Savannah River Slides Aided Fishermen of Old; River Weirs Funnel Fish into Narrow Streams, Helping Early Settlers

Article excerpt

Byline: ROB PAVEY

AIKEN, S.C. - Like the slabs of Stonehenge and the fabled heads of Easter Island, ancient formations in the Savannah River offer cryptic clues to early man.

The V-shaped stone sluices that resemble primitive water slides have a very specific use as fish weirs, where Native American tribes netted and speared seasonal runs of shad almost 4,000 years ago.

Albert Goodyear, a University of South Carolina archaeologist, said such stone weirs are found in many Eastern rivers - and some of them could have been used by early colonists, in addition to Native American tribes.

"They're considered to be late Archaic (3000 B.C.), but they could also be Colonial, too," he said. "You can't always assume they are prehistoric, because the early settlers may have co-opted an already-built Indian weir. A good place to fish is still a good place to fish."

Weirs in the Savannah shoals can be found from Interstate 20 downstream to the Waterworks Pumping Station area. Most are still effective at funneling water - and fish - into narrow streams.

John Logan, a naturalist and author who published an 1859 book on the history of South Carolina's Piedmont region, described in great detail the massive spring migrations of fish that provided both Native Americans and early settlers along the Savannah with an important food source:

"Besides the well-known varieties that live constantly in fresh water, vast numbers of shad came up every spring and filled not only the vast rivers and their tributaries, but even the smaller creeks and rivulets."

Soon after settlers arrived, however, dams and mills sprang up along the river, and shad migrations began to thin out. Logan mentioned Stevens Creek off the Savannah River in Edgefield County as a particular area where fish runs were stalled by mill dams just after the American Revolution.

"The consequent erection of mills and dams on the streams obstructed the ancient passages through which the shad were accustomed to run up to the numerous fisheries," he wrote. "The communities that were interested complained loudly of the failure of their annual supplies of fish."

In a 1979 paper co-written by Goodyear, the region's Cherokee tribes are described by noted explorer Robert Adair, who wrote The History of American Indians in 1775, as using the V-shaped weirs in the 18th century:

"The Indians have the art of catching fish in long creels made with cane and hickory, tapering to a point. …