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November is designated as Native American Heritage Month, a good time to remember the pre-colonial era people who once called the Lowcountry home and whose names are recalled in the rivers and tidal marshes that supported them. With no written language that has come down to us, our only knowledge of them comes from the descriptions written by the European settlers who first encountered them.

Planting corn and beans

The earliest records of these indigenous people are from the mid-to-late 16th century, when Spanish adventurers ranged up and down the coastline between present day Florida and North Carolina. It's in these descriptions that the names Bohicket, Stono, Edisto and Kiawah, or variations of them, first appear in documents. The Spanish encountered these tribes when they explored what is now Charleston Harbor (they dubbed it San Jorge) and the rivers that drained into it. They met a semi-nomadic culture, with the Lowcountry's First People spending winters in the upper coastal plains of central South Carolina and the warmer spring and summer months at the shore (which in their time extended some fifty miles further east than it does today). There were an estimated fifteen tribal groups described by Europeans, who initially relied on the natives for guidance in what crops to plant and game to hunt. In our immediate area, English explorers who came ashore near what is now Rockville were greeted and welcomed by the Cassique of a loose confederation of tribes that came to be known as the Kiawah.

A sculpture of the Cassique, Charles Towne Landing

Later, when the English had driven the Spanish south, a British visitor in 1682 recorded that the Native Americans he encountered were "of a deep chestnut color, their hair black and straight, tied various ways, stuck through with feathers for ornament or gallantry." He noted that they were superb hunters with bow and arrow or with reeds sharpened to a point. . Expanding plantations and the arrival of imported cattle began to alter the landscape that had supported indigenous cultures for thousands of years, and European diseases like smallpox to which the natives had no immunity further decimated tribal numbers. By the late 1700's, mention of these tribes had mostly vanished from the written record. Their settlements were easily dismantled for each season's move, leaving us little physical evidence of their presence. The evocative shell rings just off our contemporary coastline, and scattered shell middens along creeks, are all that remain.

The Charleston Museum has an excellent collection of artifacts from archeological explorations, including from the unearthed remnants of a Kiawah burial site uncovered during construction in the late 1960's at Charles Towne Landing. And a remnant Kiawah population survives in Tennessee, to where surviving tribal groups migrated in the late 18th century. They are known as the Guaymari Kiawah, or "Sacred People Of The Earth."

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