Native Americans

Catawba Indians

by Brandon Smith



The Catawba Indians of South Carolina were once a rather significant population and were direct adversaries of the Lower Cherokee nation, especially in South Carolina. There are many legends and stories depicting the history and origins of the Catawba nation, often with conflicting accounts. Catawbas believe that they were the original settlers of the land during the sixteenth century and the Cherokees came as antagonists later.1 A highly more likely version is agreed upon among most researchers. The Cherokee nation is recognized as having been the inhabitants of southeastern land long before the Catawbas were believed to have migrated from Canada in the early 1600s. The actual date of the arrival is actually not completely known because many early explorers make no reference to the Catawbas being a recently removed tribe. Most agree that an Iroquois tribe was pursuing the Catawba from the far north and they retreated south to the Kentucky River. It is from there that they probably formed smaller groups, with one of them moving southeast. The unresolved dispute relates to how the Catawbas ended up in the middle of Cherokee country with certain proposed boundaries, because coming from the north, they surely would have been driven away by the much larger Cherokee nation.2

The earliest explorers of the backcountry referred to the Catawbas as Ushery, Esaw, Issa, Kadapau and Cattabas. Explorers such as Vandera, John Lederer and John Lawson, who found them living near present-day Fort Mill in York and Chester counties, knew the tribe. Lederer actually confirmed the notion of the Catawbas being veteran inhabitants of the land by stating he believed they had been in the area "four hundred years." Still others proposed that the Catawbas migrated from even further inland and resembled the Biloxi tribe of Mississippi linguistically. James Mooney, the renowned Indian expert, believed eastern Carolina to be the Catawbas original home; or at least their migration was not recent.3 This area of Catawba inhabitance was believed to have been part of North Carolina before the Revolutionary War due to the fact that whites often appealed to the North Carolina Governor and other North Carolina government officials to resolve Cherokee-Catawba disputes. The resulting fort became Fort Mill, a place of refuge for both Catawbas and whites when Cherokees went on the warpath.4

Although the Cherokee nation extended from the Midwest to the southeast and largely outnumbered the Catawba nation, the Catawbas were constantly at battle with these inherent enemies. In his 1898 report to the Smithsonian, Mooney wrote about the Cherokee nation: "on the east and southeast the Tuscarora and Catawba were their inveterate enemies, with hardly even a momentary truce within the historic period."5 Hostilities continued during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: "the Catawba were among the nations which the Cherokee complained of for selling their captive tribesmen as slaves to the English traders."6 Catawbas also were unfriendly with other tribes including the Savannah in 1711, which they had been allies with a decade earlier. This type of falling out between Indian nations was common and was often initiated by the leaders of the nation themselves. The Catawbas also participated in the Yemassee War, collaborating with many other tribes. By 1716, though, they had made peace with the South Carolina government, with the clause that they were to punish the Cheraw, who remained belligerent. Other periodic foes included the Creeks, Chicasaw, Seneca, Mohawk, Muskogee, and Oneida.7

Disease played a major role in decimating large groups of Native Americans upon the arrival of Europeans. The Indians were not immune to the new diseases and quickly spread them throughout their tribes. The Catawbas were no exception. A great smallpox epidemic reached the Catawba nation in 1738, concurrently with the First Great Awakening, leading many to question why so many Indians were suffering. Lawson believed the epidemic to have been spread once earlier and that this outbreak was separate. In any case, the Catawbas were not the least bit prepared to "endure its ravages." The rash reduced the Catawbas population by half—similar to the havoc it wreaked on the Cherokees. In 1743, the entire incorporated Catawba nation had been reduced to four hundred.8


1W.R. Bradford, The Catawba Indians of South Carolina (Columbia, SC: South Carolina State Department of Education, 1946), 6.
2Chapman Milling, Red Carolinians (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1969), 231-232.
3Ibid., 232.
4Bradford, The Catawba Indians of South Carolina, 6-7.
5Milling, Red Carolinians, 14.
6Ibid., 233-234.
7Ibid., 236-237.
8Ibid., 237-238.


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