The Secret Native American History of Charleston, South Carolina

Research by historian, Dr. Nic Butler, for the Charleston Public Library has significantly enhanced our understanding of the past. Not only has he identified the Native Americans, who originally lived on the peninsula, where Charleston now sits, but also found records of its original planning process.

Native American Heritage Month

The Charleston Time Machine is piloted by Nic Butler, Ph.D., an interdisciplinary historian with an infectious enthusiasm for Charleston’s colorful past. A native of Greenville County, South Carolina, Dr. Butler attended the University of South Carolina before completing a Ph.D. in musicology at Indiana University. He has worked as archivist of the South Carolina Historical Society, as an adjunct faculty member at the College of Charleston, and as an historical consultant for the City of Charleston. 

Two Etiwan girls on the Wassamasaw Reservation

The Etiwan People

The Ittiwan people, also spelled Etiwan, were a Native American tribe, who originally lived near present-day Charleston Bay. Sometimes they were referred to as Summerville Indians. In 1751,  they were granted a permanent reserve near the Wassamasaw Swamp. Members of the Wassamasaw Tribe of Varnertown Indians, a state-recognized tribe in South Carolina, claim descent from Ittiwan . . . among other groups.

In the Creek and Panoan (Peru) languages, Etiwan is the plural of Etiwa. I strongly suspect that the actual indigenous word was Etawla, which means “Principal Town.”

My connection with Charleston

After receiving an M.S. in Urban Planning from Georgia State University in 1976, I was hired by James Wright Associates in Buckhead-Atlanta to head its Physical Planning-Urban Design Department. Soon thereafter, I was assigned responsibility for guiding the preparation the first ever Comprehensive Plan for the City of Charleston, SC.

It was an extraordinary opportunity, but a daunting task. No one had comprehensively catalogued the historic buildings in Charleston. What I had available were essentially walking tour maps, plus individual histories of the most prestigious houses and public building. Much of my time, the first year was spent merely walking the streets and photographing the obviously historical buildings, so my staff could research building histories in the Clerk of Court’s tax records.

Virtually, all the references that we now use for the Colonial History of the Carolinas and Georgia, were written AFTER 1976. Gene Waddell did not publish Indians of the South Carolina Lowcountry, 1562-1751, until 1980 . . . and it was never in general circulation, until Google Books and Amazon made it available about four years ago. It is still the only trustworthy, comprehensive resource on that subject.

What I had to work with was essentially either folklore or tourism brochures . . . mainly focused on the Civil War Era. The introduction to the Charleston Comprehensive Plan basically said that Charleston was founded by the Lord Proprietors of the Province of Carolina in 1670 on an unoccupied peninsula between the Ashby and Coopers Rivers. As you will learn, the date and occupation status were WRONG. Dr. Butler’s new information is unavailable from any other published source.

I never saw the published Charleston Comprehensive Plan. James Wright had borrowed funds at high interest from a private factoring firm in order to expand the staff to provide other services to local governments . . . but these other contracts were not paying the bills. As a result, I was not paid for the last 3 1/2 months that I worked there.

When the City of Asheville, NC invited me to plan the revitalization of its Downtown in December 1977, I jumped at the opportunity. The position paid the equivalent today of $146,000 a year. ($146,000 versus 0 income was a no-brainer.)

URL for the fascinating article on Charleston’s beginnings

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