Progress uncovers history

Mary Beth Fitts, center, and Mark Plane, right, both doctoral students with UNC-Chapel Hill's research labs of archaeology, supervise day campers as they search for artifacts in dirt from the planned Kanawha development on the Catawba River near Fort Mill.
Mary Beth Fitts, center, and Mark Plane, right, both doctoral students with UNC-Chapel Hill's research labs of archaeology, supervise day campers as they search for artifacts in dirt from the planned Kanawha development on the Catawba River near Fort Mill.

The discovery of Catawba Indian relics and burials on the site of a proposed mixed-use community near Interstate 77 is reshaping plans for where homes, shops and roads will be located.

One site believed to be an ancient Catawba Indian Village will be preserved as a community park in the Kanawha development, planned for 350 acres off Sutton Road near the Catawba River.

Other relics and burials may be in the path of a proposed road, said Stephen Davis, a professor with UNC-Chapel Hill's research labs of archaeology and a specialist in 18th-century Catawba Indians. Davis and his students have been working on the Kanawha property for the past few months.

But the property's developer has committed to working with the Catawbas to either re-route the road or find another solution that works for both parties.

"I'm very pleased with how we've been brought into the loop and how much they've been working with us," said Wenonah Haire, Catawba tribal historic preservation officer.

For years, archaeologists in the region suspected that two Catawba villages might be underneath the soil where the Kanawha community is planned.

Kanawha will be an environmentally-friendly, mixed-use development, with community organic gardens, green buildings and more. It's planned to surround the $50 million Stans Museum of Life and Environment that York County Culture & Heritage museum leaders are trying to build. Kanawha is expected to generate money for the museum project.

Museum leaders owned the land since 1998, when Jane Spratt McColl donated it. Scholars say they urged museum officials for years to search the entire property for Indian relics.

The museum's archaeologist, who is no longer with the museum, surveyed the 40-acre footprint for the planned Stans museum. And museum director Van Shields has said the museum took good care of the property while it was in its stewardship.

But no substantial survey work was done on the bulk of the land until this year, when Kanawha project manager Brian Goray invited Davis and Brett Riggs, also a UNC-Chapel Hill professor, to the site. The professors and their students have been slowly unearthing the site of what they believe is the 1750's village of Newstie, likely decimated by a smallpox epidemic around 1760.

"It's not a great big surprise," Haire said of Newstie's discovery. Based on maps, geography and ancestral knowledge, the Catawbas believed that a village might be on the property.

Now, Goray, Haire and the S.C. Historic Preservation Office are working together to figure out what to do if more relics are found.

"I think it's pretty cool," Goray said of Newstie's discovery. "I think it's a great thing that we can preserve this, and Brett and Steve can study it."

Goray and Haire are working on a formal agreement for protocol if graves are found in the road's path or in locations where homes might go.

Redesigning a road is one option.

Burial sites are chosen for specific religious and cultural reasons. Most of the time, moving the sites is not a preferred solution.

Children learning from relics

Davis and Riggs, along with undergraduate and doctoral students from area universities, have been digging, sifting and searching for weeks at the Kanawha site. They've hauled bags of dirt back to UNC-Chapel Hill to study.

"The biggest surprise was the diversity," Davis said.

Based on the many different kinds of pottery they've found, Davis believes the village was ethnically diverse. Smallpox was raging and the Iroquois were attacking neighboring tribes. Refugees may have joined the Catawbas at Newstie.

"The Catawbas have a strong reputation as warriors," Davis said. "Groups from pretty far afield are coming under their protection."

The professors and students also have hauled bags of dirt to the Catawba Cultural Center, where day campers have been sifting through the dirt to help find relics and learn about their past.

The dirt gets poured into a wooden tray, and the students clamor around for the water-screening, where hoses turn the dirt into mud and fingers pull out clay, quartz and bones.

"Ooh, I found a piece of pottery," said Cheyenne Beck, 10, pulling out a shard.

"Ooh, I found a piece of a gun," she said, pulling out another artifact.

"Ooh, I found a shark's tooth!" she said, to laughter.

The students are part of a cultural immersion day camp, where they learn language, cooking, earth science, flute-making and more. The archaeological project is giving them a real history lesson, the camp's leaders said.

"This is an opportunity they've never had, to get this personal connection with their history and the land," said Catawba Tribal member Beckee Garris, watching the children pore through the dirt. "The message is to be proud of who you are and your culture."

Garris added: "If you know who you are, there's nothing you can't do."