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ETHNONYMS: The term "Cusabo" refers to nineteen independent American Indian tribes. The name means Kussah-River. The five principal tribes were the Kussoe, Edisto, Escamacu (Saint Helena), Kiawah, and Etiwan. The smaller tribes were the Ashepoo, Bohicket, Combahee, Hoya, Kussah, Mayon, Sampa, Sewee, Stalame, Stono, Toupa, Wando, Wimbee, and Witcheaugh.


Identification and Location. The name "Cusabo" was used between 1707 and 1720 as a convenient designation for small tribes living in and near English settlements in South Carolina. Earlier and later, these tribes usually were referred to individually or by general designations such as the Settlement Indians, Neighboring Indians, and Parched-Corn Indians.

From 1562 to 1685 the French, Spanish, and English recorded information about nineteen separate tribes living on or near the South Atlantic coast between the Santee and Savannah rivers. The Kussoe and Kussah occupied much of the interior of this area, which generally is referred to as the Lowcountry. In 1675 the "great and the Lesser Cassoe" were forced to cede their lands at the headwaters of the Ashley River. In 1684 eight separate cessions cleared the title to most of the land from the Stono River south to the Savannah River. The eight tribes ceding land were the Ashepoo, Combahee, Edisto, Kussah, Stono, Saint Helena (Escamacu), Wimbee, and Witcheaugh. Although the western boundaries of these cessions extended to the Appalachian Mountains, none of these tribes is known to have occupied land more than about fifty miles from the coast, and the Piedmont was occupied by unrelated tribes. Other tribes that were probably indigenous to the Lowcountry were the Bohicket, Etiwan, Hoya, Kiawah, Mayon, Sampa, Sewee, Stalame, Touppa, and Wando. None of these tribes is known to have lived outside the Lowcountry, with the possible exception of some "Coosa" who had united with the Catawba by 1743. The Sewee are the only one of these tribes definitely known to have spoken a language different from the principal one.

The total area occupied by all nineteen tribes was about 5,000 square miles (8,000 square kilometers), and different parts of it were occupied seasonally. During the summer most of these tribes lived on or near the coast. In other seasons they lived inland on freshwater rivers and streams in the lower coastal plain. This maximum height of the land within about fifty miles (80 kilometers) of the coast is around 70 feet (21 meters) above mean sea level. The soil is generally sandy except where deltas existed during earlier geological periods. This area includes few natural ponds or lakes. With one minor exception, the rivers between the Santee and the Savannah do not extend into the Piedmont, and an area with a relatively short river system and numerous sea islands provided the geographic isolation needed for a distinctive culture to develop.

Demography. The population in 1562 is unlikely to have been more than 1,750. In 1562 the chiefs of the Edisto and Escamacu were accompanied by at least 200 men, implying a combined population for these two tribes of about 800. In 1579 the Coçapoy (probably the combined village of the Kussoe and the Kussah) had about 400 people. The Kussoe later claimed to have had as many as 1,000 people; this is not possible but is otherwise undocumented. By 1682, the date of the earliest census, the Cusabo had been so reduced that the number of bowmen for each tribe was Kussah, 50; Kiawah, 40; Saint Helena, 30; Etiwan, 20; Stono, 16; and Edisto, 10. Multiplying these totals by four produces an estimated population of 664. This estimate is close to the totals in a census conducted in 1715, shortly before the Yemassee War began: Etiwan, 80 men and 160 women and children; Corsaboys (five villages), 95 men and 200 women; total, 535. The substantial reduction in population was caused primarily by disease (principally smallpox) and by attacks by the Spanish and by Indian allies of the French.

At least eleven other tribes occupied the Lowcountry that are not known to have lived there before 1684. In 1685 the Yemassee (a Muskogean people with a population of about 800) arrived suddenly, and in 1716 they were forced out. No other tribe is known to have lived in the Lowcountry until around 1721, when the remnants of various tribes began moving into the area, and in nearly all cases they were present for short periods. Some Natchez lived with the Kussoe, but they were probably the Natchez who later united with the Catawba.

