The Catawba Indian Nation is one of the indigenous Indian tribes that settled the Carolina Piedmont over 10,000 years ago. They hunted and farmed their ancestral lands in the Piedmont area of North Carolina and South Carolina. The Catawba were once one of the most powerful tribes in the Carolinas. At the time of European contact in the mid-1500s, their population was estimated at over 8,000. Today the Catawba are a federally recognized tribe with approximately 2800 people living on a reservation in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Smaller groups live in parts of Oklahoma and Colorado.
The Catawba are one of several Siouan language Native American tribes to occupy the Carolinas. Settling in areas surrounding the Catawba River Valley, they called themselves yeh is-WAH h’reh, meaning “people of the river.” Along with the Cherokee and Iroquois, the Catawba controlled important trading paths throughout North Carolina. Control of the trade routes was advantageous and put the tribes in a powerful position. However, it was not long before European settlers took over those trade routes and the Catawba power was slowly taken.
Though the Catawba stayed neutral during trading wars, colonial conflicts, along with European disease, had very dramatic effects on the Catawba people. The Tuscarora War (1711-1713) and the Yamasee War (1715), both fought over control of trade routes, proved that European fur traders and Indian slave traders were a constant threat to the Catawba people. Wars combined with disease were too much for the Catawba to survive. By 1728, their population was down to around 1400. Small pox epidemics in 1738 and in 1759 brought that number down to approximately 500. By the time of the French and Indian War (1754-1763) the Catawba people wanted no involvement with colonial affairs.
During the American Revolution the Catawba fought with the colonies and helped fight against the British and their Cherokee neighbors. At the Battle of Clapp’s Mill (March 2, 1781) the Catawba were instrumental in supporting the American militia. Clapp’s Mill was the beginning of a stretch of battles that were devastating for Lord Charles Cornwallis and his troops. At the end of the Revolution the Catawba people returned to their reservation in South Carolina and found it destroyed. There were now only around 30 families living on the reservation.
Much of the nineteenth century was difficult for the Catawba. With little help from the newly formed American government or the state of South Carolina, the Catawba struggled to find a permanent settlement. At a meeting at Nation Ford in 1840 the Catawba agreed to relinquish their land to South Carolina if the government agreed to spend $5,000 on new land for a reservation. They finally settled on a 630-acre tract of land along the bank of the Catawba River. Through the Civil War some of the Catawba fought with Confederate troops but most tried to stay outside of American affairs.
The Catawba survived colonial expansion, war and disease and continued to fight for their cultural identity in the twentieth century. After a long history of struggling with the American government, the Catawba received recognition from South Carolina in 1973. It took another 20 years of court battles to receive official federal recognition, money to support education programs and to purchase land. Today, the Catawba are known for their pottery, social service programs and continuing the fight to preserve their culture.
“Augusta Conference”; Catawba Indians”; “Clapp’s Mill, Battle of.’ William S. Powell, ed. Encyclopedia of North Carolina (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC 2006).
“Early History: We are Proud of our Past.” Catawba Indian Nation website. http://catawbaindian.net/about-us/early-history/, (accessed December 10, 2014).
“Early History of the Catawba-Wateree River.” Catawba Riverkeeper website. http://www.catawbariverkeeper.org/about-the-catawba/history-of-the-catawba-wateree-river (accessed December 10, 2014).