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Ethnological Information Regarding the Cusabo

Posted By Dennis Partridge On In Native American,South Carolina | No Comments

Ethnological information regarding the Cusabo is scanty and unsatisfactory, the interest of the colonists having been quickly attracted to those great tribes lying inland which they called ”nations.” Such material as is to be had must be interpreted in the light of the fuller information to be gathered from larger southern tribes like the Creeks, Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw. Nevertheless it is of interest to know that certain features of the lives of these peoples were or were not shared by the ones better known.

The material gathered by the Spaniards as a result of the Ayllon expedition has been given in connection with the account of that venture, and will not be considered again. The region to which it applies is too uncertain to consider it definitely under this head. From the time of the French settlement in 1562, however, we have a sufficiently clear localization, from the French, Spanish, and English narratives successively. The greater part of our information comes, however, from the French and English, the Spaniards not having been interested in the people among whom they came or not having published those papers which contained accounts of them.

The following general description of the appearance of the natives, and their mental and moral characteristics, is from Alexander Hewat. It does not apply to the Cusabo alone, but Hewat was probably better acquainted with them than with any other Indians.

In stature they are of a middle size, neither so tall nor yet so low as some Europeans. To appearance they are strong and well made; yet they are totally unqualified for that heavy burden or tedious labour which the vigorous and firm nerves of Europeans enable them to undergo. None of them are deformed, deformities of nature being confined to the ages of art and refinement. Their colour is brown, and their skin shines, being varnished with bears fat and paint. To appearance the men have no beards, nor hair on their head, except a round tuft on its crown; but this defect is not natural, as many people are given to believe, but the effect of art, it being customary among them to tear out such hair by the root. They go naked, except those parts which natural decency teaches the most barbarous nations to cover. The huts in which they live are foul, mean and offensive; and their manner of life is poor, nasty, and disgustful. In the hunting season they are eager and indefatigable in pursuit of their prey; when that is over, they indulge themselves in a kind of brutal slumber, indolence, and ease. In their distant excursions they can endure hunger long, and carry little with them for their subsistence; but in days of plenty they are voracious as vultures. While dining in company with their chieftains we were astonished at the vast quantity of meat they devoured. Agriculture they leave to women, and consider it as an employment unworthy of a man: indeed they seem amazingly dead to tender passions, and treat their women like slaves, or beings of inferior rank. Scolding, insults, quarrels, and complaints are seldom heard among them; on solemn occasions they are thoughtful, serious, and grave; yet I have seen them free, open, and merry at feasts and entertainments. In their common deportment towards each other they are respectful, peaceable, and inoffensive. Sudden anger is looked upon as ignominious and unbecoming, and, except in liquor, they seldom differ with their neighbour, or even do him any harm or injury. As for riches they have none, nor covet any; and while they have plenty of provisions, they allow none to suffer through want; if they are successful in hunting, all their unfortunate or distressed friends share with them the common blessings of life.[1]

This description has importance, not as a moral evaluation of these people but as a set of impressions to be interpreted with due regard to the standards and ideals in the mind of the observer himself. Another writer says that bear grease was used on the hair to make it grow and at the same time kill the vermin.[2] Another says of their head hair that it was “tied in various ways, sometimes oyl’d and painted, stuck through with Feathers for Ornament or Gallantry,” and he adds that they painted their faces “with different Figures of a red or Sanguine Colour.”[3] Their clothing consisted of bear or deer skins dressed, it is said, “rather softer, though not so durable as ours in England”[4] They were sometimes ornamented with black and red checks.[5] Locke notes that they “dye their deer skins of excellent colours.”[6] Pearls were obtained from the rivers, and they knew how to pierce them, but the process spoiled their value for European trade. They made little baskets of painted reeds,[7] and the French found the house of Ouadé, which was, it is true, in the Guale country, “hung with feathers (plumasserie) of different colors, to the height of a pike.” “Moreover upon the place where the king slept were white coverings woven in panels with clever artifice and edged about with a scarlet fringe.”[8] These must have been either cane mats or else textiles made of mulberry bark or some similar material, like those fabricated throughout the south. The “panels” were probably the typical diagonal designs still to be seen on southern baskets. The French add that Ouadé presented them with six pieces of his hangings made like little coverings.[9]