In 1969 the principal Indian community in the Low-country was in the Four Holes vicinity near Ridgeville in Dorchester County, and it had a population of 271 Indians and four whites. The nearby community of Creeltown across the Edisto River in Colleton County had 78 Indians. In 1975 both groups formally adopted the name Edisto Indian People, but for their tribal government they retained the name Four Holes Indian Organization, Inc. By 2001 the tribal roll had increased to 784. These Indians consider themselves descendants of the "Kusso-Natchez" and have lived for at least 170 years in the vicinity of a reservation that was surveyed for the Kussoe in 1711. The Kussoe were last mentioned as a tribe in 1743 and were then living in Saint Paul's Parish. Although the land records for the district have been destroyed, ancestors of a number of families have been traced to the 1830 census; and before 1830 they are likely to have been exempt from taxation as Indians and consequently were not listed. Ridgeville was settled by families from Creeltown, and at least some of the families of Creeltown had earlier lived at Osborne and attended an Indian school on Edisto Island. The 2000 census listed a total of approximately 3,000 persons who identified themselves exclusively as Indians living between the Santee and Savannah rivers within about 50 miles (80 kilometers) of the coast, and most of them lived in the vicinity of the last known locations of the principal Lowcountry tribes.

Linguistic Affiliation. The use of translators indicates that one language was spoken at least from the Port Royal River to the Cooper River. A different language was spoken south of the Savannah River, and yet another was spoken on the Santee River. The principal language was spoken by the Escamacu and was understood by the Ashepoo, Combahee, Kiawah, and Etiwan. The Sewee spoke the language of the Santee River, which was unintelligible to the Escamacu speakers and was probably a Catawban language. The Guale tribes to the south of the Savannah River spoke a Muskhogean dialect that also was untelligible to the Escamacu (who were referred to by the Guale as "Chiluques," that is, nonspeakers of Muskhogean). Even though the Sewee did not speak Escamacu, they shared cultural traits with the Cusabo.

Escamacu may be an otherwise unknown language. About a hundred place names, a dozen personal names, and a dozen other words have survived. Meanings or probable meanings are known for 10 percent of these words, and no word with a known meaning has been matched with a known language. Nearly one-third of all surviving place names begin with a W.

History and Cultural Relations

Most tribes of the Cusabo were probably among the peoples who occupied the Southeast before the arrival of the Creeks (Muskhogean speakers) from the west and the Cherokee (Iroquoian speakers) from the north. The Cusabo were protected as fully as possible by the English to provide a warning against invasion and to keep slaves from running away. The only alliance they are known to have formed with a tribe outside the Lowcountry was a temporary one in 1576 with the Guale to drive out the Spanish, but earlier and later the Cusabo and Guale raided each other. The tribes of the Cusabo often intermarried and are not definitely known to have intermarried with any tribe outside the Lowcountry.

After the Escamacu War of 1576-1579 the Edisto moved from south of the Port Royal River to Edisto Island. In 1598 the Escamacu and Kiawah formed a temporary alliance to raid the Guale. In 1670 the English were welcomed as allies because the Lowcountry had been raided by the Westo (meaning "enemy" in the Escamacu language). When the Spanish attempted to destroy the English settlement, the Wando, Etiwan, Sewee, and other tribes came to their defense, while the Ashepoo, Escamacu, and Combahee initially preferred the Spanish. After the Kussoe War in 1674 the Kussoe and Kussah moved from the head of the Ashley River to the Edisto and Combahee rivers, respectively. Their allies the Stono moved south to Seabrook Island. Before 1700 most Sewee men attempted to sail to England to open direct trade and were never heard from again. The "Corsaboy" were represented by a small contingent in the South Carolina troops that fought in the Tuscorara War in 1711. During the Yemassee War from 1715 to 1716 the Kiawah and Etiwan fought with the English against the Yemassee, Creeks, Cherokee, Catawba, and other nations that revolted after long abuse by traders. The Sewee sided against the English, and the remaining fifty-seven Sewee were enslaved and sold outside the province, along with the Santee and Congaree. Some Cusabo joined an expedition against the Yemassee and Spanish in 1719. The latest known reference to any of the nineteen tribes was in 1751.

