The Waterways of Carolina

The Rivers in Carolana were the Superhighways of the late 1600s


North Carolina Rivers

South Carolina Rivers

The original inhabitants of the Carolinas, the Native Americans, provided many of the names of the rivers, such as the Pee Dee, the Wateree, the Santee, the Kiawah, the Ashepoo, the Edisto, the Catawba Rivers. These early inhabitants fished the rivers and planted crops in the rich alluvial soil. Some even constructed weirs or dams to increase their fish harvest.

Spanish explorers Hernando de Soto and Juan Pardo followed the rivers through the heartland of South Carolina into the Piedmont and mountains of North Carolina in the mid-1500s. The accounts of these expeditions furnish firsthand accounts of Native American life and the abundant natural resources of the Carolinas.

In 1701, a young Englishman named John Lawson left Charles Town to investigate the interior of the Carolinas. He traveled by water to the mouth of the Santee River and then followed the Santee, Wateree, and Catawba Rivers until he crossed into present-day North Carolina. Lawson reached the Yadkin River before turning east to the English settlements on the coast. For part of his journey he followed the Eno and Neuse rivers. In 1706, Lawson helped establish the town of Bath. In 1711, on a trip to survey the navigable reaches of the Neuse River, Native Americans, angered by English land incursions and abuse, captured and executed Lawson.

Others followed Lawson up an down the creeks and rivers of the Carolinas to settle new homes. The fertile river bottoms were preferred from the mountains to the sea. Their rich loamy soil produced corn and wheat to feed the settlers and their families. In the lowcountry of South Carolina, flooded creeks and rivers gave rise to the profitable cultivation of rice. Growing Carolina Gold rice forever changed the lives of African slaves imported to raise the new crop and the landscape diked and terraced into submission.

Swamps such as the Congaree and the Great Dismal flanked the rivers of the Carolinas. These densely forested swamps were home to outlaws and escaped slaves who also established temporary settlements there. Many of these encampments lasted several years before the leaders were recaptured.

The early roads in Carolina followed the watersheds between the rivers. Many towns and cities including Columbia, Cheraw, Camden, and Roanoke Rapids trace their origins to where ferries and fords were located. In their first century, European settlers used the names of streams and creeks to indicate their settlement areas. Long Canes and King's Creek were not only streams, but also communities.

In 1818, South Carolina began to appropriate money to build canals to bypass the Broad, Congaree, Saluda, and Wateree Rivers at the Fall Line. Eight canals were constructed, but only the Columbia Canal was successful. This canal took boats from the Saluda and Broad Rivers around rocky areas to the Congaree River. The original Columbia Canal was expanded to power South Carolina's oldest hydroelectric plant.

Hundreds of water mills lined the creeks and streams of the Carolinas. These mills ground corn and wheat to produce hominy, grits, cornmeal, and flour. In 1816, several small water-powered "cotton factories" appeared along the Tyger River in Spartanburg County. In 1836, the Saluda Cotton Factory began operating on the Saluda River near Columbia, South Carolina. These small mills were the ancestors of the large textile mills that changed the southern landscape after the American Civil War.


© 2007 - J.D. Lewis - PO Box 1188 - Little River, SC 29566 - All Rights Reserved