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The Sewee and Predecessors: the Earliest Inhabitants of Dewees

We usually begin our history of Dewees with the Sewee tribe, the group of native Americans who lived in the area when the Europeans arrived.  The earliest human residents of the South Carolina coast probably arrived here 10,000 to 4000 years ago.  As part of helping the Archives Committee with photographs, I found myself captivated by the oldest shards of pottery in the cases.  We’ve talked about them before, especially in context of the Sewee Shell Ring, but since we’re in the days of “virtual” tours, I thought we’d take a look at some of these artifacts. Here’s a quote from that post:

Radio carbon dating of shells shows that the Sewee shell midden was built about 4000 years ago.  There is evidence of a complex hunter-gatherer society, but we don’t really know very much about these early native Americans.  The Sewee mound is in a C-shape, while many similar sites in South Carolina are round.  this has led to some interesting theories.  Some archaeologists have speculated that it was probably a whole circle at one point, but sea level rise and storms over the last 5000 years may have affected the shape of the circle. 

Dewees owners who find interesting artifacts are encouraged to give them to Lori– that way we can all learn from them.  There are still archives displays in the Landings Building as well as the Library in the clubhouse.

In Porcher’s Bluff, John Leland writes,

“What was then land is now marsh, and the village sites themselves are today palmetto-rimmed islands whose top two feet are a rampart of oysters and clams and periwinkles dined on four millennia ago.  Scattered throughout the shells are pottery shards, remnants of careless moments long forgot.

The fired clay of these shards preserves lunate designs made with fingernails pressed into still damp clay, designs a modern fingernail fits perfectly.  Indeed, they’re known by some as “Awendaw fingerpinch.” As children, we used to plunder these islands, carrying away booty to childhood museums. Always when we placed our fingernails into those crescents made so long ago by tribes unknown, we paused and stared with holy dread at each other. 

Even today, barred by age and law from stealing relics from what are now officially-declared state historic sites, I can reach into a drawer and pull out a waterworn fragment of pottery and fit my forefinger to an impression, made by another forefinger long before the capitals of Europe were a dream, before Jerusalem, as old as the Pyramids of Egypt.

The shell middens provide evidence that humans have lived along our coast for well over 4000 years. Sea levels rose slightly during that period, giving rise to the marshes and creeks that mark much of the geography we are familiar with today. At some point, they shifted from an entirely nomadic lifestyle to one that is more sedentary, learning to trap, fish, and grow some of their food. The rich mud gave them the ability to make pottery for use, and the earliest specimens we have in our collection are known as Tom’s Creek pottery. This group still had a lot of movement through the area; people were trading with the people were trading with the people of the Ohio River Valley. Obsidian from Yellowstone, chert from North Dakota, mica from North Carolina, whelks from the Gulf of Mexico were all exchanged around the country.  There is some great information in this video from the SCDNR Heritage Trust. (Settings won’t allow me to embed it, but it’s worth clicking that link.)

In a visit to our Archives collection, Charleston Museum curator Eric Poplin describes some of the artifacts from this time period.

Most of our collection is from 500BC to 500AD.  We have some examples of net impressed pottery, where a net was imprinted into wet clay.  This technique shows up here some 1000 years before it appears in South America.  By 1100 AD the Mississippian culture has spread across the entire southeast. Dewees is at the northern end of this culture: the closest identified mounds are in Santee and Savannah. By the time the Europeans arrived,  the native people in the area had begun to cultivate corn, and the pottery traditions have developed to have line block stamps, notches on the rim, etc.  

I had a chance to go do some research in the South Carolina Room of the Charleston County Library, and perhaps the most helpful source is this booklet by Susannah Smith Miles.  She’s written a great book all about the Sewee.  Another historian who did extensive studying of the early native people of the area is Anna King Gregory.  

 In a feature for Island Magazine in 2017, Susanna Smith Miles says:

A sub-tribe of the Eastern Sioux, the Sewee lived between Charleston harbor and the Santee River with their main village called Awendaw, the meaning now lost. The name “Sewee” is thought to mean “island people,” an apt description since the Sewee regularly rowed out to the barrier islands to hunt the forests and fish the tidal waters. They were superb hunters and fishermen and their fondness for shellfish leads to one of the curious remnants of their culture—the shell rings, circular features created almost entirely of oyster, conch and clam shells. While some believe the shell rings were merely refuse middens made from discarded shells after a feast, because of their often large size and uniformity, others feel the shell rings served a ritual purpose. One theory is that, like England’s Stonehenge, they may have been a type of solar calendar designed to mark the passage of time. 

The arrival of Europeans, which led to the introduction of diseases, rum, and the illegal but lucrative trade in Indian slaves, brought an early end to all the coastal Carolina tribes.

The Charleston Museum has some excellent exhibits with tools from this period. (Online Virtual Tours Here.) Stones weren’t found on the coast, so tools made from stones (arrowheads and spearheads) would not have been thrown or shot into the marsh where they couldn’t recover them.  One tool is called an atlatl. This DNR heritage trust video explains the atlatl and demonstrates throwning it.

By the time the first Europeans reached the shores in the 15th and 16th centuries, many of the native people had settled into large family groups that farmed corn, pumpkins and melons, and traded with other groups from farther afield.  The Sewee used Dewees Island (along with the Isle of Palms, Sullivans, Bull, and Capers for hunting and gathering shellfish, naming it Timicau.  Bull Island was known as Oniseecau, and Capers was known as Hawan. The names of the southern two islands are lost to history.

In his book Dewees; The Island and its People, Jim Cochrane wrote that, “in large measure the coastal American Indians lived in peace with neighboring tribes and carried on trade and reported their news at intertribal gatherings.  They did not form permanent alliances with other nations. Threats from external enemies could produce joint action, but when the crisis passed, they returned to their separate lives… the principal enemies were the tribes of the river valleys.  The most hostile were the Westo living along the Savannah River.

This brings us to the arrival of the Europeans on our shores.  Coming soon, we’ll take a look at the Sewee Tribe as the earliest Europeans described them.