The meaning of the name Yamasee is unknown, though it has been interpreted by Muskogee yamasi, "gentle." The form given in some early writings, Yamiscaron, may have been derived from a Siouan dialect or from Timucua, as there is no r in any of the Muskhogean tongues.
The Yamasee towns and chiefs names indicate plainly that they spoke a Muskhogean dialect and tradition affirms that it was connected most closely with Hitchiti, a contention which may be considered probable.
The earliest references that we have place the Yamasee on Ocmulgee River not far above its junction with the Oconee in present-day Georgia. They seem to have ranged or extended northeastward of these rivers to or even slightly beyond the Savannah, but always inland. The Yamasee Indians lived originally near the southern margin of South Carolina, perhaps at times within its borders, but they are rather to be connected with the aboriginal history of Georgia.
In 1687, having become offended with the Spaniards, they settled on the north side of Savannah River on a tract afterward known as the Indian land and remained there in alliance with the colonists until 1715, when they rebelled, were defeated, then fled to St. Augustine.
Immediately before the outbreak of the Yamasee War (1715-1716) there were the following:
Huspaw, near Huspaw Creek between Combahee River and the Whale
Branch. Pocotaligo, near Pocotaligo River.
Altamaha, location unknown.
Other possible Yamasee settlements were Dawfuskee, Ilcombe, and Peterba.
The first reference to the Yamasee appears to be a mention of their name in the form Yamiscaron as that of a province with which Francisco of Chicora was acquainted in 1521.
The "Province of Altamaha" mentioned by Hernando De Soto's chronicler, Ranjel, in 1540 probably included at least a part of the Yamasee people.
For a hundred years afterward the tribe remained practically unnoticed except for a brief visit by a Spanish soldier and two missionaries in 1597, but in 1633 they are reported to have asked for missionaries, and in 1639 peace is said to have been made between the allied Chatot, Lower Creeks, and Yamasee and the Apalachee.
In 1675, Bishop Calderon of Cuba founded two missions in the Apalachee country which were occupied by Yamasee or their near relatives. The same year there were three Yamasee missions on the Atlantic coast but one of these may have been occupied by Tamathli.
Later they moved nearer St Augustine but in the winter of 168485 some act of the Spanish governor offended them and they removed to South Carolina, where the English gave them lands on the west side of Savannah River near its mouth. Some of these Indians were probably from the old Guale province, but the Yamasee now took the lead.
Eighty-seven warriors of this nation took part in Colonel John Barnwell's expedition against the Tuscarora in 1711.
In 1715, the Yamassee rose in rebellion against the English and killed two or three hundred settlers but were defeated by Governor Craven and took refuge in Florida, where, until the cession of Florida to Great Britain, the Yamasee continued as allies of the Spaniards.
Meanwhile their numbers fell off steadily. Some remained in the neighborhood of the St. Johns River until the outbreak of the Seminole War.
The Oklawaha band of Seminole is said to have been descended from them. Another band accompanied the Apalachee to Pensacola and Mobile, and we find them located near those two places on various charts. They may be identical with those who, shortly afterward, appear among the Upper Creeks on certain maps, though this is the only testimony we have of their presence there.
At any rate, these latter are probably the Yamasee found among the Lower Creeks in the nineteenth century and last heard of among the Seminole of west Florida. Of some historical importance is a small band of these Indians who seem to have lived with the Apalachicola for a time, after the Yamasee War, and in 1730 settled on the site of what is now Savannah under the name of Yamacraw.
There the Georgia colonists found them three years later, and the relations between the two peoples were most amicable. The name Yamacraw was probably derived from that of a Florida mission, Nombre de Dios de Amacarisse, where some of the Yamasee once lived. Ultimately these Yamacraw are believed to have retired among the Creeks and later may have gone to Florida.
It is impossible to separate distinctly the true Yamasee from the Guale Indians. Mooney (1928) gives an estimate of 2,000 in 1650, probably too low.
A mission list compiled by Governor Salazar of Florida in 1675 gives 1,190 Yamasee and Tama.
In 1708, the two tribes united under the name Yamasee, were thought to have 500 men capable of bearing arms.
In 1715, a rather careful census gives 413 men and a total population of 1,215.
Lists dating from 1726 and 1728 give 313 and 144 respectively in the missions about St. Augustine.
A fairly satisfactory Spanish census, taken in 1736, indicates that there were then in the neighborhood of St. Augustine more than 360 Yamasee and Indians of Guale. This does not include the Yamasee near Pensacola and Mobile, those in the Creek Nation, or the Yamacraw.
In 1761, a body of Yamasee containing twenty men was living near St. Augustine, but by that time the tribe had probably scattered widely.
In 1821, the "Emusas" on Chattahoochee River numbered twenty souls.
The Yamasee are famous particularly on account of the Yamasee War (1715-1716), which marked an epoch in Indian and white history in the Carolinas.
At the end of the seventeenth century, a certain stroke was used in paddling canoes along the coast of Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida, which was called the "Yamasee stroke." A small town in Beaufort County, SC, is called "Yemasee," a variant of this name.