Land was reserved for the use of various tribes, but no reservation survives in the Lowcountry. In 1680 land is said to have been reserved for neighboring Indians on the Wando River beyond three miles (five kilometers) of where it enters the Cooper River. By 1711 land had been surveyed for the Kussoe near the Edisto River. In 1712 the state legislature returned Polawana Island in Beaufort County to the "Cusaboe Indians" after it had been inadvertently granted and in 1738 offered it to the Natchez "now Encamped at the four Holes," but the offer was not accepted. Polawana Island continued to be a reservation at least until 1762.


A seasonal pattern of existence was preferred rather than necessary. The Cusabo could have lived inland year-round as the Catawba and Cherokee did but preferred to plant in the less fertile soil of the coast in order to be able to gather food there while the crops were growing.

A 1570 account of the Edisto stated that the residents of its twenty houses were divided into about a dozen small groups and lived separately most of the year within the areas from about 10 to 50 miles (sixteen to eight kilometers) inland. A 1682 account stated, "[N]or dwell they in Towns, but in straggling Plantations; often removing for the better conveniency of Hunting. . .." These two accounts indicate that the Lowcountry tribes were able to live safely in small, widely scattered groups for most of the year. Even in the summer their houses were in their fields rather than being in a town. A 1689 account by a Virginian noted that "in the rest of ye plantations they the Indians have Towns, except in Carolina." Few other environments in the eastern United States provided the safety of islands surrounded by broad marshes and the mainland divided by extensive swamps.

The summer settlement consisted of little more than a town house and playing fields. Large, circular town houses are known to have existed at Escamacu, Sewee, and Edisto, and every town probably had a similar building. The town house at Escamacu was 200 feet (61 meters) around, had walls 12 feet (3.7 meters) high, and was thatched with palmetto. Its roof was almost certainly domical, and a single door was the only opening in walls probably made of wattle and daub. In front of this town house was a cleared area prepared to play chunkey (a game in which spears were thrown to where a rolled disk was expected to stop). The town house at Edisto was referred to in 1666 as "their generall house of State," implying that every tribe had a similar structure. These buildings were primarily an arena for entertainment rather than council houses but had some ceremonial functions, such as receiving visitors. In the center a fire was kept burning on a large mound of ashes. The chunkey field in front of the Edisto town house had mature trees that had been planted in rows along its sides, and nearby a smaller field was set aside for children. A contemporary observed: "The Towne is scituate on the side or rather in the skirts of a faire forrest in wch. at several distances are diverse fields of Maiz with many little houses straglingly amongst them for the habitations of the particular families." Although palisaded villages frequently were depicted and mentioned on the coast of North Carolina, none is known to have existed on the coast of South Carolina.


Subsistence. The subsistence pattern of the Cusabo was unusual in the Southeast, where most tribes relied primarily on agriculture and secondarily on hunting, with relatively little fishing and gathering. The Cusabo relied about equally on agriculture, hunting, fishing, and gathering. They fully utilized the natural products of nine ecosystems: ocean, beach, barrier island, marsh, swamp, grassland, pocosin or Carolina Bays (ponds with no outlet), pine forest, and climax forest.

During the three or more months the tribes spent on the coast, they planted corn, beans, pumpkins, watermelons, muskmelons, and squash; while the crops were growing, they relied primarily on fishing and gathering shellfish and wild plants. They fished with nets, weirs, hooks, and arrows and caught sturgeon, catfish, and numerous other species. Fish were boiled, roasted, and smoked. Oysters were gathered in large quantities from tidal creeks and clams from the seashore. Indians gathered the root of a marsh plant to use for making bread and thickening stews that were boiled in earthenware vessels. They also gathered strawberries, persimmons, grapes, and other wild fruits. Two crops of "six-week" corn were planted, sometimes three. Corn was half dried over a low fire, and the kernels were pounded into flour. The tribes seem to have come to the coast in the spring and to have returned as early as July but sometimes stayed until the crops ran out or until acorns were ripe. They planted only enough to supplement other food sources and saved only enough seed to replant. When a missionary offered them enough seed for a crop to last year-round, they refused.

