Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Glimpse of the “True” Old West

I recently had a glimpse of the “True” Old West. On a fog-shrouded day just after Christmas (December 26, 2008) I looked out on the brown muddy waters of the Savannah River and the lands of Georgia which were beyond. I stood in Aiken County where present-day South Carolina Highway 28 crosses into Augusta, Georgia. Here, at a place named Beech Island, had been one of the most important Indian trading towns and the site of one of the most important frontier forts in South Carolina history.

On a bluff more than 100 feet above the Savannah River, Savanna Town grew to be one of the nexuses of trade between Native Americans and Englishmen from Charles Town. The town had been established by a band of the Shawnee known as the Savanna. They would eventually give their name to the river below. Since 1674, Charles Town traders had established a trading post here. Trading stores operated by competing merchants and traders were located in Savanna Town and this became a staging area for the long distance deer skin trade. Deer skins, just like beaver and other pelts, became quite the height of fashion in England and Europe. Deer skins were shipped out by the thousands from Charles Town during this time and many merchants, who served as middlemen, made their fortunes on this trade. The traders themselves were mostly of a more rough and untamed nature.

Trade goods from Charles Town were loaded and sent on packhorse and mule caravans to the West via established Indian trading paths. The traders established trading ties with the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaw Indians. These English traders sometimes traveled as far west as the Mississippi and Arkansas Rivers searching for new trading partners. Just like Lewis and Clark served Jefferson and the new United States, some of the more cultured and educated traders served as the ambassadors for colonial South Carolina and the English government. They corresponded with the governor about trade prospects, the sentiment of Indians to various colonial actions, and tried to learn about the schemes of the French in Louisiana to capture the trade and to hurt the Carolina colony and the British empire.

The trader’s packhorses and mules returned from the West loaded with valuable deer skins that would be sent by the Savannah River to Charles Town via the inland passage through the coastal islands and then by ship to England. During the colonial period, when possible, freight was almost entirely shipped by waterways and oceans. But there were also other, more older, means. Before the establishment of the fort, Native Americans used an overland route from here to Charles Town. They would travel east and south until they found the South Fork of the Edisto River. Then they would cross the Edisto River just below Four Hole Swamp. From here it was on to Dorchester, another important trading post, and then finally on to the metropolis of the colony: Charles Town.

South Carolina’s major Indian war, the Yemassee War, precipitated by the trader’s abuses of the Indians took place in 1715. In 1716 a fort was build on the bluff at Savanna Town to command the great western trading paths that started on the other side of the river and to provide protection to tidewater South Carolina from the West (both Native Americans and the French).

Fort Moore had a barracks that could hold 100 men. It also had various other structures that supported its function. It would remain an important frontier bastion for the next fifty years until the newly established colony of Georgia (1733) became more settled and the frontier and West had moved further away. My visit here was made in early morning fog. Standing there on the bluff where town and fort had sat so many centuries before, as the fog cleared, I could see the brown flowing river below and had a glimpse of the banks of Georgia and what at one time was the “True” Old West.

Andy Thomas


  1. The first mule in North America was a gift to George Washington from a middle eastern guy after the war. No mules in the colonial period.

  2. Thanks for your comment and insight!