Part of our knowledge of the Indian nations of the
Carolinas during the early colonial period comes from the reports
of European explorers.
One of these was the British naturalist, John
Lawson, who led a small exploratory expedition out of Charleston
late in 1700. Travelling by canoe and on foot, he travelled about
nine hundred kilometres (six hundred miles) through what the
Europeans considered to be a wilderness, making a good many
observations about the vegetation and wildlife, and about the
Indian nations which inhabited this mixed terrain.
John Lawson began by journeying up the
Santee-Wateree-Catawbee River. He noted that the Sewee were once
a populous nation, but that European diseases such as smallpox had
greatly reduced their numbers. Among the Santee,  Lawson found
a powerful Indian ruler. He reported that this chief had absolute
power and could sentence any of his people to death. When the chief
died, his body was placed on top of a pyramidal mound (possibly a
method of disposal gained from the civilisations of Mesoamerica).
Recent thinking demonstrates this probable link
between Mesoamerica and eastern and south-eastern North America.
Large settlements containing pyramidal mounds have been found in
these regions and are being reinterpreted based on an increased
understanding of them. Cahokia especially - the largest known
centre of the Mississippian 'mound-building' culture - seems to
have had close trade and communications links with Mesoamerica.
Lawson next encountered the Congaree and again
saw that their numbers had been greatly reduced by smallpox. He
noted that the main town consisted of less than a dozen houses.
The Wateree-Chickanee were the next group that Lawson visited (about
ninety kilometres (sixty miles) from the Congaree). He noted that
they spoke a language (probably Catawban) which was different from
that of the Congaree. They were a numerous people but they lacked
English trade goods. They were using bows and arrows rather than
guns for hunting. The ancestors of the Wateree-Chickanee were
probably the Guatari of the Rowan area (subservient to the Spanish
some twenty years before the founding of the nearby Roanoke colony).
About three miles from the Wateree-Chickanee,
Lawson encountered the Waxaw. Among the Waxaw, Lawson noted that
there was a 'state-house' which was distinct from domestic
structures and was intended for use by the chiefs.
The party then visited the Esaw (a Catawba people)
and the Sapona (Saponi). Lawson's observations of the Indians at
this time show that they were already undergoing many changes due
to their contact with the European colonists. Some of these changes
were due to epidemics such as smallpox, which were brought in by
the colonists; some of the changes were brought about by manufactured
goods, such as the guns and knives that they gained from the European
traders. The tribes which Lawson observed would later become known
as the Catawba Nation or the Catawba Confederacy.
Having first reached South Carolina during the great exploratory
trail taken by Hernando de Soto in 1538, the Spanish would
launch slave-gathering raids into the Carolinas from Spanish