They may have called Daniel Island home hundreds and even thousands of years ago, but you can still spot evidence of their existence today.
An oyster shell midden on the banks of the Wando River.
A piece of clay pottery jutting out from the sand along the coastline at low tide.
A modern roadway that traces an ancient trading route.
An arrowhead buried beneath layers of soil.
Native Americans were the first to lay claim to this land. Archaeologist Dr. Eric Poplin, vice president of Brockington & Associates, an industry leader in cultural resources management, has been studying Daniel Island’s history for more than 30 years.
“I think the most important thing that our research revealed concerning the Native Americans who lived on Daniel Island and around Charleston Harbor is their adaptability, the way they utilized so much of their environment and surroundings to maintain themselves, their families, their communities, and at times, even larger social groups,” Poplin said. “... These people understood how to survive very well in this place where we live today. This demonstrates the abilities of people to make fruitful lives, much more than just surviving, in a most efficient and commodious manner.”
November has been designated as Native American Heritage Month, a time to remember the rich ancestry and traditions of a people known for their strength, resilience, and immeasurable contributions to the societies in which they lived. Daniel Island’s ties to Native Americans are well documented. The island was once known as Ittiwan or Etiwan Island, a tribute to the tribe that settled in the area centuries ago.
“Native American artifacts occur in fairly large quantities along the margins of the island, with several large concentrations that likely reflect longer term occupations — like villages or farmsteads, particularly during the 1400s-1600s,” Poplin noted. “One of these sites lies near the Volvo Cup Tennis Center (now the Credit One Stadium) and the I-526 Wando River bridge and the other lies to the north on Ralston Creek. However, there is evidence that people have been visiting and spending some time on Daniel Island for the last 13,000 years.”
Former Daniel Island resident Mike Dahlman, co-founder of the Daniel Island Historical Society, described Native American occupation of the island in the book “Daniel Island,” which he co-authored with his son, Michael K. Dahlman Jr.
According to the book, nearly every excavated site has revealed Native American relics, including some of the oldest ceramics found anywhere in North America. “Archaeologists have uncovered arrowheads that date from 10,000 years ago, along with pottery shards that indicate Etiwan Island ... was an important living area from at least 2500 B.C.,” Dahlman wrote.
“A place like Daniel Island would have had an abundant food supply, fishing access, good climate, and the proximity to water was important for everything from transit and trade, to spiritual significance and ritual,” said Daniel Island Historical Society President Jessica Knuff, who is of Cherokee/Pee Dee descent and serves as a board member for the U.S. Department of State’s Native American Foreign Affairs Council. “Many of the reasons people lived on Daniel Island thousands of years ago may be very similar to why we chose to live here now.”
Although not much is known about the Etiwan Tribe specifically, due to the fact that they had no written language, they likely shared many of the common beliefs and cultural practices of neighboring Lowcountry tribes.
“The Etiwan had a Muskogean-based language, so they most likely shared similar cultural connections to the nearby Cusso, Kusso-Natchez, Kiawah, Stono and Yemassee tribes,” Knuff continued. “The beliefs and practices of the historic Etiwan tribe would have morphed over the years with influence from Edisto, Catawba and Cherokee cultures as colonial pressure to move inland brought various Native cultures into settlement towns for survival. South Carolina had a robust Native trading path running directly through the state from the coast to the mountains, so Carolina tribes shared many common cultural influences through travel and trade.”
As part of their 2004 investigation of the Ralston Creek site in what is now Daniel Island Park, Poplin and his team made a significant discovery – a Native American burial.
“This person was buried near one of the Ashley phase houses that once stood on the site,” Poplin noted. “Likely sometime between AD 1570 and 1650. Encountering human remains is always sobering and exciting. So much of what we do as archaeologists involves just pieces of refuse that people used but left behind. We do not deal with actual people that often, but when we do, it is always in the most respectful and sensitive manner possible.”
The remains were ultimately relocated in a manner consistent with Native American traditions. “A Catawba Shaman, or spiritual leader, was present when the remains were removed and reburied on Daniel Island in an area that will not be developed,” Dahlman wrote.
“Special care was taken to retain the geographical alignment of the body.”
It is that tradition and many others that defined Native American life — and it is hoped that through initiatives like Native American Heritage Month their contributions will continue to be recognized.
“South Carolina’s role in shaping Native American culture, religion and existing tribal structures cannot be understated,” Knuff added. “Because South Carolina was an early contact state, much of this influence was due to the slave trade. Spanish and French exploration prior to the arrival of English settlers resulted in diminished numbers of Lowcountry Natives, due to both disease and slavery. Early Carolina settlers arriving from Barbados depended on slave labor for the plantation-style agricultural systems they replicated in the Lowcountry.”
In fact, significant numbers of Native Americans were captured and used in slavery for the purposes of farming, making “Charles Towne” the epicenter of the American Indian Slave Trade, according to Knuff. It is believed that between 1670 and 1720, more Native American slaves were exported out of Charleston than Africans were imported.
“Many Lowcountry Natives were shipped to the West Indies or elsewhere for profit,” Knuff noted. She said the purpose of the American Indian Slave Trade “was not only profit, but also to break up existing community and political institutions of Native tribes on the East Coast. In South Carolina, some of the tribes that exist today, in their modern form, are descendants of tribal groups that escaped the Lowcountry as a result of these colonial influences.”
Today, many descendants of the Etiwan Tribe live in the Summerville/Carnes Crossroads area and are known as the Wassamasaw Indian Nation and the Wassamasaw Tribe of Varnertown.
Poplin said, “We should never think of Native Americans as living just in the past,” since there are many Native American people living in our communities today. “And not just people from the major tribes that we know about,” he added. “They are still here and trying to maintain their identities as Native Americans.”
In a 2019 presentation for the Daniel Island Historical Society, Knuff encouraged all community members to ponder some important questions.
“Whose land do you live on? What do/did they call themselves? What was done to them? How do you benefit from that? What are they doing now? If you can’t answer these questions, ask yourself why — and then find out.”