Is there a secret buried under Lake Greenwood?

Do centuries-old Indian mounds — some of which still dot the landscape in and around the lake — tell a story of a great Native American empire and the exploration of the territory in a search for gold?

Did a magnificent Indian temple once exist on a curious little island just off the main shoreline of the manmade lake?

Author John Rose Putnam grew up at a cabin on the edge of the lake in Laurens County. He was haunted for years by a place he believes is the largest Indian mound in America and the site of a Native American temple. He spent years researching what he thinks could be the true narrative of Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto’s journey to the area and the place descendants of those Indians have long looked for — the heart of what they call the Coree Empire.

“When de Soto first arrived in an Indian canoe, he saw a temple that rose 40 to 50 feet above a mound, itself over 150 feet tall, all together more than 20 stories above the river,” Putnam said. “It must have been an awesome sight. De Soto, second in command to Pizzaro in Peru, called it the most impressive building he’d seen in the New World.”

In the book “1491,” Charles C. Mann said, “Along the way, though, he (de Soto) managed to rape, torture, enslave, and kill countless Indians. But the worst thing he did, some researchers say, was entirely without malice — he brought pigs.” Those pigs carried diseases that might have been the downfall of the empire. Basically, everywhere De Soto went, the Indians died in incredible numbers, the book says.

Putnam wrote a novel called “The River of Corn,” a fictional account of what happened to the Native Americans from the city of the Cofitachequi, the main city of the largest and most powerful Native American civilization in the American Southeast.

Where is this lost empire? There is confusion among the various historical accounts.

“The true story has yet to be told,” Putnam said. “Almost everything is buried under the lake now, except for our cabin site and what is left of the temple site. My relatives searched four other Indian mounds nearby for arrowheads while the lake filled during World War II.”

The earliest Indian mounds likely functioned as landmarks for seasonal gatherings and platforms for villages, according to Putnam thinks these were all village sites.

Legend has it that de Soto and an invading army of 600 conquistadors crossed the Savannah River from Georgia into South Carolina in April 1540, about 2 miles southwest of Modoc at the area of Clarks Hill Reservoir, and then traveled northeast across the Saluda and Broad rivers. Putnam thinks that, after wandering lost in what is now the Pisgah National Forest, de Soto came to a village now under Lake Murray. After burning a leader at the stake, de Soto was led west up the Saluda River to the city of Cofitachequi, according to historical accounts.

The Spanish came in search of gold, which had been reported by various Native American tribes and earlier coastal explorers. Desoto was given pearls, food and a bag of salt from the many salt springs in the area, but he found no gold. Official state historical accounts place Cofitachequi near the Wateree River, but Putnam said it has to be on the Saluda River. It ran for 5 miles, he said. Upstream was both the temple and the abandoned city of Talimeco. All sites are just where the accounts say they are, Putnam said.

“It looks like the archaeologists decided that, because no Indians lived in the Piedmont of South Carolina when the English arrived — except for the Cherokee at Keeowee — de Soto couldn’t have gone there,” Putnam said. “They decided that a later explorer, Juan Pardo, had come to the same place de Soto did, and that’s where the city of Cofitachequi must be.”

De Soto was looking for the heart of a powerful empire, much like the descendants of the Santee Sioux now look for the site of the Coree Empire. They must be the same empire, Putnam said, and it has to be on the Saluda River, under Lake Greenwood, not on the smaller Wateree, a tributary to the Congaree.

Putnam’s uncle, David, had a collection of arrowheads, most of which were found on Indian mounds now under Lake Greenwood, and, presumably, made by the Native Americans who once lived there.

“My dad was there before the lake filled,” Putnam said. “The temple site was loaded with easy-to-find artifacts, arrowheads, other stone tools and a lot of pottery shards. It’s now in danger of being destroyed.”

Putnam said this must be the heart of a large civilization that’s “been forgotten and ignored.”

“The temple site, back when I was a boy and the lake was young — I was born in 1947 — was almost a perfect rectangle,” Putnam said. “The northwest corner was eroding a little and there was some runoff on the east. A lower terrace on the landward side was where we kids swam. Above it, the steep slopes of the site rose just like they do on the east and north now. Erosion from the lake and the meddling of man have destroyed a lot of the mound for the temple.”

Yet, even today, the trails de Soto’s army used can still be seen. When he departed, he divided his army and sent half to the Eno city of Ilapi near Clinton for a supply of corn. When they left, they went due north, through Musgrove Mill Park and up an Indian trail that is now Route 56, the old Pennsylvania wagon road. It’s the same route by which a minister named Duncan, the first settler in Laurens County, arrived. His church is still there near Duncan Creek.

De Soto took a trail straight out from where his army stayed. It’s still there, now a paved road. The two halves of his force met somewhere close to the North Carolina line near a village called Xuala and turned left to cross the Blue Ridge Mountains, never to return to South Carolina. De Soto later died, and his body was thrown from a boat into the Mississippi River.

When Putnam first started putting the pieces together about de Soto’s exploration and the Native American history that surrounded his old haunting grounds, he called the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology. Late archaeologist Tommy Charles was working on research showing Native Americans had inhabited the Piedmont area and supported his premise. Charles was the only person at the institute who even bothered to listen, Putnam said. No one answered his question, “Who made the arrowheads?”

Now Putnam’s 20 years of research has led to the Chicora.

Contact staff writer Greg K. Deal at 864-943-5647 or follow on Twitter @IJDEAL.

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