the region sided with the British at the onset of the rebellion, the state of South Carolina had recognized this land as belonging to the Cherokee. The colonial government even actively discouraged the descendants of Europeans from settling on Cherokee land. The boundary ran roughly where the county line exists today between Greenville and Spartanburg counties, and continues to be memorialized by the name of Line Street in Greer.

Beside the entrance to the Stillwaters community on Groce Meadow Road, there is a small family cemetery that also memorializes the early non-native settlers in the region. William Moon died in 1833, and is buried there with other members of his family. Moon had settle on the land in the late 1700s, as the state government handed out land grants on formerly Cherokee land. I am a descendant of William Moon’s sister Rachael Moon Glenn. William Moon was born in Virginia and migrated to South Carolina when Cherokee land was seized by the state during punitive raids on their towns in the Blue Ridge foothills. After the Revolutionary War ended, the state began making grants of land to men who had participated in the militias that had fought against British forces. My own family history is deeply rooted in this period of conflict and settlement. My fourth great-grandfather Alexander Peden, a recent emigrant from Ireland, fought against the Tories, participated in the 1776 raids by the South Carolina militia against the Lower Cherokee towns, and later received land grants in what was previously Cherokee land.

For much of my life, I had associated the native American history of the region of my youth with the Cherokee. But the significant discovery in the front yard of my grandparents’ home changed that impression forever. It was an arrowhead unlike any I had ever seen in my years kicking up clods behind my Grandpa’s mule.

I immediately assumed it to be Cherokee in origin. But the truth was much more interesting. I took the arrowhead to Chester B. DePratter, Research Professor at the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of South Carolina. This expert on prehistoric people of the Carolinas rolled the arrowhead over in his palm, felt its edges and shape, and declared it to be of truly ancient origin.

The arrowhead was, DePratter said, a Morrow Mountain type of point, possibly as old as 7,000 to 10,000 years old. It dated human habitation of the land of my youth to a time almost unimaginable.

So, why was there no human settlement on this site, which had been used by native people for millennia, when white settlers began to encroach on the former Cherokee territory? The causes are known, but numerous and complex. Let’s begin with the weather.

Researchers probed drought-sensitive tree ring chronologies dating before A.D. 1500 from trees including the South Atlantic coast. As reported in the University of Arkansas’ journal Science Daily, they determined drought plagued the region in the last half of the 1500s. Looking back to A.D. 1200, no other drought appears to have been as intense, prolonged and widespread as the 16th century mega-drought, the researchers found. [6]

These mega-drought conditions in the 16th century created chaos for decades among Spanish and English settlers and native people throughout and North America.

The Europeans arrived during a period when the native tribes certainly would have been stressed by the prolonged dry weather. Conflict ensued as the new arrivals competed with the native people for food and other resources.

Then comes the complex impact of trade. While the tribes wanted to defend their territory, they also soon learned that the invaders had important resources that they coveted. Weapons, iron tools, cloth and technology that the native people could quickly adapt to improve their stone-age technology.

According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia online, English traders would give European-made guns and ammunition to allied tribes and demand that the guns be paid for with slaves. The armed groups would then raid an unarmed rival group for slaves with which to pay their debt. The unarmed group, now vulnerable to native slave raiders, would thus need guns and ammunition for protection and would have to acquire them. The natives depended on the European trade for flintlock guns, shot and powder. Anyone needing guns had to become a slave raider. In this way a cycle of dependency emerged.

The other major trade with the native people involved satisfying the English demand for deerskins, widely used for manufacturing in Europe.

According to the South Carolina Encyclopedia, the deerskin trade encouraged settlement of the frontier, and helped tear apart the tribal relationships.

University of South Carolina archaeologists, in a 1988 report on excavations at Tomassee, in Oconee County, outlined the collapse of the Lower Cherokee over a 250-year period. The historical record of the Lower Cherokee in South Carolina began with the 1540 explorations of Hernando de Soto and ended with the 1817 removal by treaty, of all Cherokees from the state.[7]

Tomassee was a Lower Cherokee village that was occupied at times during the first three quarters of the 18th century. The first documented contact between the British and the Lower Cherokee took place in 1690, when James Moore's expedition entered the Lower Cherokee territory searching for gold and trading opportunities. In 1693, Lower Cherokee leaders visited Charles Town seeking protection from slave raids by the Catawba, Savannah and Congaree.

A 1698 smallpox epidemic was the first documented occurrence of the disease among the Lower Cherokee.

In 1721, there were 37 Cherokee towns represented in the Charles Town treaty meeting to set boundaries between European and native settlements. The first Cherokee cession resulted from this treaty over an area that had been depopulated by the Yamassee War.

The Cherokee also were having trouble sustaining towns. Tomassee, one of the Lower Cherokee towns, was reported to have just 152 inhabitants in 1721. More Cherokee were killed by smallpox. An epidemic in 1738 killed half of the Cherokee people within a year, shrinking their warrior force from an estimated 6,000 to about 3,000.

