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A spark that changed the course of Southern American history: New book sifts through the ashes of the Yamasee War

September 17, 2008
Looking back at a time when South and North Carolina were one, when many Native Americans struggled to rid the land of their new neighbors from across the Atlantic and when a colony called Georgia was put in place as a line of defense for early Carolinians, the first lecture in Lander University's 2008-2009 Distinguished Speaker Series will reveal the events leading up to, surrounding and following the Yamasee War between southeastern Native American tribes and South Carolinians.

The lecture is free and is set for 6:30 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 25, in the Lander Cultural Center's Barksdale Recital Hall.

Dr. William Ramsey, chair of Lander's Department of History and Philosophy, will give an overview of his new book "The Yamasee War: A Study of Culture, Economy and Conflict in the Colonial South."

The book examines motives for the formation of an alliance of southeastern Native American tribes who converged on the Carolinas, laying siege to the Colonists of the area. According to Ramsey, the period depicted is one that has been largely neglected by historians over the years.

"Most South Carolinians interested in the history of their home state or Southerners interested in their regional history have heard of the Yamasee war or studied it at the college level," said Ramsey, "but Colonial history in the popular mind is more focused on the Northern Colonies. For the last half century there has been less historical work done on the Southern Colonies, and remarkably nothing of book-length had been done on the Yamasee War."

Of the three major Indian wars in the Colonial period, the others being King Philips' War and Pontiac's Rebellion, the Yamasee War has received the least attention, though, according to Ramsey, it was likely one of the bloodiest battles in American history. Spanning from 1715 to 1718 the final cost of life was thought to be over 400 Colonists, with the number of Native American casualties being unknown. The number of casualties may seem minimal by today's standard, but, as explained in Ramsey's book, it is tremendous when comparing populations in Colonial times to that of today.

Ramsey has been studying aspects of Colonial history since working on an undergraduate degree in anthropology at the University of Georgia. Driven by a need to fill this gap in American historical discourse, he began researching the Yamasee War while pursuing his doctorate at Tulane University in New Orleans. 

"I was already interested in Southern Colonial history and Indian-white relations," said Ramsey. "The lack of information about the Yamasee War was like driving across a pothole over and over again. You can't help but notice that there's something missing. And as I studied Southern American history and South Carolina history, it was obvious that historians considered this war of major importance, or, perhaps, the most important Colonial event for the entire region. Yet it just wasn't there on the library shelves." 


As he poured through original documents from the region, Ramsey quickly realized why historians had been reticent to pursue the topic of the Yamasee War. Since three European nations were trying to lay claim to areas of the southeastern United States at the time, the documents Ramsey examined for his research were usually written in one of three languages, French, Spanish or English. Beyond the language barrier, Ramsey's number one obstacle was that Native Americans living in the area at that time did not generally record any accounts of the events. "Direct accounts from Native American warriors have all but disappeared," he said.

Ramsey moved forward with his research despite these hurdles, and in his book lays out a very detailed account of the conflict's impact on the southeastern United States during the eighteenth century. Approaching the topic as the building of a fire that raged out of control, he explains the political and economic aspects of the Colonial South that led to the war and the changes in Colonial life that followed in its wake. 

This examination of the Yamasee War shows just how close Native American tribes came to wiping out Colonists in South Carolina while also providing an elaborate snapshot of Colonial life throughout the southeastern United States.

 Ramsey's book focuses closely on slavery in the South, specifically the Indian slave trade and how it was affected by the war. The book also shows how African-American slaves were enlisted to fight alongside white soldiers. In other cases, African-American slaves worked with Indian forces to undermine the efforts of Carolinian soldiers. 

In addition to his doctorate in history from Tulane University, Ramsey holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Georgia and a master's from Valdosta State University. His areas of specialty are the Old South and slavery, the Colonial South, Indian-white relations and the American Revolution. He joined the Lander faculty in August.

Prior to coming to Lander, Ramsey taught at the University of Idaho. 

He has written numerous articles about the Colonial South including two about slavery in South Carolina. One is titled "A Coat for 'Indian Cuffy': Mapping the Boundary Between Freedom and Slavery in Colonial South Carolina." The other is titled "All & Singular the Slaves': A Demographic Profile of Indian Slavery in Colonial South Carolina."

Ramsey's book on the Yamasee War was published by the University of Nebraska Press in May of this year.

In its fourth year, Lander's Distinguished Speaker Series features six lectures throughout the academic year, covering subjects such as theatre, literature and history. These events are free and open to the public. For more information contact Lander's College of Arts and Humanities at 864-388-8323 or ssmith@lander.edu.