Skip to comments.The lost tribe of South Carolina
Posted on 07/05/2009 11:49:30 AM PDT by BGHater
Cofitachequi: We cant pronounce it, we dont know exactly where it is, but the importance of this Native American mound city is clear.
North Carolina has the Lost Colony, a 16th-century legend that draws the curious to the longest running outdoor theater production in North America.
The desert Southwest has the Anasazi, the native culture that vanished in the 14th century and is celebrated at a dozen National Park Service sites.
South Carolina has a combination of the two Cofitachequi.
Ever heard of it?
Cofitachequi is mentioned in third-grade S.C. history books, and theres a diorama about it at the State Museum. But the major town in the states interior before Europeans arrived isnt part of the public consciousness.
Most experts agree the capital of the chiefdom in the 1500s was near Congaree National Park, but the only acknowledgment at the park is a name on a map.
And theres plenty of character-driven drama in the arrival of duplicitous European explorers and enduring mystery in the towns disappearance in the 1600s.
Its a story worth telling, if only there were more details to fill in the information gaps.
The Native American Studies program at USC Lancaster recently brought together scholars for a panel discussion about Cofitachequi. They dealt with questions ranging from where the main Cofitachequi town was and what language the people spoke to whether they were a separate tribe or affiliated with other Southeastern tribes.
They had educated guesses, but in most cases, they ended with a variation of we might never really know the answer.
LEGEND OR HISTORY?
Most of the written history of Cofitachequi is based on the accounts of European explorers sent to scope out the interior Spaniards Hernando de Soto (1540), Juan Pardo (1567-1568) and Pedro de Torres (1627-28) and Englishman Henry Woodward (1670). Some of the chronicles werent written until years after the exploration and that time lag might have inspired some flourishes in the accounts.
Theres little doubt a town existed in what is now central South Carolina. A government-commissioned report in the 1930s indicated the town was near Silver Bluff in Aiken County, but a more thorough examination of the Spanish accounts has prompted most experts to agree Cofitachequi was on the Wateree River, not the Savannah.
USC researcher Steve Baker mapped the early Native American chiefdoms for his masters thesis in the 1970s, putting Cofitachequi near Camden. His work has since been backed by others, though some researchers think the town could have been closer to where the Wateree and Congaree rivers come together.
De Soto had more luck finding Cofitachequi, based on the four written accounts of his 1540 journey. From his base in the Tallahassee, Fla., area, de Soto chose to explore the interior after hearing tales from a young native of gold, silver and pearls at an interior community ruled by a female chief. De Soto forced the boy to lead him to the town, and their journey briefly stalled near modern-day Columbia.
Scouts sent out from the camp reported of a small town some researchers think is now part of Congaree National Park, and a grand town farther north on the Wateree called Cofitachequi.
As de Sotos men approached Cofitachequi, they were greeted by a woman either the leader of the chiefdom or a trusted emissary. Various accounts say the Lady of Cofitachequi invited de Soto to the towns temple, or de Soto forced her to take him to the temple.
Based on descriptions of the Cofitachequi temple and the nearby Talomeco temple, the grand structure likely was built atop a mound. It was covered in mats made of cut reeds, and the outside was adorned with shells and pearls. Inside were amazing piles of pearls and plenty of dead bodies (likely of former chiefs), but no gold or silver.
The Spaniards were offered food and pearls, which they took. As was their standard procedure, they later abducted the Lady of Cofitachequi and forced her to lead them to the next major chiefdom to the north. Once at the next capital, the chief from the previous tribe often was killed by the Spaniards or by a rival tribe. But legend has it the Lady of Cofitachequi escaped along the route and safely returned to her town.
When Pardo arrived at Cofitachequi 27 years later, the local leader was a man. The town, however, remained a major gathering spot through visits by de Torres and Woodward.
Then between the 1670 visit and the 1690s, Cofitachequi mysteriously disappeared from English maps of the region and from the accounts of inland explorers.
This is where telling the story of Cofitachequi gets dicier.
USC archaeologist Chester DePratter, who has written extensively on Cofitachequi, theorizes the natives could have been wiped out by slave traders who forced them into captivity in Virginia. Others speculate Cofitachequi could have been wiped out by diseases brought by the Europeans, as many other tribes in the area were.
Or maybe they didnt disappear at all. Maybe they just moved north and joined the Catawba tribe. Or perhaps they were Catawban all along and never were a separate tribe.
Catawba tribal board member Beckee Garris sat quietly in early April as the panel of archaeologists and anthropologists discussed whether language differences and geographic gaps indicated Cofitachequi was a separate tribe, or whether the similarities of pottery shards indicated a tribal connection.
Finally, she spoke up.
Youre all right, and youre all wrong, said Garris, quoting stories passed down through generations. It was us, but it was also the Lakota Sioux, the Chickasaw, the Cree and the Blackfoot. Youre going to find evidence to support all of us.
THE SEARCH FOR EVIDENCE
Ah, evidence, thats whats missing from the Cofitachequi story, something more than a story written years after the fact or a tale passed down through dozens of generations.
The Lost Colony in North Carolina left a post with Croatan carved in it on a well-mapped island. The Anasazi left brick homes that have survived centuries in the rugged desert climate.
