Catawba Indians

Written By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

A Siouan people who lived in the Catawba River Valley in both the Carolinas, the Catawba Nation is the only federally recognized tribe to reside in South Carolina. Today, the tribe stands at 2,800 members. The but the Catawba were once a prominent tribe that hunted, farmed, and lived in the Piedmont region of North Carolina.

The Catawba, known among themselves as the is-WAH h’reh or “people of the river,” first encountered white settlers of the Virginia and Carolina colonies who sought furs and other Indian trade goods. In the late seventeenth century, Virginian and Carolinian traders traded with the Catawba, and the extensive trading paths through the region proved helpful to both groups. The Catawba managed to control trade because of their unique location in the Piedmont region in the late 1600s, but the Tuscarora and Yamassee Wars proved detrimental to the tribe.

White traders exploited the native’s trust as the fur trade continued, and slave traders captured numerous Indians for free labor. In response to the greedy Europeans, the Catawba entered a confederacy with the Yamassee in 1713 and the tribes attacked colonists in both North and South Carolina. However, the colonists proved a formidable opponent, killing and capturing many Yamassee and Catawba warriors. According to historian William S. Powell, “The Catawbas retreated to their northern towns and again absorbed refugees from the defeated tribes” (p. 193).

European disease was the Catawba’s deadliest foe during the mid-1700s. In 1728, smallpox left the tribe in meager numbers and the disease struck again in 1738, killing almost half of the tribe’s members. After years of failed crops, disease scoured the tribe once more in 1759, “bringing the population of the tribe to less than 1,000 by 1760” (Catawba History).

A year after smallpox claimed numerous Catawba in 1759, the tribe entered into a land treaty with the South Carolina government. The tribe ceded much of their land for a small 15-square mile reservation. At the start of the Revolutionary War, the Catawba, unlike the Cherokee, joined the colonists in their war against the British. Despite their allegiances with the victorious party, the Catawba dwindled in its size and influence after the war.

In 1840, South Carolina delegates and Catawba tribe members met at Nations Ford to discuss removal and the establishment of a reservation. The Catawba gave up their land holdings to South Carolina and accepted a new 630-acre tract on the Catawba River. Only a hundred tribe members had moved to the region by 1850.

After struggling through the Civil War, several Catawba joined the Cherokee in their westward journey. However, many Catawba stayed at their reservation and the tribe gained federal recognition in 1941. The new classification did not last long; the government canceled it in 1959. Yet the Catawba continued to fight for their right as an Indian tribe and on November 20, 1993, the tribe exchanged its land claims to South Carolina for “federal recognition and $50 million for economic development, education, social services, and land purchases” (Catawba History).

Today, the Catawba continue to live on a reservation near Rock Hill, South Carolina. One of the most thriving cultural aspects of the tribe remains its pottery tradition. With a distinct style of pottery, the Catawba continue to keep the tradition alive, with nearly fifty Catawba members focused entirely on pottery making. The Catawba Reservation expresses pride in its housing program, child care, and health services clinic. In addition, the Catawba Nation operates the Catawba Cultural Center, an outlet of Indian culture and education.