At the time of Beaufort’s founding in 1711, trade with the local natives, mainly the Yemassee Indians, was a major source of income for the settlers- especially in deerskin. Native Americans were paid for the skins with British goods and supplies, but of course the deer population soon diminished in the Lowcountry. Indians were enslaved and steadily pushed from their land.
Angry over English exploitation, the natives organized the “most dangerous and decisive Indian war in South Carolina history,” writes Lawrence S. Rowland in The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina. The first attack of the Yemassee Indian Wars was launched on Good Friday, 1715, at Pocotaligo. The Yemassee, along with many other conspiring tribes of the southeast, tortured and killed up to 90 settlers- only two men escaped. After being shot in his back and mouth, Seymour Burroughs bravely swam down the Broad River to warn Colonel John Barnwell at his plantation in Seabrook. Barnwell was able to evacuate 300 people from in and around Beaufort, and they took refuge on a British merchant ship in the harbor before the Indians arrived. Attack on the ship had no effect, so the Indians burned the town and surrounding plantations.
Sporadic attacks by the Yemassee Indians lasted until about 1728, making South Carolina a formidable place to make a living. The town was largely abandoned for two years after it was burned, so the oldest house still existing in Beaufort is believed to have a building date of 1717. The Thomas Hepworth House at 214 New Street is a colonial two-story cottage with a side porch. The modest style is reminiscent of the time period, but it’s quite a contrast when compared to Beaufort’s mansions. The house was used to display the first cotton gin, as a school for boys, a meeting place for local masons, and later as apartments. Slots are cut in the foundation of the house. These openings might just be for ventilation, but many people believe that they were used as gun slots to protect the family if the Indians came back to town.
So what happened to the Yemassee Indians? They were eventually driven south where they joined the Spanish in St. Augustine. Now they are called Seminoles, which means “runaways.”