In the interior they lived primarily by hunting and gathering acorns, hickory nuts, walnuts, and roots. They gathered large quantities of nuts, stored them until they were needed, and generally reduced them to oil. They hunted deer, bear, turkeys, raccoons, bobcat, and other game. Hunting tactics included firing cane swamps and pocosins to drive out game. Meat was often barbecued on a gridiron of wood above a bed of coals, and meat dried in this way could keep for up to six weeks.

Commercial Activities. The larger plantations paid wages to an Indian hunter to supply deer and turkey. By the middle of the eighteenth century most surviving Cusabo probably lived mostly by planting. Like other farmers in the Lowcountry, they undoubtedly grew cash crops such as cotton. Most members of the existing Edisto Indian People work in the construction industry at building sites or in factories that make building components. One member is a physician. Some Indians elsewhere in the Lowcountry continue to farm.

Industrial Arts. A seventeenth-century contract exists for individual Indians who agreed to construct a house. Canoes (dugouts or "trough boats") were made by hollowing out logs through the repeated application of fire and scraping charred wood away with shells. At least two sizes of canoes were made for as few as two persons or as many as ten. The Sewee made sails of mats, but this was probably after European contact. Ceramics were fired well enough to be used for boiling over an open flame. Baskets were made of split and painted cane or palmetto. Skins were tanned softer than European leathers, but were less durable. Arrows were made of reeds, and projectile points of stone or fish bone. Clothing included skirts made of Spanish moss and did not include shoes. Ceremonial costumes were trimmed with multicolored feathers, and both men and women wore necklaces made of beads. Cord was made from the bark of trees.

Trade. The Sewee supplied inland tribes with salt, fish, and cassena in return for metals (probably native copper). The principal trade item during the eighteenth century was deerskins, which were one the main exports of the English colony. Oil from hickory nuts was traded for beads and other goods.

Division of Labor. In agriculture everyone, including chiefs, assisted at least in the planting stage. The participation of chiefs indicates that men as well as women were involved, but women are likely to have performed most of this work.

Land Tenure. Land belonged to the tribe as a whole, and the approval of male and female tribal leaders was required for a cession. The "Cassoe" cession of 1675 was signed by about twenty-nine Indians, at least eleven of whom were women. The signers included two great chiefs and two other chiefs, and all the other men and the women were designated as captains (presumably heads of extended families since the nation is unlikely to have had more than several hundred members). Some women also signed the 1684 cessions.


Kin Groups and Descent. No explicit evidence is available, but the existence of female leaders may imply that descent was patrilineal. No women leaders are known to have existed among the matrilineal Muskhogean and Iroquoian peoples of the Southeast during this period, but women leaders were not uncommon among the usually patrilineal Algonquian and Siouan peoples.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The Edisto practiced monogamy, but nothing else is known about marriage customs.

Domestic Unit. In 1570 the Edisto summer settlement had a population of about four hundred persons divided among twenty houses, and each house must have been used for an extended family with an average of about twenty people. In 1666 the Edisto were said to have many small houses for individual families. Family size was kept small through late marriages at about age twenty-seven and through abortion. Women are said to have had no more than two or three children during their lifetime, and the small size of nuclear families is confirmed by the 1715 census.

Socialization. A missionary wrote that the Etiwan "were wery desirous they children should learn, but they generally leave them to their own wills. . .." When he offered to teach a chief's son to read and write without charge, the chief replied that he would consider it.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Chiefs had to speak at length to persuade the men of their tribe to do anything, and this indicates a pervasive equality among men. In 1562 the chiefs of the Escamacu and the Edisto spoke separately to their followers to get them to help the French. This was in sharp contrast to the power of the nearby chief of the Santee, who had the highly unusual power of life and death.

Men or women could be chiefs and heads of families. Some tribes had four or five chiefs, and one in every ten or twenty persons was a captain or leader. At least two tribes had female chiefs. The Escamacu chief signed a 1684 cession and was designated as "Queen of Saint Helena." The husband of the Ashepoo chief is known only from a passing reference. Men alone seem to have participated in religious ceremonies, but men, women, and children used the town houses, a place from which women were ordinarily excluded elsewhere in the Southeast. The status of women was extraordinarily high.

