They set foot on modern-day Greenville County before anyone else. They were the first to hunt here, the first to hike, the first to cross over river waters, the first to hear crickets at night. They were the Cherokee.
Who can name the day and hour when the first human looked out onto the mountains of Upstate South Carolina? No one else was there to witness the occasion, and detailed record keeping was no convenience for the earliest residents of America.
Yet historians tend to agree that Native Americans came to the Southeast region of the U.S. thousands of years ago, likely in search of game such as bison and caribou. As these large animals went extinct, the natives then began to hunt smaller game and to focus instead on gathering vegetables, fruits, and other edible plants.
Without the pressing need to follow the migratory patterns of larger game, American Indians established themselves into more permanent settlements as early as 1000 B.C. Over the next several centuries, they become a more sedentary people who built towns to live in and farmed in nearby fields.
Cherokee natives, in particular, established towns throughout what would become the state of South Carolina — including in the Upstate — and its neighbor states of North Carolina and Tennessee.
The British colonists would later refer to the different sections of Cherokee towns as the Overhill Towns, located in east Tennessee; the Middle Towns, located in Western North Carolina; and the Lower Towns, which included sections of northwestern South Carolina and northeast Georgia.
Though each town operated with a sense of independence from the others, all Cherokee towns in these areas kept peace with one another and answered to Chota, the capital of the Overhill Towns.
In the mid-1600s A.D., the Catawba Indians began settling in areas near the Lower Towns of the Cherokee, which included modern-day Oconee and Pickens Counties in South Carolina.
The Cherokee viewed this move as a threat. After losing many soldiers in battle for the land, the Catawbas and Cherokees made a peace treaty and established boundaries between the two tribes. With this treaty, the Catawba and Cherokee agreed that the land between the Broad River and Catawba River, loosely, would be designated as hunting grounds available for use by both tribes.
Modern-day Greenville County fell within the borders of this sanctioned off hunting area, where buffalo, elk, and deer were plentiful. Greenville land remained, in essence, no man’s land.
The first Europeans did not arrive in the Greenville area until the early 1700s and did not make efforts to purchase any of the hunting lands from the Cherokee until decades later.
As early as the 1770s, William Bartram became one of the first to survey much of the Southeast, its plant life, and the Native Americans who had settled in the region. Based on his first-hand encounters with the Cherokee, he made these notes:
“The Cherokees in their dispositions and manners are grave and steady; dignified and circumspect in their deportment; rather slow and reserved in conversation; yet frank, cheerful and humane; tenacious of the liberties and natural rights of men; secret, deliberate and determined in their councils; honest, just and liberal, and are ready always to sacrifice every pleasure and gratification, even their blood, and life itself, to defend their territory and maintain their rights.”
Unfortunately, the Cherokee could not defend their territory against the British colonists, who first introduced themselves through trade, intermingled with the natives for years, yet eventually used their peace treaties with the Cherokee to sell more of their land than the tribe had originally wanted. At times, the colonists even took it from them by force.
After severe losses from smallpox epidemics and the Cherokee War of 1760, the fading Cherokee people found themselves slowly giving up the Carolina land they had called home for centuries. Surely they were among the Native Americans displaced and pushed along to reservations or to the West.
Some, however, stayed behind and adapted to a different life shared with the colonists. It was the Cherokee, in fact, who sold more than 7,500 acres of land to one of Greenville’s founding fathers in 1769 — Richard Pearis — who himself traded with the tribe and fathered his son George by a Cherokee.
All left their mark, both in the form of roadways and place names and the rich cultural heritage they contributed to Greenville. The Cherokee, after all, were the original Greenville natives.
Bartram’s Travels by William Bartram
“Cherokee History” by Tolatsga.org
Greenville: The History of the City and County in the South Carolina Piedmont by Archie Vernon Huff, Jr.