Editor’s note: This is the second post in The Metropole’s May theme on Urban Indigeniety. Additional entries in the series can be found at the conclusion of this article.
By Nathaniel F. Holly
On a rainy November afternoon in 1972, a number of South Carolina’s most prominent citizens huddled together in a Charleston park to hear the recitation of a ghost story popularized during the state’s tricentennial celebrations a couple years earlier. As prominent historian George C. Rogers noted that day, the Kiawah Indians who once populated the shores of the Carolina coast “disappear[ed] from history by the middle of the eighteenth century.” But, before they receded into the mists of time, a particular Kiawah, a “Cassique,” persuaded the English to plant their settlement near the territory of his people instead of the more southerly Port Royal. In so doing, the Cassique of Kiawah became, as several newspapers dubbed him, the “first spokesman of the Chamber of Commerce.”
Yet Rogers’s audience stood shoulder to shoulder in the rain for more than a comforting story about a long dead Indian. Indeed, the dedication of a bronze statue depicting the Cassique of Kiawah, sculpted by Charleston’s own Willard Hirsch, was the centerpiece of this celebration. So, in 1972, a week after Thanksgiving and three centuries after the English first arrived, a city infatuated with its own glorious past finally erected a monument to its Amerindian past—or at least its memory of the Amerindian past.
Amerindian ghosts, of course, are not alone on Charleston’s streets. Wandering the streets of this colonial capital, tourists encounter the specter of enslaved Africans, paternalist enslavers, Civil War soldiers, and signatories of the Declaration of Independence. But as Stephanie Yuhl detailed in her 2005 book, A Golden Haze of Memory, much of the “history” consumed by Charleston’s tourists is a creation of “elite white cultural producers” who “imagined their city as the last enclave of genteel white aristocrats and subservient African American folk in an otherwise tumultuous nation.” As a result of this Depression-era creation, social and public historians have devoted their efforts to balancing the historical scale between Black and white perspectives. This means, of course, that Charleston’s public history and historiography are stretched between those two poles: Black and white. Charleston’s Indians are, for the most part, relegated to “prehistory” by public historians and to the “frontier” by historiography. They’ve been isolated spatially, too; the entirety of Charleston’s commemoration of its Indigenous past stands at Charles Towne Landing, some six miles outside the city proper. The Indigenous history of Charleston is quite literally dis-placed.
What would Charleston look like, then, if it incorporated its Indigenous past into the story it tells about itself? Let’s just dwell in Charleston’s built environment. As anyone who has walked the Holy City’s winding streets knows, historical markers of all sorts are perched atop posts and hung on houses. None of those markers, though, includes a single hint about the city’s rich Indigenous history. Take the Timothy Print Shop, for example. Though the shop that printed South Carolina’s newspaper was housed in various buildings over the years, a simple white wooden sign, elegantly shielded from the elements with a modest overhanging frame, is affixed to a brick column on King Street between Broad Street to the north and Tradd Street to the south.
In a black serif, the sign details the history of the print shop where the South Carolina Gazette was prepared and published from 1734 until the early nineteenth century. The newspaper of record for the colony (and eventually the state), it was of immeasurable importance in the first century-and-a-half of the city’s history. That the shop was run by Elizabeth Timothy after her husband’s death in 1738 makes the history even more noteworthy. Yet while the history on the placard references leading lights like John Wesley (the founder of Methodism) and Benjamin Franklin (of bi-focal and almanac fame), the Indigenous history housed in the same building goes unremarked upon. How would the story that tourists tell upon returning home change if the sign included reference to a 1736 visit from a Creek headman? After giving a speech to colonial officials—and knowing that the Gazette frequently reprinted those “talks” for the reading public—the Creek headman imposed upon Lewis Timothy to make sure that the Gazette printed an accurate rendition of his talk.
Similar stories stud the Charleston landscape. Or at least they should. John Stuart, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Southern District, built a “lavishly fitted” house at 106 Tradd Street in the late 1760s. Unsurprisingly, Stuart didn’t conduct all of his Indian business on or behind the frontier. In December of 1773, for example, the “Great Warrior of Chote” stayed at Stuart’s house “for several days” and “conversed” with the superintendent about rumors that the Cherokees planned to join a “Confederacy against the white people.” The Cherokee headman assured Stuart of his attachment to the “British Interest,” invited the superintendent to visit his town, and left for Chote satisfied with the business he conducted.
Of course, Indigenous visits to Charleston weren’t all about diplomacy. Two years earlier, a group of Creek Indians, led by Tomochichi, invited a group of visiting Notchees to “dance with them” in front of the Governor’s house. The next day, the two parties played a ball game on the same expanse that revealed their “great Strength and Agility.”
