North Carolina

The Keowee Trail-The Splendor Of An Old Road

Walking through the majestic mountain range of upper northwest South Carolina, the glimpse of an old road emerges upon the ground. The old dirt bed dating back to over 310 years, sheds light into the past just as the bright sunshine cascades shadows from tree to tree. Gently sleeping now for many years, possibly dreaming and remembering all of the many travelers who made their way across it’s path. The old road has witnessed many changes through out it’s lifetime. For centuries, the route led many home. It’s mileage began along the shores of Charleston and reached upwards to the walls surrounding a once thriving Cherokee town. The road captured the very essence of a free spirit living in the midst of a wilderness. As the years slipped by, the spirit of the road changed and through it’s metamorphosis, the landscape of South Carolina would never be the same. It stands to reason why so many old roads dare each of us to remember them. Through old books and family stories, they appear to us like heroes lying on the ground. They tickle our fascination and stimulate our minds with the longing to know more. As we discover these old road beds and understand their significance, it becomes crystal clear how each one is completely different and unique from the other. The curves, the water fords, the low lying swampy areas, the never ending mud puddles who never lose their need to hold water. The storms passing over, the battles fought in it’s path, the families heading for home. The romance, the grandeur, the magnificence of it all. Welcome to one of the oldest roads in our nation’s history, The Keowee Trail-The Splendor Of An Old Road.

Lake Keowee courtesy of Flicker Photos

The word, Keowee, originates from the Cherokee language meaning place of mulberries. John Norton, born circa 1770, used the written form Kuwoki all throughout his writings, which were greatly influenced by his Cherokee father and Scots mother. Located along the banks of the Keowee River, the Cherokee village formed into a thriving community. Prior to the 18th century, thousands of Cherokee warriors hunted these lands and grew various crops to feed their families. A trail emerged in the wilderness connecting various other tribes and villages. A footpath can be traced from the beginning, used by the Cherokee, Catawba, Cusabo, Cheraw, Saluda, Etiwan, Santee, Yemassee, Waxhaw, Pee Dee, Congaree and other tribes. A possibility of a separate Keyauwee tribe surfaces in this region and leans towards a union between this tribe and the Cherokee. This theory could very well provide more documentation proving the origins of the Keowee town in South Carolina, but much more evidence is needed for this to become fact.

Cherokee Canoe

Charleston inhabited early families during the late 17th century, circa 1670 and the migration of these and other members began soon after. As these early settlers followed the Native American paths, new settlements would appear along the coastal areas and into the piedmont sections of the state. These smaller migrations would develop over time spanning between 1670 and 1730. It was not until the 1750 decade when new settlements began to emerge west of the piedmont area and into the foothills and mountainous regions. Native American population during the onset of Charleston is limited with actual numbers with tribes. The Clemson University of South Carolina conducted a study of this during 2005 and estimates that 22,000 Cherokee were present during the year of 1650. Due to the fact that the naming of the Cherokee in this region and using these estimates, the Native Americans numbered greatly and well beyond a 10:1 ratio compared with the early colonial settlers. But, one important factor begs to be recognized and that is the small pox epidemic and it’s drastic numbers affecting the Native Americans prior to 1715. For the Cherokee, the above study concluded that 11,000 deaths occurred with this disease, cutting the population in half before 1720.

George Hunter map of 1730 courtesy of

The exposure of the Native Americans to the new family arrivals are proven by the exposure to various diseases. With this we can put together the communication ties that were in place and taking shape. Trade quickly comes to mind as it allows bridges to form using visual language to break the vocabulary boundary. Trade during this time period means to pass from one hand to the other and it was this definition of trade that created the road bed of the Keowee Trail. The overwhelming demand for fur in England enticed the Royal colonies to prosper from this expedition. The fur trade existed in America centuries before with both Spain and France exporting huge amounts of fur to the Old World. The Keowee Trail grew as the trade deals grew from one village to the other. Furs by the tens of thousands begin to move along the road stopping only at British erected forts to rest. The Native Americans began to depend on the goods they were receiving from these trades and due to this, the road was maintained largely by their labors.

Photo courtesy of Native Americans of Upstate South Carolina

By keeping the road free from fallen trees and debris, the road was also controlled by local tribes. This created the need to establish various forts along the route in order to protect the tradesmen who delivered the goods and received the furs in exchange. In fact, eight forts were established along or near the Keowee Trail between the years of 1701-1729. The names of these are Robert Fenwick’s Fort (1715), Thomas Elliott’s Fort (1715), Fort Johnson (1704), Robert Godfrey’s Fort (1715), Fort Willton (1714), Fort Hearn’s Fort (1716), Benjamin Schnecklingh’s Fort (1716) and Fort Congaree (1718). The average cost of a fur in England during this time period was approximately 5 to 7 shillings. Using this price range, you can then determine the items used in trade along the Keowee Trail. Salt, gunpowder, tea kettles and looking glasses were the highly prized items with the Native Americans. For these items, the price varied greatly from one tribe to another, getting as much as 50 furs for a tea kettle and even more for looking glasses. Examples of trade during this time period are listed below:

  • Gun=35 furs
  • Hatchet=3 furs
  • White Blanket=16 furs
  • Gardening Hoe=5 furs
  • 30 Bullets=1 fur
  • Pair of Scissors=1 fur
  • Knife with string of beads=1 fur
  • 12 Flints=1 fur
  • Lace Cloth=30 furs
  • Axe=5 furs
  • Piece of Steel=1 fur
  • Calico Skirt=14 furs

Often, disputes would occur resulting in bargaining techniques that resulted in changes through the years as well as use of the road itself. For the most part, the 18 Royal governors of South Carolina between the years of 1670 to 1719 held a high regard and respect to the Native American villages and their residents. They would often refer to them as family and children of England as the laws of the period are written using these very words. By 1760, majority of the Native Americans left the area of South Carolina, forever changing the landscape as the families of northern and middle colonies began streaming in to settle.

The route of the Keowee Trail takes you through Orangeburg, Edgefield and Abbeville. The road crossed several waterways namely Four Holes Creek, Steven’s Creek, Saluda River, Little Wilson’s Creek, Mulberry Creek, Rocky Creek and Rocky River. The road passed near the Steven’s Creek Church, Rock Church and the old Stone Church. A junction with the Congaree Trail can be located near the old fort site at Ninety-Six. Many surnames ventured to this area by 1735. Known at this time period as the Cherokee Path, families were just beginning to settle in this particular region along various waterways. Within twenty years the Keowee Trail would be known as the South Carolina Road and changing again to the Old South Carolina State Road. Several of the surnames from the 1735 time period are listed below as owning property near the junction of the Congaree and Keowee Trails.

  • Bachman. J.V.
  • Brown, Patrick
  • Brown, Thomas
  • Busser, Ulrich
  • Coleman, Jacob
  • Cooper, R.
  • Crell, Joseph
  • Crell, Stephen
  • Gibson, John
  • Gignilliat, Henry
  • Hagabucher, J.
  • Haig, George
  • Hayne, N.
  • Hopkins, James
  • Howell, Thomas
  • Jackson, Richard
  • Kilpatrick, A.
  • Lang, R. Jr.
  • Lang, R. Sr.
  • Myrick, Richard
  • Reimensperger, J.
  • Rhodes, J.J.
  • Stack, A.
  • Stainor, Hans
  • Stitsmith, Thomas
  • Stolen, Hannah

The above list portrays a small amount of early settlers in this region. Thousands upon thousands arrived to South Carolina after 1740 and new settlements were emerging all throughout the colony from Charleston to Greenville and all points in between. The vast amount of these early surnames will be revealed over time on Piedmont Trails. Their journeys and legacy inspire us all to research and follow their footsteps of long ago.

The development of Lake Keowee forever changed the landscape of the area along the northern sections of the old road. Many historic sites were lost due to these changes. The Fort Hill Plantation, Andrew Jackson’s Hopewell Plantation, Old Stone Church and Fort Rutledge are all underwater today. Many archives have survived due to studies conducted in these areas prior to the flooding of the valley. Diving expeditions have even occurred after the dam’s construction as well. This proves to us all that history can be preserved using different methods and techniques. The future generations will depend on these new preservation methods. Getting back to the old road, stay tuned to Piedmont Trails as the journey of this old route has just began. Upcoming articles, maps and sources filled with history and genealogy will be arriving as we experience the splendor of the Keowee Trail.


Other References for further researching:

10 replies »

  1. Carol, my GGGrandmother Cynthia Ann Dowell was born in Macon County NC
    in 1864 died in Wilkes County, NC in 1937, my DNA tests came back as me being
    3.4 percent American Indian. So my early ancestors were on the Yadkin River and on
    the Keowee Trail. Many of my neighbors here in Yadkin Co. can trace their ancestry
    back to our American Indians. Some of them on both their mother and father’s side.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this post especially. It helps so much with my understanding and filling in blank areas of my picture of the places and times. I wish I could see and walk a piece of that old trail. But I’m glad to be able to ‘see’ it through your eyes. Thank you so much!


    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for such a thoroughly researched story & telling of the details of our ancestors’ lives.

    My kind regards, Cathy

    Sent from my Samsung Galaxy smartphone.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Just a minor correction from the final paragraph – Fort Hill, Hopewell, and Old Stone Church are not under water. They are on or adjacent to the campus of Clemson University. Fort Hill is open for tours. Hopewell is currently being restored, but you can walk to the site the Treaty of Hopewell (1785). Old Stone Church is still standing, and has a fascinating cemetery; where veterans of the American Revolution (including Gen. Andrew Pickens), War of 1812, and Civil War are buried. As for Fort Rutledge, Clemson University researchers are currently excavating around this site and made some great discoveries recently (summer 2021). Lake Keowee flooded Fort Prince George on up the Keowee River, but the lake closest to the places referenced above is Hartwell. If you are ever near Clemson, I highly encourage you to visit these places!


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