Cusabo Houses

What Oviedo records about the large communal house said to have been found on this coast by the Spaniards early in the sixteenth century has been given already.[10] That they could build houses of considerable size without much labor is clearly shown by the experience of the French at Port Royal. One of their buildings described as ”the large house” having been destroyed, the Indians of Maccou and Audusta built another in less than 12 hours “scarcely smaller than the one which had been burned.”[11] As we have seen, Hewat speaks of their houses as ”foul, mean, and offensive,”[12] but the structures seen by Hilton and Sandford certainly did not deserve the censure of meanness. Some of those noted by the former captain as having been seen at St. Helena were evidently put up by Spaniards, but he mentions one which was probably of native construction. At least some of the features connected with it were native. This was ”a fair house builded in the shape of a Dove-house, round, two hundred foot at least, compleatly covered with Palmeta-leaves, the wal-plate being twelve foot high, or thereabouts, & within lodging rooms and forms; two pillars at the entrance of a high Seat above all the rest.”[13] This ”high seat” was perhaps a chief’s seat such as were seen elsewhere on the Cusabo coast. When Capt. Sandford visited the chief Edisto town in 1666 he was ”conducted into a large house of a Circular forme (their generall house of State).” Over against the entrance was “a high seate of sufficient breadth for half a dozen persons,” for the chief, his wife, eminent persons, and distinguished visitors. Lower benches for the common people extended from the ends of this on each side all the way to the door, and about the fire, which was in the center of the building, were “little lowe foormes.” The town house of St. Helena is said to have been of the same pattern, and was probably identical with that described by Hilton, as quoted above.[14]

Cusabo Hunting Methods

In hunting, their principal weapons were bows and arrows, the latter made of reeds pointed with sharp stones or fishbones. The Cusabo country abounded with game, its rivers and inlets with fish; shellfish were also abundant along the coast. The deer was, as usual, the chief game animal, the bear being hunted more for its fat than for its flesh. According to Samuel Wilson, whose account was published in 1682, deer were so plentiful “that an Indian hunter hath killed Nine fat Deere in a day all shot by himself, and all the considerable Planters have an Indian Hunter which they hire for less than Twenty shillings a year, and one hunter will very well find a Family of Thirty people, with as much venison and foul as they can well eat. “[15]

Cusabo Agriculture

What the explorers in Hilton’s party have to say regarding native agriculture has been given but may be requoted:

The Indians plant in the worst Land because they cannot cut down the Timber in the best, and yet have plenty of Corn, Pompions, Water-Mellons, Musk-mellons: although the land be overgrown with weeds through their lasinesse, yet they have two or three crops of Corn a year, as the Indians themselves inform us.[16]

Their treatment of corn was probably identical with that among the other southern tribes. Mention is made by one writer of the “cold meal” made by parching ripe corn and pounding it into a powder and of the convenience of this in traveling.[17] Sandford found extensive cornfields surrounding both Edisto and St. Helena, but in Laudonnière’s time, at any rate, the Guale country seems to have been superior agriculturally. Couexis, a Guale chief, is reported as having “such a quantity of millet (mil), flour, and beans that through his assistance alone they [the French] might have provision for a very long time.”[18] If the “mil” and “farine” are supposed to refer to two different cereals one may have been wild rice or something of the sort. Probably, however, both refer to corn — one to the unground, the other to the ground or pounded corn. Acorns and nuts were used, especially when other provisions had given out. From the hickory nut, and probably from acorns also, they expressed an oil of which it is said the English colonists also availed themselves.[19]

It is interesting to observe that in the time of Hilton and Sandford the Cusabo already had peaches and figs, and we must therefore assign to these a Spanish origin. Laudonnière also mentions the use of roots as food,[20] and the explorers under Hilton speak of a root which grew in the marshes and of which the Indians made good bread.[21] This was perhaps the “marsh potato,” but more likely the kunti of the Creeks, a kind of smilax, for we know that bread was made from this throughout the south.

