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The Yamasee War (also spelled Yemassee War) (1715–1717) was a conflict between settlers of colonial South Carolina and various Native American Indian tribes, including the Yamasee, Creek, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Catawba, Apalachee, Apalachicola, Yuchi, Savannah River Shawnee, Congaree, Waxhaws, Pee Dee, Cape Fear, Cheraw, and others. The most powerful nations launched attacks throughout South Carolina in an attempt to dislodge the Europeans. They killed hundreds of colonists and destroyed many settlements. Traders "in the field" were killed throughout the American southeast. Abandoning settled frontiers, people fled to Charles Townmarker, where starvation set in as supplies ran low. The attacks made the survival of the colony in question in 1715. The following year, when the Cherokee sided with the colonists, the tide turned in early 1716. The Cherokee began to attack the Creek. The last of the colonists' Native American major foes withdrew from the conflict in 1717, bringing a fragile peace to a traumatized colony.

The Yamasee War was one of the most disruptive and transformational conflicts of colonial America. It was one of the American Indians' most serious challenges to European dominance. For over a year the colony faced the possibility of annihilation of the settlers. About 7% of South Carolina's white citizenry was killed, making the war bloodier than King Philip's War, which is often cited as America's bloodiest. The geopolitical situation for British, Spanish, and French colonies, as well as all the Indian groups of the southeast, was radically altered. The war marks the end of the early colonial era of the American South. The Yamasee War and its aftermath contributed to the emergence of new Indian confederated nations, such as the Creek and Catawba.

The cause of the war was complex. Reasons for fighting differed among the many Indian groups who participated. Commitment differed as well. Factors included land encroachment by Europeans, the trading system, trader abuses, the Indian slave trade, the depletion of deer, increasing Indian debts in contrast to increasing wealth among some colonists, the spread of rice plantation agriculture, French power in the Illinois Countryoffering an alternative to British trade, long-established Indian links to Spanish Florida, the vying for power among Indian groups, as well as an increasingly large-scale and robust inter-tribal communication network, and recent experiences in military collaboration among previously distant tribes.


Overview map of the Yamasee War
The Tuscarora War and its lengthy aftermath played a major role in the outbreak of the Yamasee War. The Tuscarora began attacking colonial settlements of North Carolina in 1711. South Carolina settlers mustered armies and campaigned twice against the Tuscarora, in 1712 and 1713. These armies were made up mainly of Indian troops. The Yamasee had been strong military allies of South Carolina colonists for many years. Yamasee warriors made up the core of both armies. Other Indians were recruited over a large area from diverse tribes that in some cases were traditional enemies of one another. Tribes that sent warriors to South Carolina's armies included the Yamasee, Catawba, Yuchi, Apalachee, Cusabo, Wateree, Sugaree, Waxhaw, Congraree, Pee Dee, Cape Fear, Cheraw, Saxapahaw, Cherokee, and various proto-Creek groups.

This military collaboration brought Indians of the entire region into closer contact with one another. The Indians saw the disagreements and weaknesses of the British colonies, as South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia bickered over various aspects of the Tuscarora War. Essentially all of the tribes that helped South Carolina during the Tuscarora War joined in attacking settlers in the colony during the Yamasee War, just two or three years later.

The Yamasee, while often described as a tribe, were an amalgamation of the remnants of earlier tribes and chiefdoms, such as the Guale and groups originating in the provinces of Tama and Ocute in interior Georgia (Worth 1993:40–45). The Yamasee emerged during the 17th century in the contested frontier between South Carolina and Spanish Florida. At first allied with the Spanish, the Yamasee moved north in the late 17th century and soon became South Carolina's most important Indian ally. They lived near the mouth of the Savannah River and around Port Royal Soundmarker.

For years, the Yamasee profited from their relation with the British. By 1715 they found it difficult to obtain the two trade items most desired by the British—deerskins and Indian slaves. With the deerskin trade booming over an ever-larger region, deer had become rare in Yamasee territory. After the Tuscarora War, slave-raiding opportunities were limited. The Yamasee became increasingly indebted to the British traders, who supplied them with trade goods on credit. By 1715 rice plantations had begun to thrive in South Carolina, and much of the accessible land good for rice had been taken up. The Yamasee had been granted a large land reserve on the southern borders of South Carolina. Much of the land was ideal for rice plantations.

