A Brief History
of the Catawba Peoples
The earliest mention of the Catawba in written accounts was made by Spanish explorers of the mid-sixteenth century. A member of the Juan Pardo expedition recorded a number of names of villages and peoples of the area as they traveled up the Edisto and Santee river complexes. “Katapa” or “Kataba” and “Yssa” or “Esaw” are among the names easily recognized as designating Catawba peoples. It is likely that the Catawba were a loosely associated confederation of villages speaking related dialects of language or languages distantly related to Siouan. There were also speakers of Algonquian, Iroquoian, Yuchee, and Muskogean languages living in the area, with whom they had contact. John Lawson who visited them in 1701 wrote the most complete early description of the Catawba. Lawson also left us the only known sample of Woccon, a Siouan language closely related to Catawba, in the form of a word list of 150 words. According to Hudson, the early Catawba occupied an area where two cultural traditions met—that the tribes of the Piedmont and that of the southern chiefdoms of the lowlands. Their mode of subsistence was typical of the piedmont area. They farmed beans, corn, and squash; gathered nuts, berries, and tubers; fished; and hunted bear, deer, elk, pigeons, turkey, and other large and small game.
The Catawba were known as warriors and, except during the Yamassee War of 1715, were allies of the British, against both the Spanish and the French. They also feuded with and made retaliatory attacks against the Cherokee and the Shawnee, Delaware, and Iroquois to the north. Situated at the intersection of trade routes, they occupied a prominent position as middlemen in the trade with the British, most for furs, for which both Virginia and South Carolina competed. In the end, most of the Catawba’s dealings were with the South Carolina government, which also needed them as a buffer politically and militarily. Their numbers were decimated by the French and Indian War and by a smallpox epidemic, and, although they sided with the states during the American Revolution, they were no longer a strong military force by that time.George Washington wrote to the Catawba Nation thanking them for the service of the 50 Catawba warriors who served under him.
The end of the eighteenth century marked a change in the social status of the Catawba from relative independence to increased dependence on the government of South Carolina. Because of the influx of white settlers in their area, they requested a reservation at the Augusta Conference in 1763 and received one of fifteen miles square along with a guarantee of hunting rights outside that area. As cotton replaced rice and indigo as the main agricultural crop, piedmont land came to be more in demand. By 1840, the Catawba had leased out all their land and signed a treaty with South Carolina, agreeing to cede their land and relocate in return for a purchase of land for them in North Carolina and cash paid to them over a period of years by South Carolina. This did not work out however. North Carolina was not agreeable to the plan. After moving to North Carolina, some Catawbas went to live with the Cherokee, but most eventually returned to South Carolina. Both by private donation or government arrangement, several hundred acres were set aside to them in South Carolina as a reservation, and they received an annuity from the state but not as outlined in the original treaty of 1840.
Catawbas fought in the Civil War. Afterwards, some sharecropped, leaving the reservation for short periods of time, but they maintained their legal status as Indians. They continued to be referred to as a “nation” by South Carolinians. Throughout their history, much of the Catawba’s livelihood depended on the manufacture and sale of pottery. Even in the 1960’s, according to Douglas Summers Brown writing at that time, one family had pipe molds four generations old.
In the 1880’s, missionaries converted many Catawba to Mormonism, and the church has continued to have an important role in their lives in recent times. Attempts at conversion had been made earlier by many other religious denominations, but with less success.
The late 1930’s and the early 1940’s, with the onset of World War II, marked the beginning of a period of assimilation for the Catawba. Many went to work in the textile mills in nearby Rock Hill or were employed by the W. P. A. In 1943, South Carolina signed a “Memorandum of Understanding” in which it agreed to pay for the purchase of additional lands for the Catawba, to be turned over in trust, along with the Old Reservation, to the Federal Government. Catawbas were granted South Carolina citizenship and allowed to attend public local and state schools. In return, the Office of Indian Affairs was to provide annual funds for the Catawba, medical treatment, and loans, grants, and training for economic development.
In 1959, a bill was introduced in Congress to terminate the Catawba’s status as Indians and to divide and distribute their land. The preceding years had brought about many social changes among the Catawba. In addition, many preferred to pay taxes but have title to their lands in order to borrow money and make improvements. Termination was complete in 1960. The Old Reservation, however, continued to be held in trust by South Carolina, never having been accepted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Apparently, the last speakers of Catawba were Chief Sam Blue, his wife, Hester Louisa Canty-Blue, and his sister, Sally Brown Gordon. Sally Brown Gordon died in 1952, Chief Sam Blue in 1959, and his wife in 1963. Although Catawba families had moved to Colorado, Utah, Arkansas and Oklahoma at various times during the century before that, there are no fluent speakers of the language left.
After the termination, there still had been no resolution of the original stipulations in the Treaty of 1840. In 1975, Catawbas formed a non-stock, non-profit corporation under state law by the name of the Catawba Indian Tribe, Inc. A Tribal Executive Committee was elected as governing body, and Gilbert Blue was named Chief. In the same year, a lawsuit involving the Passamaquoddy Tribe extended the Nonintercourse Act of 1790. The original Act restricted the sale of property held by a federally recognized tribe. In 1975, a court held that the restrictions on the sale of property applied to all tribally held land within the United States, regardless of whether the tribe was federally recognized or whether its land was in “Indian Country”. This encouraged other eastern Indian tribes to assert old land claims: the Oneida of New York, the Narragansett in Rhode Island, the Mashpee in Massachusetts, the Cayuga in New York. The claims presented by many eastern Indian tribes prompted the Catawba to put forth a similar claim that resulted in almost twenty years of court battles with the Federal government, the South Carolina government, and the Local government. In 1993, the final result of this was the federal recognition of the Catawba Indian Nation as well as a settlement of $50 million from the Federal, State and Local governments and other large entities affected by the area of land claim.
Today, the Catawba are survivors. The single most unbroken tradition throughout all the years is pottery making. The traditional way of making pottery, using the coil method, rubbing stones and pit firing still lives on. Clay is dug from the flood plains of the Catawba River itself. This tradition, surviving through the past several hundred years, now goes into the future at a speedy rate. Like the pottery tradition, the culture has continued to live on through dancing, singing, and storytelling. Dancing on Catawba lands has been done for hundreds of years and continues with several dance groups today. These include the Rattle Snake Dance, Women’s Honor Dance, and the Hunters’ Dance. Along with dancing, comes a lot of singing and drumming including the Catawba Canoe Song. Many Elders pass on their stories and their storytelling skills to younger Catawba. Some stories included in the Catawba storytelling tradition are Ugni the Comet and Dαpendatαksuksu: “one whose back is striped/spotted”, a story about how the chipmunk got its stripes.
The Catawba Indian Nation now is located in north central South Carolina in the center of an area which once comprised Catawba territory, about 8 miles east of Rock Hill, South Carolina. Over 2,700 Catawba are listed on the official tribal role. Of these 2,700 persons, the majority lives either on or within 20 miles of the reservation. Of the contemporary Catawba population, 300 families live on the reservation.
The Catawba are still a proud people. They continue to make pottery, sing, dance, drum and share their heritage and culture.