The Cusabo used dugout canoes extensively and were expert canoe men and good swimmers.[22] Regarding their methods of catching fish no word has been preserved. From the rapidity with which they supplied the Frenchmen with cords for rigging it may be inferred that fishing lines and nets were much in use.[23]

Government of the Cusabo Indian

Regarding their government and social organization next to nothing is known. Hewat says:

Although the Indians lived much dispersed, yet they united under one chief, and formed towns, all the lands around which they claimed as their property. The boundaries of their hunting grounds being carefully fixed, each tribe was tenacious of its possessions, and fired with resentment at the least encroachment on them. Every individual looked on himself as a proprietor of all the lands claimed by the whole tribe, and bound in honor to defend them.[24]

And farther on:

With respect to internal government, these savages have also several customs and regulations to which the individuals of the same tribe conform. Personal wisdom and courage are the chief sources of distinction among them, and individuals obtain rank and influence in proportion as they excel in these qualifications. Natural reason suggests, that the man of the greatest abilities ought to be the leader of all possessed of inferior endowments; in him they place the greatest confidence, and follow him to war without envy or murmur. As this warrior arrives at honour and distinction by the general consent, so, when chosen, he must be very circumspect in his conduct, and gentle in the exercise of his power. By the first unlucky or unpopular step he forfeits the goodwill and confidence of his countrymen, upon which all his power is founded. Besides the head warrior, they have judges and conjurers, whom they call Beloved Men, who have great weight among them; none of whom have indeed any coercive authority, yet all are tolerably well obeyed. In this commonwealth every man’s voice is heard, and at their public demonstrations the best speakers generally prevail. When they consult together about important affairs, such as war or peace, they are serious and grave, and examine all the advantages and disadvantages of their situation with great coolness and deliberation, and nothing is determined but by the general consent.[25]

From the narratives of Hilton and Sandford we know that they had town houses, corresponding evidently to the tcokofas of the Creeks, and that there was an open space next to them in which the chunky game was played,[26] but they do not appear to have had the outdoor council ground or “square.”

The manner in which strangers of distinction were received is well illustrated by the entertainment accorded Capt. Sandford at Edisto.[27] When the chiefs encountered strangers at a distance from their towns they had arbors constructed in the manner of the Florida Indians in which the conference could take place and in which the conferees could be screened from the sun.[28] When Captain Albert, the French officer in charge of Charlesfort, visited the chief Stalame the latter presented him on his arrival with a bow and arrows, “which is a sign and confirmation of alliance among them.” He also presented him with deerskins.[29]

Regarding their customs in general and that relating to war in particular Hewat says:

Although in some particular customs the separate tribes of Indians differ from each other, yet in their general principles and mode of government they are very similar. All have general rules with respect to other independent tribes around them, which they carefully observe. The great concerns relating to war or peace are canvassed in assemblies of deputies from all the different towns. When injuries are committed, and Indians of one tribe happen to be killed by those of another, then such a meeting is commonly called. If no person appears on the side of the aggressors, the injured-nation deputes one of their warriors to go to them, and, in [the] name of the whole tribe, to demand satisfactions. If this is refused, and they think themselves able to undertake a war against the aggressors, then a number of warriors, commonly the relations of the deceased, take the field for revenge, and look upon it as a point of honor never to leave it till they have killed the same number of the enemy that had been slain of their kinsmen. Having accomplished this, they return home with their scalps, and by some token let their enemy know that they are satisfied. But when the nation to whom the aggressors belong happen to be disposed to peace, they search for the murderer, and they are, by the general judgment of the nation, capitally punished, to prevent involving others in their quarrel, which act of justice is performed often by the aggressor’s nearest relations. The criminal never knows, of his condemnation until the moment the sentence is put into execution, which often happens while he is dancing the war dance in the midst of his neighbors, and bragging of the same exploit for which he is condemned to die….

