Wassamasaw Tribe watches its history erode

By Bo Peterson
Edisto Island, South Carolina (AP) 9-07

The Spanish Mount shell midden is all but gone. The Edistow tribe that built it, lost. All except for Indian Mary.

Heidi Varner, of the Wassamasaw Tribe of Varnertown Indians, thought about that as she looked over the eroding, oyster shell-riddled bank of Fishing Creek on Edisto Island recently. She and other younger members have been struggling to re-establish the heritage of the Berkeley County tribe whose people for generations wouldn’t acknowledge it.

“We have our history here,” Varner said.

In records from the 1800s, “Indian Mary,” who married into a Varnertown family, identified herself as an Edistow. That makes the inland Wassamasaw people possibly the last living link to the coastal tribe thought to have been wiped out two centuries ago.

Varner and former tribal chief Chris Weik were at Edisto Beach State Park talking with visitors and cultural educators for the park and other natural and cultural sites along the coast. The presentation was part of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources’ public event series.

Edisto is named for the tribe that once lived there. Like other native Low country names, it is a strand in the weave of the place. The weavers are little more than mysteries.

“We know a lot about Native Americans in general, but we know very little about Native Americans in the Lowcountry.

Anything they can share is valuable,” said Thomas Thornton of Charleston Parks and Recreation.

A shell midden is a pile of discarded oyster and clam shells, the leftovers of feasts from as long as 4,000 years ago. Middens and shell rings can be found up and down the South Carolina coast. They are among the few visible remnants of the pre-Colonial tribes there who tended to roam and built villages with materials that rotted away.

The middens and rings were long thought to be trash dumps. Recent excavations suggest at least some of the rings were layered and structured in other words, built with a purpose.

The Spanish Mount midden is in the Edisto park along the creek behind Edisto Beach. It was mentioned in a 1630s journal as being as tall as a tower, tall enough to be seen from the sea over the scrub dunes that constituted the beach then. Excavations suggest that it, too, might have been built as a ring and collapsed under its own weight.

Today, most of the midden’s shells have fallen from the bluff into the creek. The rest jut like a fractured tooth from the bank mud. The remnants are a sought-after cultural site on the island; park staff have stabilized the bank with riprap and built a wooden walkway down from the bluff to view it.

It’s a pointed juxtaposition the shards of an American-Indian structure so singular that a Colonial explorer was struck by it, built by a tribe lost to colonial history, with the descendants of both groping to restore that link. Weik, who was taught native pottery by his mother, laid out a challenge like that for the people in Varnertown.

“You know bits and pieces. They know bits and pieces. We can put those pieces together and be a tribe again.”