Wars accelerated between the Lower Cherokee and the Creeks in the 1740s and 1750s. Most of the Lower Cherokee villages along the Tugalo River were occupied sporadically during the war. Tomassee and all the other Lower Cherokee villages except Keowee and Estatoy were abandoned in April 1752 because of war with the Creeks. Researchers have said the sporadic occupation of the village may indicate they had relatively small populations.

In 1755, more Lower Cherokee territory was ceded to the Europeans, territory that had been sparsely occupied by the Cherokee and served as a buffer between the Cherokee and Catawba nations. The Catawba territory already had been substantially depopulated due to disease and war. This region, south and east of the Lower Cherokee towns, is where I live.

The first Cherokee War of 1759-1761 resulted in the destruction of the Lower Towns by South Carolina militia. European squatters followed, taking advantage of the weakened Cherokee. William Bull noted in 1770 that trade with the Cherokees was no longer profitable but was necessary to maintain the peace with the native people.

When William Bartram entered the Lower Cherokee territory in 1776, Keowee town was found to be abandoned. Bartram described a seven-mile stretch of the Keowee River abandoned, a place that had been heavily populated prior to the war of 1760.

The year 1776 proved to be the final attempt by the Cherokee to hold territory in South Carolina. Based on promises by the British to honor treaties broken by the state's colonial authorities over and over again, the Cherokee sent war parties along the treaty line, killing squatters and burning their homes and farms. Anthony Hampton, the great-grandfather of Gen. Wade Hampton, was slain along with his wife, son and three grandchildren at their plantation on the Tyger River in the Spartanburg District as the war party moved south. At Jacob Hite's settlement inside Cherokee territory, near today’s Greenville-Spartanburg Airport, Jacob Hite and his son were killed and three women were carried away by the Cherokee war party. Along the Savannah River, Cherokee warriors attacked the relatively new settlement of New Bordeaux, a group of French Huguenots seeking to building a town and wine-growing community. Their militia commander was killed in the attack.

In the same year, The South Carolina militia assembled 1,860 armed volunteers, and destroyed all the remaining Cherokee towns south of the Blue Ridge escarpment. Surviving Cherokee families relocated to Cherokee towns in Alabama and Georgia.

Several attempts to rebuild Lower Cherokee towns were quickly thwarted. In 1793, General Sevier with 700 troops destroyed several rebuilt native towns. Again, in 1794, 550 militia from Tennessee and Kentucky destroyed more towns. The Treaty of Tellico Blockhouse, Nov. 8, 1794, ended the Second Cherokee War that had begun in the Revolutionary War.

It’s impossible to know how choices made by the Cherokee might have impacted their future fate. The hunger of white settlers for Cherokee land was insatiable. But until the Cherokee raids along the treaty line, the South Carolina government had largely respected the Cherokee treaty boundary. With the attacks, goodwill toward the Cherokee evaporated. And is it likely that President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal policy would have been different had the Cherokee sided with the rebels, or at least stayed neutral? For sure, Jackson so hated the British that it’s likely the Cherokee betrayal of the white Americans helped cement his genocidal plans.

So, why was there no settlement where I live when white people moved into the Upstate? There were Cherokee towns in the present Pickens and Oconee counties, but none were reported by early hunters and settlers in this area north of Greer.

Two centuries of European onslaught depopulated the back country. The Cherokee were colonizing the mountains. As the Catawba were slowly destroyed by the white settlers, the Cherokee were pushing their settlement into South Carolina. But the factors that robbed the Catawba of their primacy hit the Cherokee. One 18th century smallpox plague killed half of the population of the lower towns. In 1776, the South Carolina militia destroyed the lower towns, took Cherokee lands and ended organized tribal life in the state.

While much is made of the superiority of European weapons and technology, we should not dismiss the role of cruel fate. The European settlers did not know they were landing on a shore already weakened by decades of drought, and likely already impacted by smallpox spread by explorers who landed, but did not stay in the 15th and 16th centuries. The first major contact with the native people of South Carolina was 1521, when the Spaniard Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon captured 150 people in the vicinity of Winyah Bay to be enslaved. In 1526, Ayllon returned with 500 Spanish men and women to establish a settlement. Before the year ended, 150 surviving Spaniards abandoned the settlement. Two decades later, DeSoto’s expedition found tribes in the South Carolina Midlands in possession of tools and other goods left behind by Ayllon. It’s realistic to speculate that the germs of Europe also remained behind when Ayllon departed.

Absent the effects of drought and early contact with Europeans, the coastal tribes might well have been a more robust population. Some experts in weaponry of the era have argued that a robust, well-led army of native people, armed with bow-and-arrow and spear-throwing technology might well have thrown the small parties of Europeans back into the sea. The efficacy of the primitive guns wielded by the Europeans against bows and arrows has been wildly overrated.

