Ancient Footprints…..at the SCDNR’s Altamaha Town Heritage Preserve
On an average day in the South Carolina Lowcountry, the number of cars travelling S.C. Highway 170 between Beaufort and Hilton Head is probably in the five figures. In the summer, it seems like you can double that number, easily. The traffic can be tough, but it’s a great drive, actually, with lots to see and do along the way.
You could, for instance, take a short hop over to Parris Island and check out the museum at the famous place “where United States Marines are made.” Then there’s the view of the majestic Broad River as you cross the top of Port Royal Sound…got your rod & reel? You could do a little fishing from the pier where a section of the old two-lane 170 bridge stands in the shadow of the new one. Marine science more your thing? Then the Port Royal Sound Maritime Center on the Chechessee River at Lemon Island is a must-see stop.
But hey, maybe you’re just looking for a place to eat some lunch and enjoy nature or take a quiet walk in a beautiful patch of woods. In that case, you’d be in luck, because tucked away off 170, on Old Bailey Road just a few miles past the Chechessee River Bridge, you’ll find the Altamaha Town (or Towne, as the SCDNR Public Lands webpages would have it) Heritage Preserve. That's where I headed on the latest leg of my quest to visit (and blog about) every single SCDNR Wildlife Management Area and Heritage Preserve. It was a few days after the holidays, when we got one of those amazingly sunshiny winter days that the Lowcountry is famous for – the ones that have the good folks in Michigan, Ohio and all those other snowbound places beating a path down I-95 for the Palmetto State (if they can get their driveways shoveled out).
At Altamaha Town, you’ll find a small parking lot with a kiosk and a picnic table. There’s also a short hiking trail, probably not quite a mile in length, that meanders through the woods and past some magnificent large oak trees laden with Spanish moss and resurrection fern, that eventually leads to a small clearing on the banks of the saltmarsh adjacent to the Okatee River. It’s a flat, easy hike, perfect for walking off that pimento cheeseburger or shrimp burger basket with extra fries and a large sweet tea you picked up on the way.
Altamaha Town is one of the state Heritage Trust program’s “cultural preserves,” which means the property was acquired as much for its historical and cultural significance as its natural habitat. In this case, that history is pretty incredible. As documented by renowned S.C. archaeologist Chester DePrater in his description of the property submitted with its nomination as a National Historic Register site (Did I mention it’s a National Historic Register site – well it is), Altamaha Town was named for a Yamassee Indian Chief and was a primary village of that tribe during the early to mid- 1700s. There’s also considerable evidence that the site was occupied by other Native American tribes for thousands of years before that. The Yamassee played a large role in the early history of Beaufort County, of South Carolina, in fact. It’s a fascinating story – much too long to go into here – but in a nutshell, the Yamassee are thought to have been made up of scattered smaller tribes forced out of Florida and northern Georgia by the Spanish, who were attempting to establish a foothold on the southeastern coast of the New World. The English, then ensconced at Charles Towne had pretty much the same idea, and a steady state of skirmish for territory and dominance with the Spanish ensued. As a strategic move, the English encouraged the Yamassee to settle in a series of “towns” along what was then the southern frontier, around present day Port Royal and St. Helena sounds, hoping to use them as a buffer between themselves and the Spanish. The Altamaha settlement was the largest of what were known as the “lower” Yamassee towns.
Archaeologists know that there are likely some amazing clues to the property’s pre-colonial past buried beneath the ground of the property, which is why while visitation and hiking is allowed, motorized vehicles are strictly forbidden, as is any type of digging, metal detecting or artifact collection on the property. What’s there will be invaluable to future historians, and by disturbing or removing any of it, you’d be stealing from yourself and future South Carolinians to come. And if that’s not enough to convince you to take only pictures and leave only footprints at this site, know that SCDNR staff monitors the property closely for that very reason, and the penalties are no joke.
But back to our walk through the past: The buffer arrangement worked fairly well for a few decades, until it didn’t, and repeated abuses of the Yamassee by unscrupulous English traders resulted in an uprising and eventual war. The rest, as they say, is history, and a quite bloody history at that. The Yamassee War had a profound impact on the early settlement and development of Beaufort County. One of its heroes, Col. John “Tuscarora Jack” Barnwell would be instrumental in the founding of Beaufort, and Barnwell’s descendants would play a large role in the American Revolution. After the Yamassee War ended, the property was later the site of a thriving antebellum plantation, and among the early European settlers buried in a small family cemetery there are veterans of the Civil War.
I can’t help but think of all that history as I walk the quiet trail down to the water’s edge, with tremendous live oaks – many showing recent damage from Hurricane Matthew – and bright red-berried native hollies lining the path. Even in January, the bird life is abundant and loud, and when I reach the end of the trail and the edge of the river, I’m rewarded with the sight of a pair of distant waterfowl paddling slowly along through the gaps in the spartina grass. Buffleheads I’d guess, but they are too far away to tell for sure.
I curse the lack of a longer lens, then sit for awhile by the water in a sunny spot surrounded by low undergrowth, just drinking in the silence. No sounds but the wind, no movement but the everlasting tide running in hard. In my mind I’m a Yamassee boy, perched in the crotch of a huge oak, looking out at a boat travelling up the river. Is it flying the English colors, or Spanish? Friend or foe?
Like the old song by our latest Nobel Laureate says, in this place, “ancient footprints are everywhere.”