Historians have not determined if the Yamasee were leaders in formenting Indian unrest and plans for war. The Ochese Creeks (later known as the Lower Creeks) may have been more instrumental in gaining support for war. Each of the Indian tribes that joined in the war had their own reasons, as complicated and deeply rooted in the past as the Yamasee's. Although there was no grand conspiracy with many tribes acting in carefully planned coordination, there was increasing unrest, and inter-tribal communication about the possibility of war. By early 1715 the growing Indian support for war was troubling enough that some Indians warned colonists of the danger. The warnings pointed to the Ochese Creek as the main danger.

Summary of the war

Pocotaligo massacre

When the warnings about a possible Indian uprising involving the Ochese Creeks reached the South Carolina government, they were taken seriously. A party was immediately sent to the main Upper Yamasee town of Pocotaligo (near present-day Yemassee, South Carolinamarker). They hoped to obtain Yamasee assistance in arranging an emergency summit with the Ochese Creek leaders. The delegation's visit to Pocotaligo triggered the start of the war.

The delegation that visited Pocotaligo consisted of Samuel Warner and William Bray, sent by the Board of Commissioners. They were joined by Thomas Nairne and John Wright, two of the most important people of South Carolina's Indian trading system. Two others, Seymour Burroughs and an unknown South Carolinian, also joined. On the evening of April 14, 1715, the day before Good Friday, these people spoke to an assembly of Yamasee. They promised to make special efforts to readress Yamasee grievances. Governor Craven himself was on the way, they said.

During the night, as the South Carolinians slept, the Yamasee debated over what to do. There were some who were not fully pledged to a war, but in the end the choice was made. After applying war paint to their bodies the Yamasee woke up the Carolinians. Of the six men, two escaped. Seymour Burroughs fled and, although shot twice, managed to escape and raise an alarm in the Port Royalmarker settlements. Nairne, Wright, Warner, and Bray were all killed. The unknown South Carolinian managed to hide in a nearby swamp, from which he witnessed the lengthy death-by-torture of Thomas Nairne.

These events of the early hours of Good Friday, April 15, 1715, mark the beginning of the Yamasee War.

Yamasee attacks and South Carolina counterattacks

The Yamasee quickly organized two war parties of several hundred men, which set out later in the day after the murders at Pocotaligo. One war party attacked the settlements of Port Royal, but Seymour Burrough had managed to reach the plantation of John Barnwell and a general alarm was raised. By chance, a captured smuggler's ship was docked at Port Royal. By the time the Yamasee arrived, several hundred settlers had found refuge on the ship, while many others had fled in canoes.

The second war party invaded Saint Bartholomew's Parish, plundering and burning plantations, taking captives, and killing over a hundred settlers and slaves. Within the week a large Yamasee army was preparing to engage a rapidly assembled South Carolinian militia, while the rest went south to find refuge in makeshift forts.

The Yamasee War was the first major test of South Carolina's militia. Governor Craven led a force of about 240 militia men against the Yamasee. The Yamasee war parties had little choice but to join together to engage Craven's militia. Near the Indian town of Salkehatchie (or "Saltcatchers" in English), on the Salkehatchie Rivermarker, a pitched battle on open terrain was fought. It was precisely the kind of battle conditions that Craven and the militia officers desired and the Indians were poorly suited for.

Several hundred Yamasee warriors attacked the 240 or so members of the militia. The Yamasee tried to outflank the South Carolinians but found it difficult. After several head warriors were killed the Yamasee abandoned the battle and dispersed into nearby swamps. Although the casualties were about equal—24 or so on each side—the practical result was a decisive victory for South Carolina. Other smaller militia forces pressed the Yamasee and won a series of further victories.

Alexander MacKay, experienced with Indian war, led a force south. They found and attacked a group of about 200 Yamasee who had taken refuge in a palisade-fortified encampment. After a relatively small Carolinian party made two sorties over the walls of the fort the Yamasee decided to retreat. But once outside the fort the Yamasee were ambushed and decimated by MacKay and about 100 men.

A smaller battle took place in the summer of 1715 and became known as the Daufuskie Fight. A Carolinian boat scout crew managed to ambush a group of Yamasee, killing 35 while suffering only one casualty themselves.

Before long, the surviving Yamasee decided to move farther south to the vicinity of the Altamaha River.

Traders killed

While the Yamasee were the main concern within the colony's settlements during the first weeks, British traders operating throughout the southeast found themselves confronted and, in most cases, killed. There were about 100 traders in the field when the war broke out, of which about 90 were killed in the first few weeks. Tribes that participated in killing British traders included the Creek (the Ochese, Tallapoosa, Abeika, and Alabama peoples), the Apalachee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Catawba, Cherokee, and others.