Before public schools were integrated, the Edisto Indian People were not permitted to go to schools for whites, refused to go to schools for blacks, and were assigned separate schools. The school at Creeltown closed in 1966, and the Four Holes Indian School closed in 1970. Elementary students attend HarleyvilleRidgeville School, and most middle school and high school students attend school in Saint George.

Political Organization. Although Europeans often referred to chiefs as kings and queens, this was a reflection of their autonomy rather than their power. The tribes were small enough for democracy to be practical. There is no evidence of the use of representatives for any kind of confederation and no direct evidence that any chief had authority over the members of another tribe.

All members of the Edisto Indian People meet annually, and they elect a chief every four years. A council meets monthly.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The religion of the Cusabo consisted chiefly of the worship of the sun and moon. They expressed gratitude to the sun for causing everything to grow but also considered it the source of disease and thus needing to be placated. They regarded the sun and the fire in their state houses as symbols of "the Great Spirit." At the end of each day they washed their faces and waited for the sun to set before eating. They believed that gods determined the outcome of events and had to be placated. They did not worship idols. They believed in a demonic spirit who urged them to take just revenge, and the Edisto refused to listen to missionaries after being told that the Devil was bad. They believed in an afterlife that included rewards and punishments. Good people went to "a place of rest, pleasure & plenty"; bad people went to a cold place with nothing to eat but nuts and acorns.

The Edisto Indian People have four churches. Three are Penticostal Holiness, and one is Penticostal. The Four Holes Church was formerly a Church of God.

Religious Practitioners. Traditionally, physician-priests interceded with gods, foretold events, interpreted dreams, found lost objects, and rationalized defeats and incurable illness. They claimed to be able to see gods and talk with them, particularly with the demonic spirit. Some priests are said to have had the power to make rattlesnakes travel miles to bite someone. They had a wide knowledge of the use of plants for effecting cures, and they carried some dried plants strung around their necks and found others as needed. The treatment included singing, dancing, and anything else that might "fill the patient with courage and confidence." They pretended to drive out illness by making their mouths bleed before sucking out bad blood. They ordinarily passed along their secret knowledge only to relatives, but some were willing to sell information.

Ceremonies. On the appearance of a new moon the members of a tribe assembled and feasted. Even after dividing into small groups for the winter, these groups are said to have come together for ceremonies every two months. One of their ceremonies was an offering of first fruits, undoubtedly a version of the Busk Ceremony observed throughout the Southeast. The Edisto had a feast of Toya in which three priests called Iawas danced in a circular ground and ran into woods, where they consulted with the god Toya for two days. Everyone fasted, and women cut the arms of girls. When the priests returned, they danced again, and afterward a feast was held. In a separate ceremony by the Etiwan three young men danced "near a little hut Supported upon Pillars all painted and adorned" and were said to represent a story about brothers, while the hut represented a ship. The ceremony to confirm an alliance included the presentation of a symbolic bow and arrow.

Arts. The only known example of Cusabo literature is their myth of the origin of all Indian tribes. It stated that two persons in a canoe discovered a dead red bird, and from his individual feathers came diverse tribes and languages.

Platted basketry was painted. Skins sometimes were painted with red and black squares. Dancing was part of ceremonies such as Toya and in the Etiwan ceremony, and rattles were used to produce music.

Medicine. Sassafras (also called pauame) was introduced to Europe from Santa Elena and Saint Augustine. The sixteenth-century medical writer Nicolas Monardes recommended the "Beades of Sainct Elen" (the American potato bean). Cassina was used as a stimulant, boiled walnut or hickory nut for stomachaches, and rattlesnake root for snakebites. Indians sometimes cured the sick who had been given up by European physicians as incurable, generally using roots, bark, berries, and nuts.

Death and Afterlife. Belief in an afterlife is implicit in the offerings the Cusabo made to the bones of their ancestors. The bones of the dead were cleaned and kept in chests that were raised on scaffolds and thatched. A portion of their best food was "always" offered to the dead. When a tribe relocated, it carried its bones with it or buried them only when necessary to prevent them from falling into the hands of enemies.

For other cultures in The United States of America, see List of Cultures by Country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 1, North America.


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