Dark Indigenous histories also haunt the streets of Charleston. Over the course of two years in the middle of the eighteenth century, for example, colonial officials imprisoned more than thirty Cherokees in several buildings throughout the city. One of those buildings—the armory—stood just next to the statehouse at the corner of Broad and Meeting. There is plenty of historical interpretation at that crossroads, of course, but none mentions the prisoners who dwelled there or the hundreds of Indigenous people who moved through the halls of power at the statehouse. And for nearly sixteen months, these Cherokees, mostly women and children, were confined at the “old guardhouse” along the Cooper River. A decade or so earlier, half a dozen Shawnees were also prisoners in the same structure. While that building served as the colony’s statehouse before the construction of a new statehouse in 1753, today the same site—where Broad Street runs into East Bay—is dominated by the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon museum. There is, as you might expect, plenty of historical commemoration on that ground. The thousands of tourists who traipse around the site about encounter signage about slave auctions, a convention on the ratification of the Constitution, a twentieth-century preservationist (Lee Cohen Harby), the official printers of the Confederacy, and even a general sign about “The Tavern.” What’s missing, of course, are the stories of the Indigenous people who spent nearly two years imprisoned on the site fighting the winter cold, the summer heat, yellow fever, and sexual assault.
But just listing the sites where Indigenous histories could and should be commemorated in modern Charleston doesn’t accomplish much. Though perhaps pointing out that its southern neighbor, Savannah, has several monuments to a Yamacraw Creek leader buried in the city, Tomochich, will lead to some commemorative action in the Holy City. What Charleston’s silence does reveal, though, is the relative inability of scholars of the eighteenth-century southeast to reckon with the histories of Native peoples in urban places. The history of one can’t be told without the other. Until scholars are able to make these sorts of interpretations more readily available, the entirety of Charleston’s Indigenous history will likely continue to reside with the Cassique of Kiawah. Perhaps Charlestonians are more comfortable thinking of their Indigenous forebears as “Charleston’s first real estate agent” rather than the striving, suffering, smart, and dispossessed humans that they were (and are). Indigenous people belong in the urban places—and in our urban histories—in both the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries.
Additional entries in the series:
- Kent Blansett, Cathleen D. Cahill, and Andrew Needham: Indian Cities: Histories of Indigenous Urbanism
- Coll Thrush: Toward a Global Urban Indigenous History: One Trajectory
- Sasha Maria Suarez: At the Falls: An Urban Ojibwe Story of Minneapolis Placemaking
- Maurice Crandall: Sedona and the Verde Valley, Arizona
Nathaniel F. Holly is an independent scholar and acquisitions editor at the University of Georgia Press. He has published articles on Indigenous urbanism, the eighteenth-century Southeast, transatlantic Indians, and the preservation of Cherokee places in History Compass, North Carolina Historical Review, Early Modern Women, and Oxford Bibliographies in Atlantic History. He also has a chapter in Indian Cities: Histories of Indigenous Urbanization, edited by Kent Blansett, Cathleen Cahill, and Andrew Needham. He holds a PhD in Early American History from the College of William & Mary.
Featured image (at top): Cassique of Kiawah, Willard Hirsch, 1971. Inscription on the marker reads, “Seeking a place for establishing a settlement, the first colonists were directed to this site by the chief of the Kiawah Indians. The friendly Cassique and his people greatly helped the struggling colony, 1670.” Travis, “Cassique of the Kiawah” (2011), flickr.com (CC BY-NC 2.0).
 George C. Rogers, “The Man, the Time, and the Place,” Box 6, Folder 13, Willard N. Hirsch papers, College of Charleston Libraries, Charleston, SC, USA.
 Barbara S. Williams, “Approval Given on Statue,” The News and Courier, May 29, 1971; “Indian Statue To Be Placed At Landing,” Charleston Evening Post, May 31, 1971; “Bronze Cacique,” The News and Courier, June 2, 1971.
 Stephanie Yuhl, A Golden Haze of Memory: Making of Historic Charleston (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 6.
 Jonathan H. Poston, The Buildings of Charleston: A Guide to the City’s Architecture (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997), 285-286
 W. Stitt Robinson, ed., Early American Indian Documents: Treaties and Laws, 1607-1798, Volume 14, North and South Carolina Treaties, 1756-1775 (Bethesda: University Publications of America, 1998), 338-339.
 South Carolina Gazette, 1734-13.
 On the history of Charleston and its statehouse(s), see Carl R. Lounsbury, From Statehouse to Courthouse: An Architectural History of South Carolina’s Colonial Capitol and Charleston County Courthouse (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001).
 Michael Freeman, Native American History of Savannah (Charleston: The History Press, 2018), 110-119. Other cities do a much better job of commemorating their Indigenous pasts. Not without problems, of course. On Seattle see Coll Thrush, Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008). On Los Angeles see Nicolas G. Rosenthal, “Indigenizing Urban Landscapes: Northwest Coast Artists and Cities in the Late Twentieth Century,” Urban History 48, no.1 (January 2022): 142-162. On Washington, DC, and Minneapolis see C. Joseph Genetin-Pilawa, “Native Washington: Indigenous Histories, a Federal Landscape, and the Making of the U.S. Capital” and Sasha Maria Suarez, “Indigenizing Minneapolis: Building American Indian Community Infrastructure in the Mid-Twentieth Century,” both in Indian Cities: Histories of Indigenous Urbanization, edited by Kent Blansett, Cathleen D. Cahill, and Andrew Needham, 115-137, 198-218 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2022).