The American Indians almost universally claim the right of private revenge. It is considered by them as a point of honor to avenge the injuries done to friends, particularly the death of a relation. Scalp for scalp, blood for blood, and death for death, can only satisfy the surviving friends of the injured party…. But should the wife and aged men of weight and influence among the Indians interpose, on account of the aggressor, perhaps satisfaction may be made by way of compensation. In this case some present made to the party aggrieved serves to gratify their passion of revenge, by the loss the aggressor sustains, and the acquisition of property the injured receives. Should the injured friends refuse this kind of satisfaction, which they are entirely at liberty to do, then the murderer, however high his rank may be, must be delivered up to torture and death, to prevent the quarrel spreading wider through the nation… When war is the result of their councils, and the great leader takes the field, any one may refuse to follow him, or may desert him without incurring any punishment; but by such ignominious conduct he loses his reputation, and forfeits the hopes of distinction and preferment. To honor and glory from warlike exploits the views of every man are directed, and therefore they are extremely cautious and watchful against doing any action for which they may incur public censure and disgrace.[30]

Regarding marriage, another writer says:

Polygamy is permitted among them, yet few have more than one wife at a time, possibly on account of the expense of supporting them, for he is accounted a good gunman that provides well for one; besides the Indians are not of an amorous complexion. It is common with them, however, to repudiate their wives, if disobliged by them or tired of them; the rejected woman, if with child, generally revenges herself for the affront by taking herbs to procure an abortion—an operation that destroys many of them, and greatly contributes to depopulate them.[31]

The Spanish missionary Rogel remarks on the monogamous condition of the Cusabo of his time as presenting a pleasing contrast to the state of the Calusa of southern Florida, from whom he had just come.[32]

Regarding adultery, Hewat says:

In case of adultery among Indians, the injured husband considers himself as under an obligation to revenge the crime, and he attempts to cut off the ears of the adulterer, provided he be able to effect it; if not, he may embrace the first opportunity that offers of killing him without any danger to his tribe. Then the debt is paid, and the courage of the husband proved.[33]

No mention being made of punishment inflicted on the wife, it may be concluded that the custom of punishing only the male offender existed as it did among the Siouan tribes to the north.[34]

The comparative absence of theft among our southeastern Indians is attested in this section also by the circumstance that when two Indians whom Ribault had retained on board his vessel by force escaped they left behind all of the presents the Frenchmen had made them, although some of these were articles of high value in their eyes.[35]

Cusabo Religion

A relation published in 1682 says of their religious beliefs :

Their religion chiefly consists in the adoration of the sun and moon. At the appearance of the new moon I have observed them with open extended arms, then folded, with inclined bodies, to make their adorations with much ardency and passion.[36]

The personal observation is of some value, but little or none can be attached to the first statement, which seems to be made by explorers in all parts of the world for want of any definite information. Laudonnière notes of the two Cusabo Indians kept overnight on Ribault’s vessel that they “made us to understand that before eating they were accustomed to wash their faces and wait until the sun was set,”[37] from which it may be inferred that they were fasting. The fullest account of the religious beliefs of these people is the following from Hewat:

