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written by
Christina Rae Butler

First Contact with the Kiawah

photographs by

Volume: 27

The peaceful Kiawah had been in the Charleston area for centuries and knew the landscape well. Their lands lay between the Sewee tribe grounds to the east of Charleston Harbor and the Edisto’s lands to the south. The Kiawah farmed, hunted, and fished for sustenance.

In 1670, 148 English passengers arrived onboard the ship Carolina to establish the first permanent European settlement in South Carolina.

The coast was already home to two thousand Indians from nineteen different tribes. The Cassique, or chieftain, of the friendly “Keyawah” tribe welcomed the new colonists ashore and invited them to establish their Charles Town settlement in the midst of his tribe on the western banks of the Ashley River.

The peaceful Kiawah had been in the Charleston area for centuries and knew the landscape well. Their lands lay between the Sewee tribe grounds to the east of Charleston Harbor and the Edisto’s lands to the south. The Kiawah farmed, hunted, and fished for sustenance. Lowcountry Indians did not farm in the intensive and organized fashion that European colonists were accustomed to. Rather, they planted seeds in scattered fields and did not weed or tend the crops, supplementing low yields by fishing and gathering. After the summer growing season, they migrated to their inland hunting grounds to gather acorns and track deer. They had trade networks going as far inland as Mississippi. Women were important members of Lowcountry Indian society, and some rose to chieftain status. They did most of the farming and gathering and made pottery for cooking. Many of the South Carolina coastal tribes traced descent through the matrilineal line. Rising chiefs were chosen from the children of the chieftain’s sister, and men lived with their wives’ families in thatched communal houses. Early colonists recounted that Kiawah women wore robes of moss and necklaces made of colorful beads. The men were clad in deerskins.

The settlers arriving on the Carolina knew the Kiawah could be trusted. Earlier English scouts had encountered the tribe in the 1660s and described them as a friendly group. Robert Sanford was one of the first English explorers to make contact with the Kiawah, during his 1666 visit. He wrote, “Amongst these Indians was one who used to come with the Southern Indians to trade with us…and is known by the name of Cassique, hee belongeth to the Country of Kiwaha and was very earnest with mee…promising a large welcome and plentiful entertainment and trade.”

Without Kiawah aid, the English explorers may not have been successful in Carolina. Sanford’s group had eyed the Port Royal area as a settlement site, but the Cassique advised that their first choice was perilously close to the Spanish, who had already colonized the Florida area. Sanford’s party travelled with the Kiawah to their settlement on the Ashley River to view it as an alternative settlement site. When the Carolina settlers arrived, they heeded the Cassique’s advice and placed their settlement among the Kiawah, now the  present-day Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site. Carolina passenger Nicholas Carteret described the Cassique as an “Ingenious Indian and a great Linguist,” whose tribe assisted them in clearing and planting land. Another settler wrote, “Wee found very great Assistance from the Indians who shewed them selves very kinde and sould us Provisions att very reasonable rates and takeinge notice of our necessitys did almost daylie bring one thinge or another otherwise wee must undoubtedly have binn putt to extreame hardshipps.”

The collaboration between the Kiawah and English was mutually beneficial. A friendly and passive tribe, the Kiawah stood to benefit from an alliance with the better-armed English who might protect them from the hostile Westo tribe who had invaded the region in the 1660s and were said to be cannibals. The Kiawah told Carteret, “Ye Westoes [were] a rangeing sort of people reputed to be man eaters [who] had ruinated ye place killed sev’ll of those Indians destroyed and burnt their Habitation & they had come as far as Kayawah doing the like there, ye Caseeka of which place was within one sleep” of the Charles Town settlement. The Kiawah protected the English in turn. In September of 1670, two hundred Spanish and three hundred Stono allied themselves and worked their way up the Stono Inlet with designs to burn Charles Town. Stephen Bull remembered, “All the Indians came with their full strength to our Ayde,” to protect the settlement from attack. Luckily a hurricane foiled the Spanish attempt to sack Charles Town and little fighting took place.

The Kiawah were a small tribe in 1670, and their numbers continued to diminish. In the 1680s the tribe had around forty warriors and 160 men, women, and children. Smallpox brought by earlier Spanish settlers decimated the native populations in the southeast. Competing tribes tried to capture one another to trade to the Spanish as slaves. As coastal tribes decreased in size, many ceded their lands to the English settlers. In March of 1675, the Kiawah traded lands “lying on the river of Kyewaw the River of Stono and the Freshes of the River of Edistoh” in exchange for cloth and other manufactured goods.

English settlements expanded inland and north and south along the coast. Charles Town was relocated to the peninsula (its current location) in 1680. For a short time, the old site appeared on maps as “Kiawah sometimes called Charles Towne,” but by 1684 the Kiawah exchanged their remaining lands on the Ashley River in exchange for Kiawah Island. Kiawah life changed as their land holdings shrunk. In a 1687 expedition to Kiawah Island, Captain William Dunlop encountered the Cassique, settled on the banks of Kiawah Creek. He observed that the tribe was planting corn, peas, and beans extensively at their settlement site, a marked change from the haphazard planting practices the Kiawah had used when they had more land to hunt to supplement their diets.

The Kiawah still had a few warriors among them in 1695, when an act was passed requiring men of local Indian tribes, “including the Kiaway,” to pay annual tribute to the English in the form of one wolf, “tiger,” or bear pelt, or the skin of two “cats.” By 1699, however, there were so few Indians living on Kiawah Island that the Lords Proprietors, who owned the colony of Carolina, granted the island to George Raynor. Kiawah settlements appear on maps of Kiawah Island as late as 1730, but by that time much of the island was an active plantation. In 1743 fifteen homeless Kiawah tribe members approached the Lieutenant Governor and were given a site south of the Combahee River, but this is one of the last mentions of the Kiawah Indians in the English records. Governor William Bull noted that in 1670 the Lowcountry had been teeming with Indians, but by his time in 1770, nothing remained of them but their place names and a few Catawba tribe members.

There are layers of Indian history waiting to be explored throughout the Lowcountry. In 1956 by sheer chance, a fisherman discovered a nine-hundred-year-old, thirty-five-foot-long dugout canoe partially buried in a sand dune about a mile inland from the beachfront on Kiawah Island. Physical reminders of the Kiawah have also surfaced when settlement sites are unwittingly discovered during development projects. A Kiawah house and burial site was unearthed in 1969 at Charles Towne Landing during the construction of a pavilion for the South Carolina Tricentennial Celebration of the English settlement. Archeology crews scrambled to excavate and document artifacts before the pavilion was built. It was roughly two hundred feet square, with log structural supports (workers found post holes outlining the footprint). Archaeologist Stanley South described the house as “one of the greatest [finds] in the southeast.”

The Kiawah’s heritage survives today through artifacts, place names, and accounts of their pivotal role in aiding the English settlers who arrived in 1670. The Cassique’s suggestion for a safe settlement site allowed the colony of Carolina to flourish. One can visit the Charleston Museum to view reminders of the Kiawah way of life through artifacts on display in the Lowcountry History Hall, or walk among the long-lost Kiawah settlement in Charles Towne Landing.

— C.R.B.

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