yeh is-WAH h’reh
People of the River
The Catawba Indians have lived on their ancestral lands along the banks of the Catawba River dating back at least 6000 years. Before contact with the Europeans it is believed that the Nation inhabited most of the Piedmont area of South Carolina, North Carolina and parts of Virginia. Early colonial estimates of the Catawba population when settlers arrived are between 15,000-25,000.
Early Catawbas lived in villages which were surrounded by a wooden palisade or wall. There was a large council house in the village as well as a sweat lodge, homes, and an open plaza for meetings, games, and dances. The homes were rounded on top and made of bark. The dwellings were small with extended families living in a single structure. Catawbas were farmers. They planted crops like
corn and squash along the banks of the river. They also fished and hunted. The Catawbas were a large and powerful group and waged war with neighboring tribes, especially the Cherokee.
First contact with the Catawbas was recorded in 1540 when the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto marched his troops through the Piedmont while headed west looking for gold. There was little contact between the Nation and early settlers because the new colonies were barely surviving. Once the Virginia colony of Jamestown and the Carolina colony of Charles Town became more established this changed.
The tribal people called themselves yeh is-WAH h’reh, meaning “people of the river.” The colonists who came to trade began calling all the tribes along the Catawba River Valley by the name Catawba. By the late 17th century, trade began having a major impact on the Catawba society. The Catawba traded deerskins to the Europeans for goods such as muskets, knives, kettles and cloth. The Catawba villages became a major hub in the trade system between the Virginia traders and the Carolina traders.
Settlers began to move into the Piedmont during the 18th century. The Nation always carried a philosophy of brotherly love and peace when it came to the settlers. This did not serve them well though because the settlers brought disease with them. In 1759, smallpox swept through the Catawba villages for a fourth time in a century bringing the population of the Nation to less than 1,000 by 1760. Colonists believed the Nation was dying out.
Catawba warriors were known as the fiercest in the land. The Nation claimed at least eleven other tribes as enemies. Leaders of the state of South Carolina knew this and kept relations with the Nation friendly. King Hagler, or Chief Nopkehee, was chief from 1750 to 1763. He is remembered as a friend to the English but also a firm defender of the rights of his people. The Nation’s friendship with the English helped both sides. The colonist received protection from other tribes that may try to threaten them and the Nation received supplies that aided in their survival. During the Revolutionary War, the Catawba aligned with the patriots and fought with them against England to help them gain their independence. In 1763 the Catawbas received title to 144,000 acres from the King of England. It was hard for the Nation to protect the land from colonists and eventually they began renting land to settlers. The first tenant was Thomas Spratt who leased several thousand acres of farmland.
Eventually the settlers who had leased land from the Nation wanted the land for themselves. They put pressure on South Carolina to negotiate with the Nation. This was during the Removal Period when many tribes were being moved west. In order to avoid this, the Nation and South Carolina negotiated the Treaty at Nations Ford. The treaty stipulated that the Catawbas relinquish to the State of South Carolina their 144,000 acres of land. In return, South Carolina promised the Nation a new tract of land in a less populated area and to pay the Catawbas money. By 1847, South Carolina Governor David Johnson said, “They are, in effect, dissolved.” However, that was not the end of the Catawbas.
References: Merrell, James. The Catawbas. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989.
The ancestral lands of the Catawba Nation extend through the Piedmont region of North and South Carolina and into southern Virginia. We have lived on these lands along the Catawba River for thousands of years.
The warpaths created over the years intersected within the Catawba lands. Once settlers arrived, these paths became trade routes with the Catawba lands along The Great Trading Path. The Catawba Nation became an essential stop on the route from Jamestown to Charlestown (now Charleston). The Catawba became skilled traders which allowed them to acquire weapons, tools, blankets, and cloth in exchange for furs and other wares like Catawba pottery. Catawba bowls and pots became a sought-after commodity for the settlers due to their quality.
The number of settlers continued to grow, and the Catawba lands were reduced dramatically from the 144,000 acres granted to us by the King of England to the 700-acre reservation now held in trust for the Nation. We still live on our beautiful ancestral lands along the banks of the Catawba river today.
Due to growth and development in our area, we are now close to the thriving city of Rock Hill which is a suburb to the Charlotte metropolitan area. The Nation is a short 30-mile drive from Charlotte Douglas Airport as well as only a 10-minute drive from the I-77 corridor. This provides the Nation with a prime location for growth and development.
Of the 573 federally recognized tribes in the United States, the Catawba Indian Nation is the only one located in the state of South Carolina. The modern day tribal lands are located in York County, South Carolina. There are currently over 3300 enrolled members of the Nation. The Nation has a long history and a rich culture that lives on today.