The Indians, like all ignorant and rude nations, are very superstitious. They believe that superior beings interfere in, and direct, human affairs, and invoke all spirits, both good and evil, in hazardous undertakings. Each tribe have their conjurers and magicians, on whose prophetic declarations they place much confidence, in all matters relating to health, hunting, and war. They are fond of prying into future events, and therefore pay particular regard to signs, omens, and dreams. They look upon fire as sacred, and pay the author of it a kind of worship. At the time of harvest and at full moon they observe several feasts and ceremonies, which it would seem were derived from some religious origin. As their success, both in warlike enterprises and in procuring subsistence depends greatly on fortune, they have a number of ceremonious observances before they enter on them. They offer in sacrifice a part of the first deer or bear they kill, and from this they flatter themselves with the hopes of future success. When taken sick they are particularly prone to superstition, and their physicians administer their simple and secret cures with a variety of strange ceremonies and magic aria, which fill the patients with courage and confidence, and are sometimes attended with happy effects.[38]

Among the Carolina notes in the Shaftesbury Papers is this by Locke: “Kill servants to wait on them in the other world.”[39] This would be interesting if we could feel sure that it applied to the Indians of Carolina, and had not been picked up by Locke in the course of his general reading.

In the matter of medicine another writer says:

In Medicine, or the Nature of Simples, some have an exquisite knowledge; and in the cure of Scorbutick, Venereal, and Malignant Distempers are admirable: In all External Diseases they suck the part affected with many Incantations, Philtres and Charms: In Amorous Intrigues they are excellent either to procure Love or Hatred; They are not very forward in Discovery of their secrets, which by long Experience are religiously transmitted and conveyed in a continued Line from one Generation to another, for which those skilled in this Faculty are held in great Veneration and Esteem.[40]

The Feast of Toya

Rogel refers to the Cusabo feasts, but only in a general way.[41] It appears, however, that they had a festival of the first fruits like other southern tribes. The only description of one of their ceremonies, of any length, is given by Laudonnière. He calls this ceremony “the feast of Toya,” and says that they kept it “as strictly as we do Sunday.”[42] It is probable that this corresponded to the Creek busk, although agreeing with it in few formal particulars. Laudonnière’s account runs as follows:

Since the time was near for celebrating their feasts of Toya, ceremonies strange to recount, he [Audusta] sent ambassadors to the French to beg them on his part to be present, which they agreed to very willingly, on account of the desire they had of knowing what these were. They embarked then and proceeded toward the dwelling of the king, who was already come out on the road before them in order to receive them kindly, to caress them and conduct them into his house, where he exerted himself to treat them in the best manner of which he was capable.

However, the Indians prepared to celebrate the feast the next day, when the king led them in order to see the place where the feast was to take place, and there they saw many women about who were laboring with all their might to make the place pure and clean. This place was a great compass of well leveled land of a round shape. The next day then, very early in the morning, all those who were chosen to celebrate the feast, being ornamented with paints and feathers of many different colors, betook their way, on leaving the house of the king, toward the place of Toya. Having arrived there they ranged themselves in order and followed three Indians, who in paintings and manner of dress were different from the others. Each one of them carried a little drum (tabourasse) on his fist, with which they began to go into the middle of the round space, dancing and singing mournfully, being followed by the others, who responded to them. After they had sung, danced, and wheeled around three times they began running like unbridled horses through the midst of the thickest forests. And the Indian women continued all the rest of the day in tears so sad and lamentable that nothing more was possible, and in such fury they clutched the arms of the young girls which they cut cruelly with well sharpened mussel shells, so deep that the blood ran down from them, which they sprinkled in the air crying “he Toya “about three times. The king Audusta had withdrawn all of our Frenchmen into his house during the ceremony, and was as grieved as possible when he saw them laugh. He had done that all the more because the Indians are very angry when one watches them during their ceremonies. However, one of our Frenchmen managed so well that by stealth he got out of Audusta’s house and stealthily went to hide himself behind a thick bush, where at his pleasure he could easily reconnoiter the ceremonies of the feast. The three who began the feast are called joanas,[43] and are like priests or sacrificers according to the Indian law, to whom they give faith and credence in part because as a class[44] they are devoted to the sacrifices and in part also because everything lost is recovered by their means. And not only are they revered on account of these things but also because by I do not know what science and knowledge that they have of herbs they cure sicknesses. Those who had thus gone away among the woods returned two days later. Then, having arrived, they began to dance with a courageous gayety in the very middle of the open space, and to cheer their good Indian fathers, who on account of advanced age, or else their natural indisposition, had not been called to the feast. All these dances having been brought to an end they began to eat with an avidity so great that they seemed rather to devour the food than to eat it. For neither on the feast day nor on the two following days had they drunk or eaten. Our Frenchmen were not forgotten in this good cheer, for the Indians went to invite them all, showing themselves very happy at their presence. Having remained some time with the Indians a Frenchman gained a young boy by presents and inquired of him what the Indians had done during their absence in the woods, who gave him to understand by signs that the joanas had made invocations to Toya, and that by magic characters they had made him come so that they could speak to him and ask him many strange things, which for fear of the joanas he did not dare to make known. They have besides many other ceremonies which I will not recount here for fear of wearying the readers over matters of such small consequence.[45]

