Wassamasaw Tribe of Varnertown Indians

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Wassamasaw Tribe
of Varnertown Indians
Total population
(Enrolled members: 1,500)
Regions with significant populations
 United States South Carolina
English, formerly Siouan

The Wassamassaw Tribe of Varnertown Indians, is a small state recognized tribe of Native Americans descended from historic tribes of the Colonial Era. Located in Berkeley County in the Low Country, in 2005 the people were granted recognition as an Indian group by the State of South Carolina, the first stage in recognition as a tribe. The tribe is headquartered in Berkeley County, South Carolina.

The tribe is one of six that were recognized in the early 21st century by South Carolina, including the Waccamaw-Siouan Tribe, the Chaloklowa Chickasaw, some Pee Dee bands, and a composite group known as "The Eastern Cherokee, Southern Iroquois, and United Tribes." The Catawba Indian Nation is the only one in South Carolina that is federally recognized by the U.S. Government.

Wassamassaw was a swamp located between Summerville and Moncks Corner, South Carolina in the area of Varnertown, where the tribe of that name has lived. Like other tribes in the area, the Wassamassaw ended their name with "aw" or "o" to refer to their connection with coastal water. The name may have meant "connecting water", and it is one of only a few place names in the United States that is a palindrome.[1]

The tribe's current population is 1,500. In South Carolina 27,000 people self-identify as Native American. To be recognized by the state, the Wassamassaw had to show that they had lived as a community for at least a century. Records from the 19th century showed that "Indian Mary", an Edisto recognized as an Indian in her court challenge of taxes required of free people of color, married a Varnertown resident. As the reporter Bo Petersen has noted, the Wassamassaw may be "the last living link to the Edisto", a people who are extinct as an organized tribe.[1]

The Wassamassaw are descended from the Catawba, Edisto (a subtribe of the Cusabo) and Cherokee, as well as European American and African American ancestors. Under pressure from white settlement, and population losses due to infectious diseases and the Yemassee War of the 18th century, surviving members of the various tribes intermarried with each other. Soon few of the smaller groups of people identified with just one tribe. They called themselves Wassammassaw and over the decades intermarried with neighbors of other ethnicities. In the 1930s, Filipino immigrants also intermarried with members of the tribe.[1]

In 1938, the WPA photographer Marion Post Wolcott took a photo of Geneva Varner Clark of Varnertown, the only area resident who at the time identified as Native American, and her three children. Theirs is the only photo of Lowcountry Indians in the Library of Congress. Its caption is "Indian (mixed breed -- 'brass ankles') family near Summerville, South Carolina."

She stands, her arms wrapped around her [holding a dog] in the cold, with three children and [another] dog in the [swept] dirt and rocks in front of a [hard] pine-board house with [lace curtains at the windows,] a roof of [somewhat] tattered wooden shingles and thin stick porch columns that lean [ever so sightly] in on each other holding it up.[2]

All appear to be well fed and warmly dressed including the mother with a fur collared full length wool coat.

The Wassamassaw lost touch with their crafts and culture, but since the 1960s have been working to revive and preserve them. The effects of the civil rights movement and the Indian rights movement led some of the younger members to recover their heritage, and descendants increasingly identify as Wassamassaw. Since the late twentieth century, the Tribal Administrator, Lisa Leach, led the effort toward state recognition.[1]

Among the benefits of state recognition is that the Wassamassaw can sell art and craft work as identified "Native American"; their goal is to raise money to construct a tribal center.[3][1]


The South Carolina branch of the Waccamaw are descendant from a community known as the Dimery Settlement of South Carolina. They have long inhabited territory in present-day northeastern South Carolina. The ancient Waccamaw were river dwellers who lived along the Waccamaw River from present-day North Carolina’s Lumber River to Lake Waccamaw to Winyah Bay near Georgetown, South Carolina.


While the Waccamaw were never populous, they incurred devastating population loss and dispersal with the incursion of colonial settlers and their diseases during the eighteenth century.

According to the ethnographer, John R. Swanton, the Waccamaw may have been one of the first mainland groups of Natives visited by the Spanish explorers in the 16th century. Within the second decade of the 16th century, Francisco Gordillo and Pedro de Quexos captured and enslaved several Native Americans, and transported them back to Hispaniola. Most died within two years, although they were supposed to be returned to the mainland. One of the men whom the Spanish captured was baptized and learned Spanish. Known as Francisco de Chicora, he worked for Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, who took him to Spain on a trip. Chicora told the court chronicler Peter Martyr about more than twenty indigenous peoples who lived in present-day South Carolina, among which he mentioned the "Chicora" and the "Duhare" — these were tribal territories that comprised the northernmost regions.[4] The early 20th century ethnographer John R. Swanton believed that these nations were the Waccamaw and the Cape Fear Indians, respectively.[5]

Eighteenth century[edit]

