The Yamassee War was a major eighteenth-century conflict between the colony of Carolina and its trade partners the Yamassees. Based along the Savannah River, this tribe had established strong trade ties with Carolina, at first exchanging deerskins for trade items. As commercial hunters, however, the Yamassees and other tribes heavily depleted their deer supplies. Consequently, the Yamassees began raiding Florida tribes, such as the Apalachees, and trading those they kidnapped as slaves to Carolina merchants.
Unscrupulous traders overextended credit to tribes such as the Yamassees, hoping to force land concessions from them when they could not pay their trade bills. In 1707 the South Carolina government created the Board of Indian Commissioners to regulate trade and enforce fair trade practices. The board, however, and its Indian agent Thomas Nairne had little success in reining in the traders. The Yamassee trade debt continued to increase and eventually required at least two years’ labor from every adult male Yamassee. The Yamassees were further angered by the intrusion of white settlers onto their lands.
In spring 1715 Charleston heard rumors of an uprising by the Yamassees. On April 14, 1715, William Bray, Samuel Warner, and Nairne met at Pocotaligo Town, southwest of modern Charleston, in an attempt to defuse the violence. Having exhausted their deer and slave supplies, the Yamassees decided to resolve their trade debt by killing their creditors and attacking white settlements along Carolina’s southern frontier on Good Friday, April 15, 1715. Intending to kill not only their traders and creditors but most Euro-Americans in their area, they immediately killed Bray and Warner. Nairne died after several days of ritual torture. The Yamassees then struck against plantations near the coast.
Despite its name, the Yamassee War also involved the Cherokees, Creeks, and Choctaws in a far-ranging rebellion from the Savannah River to Charleston. Just as Nairne was put to death, other ally tribes, such as the Creeks, Choctaws, Apalachees, Saraws, Santees, and Waccamaws, also executed their traders, ninety percent of whom were killed by June 1715. Initial Yamassee attacks along plantations near Port Royal killed one hundred colonists. Some three hundred lucky planter families boarded a ship seized for smuggling and made their escape while the Yamassees attacked their farms and killed their livestock.
White inhabitants fled the countryside for the relative safety of Charleston. There colonists struggled to achieve a defense perimeter around the city. Charles Craven, the governor, utilized all white males and even armed black slaves for the colony’s defense. Surrounding southern colonies sent little or no assistance, although Massachusetts did send weapons to South Carolina. Rumors swirled around the city that either the Spanish or the French had encouraged the uprising.
The turning point in the conflict came at the battles of Port Royal and Salkehatchie, where the Yamassees were defeated and driven south of the Savannah River. The Yamassee allies, however, remained a potent force. One historian described this alliance as the greatest in colonial American history because it could have destroyed the Carolinas and Virginia. The alliance continued to attack Carolina settlements until 1716, when the Carolinians managed to convince the Lower Cherokees to side with them against the Creeks, launching a deadly war between these two groups that continued for the next forty years.
The worst of the Yamassee War was over by April 1716, and South Carolina officials finally brought the conflict to a close by 1718. The damage inflicted by the war was tremendous. The former prosperity of the trade in deerskins was not reached again until 1722. Carolina farmers had been driven from half the cultivated land in the colony. Approximately four hundred settlers had been killed, and property damage stood at £236,000 sterling. Military costs to defend the colony rested at £116,000 sterling, more than three times the combined value of all exports. No English colony came as close to eradication by a native population as South Carolina did during the Yamassee War.
As a result of this trade-based war, South Carolina government assumed a direct monopoly over the Indian trade in 1716, replacing private Indian traders with government agents charged with obeying stringent new trade guidelines. A company of rangers was created to patrol the backcountry, and scout boats regularly sailed along the southern coastline of South Carolina. The failure of the Lords Proprietors to assist the colony in this time of crisis further added to the dissatisfaction with them and helped to hasten the demise of the proprietary regime in 1719.
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Edgar, Walter. South Carolina: A History. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.
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Moore, Alexander, ed. Nairne’s Muskhogean Journals: The 1708 Expedition to the Mississippi River. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1988.
Morris, Michael P. The Bringing of Wonder: Trade and the Indians of the South- east, 1700–1783. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.