The 143-mile-long Santee River is formed by the confluence of the Congaree and Wateree Rivers. The Santee flows southeast and meets the Atlantic Ocean between the cities of Georgetown and Charleston. Near its mouth, the river forms a delta created by the large amount of sediment picked up by the waters of the Santee and its tributaries as they pass from origins in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina through the Piedmont of North and South Carolina. About twenty miles from the coast, the river splits into the North and South Santee.
The Native American groups that inhabited the region near the river before the presence of Europeans came from a common Siouan origin and included the Seewee, Winyah, Congaree, Catawba, and Santee tribes. It is believed that “Santee” translated to “people of the river.” Europeans, led by Huguenots, began settling along the river in the late seventeenth century. The village of Jamestown was established thirty miles from the river’s mouth, and it was estimated that by 1700 seventy families lived in the vicinity. Huguenots so dominated the lower section of the river that the area was called the French Santee, and the upper section of the river was known as the English Santee. The river helped to facilitate a brisk trade in deerskins and other goods between Europeans and Native Americans. As the result of white encroachment and dwindling numbers, the Santee and other tribes in the region moved north, eventually merging with the Catawbas.
The Huguenot families of the lower Santee prospered, allowing many such as the Manigaults and Hugers to expand their landholdings and purchase large numbers of African slaves. This massive labor force was needed to work the tidal rice plantations established along the banks of the Santee. Before the Revolutionary War, indigo was also an important cash crop. The Huguenot descendant and Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion used his knowledge of the Santee and Pee Dee River regions to conduct his partisan campaign against the British.
The need to improve the state’s transportation infrastructure brought significant changes to the Santee River. The mouth of the Santee was too shallow to be an effective harbor, so beginning in the 1780s a plan was developed to link the Santee and Cooper Rivers. The plan brought together the reach into the backcountry of the Santee and its tributaries with the Cooper River’s outlet in Charleston harbor. The Santee Canal, completed in 1800, was twenty-two miles long and thirty-five feet wide. At its height in 1830 seventeen thousand boats passed through the Santee Canal, but by the end of the 1840s it was out of use because cargo could be more efficiently transported by railroad.
The Santee River faced its next major transformation when from 1939 to 1942 the Santee Cooper project saw two hydroelectric dams built on the river, creating the reservoirs that became Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie. The South Carolina Public Service Authority provided electricity for homes and businesses across South Carolina, but the majority of the Santee’s water flow was diverted through the lakes to the Cooper River. After dramatically altering the Santee River region, the state, through Santee Cooper and the Department of Natural Resources, has sought to protect the environment by establishing the 15,000-acre Santee National Wildlife Refuge and an 18,250-acre wildlife-management area.
Kovacik, Charles F., and John J. Winberry. South Carolina: The Making of a Landscape. 1987. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989.
Savage, Henry. River of the Carolinas: The Santee. Rev. ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968.