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Wassamasaw Tribe of Varnertown Indians

The Wassamasaw Tribe of Varnertown Indians, is a small state recognized tribe of Native Americans descended from historic tribes of the Colonial Era. Located in Berkeley County in the Low Country, in 2005 the people were granted recognition as an Indian group by the State of South Carolina, the first stage in recognition as a tribe. The tribe is headquartered in Berkeley County, South Carolina.

Wassamasaw Tribe
of Varnertown Indians
Total population
1,500 (enrolled members)
Regions with significant populations
 United States ( South Carolina)
English, formerly Siouan

The tribe is one of nine that were recognized in the early 21st century by South Carolina, including The Waccamaw Indian People, the Beaver Creek Indians, the Edisto Natchez Kusso Tribe of South Carolina, the Pee Dee Indian Nation of Upper South Carolina, the Pee Dee Indian Tribe, the Lower Eastern Cherokee Nation of South Carolina, the Santee Indian Organization, the Sumter Tribe of Cheraw Indians, and recognized as a Group, the Chaloklowa Chickasaw Indian People, the Natchez Tribe of South Carolina, and the Pee Dee Indian Tribe of Beaver Creek. The Catawba Indian Nation is the only one in South Carolina that is federally recognized by the U.S. Government.[1]

Wassamasaw was a swamp located between Summerville and Moncks Corner, South Carolina in the area of Varnertown, where the tribe of that name has lived. Like other tribes in the area, the Wassamasaw ended their name with "aw" or "o" to refer to their connection with coastal water. The name, with several variant spellings during the colonial era, may have meant "connecting water", and the Wassamassaw variant is one of only a few place names in the United States that is a palindrome.[2]

The tribe's current population is 1,500. In South Carolina 27,000 people self-identify as Native American. To be recognized by the state, the Wassamasaw had to show that they had lived as a community for at least a century. Records from the 19th century showed that "Indian Mary", an Edisto recognized as an Indian in her court challenge of taxes required of free people of color, married a Varnertown resident. As the reporter Bo Petersen has noted, the Wassamasaw may be "the last living link to the Edisto", a people who are extinct as an organized tribe.[2]

The Wassamasaw are descended from the Catawba, Edisto (a subtribe of the Cusabo) and Cherokee, as well as European American and African American ancestors. Under pressure from white settlement, and population losses due to infectious diseases and the Yemassee War of the 18th century, surviving members of the various tribes intermarried with each other. Soon few of the smaller groups of people identified with just one tribe. They called themselves Wassammassaw and over the decades intermarried with neighbors of other ethnicities. In the 1930s, Filipino immigrants also intermarried with members of the tribe.[2]

In 1938, the WPA photographer Marion Post Wolcott took a photo of Geneva Varner Clark of Varnertown, the only area resident who at the time identified as Native American, and her three children. Theirs is the only photo of Lowcountry Indians in the Library of Congress. Its caption is "Indian (mixed breed -- 'brass ankles') family near Summerville, South Carolina."

She stands, her arms wrapped around her [holding a dog] in the cold, with three children and [another] dog in the [swept] dirt and rocks in front of a [hard] pine-board house with [lace curtains at the windows,] a roof of [somewhat] tattered wooden shingles and thin stick porch columns that lean [ever so sightly] in on each other holding it up.[3]

All appear to be well fed and warmly dressed including the mother with a fur collared full length wool coat.

The Wassamasaw lost touch with their crafts and culture, but since the 1960s have been working to revive and preserve them. The effects of the civil rights movement and the Indian rights movement led some of the younger members to recover their heritage, and descendants increasingly identify as Wassamasaw. Since the late twentieth century, the Tribal Administrator, Lisa Leach, led the effort toward state recognition.[2]

Among the benefits of state recognition is that the Wassamasaw can sell art and craft work as identified "Native American"; their goal is to raise money to construct a tribal center.[4][2]


  1. ^ "SOUTH CAROLINA NATIVE AMERICAN RECOGNIZED ENTITIES", South Carolina Commission for Minority Affairs, accessed 16 June 2018
  2. ^ a b c d e Bo Petersen, "Local tribe reclaims its roots, heritage", 17 April 2005, accessed 14 December 2011
  3. ^ Marion Post Wolcott, "Indian (mixed breed - brass ankle) family near Summerville, South Carolina", Library of Congress
  4. ^ Bo Petersen, "Researchers explore local tribe's ties to legendary temple", The Post and Courier, 17 April 2005, accessed 14 December 2011

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