When English settlers arrived in the Lowcountry region in the late-seventeenth century, they encountered American Indian groups including the Wando, Kiawah, Stono, Etawan, Edisto, Tuscaroras, and Yamassees. Many of these indigenous people had already been exposed to Europeans through Spanish and French exploration, and their populations were decimated by European diseases. Those who survived engaged strategically with Carolina settlers in trade and military alliances, as well as conflict and open warfare. Alliances and rivalries shifted over time, creating a complex web of collaboration and exchange as well as animosity between American Indians and Carolina settlers.
Slavery contributed to tensions between Lowcountry native groups and Carolina settlers. While attempting to replicate the Barbadian system of plantation agriculture dependent on enslaved African labor, Carolina settlers also enslaved significant numbers of American Indians. Settlers traded guns and other manufactured goods to American Indians for deerskins and slaves, creating a cycle of debt and dependency that often led to European trader abuses. Barbadians were especially involved in developing an American Indian slave trade in Carolina to the West Indies. While Native Americans were familiar with the Lowcountry landscape and could often escape from Carolina plantations, they could not easily escape from West Indian plantations. Other American Indians were held captive in Carolina. By the 1720s, the Carolina census included 1500 enslaved American Indians out of an estimated total population in the colony of 17,000.
Angered by land encroachment, trader abuses, debt, and enslavement, a confederation of American Indians attacked English settlements and plantations during the Yamassee War (1715-1717). This war was one of the strongest challenges to European dominance in North America by indigenous people during the colonial period, and it nearly destroyed the Carolina colony. Eventually colonists established a shaky peace after forming an alliance with the Cherokee in 1716. Many American Indians left the area, moving south or deeper into the interior.
In the years following the Yamassee War, Carolina settlers attempted to maintain this peace by limiting American Indian slavery. Lowcountry planters focused on increasing their labor force through the purchase of enslaved Africans, who were arriving in greater numbers through the port of Charles Town. By the late eighteenth century, as the numbers of African arrivals outnumbered enslaved American Indians, the census stopped differentiating between African and American Indian slaves, and "Negro" increasingly became synonymous with "slave" in the Lowcountry.
The Yamassee War also helped solidify an early sense of white racial unity between planter elites and non-slaveholding settlers in Carolina. White settlers began adopting a "siege mentality" in the seventeenth century against the multiple threats of American Indian attacks, slave rebellions, and attacks from Spanish Florida. In contrast, the colony of Virginia had fewer frontiers of conflict, and instead struggled more with class conflicts between whites as well as slave rebellions. In Carolina, tensions flared regularly between poor whites and elite white slaveholders, particularly as large plantation owners in the Lowcountry pushed small, non-slaveholding farmers into the Backcountry. But Carolina generally avoided violent class conflicts and political upheavals between whites. The multiple sources of conflict with enslaved Africans and American Indians in the early Carolina colony generated a sense of white unity across classes. Non-slaveholding whites also played an essential role in the structure of the Lowcountry’s slave society, by working as overseers on plantations and participating in slave patrols to capture runaways and prevent rebellions.