Cofitachequi left mounds. But which mounds of the dozens in South Carolina?
Native American towns often surrounded ceremonial mounds. Researchers know of eight mound towns in the Wateree River valley. The largest, with 10 mounds of its own, is on whats now called Mulberry Plantation. The private owners have allowed generations of researchers to test those mounds. Most recently, USC anthropology professor Gail Wagner has made five summer digs since 1989. The findings date the mounds from the 1200s to the 1600s.
Other mounds on Fort Jackson and Shaw Air Force Base have been tested, but dozens of mounds on private property remain off limits to researchers. Even at Mulberry, Wagner hasnt had time to do an in-depth study of all the mounds.
Wagner believes thorough studies of the mounds could help indicate when the people arrived in the area and the movements of their capital through the years.
But right now, we dont know more about this chiefdom than we do know, she said.
Wagner suspects Cofitachequi was on the Wateree near Camden, possibly at Mulberry. But she hasnt found artifacts yet that make that argument irrefutable.
Gene Waddell, archivist at College of Charleston, thinks Cofitachequi was closer to Pineville, south and east of Camden. Some experts wonder if a change in the course of the river might have destroyed the main Cofitachequi mounds. Or maybe the evidence inadvertently was buried by farmers.
A lot of mounds were destroyed, plowed when the cotton culture dominated the state, said Fritz Hamer, curator of history at the State Museum.
Very little archaeological work was done in the area in the early 1900s, especially compared to the work done in the Tennessee River Valley and around the major mound sites in Alabama and Georgia, Hamer said.
In the later 1900s, scholars began to attack the mysteries of Cofitachequi. History buffs now can find dozens of academic papers on the subject. (A Google search of the word pulls up more than 5,000 results, but that compares to more than 1 million for the word Anasazi.)
MORE THAN A FOOTNOTE
The reasons for Cofitachequis relative lack of publicity are varied.
The most basic could be the difficulty in spelling and pronouncing the word, said Chris Judge, assistant director of the Native American studies program at USC Lancaster. Scholars debate the pronunciation co-fit-eh-check-ee and co-feet-eh-cheek-ee are the leading candidates.
But the root of the general ignorance about Cofitachequi likely runs deeper. Tribal leaders claim Native American history in South Carolina long has been treated as little more than a footnote. Some tribal leaders in the early 1900s encouraged Native Americans to assimilate into the prevailing culture, often at the expense of celebrating their own culture.
The Catawbas are the only federally recognized tribe in South Carolina. In the past four years, however, the state has recognized 11 other Native American tribes or groups.
Not much is written about the South Carolina Indians and the important role they all played in not only South Carolinas history but the history of this country as well, Garris said. Did you know that many Catawba fought alongside George Washington? There is a copy of a letter in the Smithsonian he wrote thanking the Catawba Nation for their help.
The State Park Service tells the story of the Cherokee tribe in a small museum at the Keowee-Toxaway State Historic Site in Pickens County, but the mound-building cultures of the central part of the state get little attention in state parks.
Its one of the missing pieces for us, said state parks director Phil Gaines.
The only easily accessible native mound in South Carolina on public property the Santee mound used to be leased to the state park service. But now its part of the Santee National Wildlife Refuge, and its better known as Fort Watson.
The mound was turned into a high-ground fort during the Revolutionary War, and the battle that took place there gets as much, or more, attention than the link to native mound culture.
Thats not unusual, said John Jameson, director of the Southeast Archaeological Center for the National Park Service in Tallahassee, Fla.
Native American sites are slighted a little bit, in some cases a lot, said Jameson, a former S.C. resident. In South Carolina, if its not Revolutionary War or especially Civil War, it doesnt get the attention.
Jameson is working with the River Alliance on a proposed park in Cayce that would celebrate Native American culture in central South Carolina. Like many government projects these days, progress has been slow.
The obvious place to tell the Cofitachequi story would be Camden. The Historic Camden Revolutionary War Site offers visitors brochures that detail local Native American history, and tour leaders, when asked by visitors about Cofitachequi, love to tell the story, said director Joanna Craig. But the sites focus is Camdens important role in the Revolution.
The remaining native mounds around Camden are on private property, and the owners have been reluctant to publicize them for fear of pot-hunters sneaking on the property to dig up antiquities, Craig said.
And even in a town that appreciates history as much as Camden (King Haigler, a Catawban chief in the 1700s, is a local icon), theres been no groundswell for creating a Cofitachequi park or monument.
If Camden truly celebrated its likely connection to Cofitachequi, it might have to spend some money changing several signs.
When you drive into Camden, theres a sign that says, South Carolinas oldest inland city, 1732, Judge said. The first part is right. The second part is wrong.
Not a Mark Sanford ping.
To DeSoto's surprise, the chief of Cofitachequi turned out to be a woman.
She was a hottie to boot!
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I’m a “cheek” man myself.
Very interesting - thanks for posting!
We're not having a good day.
I wonder if I could declare myself a member of the tribe - and open a casino?
Get an old oil tanker, paint it up, anchor it in international waters, put some helipads on the deck, and turn it into the world’s most exclusive casino. You will then be able to call yourself a tribe, or anything else that will fit in the bank account name field. ;’)
Does anyone here know anything about the Gullahs?