Northern Front

During the first month of the war South Carolina hoped to receive assistance from the northern Indians, such as the Catawba. But the first news from the north was that British traders among the Catawba and Cherokee had been murdered. The Catawba and Cherokee had not attacked traders as quickly as did the southern Indians. Both tribes were divided over what course to take. But several events and rumors contributed to a growing hostility in the north. Some Virginian traders were later accused of goading the Catawba into making war on South Carolina. It is notable that when the Catawba did decide to kill their South Carolinian traders, they spared the Virginian traders.

By May of 1715 the Catawba were sending war parties against South Carolina. A group of about 400 Catawba fighters, joined by about 70 Cherokee, formed a war party that terrorized the northern parts of South Carolina. In June a South Carolinian force of 90 cavalry under Captain Thomas Barker went north in response. The Catawba-Cherokee war party learned of this in advance and managed to ambush Barker's troops, wiping out the entire force. Another Catawba-Cherokee force attacked a makeshift fort on Benjamin Schenkingh's plantation, killing about 20 people. After this, South Carolina had no defense in place between the northern war parties and the wealthy Goose Creek district, just north of Charles Town.

But before the northern forces could attack Charles Town itself, most of the Cherokees left, having heard about new and important developments occurring in their towns. The remaining Catawba then faced a rapidly assembled militia under the command of George Chicken. On June 13, 1715, Chicken's militia ambushed a Catawba party and launched a direct assault upon the main Catawba force in a fight that became known as the Battle of the Ponds. The result was a general rout. The Catawba were excellent at guerrilla warfare fighting, but were not used to pitched battles of this sort. After returning to their villages, the Catawba reassessed the situation and decided on peace. By July of 1715, Catawba diplomats arrived in Virginia to inform the British of their willingness to not only make peace, but to assist South Carolina militarily.

Creek and Cherokee

The Ochese Indians had probably been instigators of the war at least as much as the Yamasee. When the war broke out they promptly killed all the South Carolinian traders in their territory, as did the rest of the Creeks, the Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Cherokees.

The Ochese Creek were buffered from South Carolina by several smaller Indian groups such as the Yuchi, Savannah River Shawnee, Apalachee, and Apalachicola. In the summer of 1715 these Indians launched several successful attacks on South Carolina. While some Ochese Creek may have participated in these attacks, in general they took a more cautious approach after South Carolina's counterattacks proved effective. The smaller Indian groups fled the Savannah River area and many found refuge among the Ochese Creeks, where plans were being made for the next stage of the war. The Upper Creeks were not as determined to wage war on South Carolina, but still had strong respect for the Ochese Creeks and might have contributed to an invasion if conditions were favorable. An issue at stake was trade goods. English trade goods from South Carolina, including firearms, had become essential to all the Creek people. Facing possible war with the British, the Creek looked to the French and Spanish as possible markets sources. The French and Spanish were more than willing to supply the Creek, but they were unable to provide the same quantity or quality of goods that the British had been providing. Muskets, gunpowder, and bullets were especially needed if the Creek were to invade South Carolina. The Upper Creek remained reluctant to go to war. Nevertheless, the Creek formed closer ties to the French and Spanish during the Yamasee War.

The Ochese Creeks had other connections, such as the Chickasaw and Cherokee. But the Chickasaw, after killing their English traders, had been quick to make peace with South Carolina. They blamed the deaths of the traders in their towns on the Creeks—a lame excuse that was gladly accepted by South Carolina. The Cherokee's position became strategically important.

The Cherokee were divided. In general the Lower Cherokee, who lived closest to South Carolina, tended to support the war. Some participated in Catawba attacks on South Carolina's Santee Rivermarker settlements. The Overhill Cherokee, who lived farthest from South Carolina, tended to support an alliance with South Carolina and war against the Creek. One of the Cherokee leaders most in favor of an alliance with South Carolina was Caesar, a chief of a Middle Cherokee town.

In late 1715, two South Carolinian traders visited the Cherokee and returned to Charles Town with a large Cherokee delegation. An alliance was made, and plans for war against the Creek developed. But in the following month the Cherokee failed to meet up with South Carolinians at Savannah Townmarker as planned. South Carolina then sent an expedition of over 300 soldiers to the Cherokee, arriving in December, 1715. They split up and visited the key Lower, Middle, and Overhill towns, and quickly saw how divided the Cherokee were. During the winter the Cherokee leader Caesar traveled throughout the Cherokee towns, drumming up support for war against the Creek. Other prestigious and respected Cherokee leaders urged caution and patience, including Charitey Hagey the Conjurer of Tugaloomarker, one of the Lower Towns closest to South Carolina. Many of the Lower Town Cherokee were open to peace with South Carolina, but reluctant to fight anyone other than the Yuchi and Savannah River Shawnee.

