FORT MILL, S.C. – A gravel road heads south from Sutton Road, near Fort Mill, toward the Catawba River. In less than a mile, a temporary dirt road runs east into the woods to an excavation conducted by anthropologists from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Stephen Davis and Brett Riggs led excavators from February to June in uncovering remains of a Catawba Indian village dating back to the 1750s. Davis believes the site is ”Nassaw,” one of six villages where Catawbas lived.
Other villages were Weyapee, Noostee Town, Charraw Town, Weyane and Sucah Town. Davis explained that Noostee Town and Sucah Town have not been found but are believed to be in the area. Noostee Town probably is on the east side of Interstate 77 near where it crosses the Catawba River.
In 1756, there were 204 Catawba warriors living in the villages. Charraw Town had 56 men and Nassaw, 50 men. The other 98 men were scattered throughout the four villages, including 27 at Noostee Town, 42 at Weyane and 29 at Sucah Town. Historical accounts indicate that Nassaw was an important village, the probable home to King Hagler, a well-known Catawba leader from 1750 to 1763.
Anthropologists first surveyed the area with metal detectors, roughly identifying the site. Based on the hits, the team uncovered areas where most fragments lay. They recovered 945 artifacts, including animal bones and metal objects such as nails, iron and brass gun parts, kettle parts, buckles, tack, plates and knives. They found glass beads, fragments of wine bottles and European pipe stems. They unearthed pot shards inscribed with artwork, unlike today’s Catawba pottery, which is smooth and shiny.
They found shelter post holes and trash pits. Davis thinks Nassaw was enclosed by a palisade of logs. Excavators found four grave sites which were left disturbed, allowing for the Catawba Indian Nation to decide how to repatriate the bones. He suspects they are burials done in a hurry after deaths resulting from the second smallpox outbreak of 1759. King Hagler was not in the village when the disease hit.
Those who survived moved to the current Camden area. They lived there for nearly a year and returned to the now archaeological sites of Old Town and New Town, located near Van Wyck.
Davis said the excavation was in response to a request from Kanawha Development, which plans to build roads, streets, a residential area, a shopping area and a school on 350 acres of the 400-acre property. Before excavation, the company planned to build a shopping area over the site but has since changed the plans to preserve the site as a park.
Hope Matthews, content specialist for York County Museum, conducts tours of the 400 acres once a month. In July, she pointed out the area’s young trees to show the land was once void of trees and brush because residents cleared it for farming. She said gold was discovered there and that many miners dug large holes looking for the gold.
Cultural and Heritage Museums of Rock Hill plans to build the Stans Museum of Life and the Environment on 50 acres of the property along the north bank of the Catawba River, not far from where Interstate 77 crosses the river. The cost of the entire development will total more than $40 million.
Matthews said construction will involve carving out the river bank and building the museum inside. Entry will be on the second floor. Two bridges will be built over a water flow that runs around an island in the Catawba River.
The bridges will connect a circular walkway from the museum to the island and back. From one of the bridges, visitors will see a fish weir, once used by Catawbas to catch fish. Woven baskets were used to catch the fish in a V-shaped construction of rocks in the water.
During the late 1700s and early 1800s, Catawbas leased their lands to Europeans, including the 400 acres now earmarked for a museum and other development. Through the years, the land was passed down to Jane Spratt McCall, who in 1998 donated it to the Cultural and Heritage Foundation.