Which shows that matters of small consequence to one generation may become of great interest to later ones. Although the feast is represented as of three days’ duration it is evident that this is only one case of the common substitution by early writers of the European sacred number 3 for the Indian sacred number 4. In this particular, therefore, and in the careful clearing of the dance ground before the ceremony, this feast recalls the Creek busk. The rest of it seems to be entirely different, though the idea of retiring into the deep forest to commune with deity is shared by all primitive peoples.

For any suggestions regarding the mortuary customs of the Cusabo we must go back to the first attempt at settlement by the Spaniards and Oviedo’s comments upon the country of Gualdape already given.[46]


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  1. Hewat in Carroll, Hist. Colls. S. Car., l, pp.65-66.
  2. Carroll, op. cit., II, pp. 723.
  3. Ibid., p. 73.
  4. Ibid., p. 80.
  5. Ibid., pp. 80-81.
  6. S. Car. Hist. Soc. Colls., v, p. 462.
  7. Carroll, op. cit., II, pp. 80-81.
  8. Laudonnière. Hist. Not. de la Floride, p. 48.
  9. Ibid., p. 49.
  10. See p. 48.
  11. Laudonnière, Hist. Not. de la Floride, p. 50.
  12. See p. 72.
  13. See p. 62.
  14. See p. 64.
  15. Carroll, op. cit., II, p. 28.
  16. See p. 63.
  17. Carroll, op. cit., p. 68.
  18. Laudonnière, op. cit., p. 47.
  19. Carroll, op. cit., p. 64.
  20. Laudonnière, op. cit., p. 46.
  21. See p. 63.
  22. Laudonnière, op. cit,, p. 27.
  23. Ibid., p. 55.
  24. Carroll, Hist. Colls. S. Car, I, pp. 64-65.
  25. Ibid., pp. 68-69
  26. pp. 62-65.
  27. See p. 64
  28. Laudonnière, op. cit., p. 25.
  29. Ibid., p. 43.
  30. Carroll, op. cit., I, pp. 66-68, 69.
  31. Ibid., pp. 517-518. Locke notes, however, that they were “kind to their women.” — (S. Car. Hist. Soc. Colls., V, p. 462.)
  32. See p. 57.
  33. Carroll, op. cit., I, p. 68.
  34. Lawson, Hist. Carolina, p. 306.
  35. Laudonnière, op. cit., p. 31.
  36. Carroll, op. cit., II, pp. 80-81.
  37. Laudonnière, op. cit., p. 28.
  38. Carroll, op. cit., I, pp. 69-70.
  39. S. Car. Hist. Soc. Colls., V, p. 462.
  40. Carroll, op. cit., II, pp. 80-81.
  41. See p. 57.
  42. Laudonnière, op. cit., p. 29.
  43. Hakluyt has “Iawas”; see French, Hist. Colls. La., 1869, p. 204
  44. Or perhaps “by birth.”
  45. Laudonnière, op. cit. pp. 43-46.
  46. See p. 48.

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