Few American Indian wars were more devastating to colonists and more influential on the development of the south than the Yamasee War of 1715. April 15 will mark the 300th anniversary of the start of that war, which ended with the death of 400 British. On April 16, the first conference to bring recognition of the war will be held in Saint Augustine, Florida, mere steps from Yamasee archaeology sites.
“The Yamasee as a people have been overlooked by the mainstream and only one book has been written about the war,” Denise Bossy, associate professor of history at the University of North Florida, said. Bossy is one of the co-organizers of the conference, entitled, “The Yamasee Indians: From Florida To South Carolina.”
“It’s a really important event in Southern and North American history, yet it is one of the least well known of wars compared with its importance,” she said.
The late 1600s and early 1700s were a time of great disruption and loss of lands, as colonization forced tribes to be on the move, Chester DePratter, archaeologist and co-organizer of the conference, explained. By the time the Yamasee made their way to Charles Town, South Carolina, (now Charleston) the Spanish had already been missionizing tribes in Florida for 100 years. The the British were involved in the slave trade throughout the Southeast and the Atlantic World, which included trade routes of importation and exportation of plants, goods, slaves, diseases, and all other items of colonization.
“Other Indians, like the Chickasaw, were making people move. The Erie had been forced out of Western Pennsylvania by the Iroquois, and as they moved south, they became known as the Westo. They pushed the Yamasee toward the Georgia coast. The Erie had traded for guns with the French and British, but in the south, the tribes were unarmed. The Spanish had been more interested in missionizing than trading with the Natives,” DePratter said.
According to him, arms could have been a major incentive for the Yamasee’s move up the coast to Charles Town. While there, they joined in the deerskin trade, however, DePratter noted, “They were also sent off to bring in Indian slaves. There is clear evidence that there was slaving,” he said.
Donald Grinde, Yamasee, Haudenosaunee scholar, and professor of Transnational/American Studies at SUNY Buffalo, will also be presenting at the upcoming conference. “For several years, white slave traders would come in and run up the Yamasee’s debts for pots and pans and guns,” he said. “When people couldn’t pay the debts, the traders would demand women and children and take them into Charles Town to sell them. This went on for 10 years, and then there was a revolt.”
The lifestyle of most the Natives in the region had deteriorated. A diplomatic meeting was called between the Yamasee and Lower Creeks to address the state of affairs. Bossy said that when the British heard about the meeting, they sent some of their own traders and diplomats. “Some of the traders tried to smooth things over, but one trader, John Wright, threatened the Yamasee, basically with enslavement and murder,” Bossy said. “The next day, the Yamasee were no longer eager to trade with them and that is the start of the war.”
In the book, “The Yamasee War,” author William Ramsey wrote, “Warriors from virtually every nation in the South, from the Catawbas and their Piedmont neighbors in the Carolinas to the Choctaws of Mississippi, joined together in one of the most potent Native coalitions ever to oppose the British in colonial North America.” The warriors surrounded Charles Town on every front but the sea, wrote Ramsey, who will also be a speaker at the conference.
Grinde and Ramsey both described the Yamasee War as one of the bloodiest in colonial America. “There is a reason why it hasn’t been talked about much—because we almost won,” Grinde said. “Almost 10 percent of the white population in South Carolina were killed and almost all of them were slave catchers.”
After the devastating loss of lives and the destruction of outlying settlements, North Carolina and South Carolina ended the Native slave trade by the British, though slavery among some of the tribes continued. While those already enslaved were not freed, the British turned exclusively to trading African slaves.
After the war, “South Carolina kind of retracted into itself and the south was completely reshaped in a number of different ways,” Bossy said. It was more than a decade after the war before resettlement began. “As for the Indian communities, many coalesced and committed to being confederacies. One of the things you can take from this war is that Indians brought an end to the slave trade of Indians.”
In the following years, the Yamasee dispersed to safety in several different locations. Grinde said many Yamasee relocated to Georgia, which was not yet settled. Others went with the Creeks, and still others joined the Guale in Saint Augustine, DePratter reported.
The Yamasee became known as a refugee tribe, picking up people from different groups along the way. Grinde said that after the war, those who relocated to Georgia were safe from slave catchers, no matter their race or heritage. “That explains the rise of our multi-racial heritage. Black slaves who ran away from South Carolina knew if they could make it across the Savannah River they would be free. They could join us in the same way they later went into Florida to join the Seminoles. Georgia wasn’t founded until 1733.”
St Augustine, Florida will celebrate 450 years since the arrival of Ponce De Leon on September 4-8, 2015. With the conference, this group is reminding St. Augustine that there are other anniversaries to think about.