It is my belief that the land where I now live had become empty of native towns long before the white settlers moved in. The tribes had become so depopulated that they could not occupy all the land, nor defend it from encroaching Europeans. Chris Judge, an archaeologist at the University of South Carolina-Lancaster, asked me about my thesis: “What makes you think there were no villages there when the Europeans arrived?”

My response was that while early explorers and traders wrote much about the Lower Towns of the Cherokee in the headwaters of the Savannah River, there are no such documentary revelations about the place where I live, 100 miles away.

My view was shared by A.V. Huff, a Furman University historian and author of a history of Greenville city and county. His deep dive into the historical record about the county led him to the conclusion that it was largely unsettled by native tribes at the time Europeans came to the region.

Citing “Red Carolinians,” by Chapman James Milling, Huff said the region between the Saluda River on the western side and the Broad River on the eastern side came to be a truce region between the Cherokee and the Catawba before white settlers arrived. The area was likely reserved for hunting and collecting resources, but left uninhabited by mutual agreement between the tribes.

“In the absence of anything else, that makes pretty good sense,” Huff told me. And regarding the artifacts found throughout the region, Huff says, “It’s my conclusion that this prehistoric period has very little to do with the period of initial white settlement.”

In other words, over the arc of human habitation in the Carolina Piedmont, the Cherokee were relative newcomers.

My curiosity has revealed that this land – roughly the northwestern corner of the state above Columbia – was once alive with human populations, rich with game and home to myriad family groups and tribes, unknowable except for the stone tools they left behind. My brother, Mike Hammond of Greer, first led me to his friend Sammy Tapp, who had collected a treasure trove of artifacts from the Lake Robinson basin. Later, my brother shared with me his own small collection of arrow or spear points that he has collected around his hunting cabin in Newberry County. At least one is certainly of the archaic era, thousands of years old. Then he sent me photos of another friend’s collection, amassed from Greenwood County. Like Hansel and Gretel sprinkling breadcrumbs through the forest, these ancient people left their mark with this stone weapons, tools, pottery and ornaments throughout this region. Some have made it into public collections. The Travelers Rest town museum displays an archaic stone axe found somewhere near the town. The Musgrove Mill State Historic Site displays Morrow Mountain points and an ancient mortar stone used by native people to crush seeds and roots.

The shores of the Lake Robinson have sprouted hundreds of homes since the basin filled in the late 1980s. But a few remnants of the farms that lined the South Tyger River survive. The broad grassy hillside beside the William Few Bridge that crosses the lake is a remnant of the land settled by my third great-grandfather, William Few, in about 1790. He lived on that hill until 1856, when he died at age 85. He is buried in a family cemetery that overlooks the lake, with other members of his clan. And some of his descendants still own that hillside.

Today, William Few’s view from his hilltop log cabin would be far different, comprising a broad expanse of water in a 950-acre lake with 27 miles of shoreline and 6.5 billion gallons of water capacity. The lake was conceived in the 1970s because the City of Greer’s first reservoir, Lake Cunningham, had become one-third filled with silt from erosion on upstream farmland and sand-mining in the South Tyger River.

Lake Robinson has brought a new vitality to this neck of the woods. Many of the new residents know little about the land’s history. But many, upon learning that I was born and grew up here, and have deep family roots in the area, are intensely curious. This paper seeks to bring some clarity to the history of this land. It is admittedly an amateur attempt at history. Archeology in South Carolina has been significantly advanced in our generation by dedicated researchers at the University of South Carolina and other institutions in the state. But while discoveries have been significant, the state’s rich trove of archaic sites too often have been plundered by “pot hunters” and lack scientific discovery that is limited by lack of funds.

Despite efforts by white settlers to completely eliminate a Cherokee presence in the 18th century, they never fully succeeded.

Today, Cherokee people continue to live among us, and maintain that their ancestors never completely abandoned the headwaters of the Savannah River.

Today, the Piedmont American Indian Association -- Lower Eastern Cherokee Nation of South Carolina comprises 550 members. The association estimates there are 4,000 Cherokee people living in South Carolina and as many as 300,000 Cherokee nationwide, perhaps more than lived across the Cherokee Nation at its peak in 16th Century.


[1] South Carolina Encyclopedia,

[2] Page 8, “South Carolina, a Short History,” by David Duncan Wallace, University of South Carolina Press, 1961.

[3] Page 4, “South Carolina, a Short History,” by David Duncan Wallace, University of South Carolina Press, 1961.

[4] Page 6, “South Carolina, a Short History,” by David Duncan Wallace, University of South Carolina Press, 1961.

[5] Page 7, Trail of Tears: the Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation” by John Ehle, Doubleday, 1988.

[6] “Researchers Find Evidence of 16th Century Epic Drought over North America,” published Science Daily, University of Arkansas, Feb. 8, 2000.

[7] University of South Carolina, Research Manuscript Series, South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, 1988; "Archaeological Investigations at Tomassee, A Lower Cherokee Town", by Marvin T. Smith, Mark Williams, Chester B. DePratter, Marshall Williams and Mike Harmon

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