Fort Mill Times

Local history unfolds in Fort Mill

Robin W. Smith and Emily Cubbon, students at UNC-Chapel Hill, measure the depth of the dig.
Robin W. Smith and Emily Cubbon, students at UNC-Chapel Hill, measure the depth of the dig.

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

About 15 university professors, students and some volunteers have set up camp at Nassaw Town, once the home of about 200 to 300 people and about 50 native American warriors. Sugeree, Esaw and Kadapau natives were documented at the site in the early 1700s. They were subsequently joined by refugees, survivors of the Indian wars and disease introduced by Europeans. They coalesced near what now is I-77 and Sutton Road and were to become the Catawba Indian Nation. The name Catawba is believed to have emerged from Kadapau.

"By 1743, there are historical accounts of more than 20 dialects being spoken in the area," said Stephen Davis Jr., University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill associate director of Research Laboratories of Archeology. "They began to merge."

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

Their work, being conducted by UNC 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," Davis said.

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

"People at that time didn't spend a lot of time indoors," Riggs said. "The debris we're digging is all residue of their lifestyle."

Although the Catawba later would side with the patriots during the American Revolution, at this time they were friends with the English during the French and Indian War.

The archeologists also have 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 undisturbed," Riggs said. "This was a business tool," he added, referring to the warriors, who served as ethnic soldiers for the English.

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.

Their dietary sustenance is being revealed in remains of corn and peaches, in squirrel, pig, cattle bones and a number of other remnants. Cattle also are believed to have been introduced by the English.

"We haven't found many agricultural tools," Riggs said. The archeologists believe their fields were about a quarter-mile away in the sediment of an ancient river bed.

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 of its population died.

"Town" at that time meant a community of people, and Nassaw and Weyapee were were abandoned and a town established near Camden. About two years later, the Catawba moved into northern Lancaster.

The pottery they produced in Lancaster more closely resembles the sleek, sculpture-like Catawba pottery that has survived.

"In Lancaster, the pottery was all plain because they manufactured it to sell to white people," Davis explained. "It is what we know today as Catawba pottery."

Students at the site are learning archeological field methods. This week, teachers from throughout York County are joining them, Davis said.

Seventy years ago, the towns of Nassaw and Weyapee were plowed under fields. In coming years, the communities where Catawba ancestors sought refuge from war will become the CHM's 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.

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.