County spends $3.1M to protect Yemassee Indian site

October 22, 2008 

About a half-mile down a wooded, dirt trail known as Wiggs Gate Road, a bluff shaded by large oak, hickory and palm trees overlooks the Okatie and Colleton rivers. Marsh grass waves like a thousand small hands and Pinckney Point lies in the distance.

It was in this quiet place that the Yemassee Indians lived and worked in the late 1600s.

The area -- composed of about 101 acres and identified by the S.C.

Department of Natural Resources in 1990 as an important site in the state's history -- now will be protected from future development.

The land cost Beaufort County $3.1 million and was purchased with the help of the Trust for Public Land through the county's Rural and Critical Lands Program and the state's Heritage Trust Program.

County and DNR officials opened the site -- called the Altamaha Town Heritage Preserve -- as a public park Tuesday.

Beaufort County Council chairman Weston Newton said the preservation will benefit the environment and save one of the county's most historically significant sites. It also will remove the potential for 75,000 vehicle trips, 1.5 million square-feet of commercial development and more than 6,000 homes, he said.

A POWERFUL PAST

Altamaha, named after the tribal chief, was one of 10 Yemassee towns established about 1684 in areas now known as Port Royal, St. Helena and Okatie. Nearly 2,000 Yemassee moved to these towns after Spanish missions closed in Georgia.

"It was a time of conflict between the Spanish (in Florida) and English (in Charleston), and they were caught in the middle," said Chester DePratter, a research professor at the University of South Carolina in Columbia who discovered the site with grad student Bill Green in 1989. "The Yemassee served as a buffer."

Sometimes they were more than that.

The Yemassee often traded with

English colonists and participated in British raids against the Spanish, said Eric Poplin, senior archaeologist with Brockington Cultural Resources Consulting in Mount Pleasant.

Poplin and associate Alex Sweeney excavated land adjacent to the Altamaha site at the Heyward Point development, named after Nathanial Heyward, who owned a cotton plantation there before the Civil War.

The archaeologists found 100,000 artifacts, including remnants of six circular Yemassee homes, glass beads, shards from pottery and rum bottles, arrow heads, gun flints and musket balls.

"The Yemassee were fairly powerful. They had weapons and guns," Poplin said. "The primary commodity they were trading was slaves. Each raid would allow them to keep prisoners (other American Indians) and sell them back. They were major trading partners with Carolina. Without them, the colony would not have been able to grow and survive."

When an Indian census was conducted in 1715 and the Yemassee feared they were counted as slaves, they attacked the colonists in what became known as the

Yemassee War.

They were defeated and fled the area to live among other tribes in Florida.

Though development exists on part of the former Altamaha Town, archaeologists said the preserved portion contains great research potential, especially in determining the effects of European migration and lifestyles on the American Indian.

The public can access the site during daylight hours. The county hopes to add an orientation building and three miles of walking trails.

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