Places: The Yemassee

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1835

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Adventure

Time of work: Early eighteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Pocota-ligo council house

*Pocota-ligo Yemassee, Thecouncil house. Meeting house in the town occupied by the Yemassee Indian tribe and the primary setting for fierce internal tribal conflict, as tribal leader Sanutee leads his people in a revolt against their own chiefs in order to forestall further treaties with the Carolinians and instigate a rebellion. European settlers named the town Pokitellico.


Blockhouse. Edifice built for the purposes of defense and one of several Carolinian forts. It is besieged by a Yemassee war band, accompanied by English pirate Richard Chorley. Thus, it is one of the primary settings for armed conflict between the low-country Carolinians and their Yemassee neighbors. The besieged blockhouse also offers one of the novel’s most pronounced explorations of gender roles when a broken ladder separates the women and children in the upstairs section from the men in the downstairs section, and Granger’s wife, described approvingly as almost masculine in her capacity for decisive action, is forced to defend the women and children trapped upstairs.

Pirate ship

Pirate ship. Vessel belonging to the English pirate Chorley. At first merely mysterious, the ship becomes the visible symbol of the Spanish threat to the Carolina settlement, as well as Chorley’s own threat to Bess Matthews, as it moves up and down the Pocota-ligo River.

Carolinian cabins

Carolinian cabins. Mirroring the larger conflict building throughout the novel between the Yemassee Indians and the Carolinian settlers, personal homes are the settings for domestic conflicts. The domestic conflict in the Matthews cottage, while ostensibly centered on the conflict between the different generational and religious values of the old Puritan Reverend Matthews and his daughter Bess’s suitor, Gabriel Harrison, also delineates the debate over the two visions of the future of the Native Americans, with Matthews arguing that the Yemassee have been safely domesticated and Harrison arguing that no such thing is possible, a position that Sanutee echoes repeatedly as well. Similarly, Hugh Grayson’s arguments with his mother in the Grayson cabin attest to the supposedly natural superiority of born leaders like Harrison and the need to maintain proper order in society by following those leaders.

Sanutee’s lodge

Sanutee’s lodge. On the Yemassee side, in Sanutee’s lodge, his wife Matiwan’s futile attempts to reconcile the old Yemassee chief with their son Occonestoga, a drunken ally of the English settlers, help to clarify the bitter debate between those Yemassee wishing to find an accommodation with the Carolinians and those wishing to risk all in an attempt to push them out of Yemassee lands forever.

Forests and swamps

Forests and swamps. William Gilmore Simms saves his most stylized descriptions for wilderness scenes. The novel’s most gothic settings are those involving the Yemassee themselves, an association between American Indians and dreadful terror that seems to echo early Puritan depictions of New World wilderness as desolate and hellish, inhabited by wild beasts and savages. In at least one scene, the Yemassee play the role of both victim and villain–the place just above the town of Pocota-ligo, where Occonestoga is carried after his capture by his fellow Yemassee and where his mother kills him to prevent his banishment from the Yemassee tribe and afterlife, is described as gloomy. A gust of wind obligingly sweeps through the scene, making the night grow even more theatrical. The novel’s strongest pastoral depictions, by contrast, involve Bess Matthews in an oak grove, where she meets her beloved, Gabriel Harrison.

BibliographyCowie, Alexander. Introduction to The Yemassee, by William Gilmore Simms. New York: American Book Company, 1937. Summarizes Simms’s life and literary career and relates The Yemassee to general characteristics of his fiction and literary theory. Contains a contemporary news account of the 1715 Yemassee uprising.Ridgely, J. V. William Gilmore Simms. New York: Twayne, 1962. This critical biography discusses theme and setting of Simms’s works and argues that Simms’s own preface to The Yemassee forgives historical inaccuracies by claiming the writer’s license “to weave the facts of history into a wholly fictional main plot.”Rubin, Louis O., Jr. “The Romance of the Colonial Frontier: Simms, Cooper, the Indians, and the Wilderness.” In American Letters and the Historical Consciousness, edited by J. Gerald Kennedy and Daniel Mark Fogel. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987. Discusses the genre of frontier romance and evaluates Simms’s portrayal of Native Americans.Trent, William P. William Gilmore Simms. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1892. This early critical biography discusses the writing, publication history, and critical reception of The Yemassee. Finds the white characters weak, but praises Simms’s portrayal of Native Americans, calling Matiwan “the loveliest and purest Indian that I have met with in fiction.” Claims chapter twenty-five (Matiwan’s rescue of Occonestoga) is as great as the best of James Fenimore Cooper or Charles Brockden Brown.Wimsatt, Mary Ann. The Major Fiction of William Gilmore Simms: Cultural Traditions and Literary Form. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989. Discusses the backgrounds and traditions of the romance genre (influenced by Sir Walter Scott) that Simms used for his long fiction.
Categories: Places