Rediscovering ‘The Indian Head,’ a special place lost to history

jholleman@thestate.comJanuary 8, 2014 

The Indian Head, once an important community on a bluff along the North Edisto River, disappeared along with so much of the Native American Indian history of South Carolina in the cultural amnesia of the early 1800s.

Historian Michael Jeffcoat, digging through archives in search of his own heritage, recently discovered several historical references to the Indian Head. In his view, that name for that place ties together much of the oral history quietly passed down by local residents through generations.

“There is a very long and diverse history here which is Native American and many other things from the 1500s through to the Civil War,” says Jeffcoat, who is working on a book based on his research. “This place is a capsule of history that includes many elements of South Carolina and U.S. history.”

The area where current-day Lexington and Orangeburg counties come together along the North Edisto has gone by many names through the years. These days, Swansea is the mailing address for most residents, but the land is in unincorporated sections of the two counties.

Jeffcoat, whose family roots here go back to the 1700s, and many locals refer to the area as the Big Pond Branch community, in honor of a spring-fed creek that flows through the land. Some references in early history called it Little River, for a section where the aquifer’s water surfaced for a few hundred feet and then went back below the ground. (The spring apparently no longer has the volume of water to create the brief above-ground flow, and what was a fast-flowing waterway now has several dammed ponds.)

Map-makers and official governing bodies didn’t seemed to want to ascribe ownership of the high ground above a swampy section of the river. When the Europeans decided to divide the interior into townships in 1736, they left a slice of unclaimed land between the Saxe Gotha, Amelia and Orangeburg townships. It forms a cone starting with a wide end at the North Edisto to a skinny end on the Congaree River.

Jeffcoat believes this was done on purpose, leaving a slice for the handful of Europeans who had traded and intermarried with Native Americans in that area. It also makes sense that the area would become a magnet for other Native Americans in the middle of the state after the townships were drawn.

Chris Judge, assistant director of the Native American Studies Center at USC-Lancaster, sees some validity in Jeffcoat’s theories. “Native people were displaced by the establishment of the townships, so it is logical that they would be found living outside the boundaries in small enclaves,” he says.

Judge never had seen a reference to The Indian Head as a place along the North Edisto, but that’s not surprising. Much of the post-Colonial history of the state was written by descendants of the Europeans who had pushed natives out of the state. Those natives who stuck around in the state after the Revolutionary War often hid their ethnicity to avoid being persecuted or forced to move to Indian lands in the west.

“Out of sight – that’s how our people have been,” says Louie Chavis, chief of the Beaver Creek Indian Tribe, a state-recognized group based along the North Edisto.

During the 1700s, some European travelers explorers adopted the name The Indian Head for the area. It was descriptive of an overnight camp at the headwaters of the powerful spring along one of the busiest foot trails between Charleston and the backcountry, Jeffcoat says.

Traveling about 30 miles per day, trade parties out of Charleston would make Orangeburg in two days and Indian Head in three, Jeffcoat surmises. In hours upon hours of searching through documents, he found four written references and one map reference to Indian Head.

•  One section of the 1770 Statutes of South Carolina refers to the “road leading from the Orangeburgh bridge to Indian Head.”

•  A survey plat for a man named Davis in 1767 states the land is “on a Branch of Edisto River called the Indian Head, lying on the road leading from long Canes to Charles Town through Orangeburgh Township.” That map includes a mile-marker listing the distance from Charleston as 109 miles, or almost exactly the distance to Big Pond Branch now.

•  Thomas Griffiths, a man sent in 1767 by famous china maker Josiah Wedgewood to buy fine clay from the Cherokees, wrote in his journal that he stayed overnight in Orangeburg and then “proceeded to Indian Head.”

•  Revolutionary War Gen. Andrew Pickens in a 1781 battle report mentioned that soldiers “marched down the Middle Road by the Indian head towards Orangeburgh.”

Chavis was amazed, if not surprised, by Jeffcoat’s discovery. He sees it as validation of the deep Native American heritage of the area.

Judge says research such as Jeffcoat’s can help reconstruct the Native American history during the Colonial period in the state.

Jeffcoat always has been fascinated by family lore about Native American ancestors. While his physical appearance is strongly European — fair skin, light hair — he suspects there were Native Americans in his lineage.

Historical references to Indian Head are just one piece of a puzzle he’s trying to piece together. His research began with a quest to determine the age of several old buildings in the area, including the Samuel Jeffcoat house, which has features that could date it to the late 1700s.

He also believes there are intriguing connections between the Big Pond Branch area and Alexander McGillivray, the mixed-race son of powerful Scottish trader Lachlan McGillivray and a Creek Indian woman. Alexander McGillivray was considered a chief in the Creek tribe.

As a British Loyalist with Native American background during the Revolution living on the edge of Florida Spanish territory, Alexander McGillivray was in a unique position to broker treaties between multiple sides. But he also had a habit of making deals that helped him at the expense sometimes of the people on whose behalf he was negotiating. He grew rich and made plenty of enemies.

Legend has it that at his death in 1793, his infant daughter was sent to live anonymously with a white family. Jeffcoat believes he has uncovered hints that she ended up in the area once known as The Indian Head.

About that time, references to the area began to more often use the term Little River. The McGillivray’s home plantation in Alabama also was called Little River. So in a roundabout way, Jeffcoat suggests, the stealthy appearance in the area of the daughter of a leading Native American might have contributed to the disappearance of the place name of The Indian Head.

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