Columbia’s First Residents: The Congaree Indians

Written by Tom Elmore, Historian & Author

November is celebrated nationwide as Native American month. While most people do not think of South Carolina when they think of the indigenous people of the United States, the fact is that there were four to five dozen Indian tribes living within the boundary of the modern Palmetto State when the first European settlers arrived. Sadly, all that remains of these people are the Catawbas, who live near Rock Hill, South Carolina and are the only federally recognized Indian tribe in the state. There are fifteen Native American “remnant tribes,” special interest groups or organizations who have received state recognition. All others are considered lost.

The name of one of those lost tribes is preserved today as one of the most popular names used for businesses and places in the greater Columbia area: “Congaree,” after the river that flows past the city. The Congaree River is created by the junction of the Broad and Saluda Rivers. Though many are aware that the river is named after a tribe of Native Americans, few know the story of the people for whom the river is named.


Archeology has shown that the area around Congaree Creek, below Cayce, has had constant human occupation for about 12,000 years. Some of the oldest spear points found east of the Mississippi River have been discovered in this area as well as pottery shards and arrowheads.

Eventually during the Mississippian Period (1000-500 years ago) the early residents of the area became known as the Congarees. While their language is “lost” some have theorized that the name Congaree might be a Catawba word meaning “river deep” while others suggest that it may mean “where the river hits the rocks” referring to its location on the fall line. The Congaree were probably of the Siouan language group and their language may have been similar to that of the Catawbas. (Some have theorized that they were an off-shoot of the Catawbas.)

The Congarees were primarily hunter-gatherers who lived off fish, deer and other wild game, though they also had small farms of corns, beans and squash. Hickory and “chinkapin” nuts were also a major part of their diet and were used to cure venison and to make a venison stew. They also ate peaches, though where they got them is unclear. The Congaree were not a large tribe – estimates put their numbers around 800 people in 1600. Sadly, virtually nothing is known about their culture.

Like all of South Carolina’s indigenous people, the Congarees’ way of life was dramatically changed by the arrival of white settlers. Smallpox, in particular, greatly reduced the tribe’s numbers. In 1701 English adventurer John Lawson visited the tribe, giving us one of the few first-hand descriptions of the Congarees in his 1709 pamphlet A New Collection of Voyages and Travels. With Historical Accounts of Discoveries and Conquest In all Parts of the World. He found them living on the northeast bank of the Santee River below the junction of the Wateree River. Their town consisted of about 12 houses, made of clay and sticks, though the tribe had sprawling farms up and down the countryside. They were considered to be a friendly tribe. The Congaree were also noted for having athletic bodies with the men considered very handsome, while the women were said to be more beautiful than those of other area tribes.

According to Lawson, “These Congarees have abundance of cranes and storks in their sandhillcranefeb12_08_07-2savannahs. They take them before they can fly, and breed them as tame and familiar as a dung-hill fowl. They had a tame crane at one of these cabins that was scarce less than six feet in height, his head being round, with a shining natural crimson hue which they all have,” He further states the birds were “above five feet high when extended; their quills are excellent for pens; their flesh makes the best broth, yet it is hard to digest. They are easily bred, and are excellent in a garden to destroy frogs, worms, and other vermin.”

A 1715 map shows the tribe living on the Congaree River opposite of what would become Columbia. A census that year shows the tribe had 22 men and 70 women and children. Also in 1715 the Congaree allied themselves with the Yamasee in a war against the European colonists. The results were a disaster for the Congarees. Over half of them were captured and enslaved and sent to the West Indies in 1716. After the South Carolina backcountry was subdued in 1717, a trading post named Fort Congaree was built in 1718 where Congaree Creek and the Congaree River meet. The site was strategic both militarily and commercially since it was located near the Cherokee Trail which connected Charleston to the South Carolina upstate. However due to flooding and the reduction in the numbers of Indians living in the area, the fort fell into disuse by 1722.

Sometime after the Yamasee War the few remaining Congaree joined their Catawba cousins. They may have, for at least a while, remained a separate group within the Catawbas. James Adair, a trader who knew the Catawbas well, wrote that during a 1743 visit he heard some of the tribal members speak a “Cangaree [sic]” dialect. That is the last known record of the Congaree. Some of the current members of the Catawba Indian Nation, which number about 2600 are believed to be descendants of the Congarees.

Free guided walking tours of the area that the Congaree once called home and the site of Fort Congaree, as well as the Confederate earthworks used to defend Columbia from Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman in 1865 are being offered by the 12,000 Year History Park Working Group, the City of Cayce and The River Alliance. Each two-mile tour lasts about an hour and a half and is led by National Park Service trained volunteers. On the tour, visitors will learn about living in the Ice Age, the development of the tribes of the Mississippian Period, the impact of contact with Europeans, and the culture and traditions of area Native Americans. Visitors will also go near the site of Fort Congaree. Tours will be offered throughout the month of November and in spring 2017. Group tours are also available by appointment. The tours start at the Cayce Tennis & Fitness Center located at 1120 Fort Congaree Trail, just off of Exit 2 on I-77 and the 12th Street Extension. 803-765-2200.

In addition, visitors can walked to the sites via the Timmerman Trail during daylight hours. The paved trail is mostly ADA compliant, but there are a few rough spots. Please do not stray from the trail as there are snakes and alligators in the area. The trail can also be used for jogging and bicycle riding. Regardless of when you go it is recommended you wear comfortable shoes and a hat. Sunscreen, water and insect repellent are also strongly suggested. Those with allergies may wish to carry an epi-pen. Currently there are no restroom facilities on the trail, but you may use the facilities at the tennis center.

The nearby Cayce Museum located at 1800 12th Street, next to the Cayce Municipal Centercayce-historical-museum-interior has the Southeast’s largest collection of Native American artifacts. Among the 7000 items found in the Cayce area that are on display are fifteen Clovis points. Named after Clovis, N.M., where they were first found in 1929, Clovis points are pointed projectiles that date from the Paleoindian period about 13,500 years old. Also on display is a diorama of a Congaree Indian village. It is open from 9am-4pm Tuesday through Friday and Saturday and Sunday from 2 to 5pm. Admission is Adults $2, children (age 12 & under) 50 cents, seniors/students $1 with free admission on Sundays.

For those interested in a road trip, the Catawba Reservation’s Cultural Center is located at 1536 Tom Steven Road, Rock Hill, SC. The Cultural Center features exhibits that showcase the rich culture and history of the Catawba Indian Nation, and staff members are there to answer questions you may have. The center also has a gift shop featuring crafts made by Catawba artisans. The center is opened Monday through Friday 8-5. Admission is free.

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