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Traveling - River History

Chattooga River
The Chattooga River is famous for terrifying scenes shown in the movie Deliverance, which kept plenty of folks out of the river for years. Today, experienced guides help provide an adrenalin-pumping good time for all.
Photo Credit: Mountain Lakes CVB |

In the mists of pre-history, mountain ranges rose and fell before the Appalachians rose to suzerainty in western Carolina. The antecedents of today's rivers began their torturous descent to the sea. So today, many rivers of the Carolina interior are the branches of a mighty oak tree whose trunk is the Santee and whose roots live under the Atlantic Ocean.

Others, including the Little Pee Dee and the Yadkin, wend their way to the bay and cove-pocked Carolina coast. The mighty Savannah forms the western boundary of South Carolina.

For the first human beings, the Carolina rivers were barriers until they mastered the technology of the canoe. Then the rivers became ribbons of conquest and commerce. By the 16th century, when Europeans first saw the Carolinas, many of the indigenous people lived in villages strewn like pearls along the riverbanks. The ghosts of these early inhabitants still haunt the Carolinas as the names of their riversthe Pee Dee, the Wateree, the Santee, the Kiawah, the Ashepoo, the Edisto, the Catawba. These early inhabitants fished the rivers and planted crops in the rich alluvial soil. Some even constructed weirs or dams to increase their fish harvest.

Spanish explorers DeSoto and Pardo followed the rivers through the heartland of South Carolina into the Piedmont and mountains of North Carolina. The accounts of these expeditions furnish firsthand accounts of Native American life and the abundant natural resources of the Carolinas.

Not too long ago, these were our interstate highways and back country roads.

In 1701 a young Englishman named John Lawson left Charles Town to investigate the interior of the Carolinas. He traveled by water to the mouth of the Santee and then followed the Santee, Wateree and Catawba rivers until he crossed into present-day North Carolina. Lawson reached the Yadkin River before turning east to the English settlements on the coast. For part of his journey he followed the Eno and Neuse rivers. In 1706 Lawson helped establish the town of Bath. In 1711 on a trip to survey the navigable reaches of the Neuse River, Native Americans, angered by English land incursions and abuse, captured and executed Lawson.

Others followed Lawson down the creeks and rivers of the Carolinas to settle new homes. The fertile river bottoms were preferred from the mountains to the sea. Their rich loamy soil produced corn and wheat to feed the settlers and their families. In the Lowcountry of South Carolina, flooded creeks and rivers gave rise to the profitable cultivation of rice. Growing Carolina Gold rice forever changed the lives of African slaves imported to raise the new crop and the landscape diked and terraced into submission.

North Carolina's flag has been modified since its creation in 1861. The upper date commemorates Charlotte's Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, signed more than a year before Independence Day. The lower date reflects the Halifax Resolves, one of the first official documents demanding freedom for the U.S. from foreign powers.

Damming the Santee River, one of the longest on the eastern seaboard, required considerable engineering expertise.

In the Eighteenth Century, the interior of the Carolinas was home to subsistence crops and herds of cattle. Small merchant vessels plied the Carolina rivers carrying foodstuffs and hides to coastal towns and rum and other imported commodities to inland settlements. Thousands of deerskins left Charles Town for the English market. Carolina deerskins clothed English dandies in breeches dyed yellow or purple and were the preferred material for fashionable headwear.

In 1974 a diver located a unique remnant of these early days of the river trade. The 50 by 14-foot Brown's Ferry vessel sank around 1740 in the dark waters of the Black River near Georgetown, South Carolina. An ordinary vessel built for river trade, it carried a load of bricks on its last voyage. For more than a century, flatboats, periaguas and barges carried rice and cotton bales to market. The fall line, which separated the Piedmont from the coastal plain, was a barrier to river navigation. The falls and rapids necessitated towpaths or other portage methods.

In 1818, South Carolina began to appropriate money to build canals to bypass the Broad, Congaree, Saluda and Wateree Rivers at the fall line. Eight canals were constructed, but only the Columbia Canal was successful. This canal took boats from the Saluda and Broad rivers around rocky areas to the Congaree. The original Columbia Canal was expanded to power South Carolina's oldest hydroelectric plant.

Densely forested swamps were home to outlaws and escaped slaves who also established temporary settlements there.

In addition to commerce and agriculture, iron and gold mining followed Carolina rivers. From the 1760s through the 1850s, iron mining was found along the rivers of Spartanburg and York counties in South Carolina. Iron also was mined in Lincoln County, North Carolina, between 1790 and 1880. Before the 1849 California gold rush, most of the gold produced in the United States came from North Carolina and Georgia. By 1824, gold was discovered in Rowan County, North Carolina. In 1828 Benjamin Haile began panning for gold near Kershaw, South Carolina. Within three years, Haile was shipping gold to the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. Miners began panning the creeks of the Piedmont. By 1832, approximately 200 miners were operating in Chesterfield County between Little Fork Creek and Lynches River. Before the Civil War, 58 gold mines operated in South Carolina.

Hundreds of water mills lined the creeks and streams of the Carolinas. These mills ground corn and wheat to produce hominy, grits, cornmeal and flour. In 1816 several small water-powered "cotton factories" appeared along the Tyger River in Spartanburg County. In 1836 the Saluda Cotton Factory began operating on the Saluda River near Columbia, South Carolina. These small mills were the ancestors of the large textile mills that changed the southern landscape after the Civil War.

Swamps such as the Congaree and the Great Dismal flanked the rivers of the Carolinas. These densely forested swamps were home to outlaws and escaped slaves who also established temporary settlements there. Many of these maroon encampments lasted several years before the leaders were recaptured. During the Revolutionary War, the Santee swamps were home to Brig. Gen. Francis Marion. Marion was nicknamed "The Swamp Fox" because he successfully used the swamps to outwit the British.

The modern landscape of the Carolinas shows the importance of rivers in their settlement.

These swamps are home to giant oak, maple and cypress trees. Many of these areas were logged. Reportedly, in the early twentieth century, a 1,600-year-old cypress tree was cut for lumber in the Santee swamps.

South Carolina's flag reflects tradition and history. In 1775, Col. William Moultrie chose the blue of revolutionary uniforms, and the silver crescent from the soldier's caps. In 1860, the palmetto tree was added to commemorate Moultrie's heroic defense of the palmetto-log fort on Sullivans Island during the Revolutionary War.

The modern landscape of the Carolinas shows the importance of rivers in their settlement. Originally, a major component of the colonies' transportation systems, today their names commemorate the native and European settlers of the Carolinas. Roads and highways follow the watersheds between the rivers. Many towns and cities including Columbia, Cheraw, Camden and Roanoke Rapids trace their origins to where ferries and fords were located. In their first century, European settlers used the names of streams and creeks to indicate their settlement areas. Long Canes and King's Creek were not only streams, but also communities. Shallow Ford, a colonial crossing of the Yadkin River, was the site of a patriot victory over Tories in 1780. In 1781 Lord Cornwallis also crossed there.

Today, the rice lands of the ACE Basin are home to a wide variety of waterfowl. Many of these low-lying areas, such as the Great Dismal Swamp, the Congaree Swamp, Alligator River and Cape Romain, also are protected national wildlife refugees.

The rivers of the Carolinas mirror the rich history of the past. Today, they are a bright hope for a bountiful future.

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