Santee Burial Customs

Siouan tribes extended southward into the central portions of the present State of South Carolina, and the Santee were undoubtedly members of this linguistic family. One of their villages probably stood on the shore of Scott Lake, in the valley of the Santee about 10 miles southwest of Summerton, Clarendon County. Here, near the shore of the lake, is a conical mound of earth, and scattered over the surrounding area are many fragments of pottery and other traces of an Indian settlement, but the surface has been modified by the waters of the Santee during periods of flood, and consequently the greater part of the surface as it was at the time of Indian occupancy has been washed away or covered by alluvium. This site is, in a direct line, a little more than 60 miles northwest of Charleston, and the village may have been one visited by Lawson during the first days of January. 1701. The mound may have been the one referred to by Lawson, who, after mentioning his meeting with the Santee, continued: “Near to these Cabins are several Tombs made after the fashion of the Indians; the largest and chiefest of theta was the Sepulchre of the late Indian King of the Santees, a Man of (Treat Power, not only amongst his own subjects, but dreaded by the Neighboring Nations for his great Valour and Conduct, having as large a Prerogative in his Way of Ruling as the Present King I now spoke of. “The manner of their Interment is thus: A Mole or Pyramid of Earth is raised, the Mole thereof being worked very smooth and even, sometimes higher or lower, according to the dignity of the Person whose Monument it is. On the Top there is an Umbrella, made Ridge-Ways, like the roof of an House; this is supported by nine Stakes or small Posts, the grave being about 6 to 8 foot in Length, and Four Foot in Breadth; about it is hung Gourds, Feathers, and other suchlike Trophies, placed there by the dead man’s relations, in Respect to him in the Grave. The other part of the Funeral Rites are thus: As soon as the party is dead, they lay the corpse on a piece of bark in the Sun, seasoning or embalming it with a small root beaten to powder, which. looks as red as Vermillion; the same is mixed with Bear’s Oil to beautify the Hair. After the Carcass has laid a day or two in the Sun, they remove it and lay it upon Crotches cut on purpose for the support thereof from the Earth; Then they anoint it all over with the fore-mentioned ingredients of the powder of this root and Bear’s Oil. When it is so done, they cover it over very exactly with bark of the Pine or Cyprus Trees, to prevent any Rain to fall upon it, sweeping the ground very clean all about it. Some of the nearest Kin brings all the temporal Estate he was possess’d of at his death, as Guns, Bows, Arrows, Beads, Feathers, Match-Coat, etc. This relation is the chief mourner, being clad in moss, and a stick in his hand, keeping a mournful ditty for three or four days, his face being black with the Smoke of Pitch Pine mingled with Bear’s Oil. All the while he tells the dead Man’s relations, and the rest of the spectators who that Dead Person was, and of the Great Feats performed in his lifetime; all of what he speaks, tending to the praise of the defunct. As soon as the flesh grows mellow, and will cleave from the bone, they get it off, and burn it, making all the bones very clean, then anoint them with the ingredients aforesaid, wrapping up the Skull (very carefully) in a cloth artificially woven of Possum’s Hair. (These Indians make Girdles, Sashes, Garters, etc., after the same manner) The bones they very carefully preserve in a wooden box, every year oiling and cleaning them; by this means preserve them for many ages, that you may see an Indian in possession of the bones of his grandfather, or some of his relations of a larger Antiquity. They have other sorts of Tombs, as where an Indian is slain, in that place they make a heap of stones, (or sticks where stones are not to be found) to this memorial every Indian that passes by adds a stone to augment the Heap, in respect to the deceas’d hero.” The preceding account treated of the Santee, with whom Lawson came in contact soon after starting on his memorable journey through the wilds of Carolina, but later in his history he presented a more general description of the burial customs of the native tribes of the region, and fortunately recorded many interesting details. The greater the man in life, the more elaborate was his burial. ” The first thing which is done is to place the nearest Relations near the Corps, who mourn and weep very much, having their hair hung down their Shoulders, in a very forlorn manner. After the dead Person has laid a Day and a Night in one of their Hurdles of Canes, commonly in some out-House made for that purpose, those that officiate about the Funeral go into Town, and the first young Men they meet withal that have Blankets or Match Coats on, whom they think fit for their Turn, they strip them from their Backs, who suffer them to do so without any Resistance. In these they wrap the dead Bodies, and convey them with two or three Mats which the Indians make of Rushes or Cane; and last of all they have a long Web of woven Reeds, or hollow Canes, which is the Coffin of the Indians, and is brought around several times and is tied fast at both ends, which indeed looks very decent and well. Then the Corps is brought out of the House into the Orchard of Peach-Trees, where another Hurdle is made to receive it, about which comes all the Relations and Nation that the dead person belonged to, besides several from other Nations in Alliance with them; all which sit down on the Ground upon Mats spread there for that purpose.” Then various persons gathered about the body and would tell of his very many acts of bravery, speak of his greatness while living, and extol his virtues, and “At last the Corps is brought away from that Hurdle to the Grave, by four young Men, attended by the Relations, the King, Old Men and all the Nation. When they come to the Sepulchre, which is about six foot deep, and eight foot long, having at each end, (that is, at the Head and Foot) a Light-Wood or Pitch-Pine Fork driven close down the sides of the Grave, firmly into the Ground; (these two forks are to contain a Ridge-Pole, as you