European contact nearly wiped out the Waccamaw. Having no natural immunity to endemic Eurasian infectious diseases, such as smallpox and measles, the Waccamaw, like many southeastern Native peoples, died by the hundreds. By the early eighteenth century, the Cheraw, a related Siouan people of the Southeastern Piedmont, tried to recruit the Waccamaw to support the Yamasee and other tribes against the English during the Yamasee War in 1715. The Waccamaw engaged in a brief war against the South Carolina colony in 1720 to stem the tide of English incursions into the Piedmont. Colonial accounts state that the English killed, or took captive numerous Waccamaw men, women and children.[citation needed]

Such events occurred again. Caught in the middle of the accelerating deerskin and slave trades, the Waccamaw were forced into slavery. While George II of Great Britain ordered all plantation owners to free their Native American slaves in 1752, some slaveholders refused to do so without compensation. Slave owners simply insisted that they did not own any Native American slaves and proclaimed their Native American slaves to be Negro.[citation needed]

In 1755, John Evans noted in his journal that the Cherokee and Natchez killed some Waccamaw and Pee Dee Native Americans "in the white people’s settlements." Their location at this time is uncertain, but some (WHO?) believe that the Waccamaw were living near present-day Moncks Corner, South Carolina.[citation needed]

Nineteenth century[edit]

By the mid-eighteenth century, the Dimery settlement, near Dog Bluff, South Carolina, was formed. There, a core community of allied Waccamaw families: Dimery, Cook, Hatcher, and Turner, was formed. It was commonly called an "Indian" community.[citation needed] In 1809, John Dimery married Elizabeth Hardwick in Marion County, South Carolina. By 1813, John and Elizabeth Hardwick Dimery had moved to Horry County, where they purchased 300 acres (1.2 km2) of land on the east side of the Little Pee Dee River. John Dimery and his sons added to their land holdings in subsequent years—lands that formed the heart of the Waccamaw Dimery Settlement.[citation needed]

By 1850, the Dimery Settlement had grown to at least four families: that of John Dimery, Willis Thompkins, Cockran Thompkins, and Sara Cook, for a total of some 27 individuals. Oral tradition states that around this time John Dimery donated the land for the raising of Pisgah Church.[citation needed] The Waccamaw grew cotton, corn, and later tobacco, much the same as their neighbors. They participated in community activities such as hog killings, barn raisings, and lumbering in which community members combined their efforts to help individual members of the settlement.

Census classifications that listed the Waccamaw as "free persons of color," threatened their native identity in the nineteenth century, as the census did not use "Indian" as a category for non-reservation Indians until 1870. John Dimery first appeared on the Horry County Census in 1820 as a "free person of color." Historian and genealogist Virginia DeMarce and Paul Heinegg have found that 80 percent of the individuals listed as free persons of color in 1790 and 1810 were descended from African Americans free in colonial Virginia. Most of those were descended from unions and marriages between white women and African men, people who lived and worked together as free, servants, or slaves. Some of the Africans were freed as early as the mid-17th century.[6]

The example of members of the Hatcher family show the variability of identification as Indians in official records of the Waccamaw of the Dimery Settlement, and other Native peoples in the South, as they were seldom asked how they identified. In the 1920 federal census, William I. Hatcher, who lived in Galivants Ferry Township, was classified as white. His brothers Noah, Julius, Robert and Vander, living in Dog Bluff Township, were recorded as "mulatto;" and their uncles, Peter and William Hatcher, who lived in Robeson County, NC, were enumerated as "Indians". Such classifications may also have been accurate representations of their appearances and ethnic affiliations at the time. With intermarriage with other races, some American Indian descendants became more affiliated with other ethnicities.[citation needed]


Today, the Waccamaw of South Carolina consist of about 400 members. The Waccamaw petitioned the state for recognition as a Native American tribe, and received formal recognition from the South Carolina Commission for Minority Affairs on February 17, 2005. The tribe is headquartered and bounded by the Waccamaw River and the Little Pee Dee River in Aynor, Horry County.

The majority of tribal members live along the Waccamaw River in Georgetown and Horry counties, especially near the area now known as Dog Bluff. In May 2004, the Waccamaw people of South Carolina received 20 acres (81,000 m2) of land in the tribe's ancestral homeland in the Dog Bluff community near Aynor in Horry County.

The Waccamaw of South Carolina are one of the founding members of the South Carolina Indian Affairs Commission, the National Organization for the Unification of Native Americans (NOUNA), and the National Coalition for Indian Sovereignty.


  1. ^ a b c d e Bo Petersen, "Local tribe reclaims its roots, heritage", 17 April 2005, accessed 14 December 2011
  2. ^ Marion Post Wolcott, "Indian (mixed breed - brass ankle) family near Summerville, South Carolina", Library of Congress
  3. ^ Bo Petersen, "Researchers explore local tribe's ties to legendary temple", The Post and Courier, 17 April 2005, accessed 14 December 2011
  4. ^ "First Descriptions of an Iroquoian People: Spaniards among the Tuscarora before 1522", Dr. Blair Rudes, Coastal Carolina Indians Center, 2004.
  5. ^ John R. Swanton, "Early History of the Creek Indians and their Neighbors", Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 73, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1922, pp. 32–48
  6. ^ Paul Heinegg, Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware, accessed 9 Mar 2008

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