Tuesday, April 15, 2008

April 15

On this date in 1715, four South Carolina diplomats were killed in the Yamassee town of Pocotaligo, located about a hundred miles west of the colonial capital of Charles town.

The delegation had been sent to solicit the support of the Yamasee in an effort to thwart the outbreak of a war -- rumored to be just over the horizon -- launched by the Ochese (Lower) Creek against the colony. The six ambassadors had good reason to assume their appeal would be recognized and accepted. As the most important English ally in the region, the Yamasee had waged war on behalf of the white settlers before, most recently in 1712-1713 against the Southern Tuscarora. In that conflict the Yamasee joined with an array of other regional tribes to annihilate their adversaries, pushing them out of the Carolinas and into the region, much farther north, that was dominated by the Iroquois Confederacy.

However, the cultural and economic stability of the Yamasee was under tremendous pressure during these years, and their allegiance to the English colonists was beginning to fray. The deerskin and Indian slave trades had helped secure the political and economic bonds between the white settlers and the Yamasee, but they also brought further white encroachment into Yamasee territory while depleting the deer stock. As well, the growth of massive rice plantations -- which would ultimately prove to be the source of South Carolina’s great wealth -- were also impinging on Yamasee territory. With the expansion of the Port Royal region south of Charles Town, cattle ranches quickly sprouted up along the border of the Yamasee territory; heedless of their own role in fomenting the crisis, unfenced livestock gobbled the crops on which the Yamasee depended for food.

During these early years of the 18th century, the Yamasee population showed marked decline, with the window of opportunity for resistance diminishing with each year. With fewer warriors, slave raiding was becoming more difficult. Many Yamasee resented what they regarded as abusive trade practices among the white settlers, including aggressive debt collection, intimidation and violence. They worried that unless they were able to clear their financial obligations to the colony, their own people would soon find themselves on the auction block; whether this fear was well-founded or not, the Yamasee were in the very least determined not to follow the downward trajectory of the Westoe or Cassaboe -- two other once-powerful Indian peoples who had been reduced to helpless dependency over the previous half century.

While receiving assurances from the South Carolina government of its benign intentions, the Yamasee could also not help noticing the construction of a new military fort in Beaufort.

When the delegation arrived in Pocotaligo on April 14, then, the Yamasee regarded the English ambassadors with suspicion. Several of the men in the group had already squandered the good will of the Indians, and the rest were rumored to be spies rather than earnest diplomats. Early the next morning, after hours of intrartibal debate, the Yamasee headmen decided to take the unprecedented step of killing their guests. One of them -- an Indian commissioner named Thomas Nairn -- was tortured for hours before he died.

Having dispatched the ambassadors -- and recognizing the consequences of that decision -- the Yamasee then launched a massive assault against Port Royal, killing roughly a hundred colonists and striking the first blow in a war that would consume the region for the next two years. The war would eventually bring the Creek, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Catawba, Apalachee and more than a dozen other Indian peoples into a loose alliance against the colony. Over the course of two years, South Carolina reached treaty arrangements with a number of their adversaries, while others fled the region or remained in a state of hostility.

Nearly 10 percent of the colony's settlers died in the fighting. The Yamasee, which lost at least a quarter of its population, dispersed throughout the region after the war. Some joined in with the Lower Creek confederacy, while others relocated to Spanish Florida, where they eventually merged with the Seminole.

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