St. Augustine conference focuses on Yamasee


PETER.WILLOTT@STAUGUSTINE.COM A Yamasee Indian clay bowl uncovered in St. Augustine by St. Augustine City Archaeologist Carl Halbirt and his team. Halbirt uncovered the bowl, which he dates from the late 1720s to the mid 1750s, on a site on Marine Street in St. Augustine.     Read more here: St. Augustine Conference, Yamasee Indians

The Yamasee Indians of coastal South Carolina were fed up. They’d had enough of the British traders who treated them unfairly, enough of settlers moving into their territory, enough of the colonists who took their people and made them slaves.

Three-hundred years ago, on April 15, 1715, they set off on raids of British settlements and trading posts, creating havoc as the colonists fled for the relative safety of what was then known as Charles Town.

The Yamasee didn’t win the war, of course. Within a few years they would end up scattered and far from home, including many who fled to the Spanish in St. Augustine.

Still, the conflict — often overlooked in history books — had a profound impact on both South Carolina and St. Augustine, said Denise Bossy, associate professor of history at the University of North Florida.

She is one of the organizers of a first-of-its-kind conference on the Yamasee, taking place Friday and Saturday in St. Augustine, the city of their exile.

Held at Flagler College and open to the public, it will bring in historians and archaeologists for what Bossy said is the most comprehensive study yet of the Yamasee. It will lead to a book on the tribe that she will co-edit with Chester DePratter of the University of South Carolina.

She said the attention on the Yamasee, who were joined by other groups of Indians in their war on British colonists, is deserved.

“It’s one of the most important Indian wars in colonial history,” Bossy said. “It virtually leads to the destruction of South Carolina, several hundred colonists are killed, and close to 100 Indian traders, British traders who lived in Indian towns, are killed.”

The war was over 1717, and while it succeeded in ending Indian slavery in South Carolina, the Yamasee would never be the same.

Some slipped away to the west and joined other tribes, while many began to take refuge near St. Augustine. The Spanish garrison there — still a sparsely populated outpost — was glad to have them, said city archaeologist Carl Halbirt, a conference speaker.

“The Europeans are looking at Native Americans as a source of support for their control of the Southeast,” he said. “So when the Yamasee make this gesture to the Spanish, they say, ‘Sure, come on down.’ ”

They settled outside the city at first, but eventually moved closer — “within a cannon’s shot” of the fort, Halbirt said.

They left behind evidence of their lives. The archaeologist’s office has a collection of Yamasee beads, broken pottery, gun flints, musket balls and an amulet thought to protect against a variety of things.

In 1763, when the Spanish turned St. Augustine over to the British, the Yamasee moved on, another chapter in the Indian diaspora.

Many immigrated to Cuba with the Spanish, while others fled from European influence and joined other tribes in the Southeast, including the Seminoles.