The South Carolinians were told that a "flag of truce" had been sent from the Lower Towns to the Creek, and that a delegation of Creek headmen had promised to come. Charitey Hagey and his supporters seemed to be offering to broker peace talks between the Creek and South Carolinians. They convinced the South Carolinians to alter their plans of war. Instead, the South Carolinians spent the winter trying to dissuade Caesar and the pro-war Cherokee.

Tugaloo Massacre

On January 27, 1716, the South Carolinians were summoned to Tugaloo, where they discovered that the Creek delegation had arrived and that the Cherokee had killed 11 or 12 of them. The Cherokee claimed that the Creek delegation was in fact a war party of hundreds of Creek and Yamasee, and that they had nearly succeeded in ambushing the South Carolinian forces. It remains unknown exactly what happened at Tugaloo. That the Cherokee and Creek met in private without the South Carolinians presents suggests that the Cherokee were still divided on whether to join the Creek and attack South Carolina or join the South Carolinian's and attack the Creek. It is possible that the Cherokee, who were relatively new to trade with the British, hoped to replace the Creek as South Carolina's main trading partner. Whatever the underlying factors, the murders at Tugaloo probably resulted from an unpredictable and heated debate which, like the Pocotaligo massacre, ended in an impasse resolved through murder. After the Tugaloo massacre the only possible solution was war between the Cherokee and Creek and an alliance between the Cherokee and South Carolina.

The Cherokee alliance with South Carolina doomed the possibility of a major Creek invasion of South Carolina. At the same time, South Carolina was eager to regain peaceful relations with the Creek and did not want to fight a war with them. While South Carolina did supply the Cherokee with weapons and trade goods, they did not provide the military support that the pro-war Cherokee had hoped for. There were Cherokee victories in 1716 and 1717, but Creek counterattacks undermined the Cherokee's will to fight, which had been divided from the start. Nevertheless, the Creek and Cherokee continued to launch small-scale raids against each other for generations.

In response to The Tugaloo massacre and the Cherokee attacks, the Ochese Creek made a strategic defensive adjustment in early 1716. They relocated all their towns from the Ocmulgee River basin to the Chattahoochee River. The Ochese Creek had originally lived along the Chattahoochee, but had moved their towns to the Ocmulgee River and its tributary, Ochese Creek (from which the name "Creek" came), around 1690, in order to be closer to South Carolina. Their return to the Chattahoochee River in 1716 was thus not so much a retreat as a return to previous conditions. The distance between the Chattahoochee and Charles Town protected them from a possible South Carolina attack.

In 1716 and 1717, as no major Cherokee-British attack materialized, the Lower Creek found themselves in a position of increased power and resumed raiding their enemies—British, Cherokee, and Catawba. But, cut off from British trade, they began to experience problems in the supply of ammunition, gunpowder, and firearms. The Cherokee, on the other hand, were well-supplied with British weaponry. The lure of British trade undermined anti-British elements among the Creek. In early 1717 a few emissaries from Charles Town went to the Lower Creek territory, and a few Creek went to Charles Town, tentatively starting the process that would lead to peace. At the same time other Lower Creeks were looking for ways to continue to fight. In late 1716 a group representing many Muskogean Creek nations traveled all the way to the Iroquois Six Nations in New York. Impressed by the Creek's diplomacy, the Iroquois sent 20 of their own ambassadors to accompany the Creek back home. The Iroquois and Creek were mainly interested in planning attacks on their mutual Indian enemies, like the Catawba and Cherokee. But to South Carolina, a Creek-Iroquois alliance was something to be avoided at all costs. In response, South Carolina sent a group of emissaries to the Lower Creek towns, along with a large cargo of trade good presents.

Frontier insecurity

After the Yamasee and Catawba had pulled back, South Carolina's militia reoccupied abandoned settlements and tried to secure the frontier, turning a number of plantation houses into makeshift forts. The militia had done well in preemptive offensive fighting, but was unable to defend the colony against raiding parties. Members of the militia began to desert in large numbers during the summer of 1715. Some were concerned for their own property and families, while others simply left South Carolina altogether.