shall understand presently) before they lay the Corps into the Grave they cover the bottom two or three times over with Bark of Trees, then they let down the Corps with two Belts, that the Indians carry their Burdens withal very leisurely upon the said Barks; then they lay over a Pole of the Same Wood, in the two Forks, and having a great many Pieces of Pitch-Pine, logs, about two foot and a half long, they stick them in the sides of the Grave down each end, and near the top thereof, where the other Ends lie on the Ridge-Pole, so that they are declining like the roof of a House. These being very thick placed they cover them (many times double) with Bark; then they throw the Earth thereon, that came out of the Grave, and beat it down very firm, by this means the Dead body lies in a Vault, nothing touching him; so that when I saw this way of burial, I was mightily pleased with it, esteeming it very pleasant and decent, as having seen a great many Christians buried without the tenth part of that Ceremony and Decency. Now when the Flesh is rotten and Moulder’d from the Bones they- take up the Carcass and clean the Bones, and joint them together; afterwards they dress them up in pure white dressed Deer-Skins, and lay them amongst their Grandees and Kings in the Quiogozon, which is their royal Tomb or Burial-Place of their Kings and War-Captains. This is a very large Magnificent Cabin, (according to their Building) which is raised at the Public Charge of the Nation, and maintained in a great deal of form and Neatness. About seven foot high is a Floor or Loft made, on which lie all their Princes and great Men, that have died for several Hundred years, all attired in the dress I have before told you of. No person is to have his bones lie here and be thus dressed, unless he gives a round sum of their Money to the Rulers, for Admittance. If they remove never so far, to live in a Foreign Country, they never fail to take all these Dead Bones with them, tho’ the Tediousness of their short daily Marches keeps them never so long on their Journey. They reverence and adore this Quiogozon, with all the Veneration and Respect that is possible for such a People to discharge, and had rather lose all than have any Violence or Injury offer’d thereto. These Savages differ some small matter in their Burials; some burying right upwards, and otherwise. Yet they all agree in their Mourning, which is to appear every night at the Sepulchre, and howl and weep in a very dismal planner, having their Faces dawb’d with Light-Wood Soot, (which is the same as Lamp-Black) and Bears Oil. If the Dead Person was a Grandee, to carry on the Funeral Ceremonies, they hire people to cry and Lament over the Dead Body.” A cemetery and village site which may be attributed to one of the Siouan tribes stand near the bank of Yadkin River, a short distance from the village of East Bend, Yadkin County, North Carolina. The cemetery, which was examined by Capt. R. D. Wainwright, occupies the north end of a low ridge, and many graves have been exposed or washed away by the waters of the Yadkin. The majority of skeletons appear to have been flexed. As described, ” these skeletons were found within a few feet of each other and all nearly on the same level, about four feet below the original surface. In nearly every case, at the same level and very close to the burial, were the remains of a fire. In these remains were found tortoise shells, bones of the deer, and often fragments of pottery discolored by the action of the fire.” Many implements and ornaments were found associated with the burials. These included stone Celts and one, of iron, and shell and copper beads of different forms, while resting upon one skeleton was a copper ornament 4 inches in diameter and perforated through the center. Pieces of galena were met with in different burials. Pipes of stone and some of pottery were likewise found. The area adjoining the cemetery was evidently occupied by the village, and many objects of stone and copper. fragments of pottery- vessels, beads, and broken pipes are found scattered about, ” and in every direction calcined stones are plentiful.” This was evidently the site of an important town of two centuries or more ago. In the far southeastern section of the region once occupied by Siouan tribes, in Duplin County, North Carolina, are several burial mounds which may have been erected by these people long before the coming of the colonists to the Cape Fear. The mounds were carefully examined some years ago by the late Dr. J. A. Holmes, and one in particular recalls the burial mounds of piedmont Virginia, likewise attributed to a Siouan tribe. This stood about one-half mile southwest of the court house at Kenansville, Duplin County, on a dry, sandy ridge. When examined it was only 3 feet in height and 35 feet in diameter. Its height was probably much reduced since erection. It was found to contain 60 burials, and with few exceptions the skeletons had been closely flexed. “In a few cases the skeletons occurred singly, while in other cases several were found in actual contact with one another; and in one portion ,of the mound, near the outer edge, twenty-one skeletons were found placed within a space of six feet square. Here, in the case last mentioned, several of the skeletons lay side by side, others on top of these, parallel to them, while still others lay on top of and across the first. When one skeleton was located above another, in some cases the two were in actual contact, in other cases they were separated by one foot or more of soil. Many fragments of pottery, and small pieces of charcoal were scattered throughout the mound. No implements of any form were found. Near the skull of one skeleton were discovered about seventy-five small shells, Marginella roscida, which had served as beads. The apex of each one had been ground off obliquely so as to leave an opening passing through the shell from the apex to the anterior canal.” As stated above, this mound is suggestive of others discovered northward in piedmont Virginia.

Bushnell, David I. Native Cemeteries and Forms of Burial East of the Mississippi. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Volume 71. Washington: Government Printing Office. 1920.

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