Dig along Catawba River unearths villagers' story

English beads discovered last week during the excavation.
English beads discovered last week during the excavation.

FORT MILL -- The story of life along the Catawba River 250 years ago surfaced gradually in a forest, where only the sound of an archeologist's digging interrupts a bird's chirp or the creaking of a tree.

About 15 university professors, students and volunteers recently set up camp near Interstate 77 and Sutton Road, once Nassaw Town, home of about 200 to 300 people and about 50 American Indian warriors.

In coming years, the communities where Catawba ancestors sought refuge from war will become the a new museum being developed on the Catawba River. It will neighbor Kanawha, an environmentally-friendly subdivision filled with open space. The site of the archeological dig will become a wooded park.

Nassaw and nearby Weyapee towns both showed up on a map on the back of a deerskin in 1756. Archeologists discovered the towns about a year ago and returned for six weeks to conduct a dig.

Their work -- being conducted by University of North Carolina in conjunction with the York County Cultural & Heritage Museums, the Catawba Historical Preservation Office and developers of what will become the residential Kanawha community -- last year revealed a large, compact circular town of rectangular, post-built houses.

"This was probably a big circle of houses with a plaza in the middle," said Stephen Davis Jr., University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill associate director of Research Laboratories of Archeology.

At the site, he pointed to a staked-out area that once was a house, now filled with holes, where the workers are carefully unearthing what once was storage areas underneath.

The house was about 20 feet by 20 feet and probably provided shelter for a family of eight or 10 people, said Brett Riggs, a UNC research archeologist.

The archeologists also found parts of guns, knives, ammunition, animal bones, pipes, kettles and wine and rum bottles. The most dramatic find was an 18-inch long Scottish dirk, or dagger, with a point. It was unearthed in a shallow pit about 8 to 10 inches below the surface.

The archeologists also have dug up pottery and English beads. The pottery fragments display a variety of etchings and styles, unlike the Catawba pottery produced later.

Ownership of the artifacts will be retained by the company developing Kanawha, but the items will be studied at UNC and available for display both at the museum at the Catawba Nation.

But artifacts aren't the only discovery in the dig.

Their dietary sustenance was revealed in remains of corn and peaches, in squirrel, pig, cattle bones and a number of other remnants.

The warriors are believed to have unknowingly brought smallpox back to Nassaw and Weyapee in 1759 from the French and Indian War. It devastated the town, and about all of its population died. Nassaw and Weyapee were abandoned and a town established near Camden. About two years later, the Catawba moved into northern Lancaster.

To learn more, Davis and Riggs will present "Archeology in the Old Catawba Nation from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Fort Mill Public Library. It is free, but seating is limited, so reservations are required by Monday.