Article for November - December 2011
The Whitetail State
The General Assembly got it right when they designated the white-tailed deer as our official state animal in 1972. No other creature played such a fundamental role in the evolution of the Palmetto State from a fledgling colony to a major center of commerce. Historians recognize that it was the early trade with local Native American Indian tribes for deer skins that provided the capital to develop the state's plantation-based economy.
As early as 1675, Lord Ashley Cooper, the most proactive of the eight Lords Proprietor, established a fortified trading center a few miles upstream from Albemarle Point, the site we know today as Charles Town Landing. While Lord Cooper never set foot on Carolina soil, he recognized the great economic potential in leather from the hides of the colony's abundant whitetails. In 1699, more than 64,000 deerskins were hauled into Charles Town, and by the very early 1700s the trade had expanded well into the interior of the "backcountry."
And it was the deerskin trade that brought the Cherokee Path into prominence in the affairs of the now burgeoning economy of South Carolina. Once a trading center had been established at "the Congarees," the gold rush was on, and deer hides came streaming down the Cherokee Path, first carried by the Indians on their back in bundles, later on horseback, and eventually in wagons and carts.
All this commerce led to widening and other improvements along the Cherokee Path, and by the 1750s, trading centers had been established as far inland as Saluda and Ninety Six. Through it all, the white-tailed deer has not only survived, but flourished. It remains today the state's most popular game animal and accounts for millions of dollars spent by hunters pursuing the same animal so eagerly sought by the Cherokees and the early colonists three hundred years ago.
Fortunately for us, some of the thousands of early travelers along the Cherokee Path left detailed accounts of what South Carolina looked like in the 1700s. In some cases, these eyewitness reports provide the last evidence of species that have long since disappeared. First-hand accounts of encounters with American bison, or buffalo, in South Carolina in the 18th century are solid evidence that these beasts once roamed the southeastern states. George Chicken (Captain of the militia in Goose Creek, hero of the Yemassee War, and later Commissioner of Indian Affairs), writing in 1716 from his camp on the Cherokee Path near Ninety Six, recorded, "We killd a boflow this day," and in 1753, a Savannah Indian appeared before Governor James Glen in Charles Town bearing a "wampum belt" made of buffalo hair.
By the mid-18th century, the eastern buffalo was in serious decline, and most early accounts of buffalo in South Carolina are of remnant trails, wallows and salt licks. The Buffalo community in Union County is named for a rock outcropping that was once a prominent buffalo salt lick.
Dennis Chastain is a freelance writer and outdoorsman living in Pickens County.
© 2011 South Carolina Wildlife Magazine, November - December 2011 - www.scwildlife.com