In response to the militia's failure, Governor Craven replaced it with a professional army (that is, an army whose soldiers were paid). By August of 1715 South Carolina's new army contained about 600 South Carolinian citizens, 400 black slaves, 170 friendly Indians, and 300 troops from North Carolina and Virginia. This was the first time the South Carolina militia had been disbanded and a professional army assembled. It is also notable for the high number of black slaves armed (and their masters paid) to wage war.

But even this army was not able to secure the colony. The hostile Indians simply refused to engage in pitched battles, using unpredictable raids and ambushes instead. In addition, the Indians occupied such a large territory that it was effectively impossible to send an army against them. The army was disbanded after the Cherokee alliance was established in early 1716.


Since so many different tribes were involved in the war, with varying and changing participation, there was no single definitive end to the conflict. In some respects the main crisis was over within a month or two. The Lords Proprietors of the colony believed the colony was no longer in mortal danger after the first few weeks. For others it was the Cherokee alliance of early 1716 that marked the end of the war. Peace treaties were established with various Creek and other Muskogean peoples in late 1717. But some tribes never agreed to peace, and all remained armed. The Yamasee and Apalachicola had moved south, but continued to raid South Carolina's settlements well into the 1720s. Frontier insecurity remained a problem.


Political change

Although it took several years to accomplish, the Yamasee War led directly to South Carolina's overthrow of the Lords Proprietors. By 1720 the process of transition from a proprietary colony to a crown colony had begun. It took nine years, but in 1729 South Carolina and North Carolina officially became crown colonies. South Carolinians had been discontented with the proprietary system before the Yamasee War, but the call for change became shrill in 1715, after the first phase of the war, and only grew louder in the following years.

The Yamasee War also led to the establishment of the colony of Georgia. While there were other factors involved in Georgia's founding, it would not have been possible without the withdrawal of the Yamasee. The few Yamasee that remained became known as the Yamacraw. James Oglethorpe negotiated with the Yamacraw in order to obtain the site where he founded his capital city of Savannahmarker.

Indian aftermath

In the first year of the war the Yamasee lost about a quarter of their population, either killed or enslaved. The survivors moved south to the Altamaha River, a region that had been their homeland in the 17th century. But they were unable to find security there and soon became refugees. As a people, the Yamasee had always been ethnically mixed, and in the aftermath of the Yamasee War they split apart. About a third of the survivors chose to settle among the Lower Creek, eventually becoming part of the emerging Creek confederacy. Most of the rest, joined by Apalachicola refugees moved to the vicinity of St. Augustinemarker in the summer of 1715. Despite several attempts to make peace, by both South Carolinians and Yamasee individuals, conflict between the two continued for decades. The Yamasee of Spanish Florida were in time weakened by disease and other factors. The survivors became part of the Seminole Indians.

The various proto-Creek Muskogean tribes grew closer after the Yamasee War. The reoccupation of the Chattahoochee River by the Ochese Creek, along with remnants of the Apalachicola, Apalachee, Yamasee, and others, seemed to Europeans to represent a new Indian identity, and needed a new name. To the Spanish it seemed like a reincarnation of the Apalachicola Province of the 17th century. To the English, the term Lower Creek became common.

The Catawba absorbed many of the remnants of northern or Piedmont tribes like the Cheraw, Congaree, Santee, Pee Dee, Waxhaw, Wateree, Waccamaw, and Winyah—although these tribes remained relatively independent for years. The Catawba confederacy emerged from the Yamasee War as the most powerful Indian force of the Piedmont region, especially as the Tuscarora migrated away to join the Iroquois in the north. In 1716, a year after the Catawba had made peace with South Carolina, some Santee and Waxhaw Indians killed several colonists. In response the South Carolina government asked the Catawba to "fall upon them and cut them off", which the Catawba did. Surviving Santee and Waxhaw were absorbed into the Catawba society as slaves or "adoptees". The Cheraw remained generally hostile for years to come.

See also


  1. Oatis, A Colonial Complex, p. 167.
  2. Galley, The Indian Slave Trade, 267–268, 283.
  3. Galley, The Indian Slave Trade, 276–277.
  4. "The Foundation, Occupation, and Abandonment of Yamasee Indian Towns in the South Carolina Lowcountry, 1684-1715", National Register Multiple Property Submission, Dr. Chester B. DePratter
  5. Oatis, A Colonial Complex, 124–125.
  6. Oatis, A Colonial Complex, 165–166.
  7. Oatis, A Colonial Complex, 288–291.


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Further reading

  • Crane, Verner (1928). The Southern Frontier, 1670-1732. Duke University Press.

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