[Note: This is a single part of what will be, by my classification, about 240 compact tribal histories (contact to 1900). It is limited to the lower 48 states of the U.S. but also includes those First Nations from Canada and Mexico that had important roles (Huron, Micmac, Assiniboine, etc.).

This history's content and style are representative. The normal process at this point is to circulate an almost finished product among a peer group for comment and criticism.

Using the Internet, this can be more inclusive. Feel free to comment or suggest corrections via e-mail. Working together we can end some of the historical misinformation about Native Americans. You will find the ego at this end to be of standard size. Thanks for stopping by. I look forward to your comments...Lee Sultzman.]


Catawba River near the North and South Carolina border extending west to Broad River, their boundary with the Cherokee.


Before contact, the Catawba were probably two separate tribes: the Catawba proper and the Iswa. Together, they may have numbered as many as 10,000, but when the first British estimates were made in 1692, their population was about 5,000. During the next 70 years the Catawba absorbed remnants from other Siouan-speaking tribes in the region. Despite this, their population declined rapidly from the combination of disease, war, and alcohol. By 1728 they had 400 warriors and a population of about 1,400. They lost half of these to smallpox epidemic during 1738. A generation later (1759-60), smallpox again took half leaving a total of 400. The census of 1826 found only 110 Catawba. Presently, about 1,200 descendants are living in the vicinity of Rock Hill, SC. Total tribal membership lists 2,600. The Catawba are recognized as a tribe by the federal government and the State of South Carolina.


Catawba means "river people," and only came into common use in the Carolinas after 1715. The name used by themselves was Iyeye (people) or Nieye(real people). Early Spanish records refer to them as the Iswa (also spelled: Esaw, Isaw, Issa, and Ysa). 17th century Virginia colonists used a variation of this: Usheree(or Ushery, Usi). Also called: Anitagua (Cherokee), Cuttawa, Flathead, Oyadagahroene (Iroquois), Tadirighrone (Iroquois), and Tetes-Plattes (French).


Siouan. Catawba is the most aberrant of all known Siouan languages. Its only close relationship is to Woccon. In fact, Catawba is so different that scholars did not recognize its relationship to the Siouan language family until the late 1800s.


Originally composed of two separate tribes that merged as the Catawba: Catawba proper and Iswa. By 1760 the Catawba are believed to have absorbed parts of at least 20 other Siouan-speaking tribes in the region. Originally there were many villages, but few names have survived. In 1728 there were six villages, all on the Catawba River, the most northerly of which was Nauvasa. In 1781 Newton and Turkey Head were the main settlements, also on Catawba River.


The original homeland of the Catawba before contact is uncertain. De Soto's expedition apparently went directly through

their homeland in 1540 but did not mention a name that can be attached to them with any certainty. Pardo met the Ysa (or Iswa) during 1566-67 but says nothing about the Catawba. Archeological evidence indicates that the Siouan-speaking tribes lived in the Carolinas for many years before contact, and the Catawba were probably a part of this. On the other hand, there is one tradition that they originally came from the north, (perhaps the upper Ohio Valley but even Canada has been suggested), and were driven south by the Seneca at the beginning of the Beaver Wars. By this theory, they are supposed to have arrived in the Carolinas about 1650. Their unique language and enduring hostility with the Iroquois tends to support this, but Catawba cultural traits, most notably head flattening of male infants, argues for a long-time residence south of the Ohio. In any event, the Catawba were definitely established along the Catawba River at the North/South Carolina border in 1650.

They lived in villages of circular, bark-covered houses, and dedicated temple structures were used for public gatherings and religious ceremonies. Agriculture, for which men and women both shared responsibility, provided at least two crops each year and was heavily supplemented by hunting and fishing. The Iroquois called the Catawba "flatheads" because they, as well as many of the other Siouan-speaking tribes of the area, practiced forehead flattening of males infants. Besides the Iroquois, traditional Catawba enemies included the Cherokee, Shawnee, Delaware, and several members of the Great Lakes Algonquin allied with the French. Catawba warriors had a fearsome reputation and an appearance to match: ponytail hairstyle with a distinctive war paint pattern of one eye in a black circle, the other in a white circle and remainder of the face painted black. Coupled with their flattened foreheads, some of their enemies must have died from sheer fright.

A proud people and dangerous enemy, the Catawba immediately attached themselves to the interests of the English colonists after the beginning of settlement in the Carolinas during the 1660s. Their loyalty wavered only briefly during 1715. Otherwise, they fought other Native Americans for the British and protected the Carolina colonies from encroachment by the French and Spanish. They also helped the colonists find runaway slaves when required. It was a common practice in South Carolina to force new slaves to pass in front of a Catawba warrior in warpaint to discourage escape attempts. To a limited extent, their service was appreciated. It is difficult to think of another Native American group for which South Carolina tried to establish a reservation so they could stay. By 1720 the Catawba had started to adopt many of the ways of English colonists but were losing their own culture in the process. For the most part, they remained very traditional about religion until 1883. Within a year Mormon missionaries were able to convert almost all of them. Presently, most of the Catawba belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints.


Although the area was visited by De Soto in 1540. Pardo's expedition during 1566-67 was the first to mention the Iswa, a branch of what would later become known as the Catawba. Contact by British colonists from Virginia with the Ushery was made in 1653. Hostility with the neighboring Cherokee existing from a period before the Europeans. When the a large number of refugee Shawnee arrived in South Carolina after fleeing the Iroquois during 1660, the Cherokee gave them permission to settle as a buffer between them and the Catawba. The Catawba and Shawnee (or Savannah) were soon at war each other. At almost the same time, the Yuchi entered the area from the Cumberland basin, and the Catawba also fought with them.

Worse yet, the Iroquois had not forgotten the Shawnee. Seneca war parties, sometimes accompanied by Delaware allies, followed the "Warriors Path" from western New York travelling down the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania and then into the foothills of the Appalachians to South Carolina. Iroquois raids against the Shawnee frequently struck the Catawba and other neighboring tribes instead. The fighting was not localized, and Iroquois warriors were often forced into a hasty retreat with angry Catawba warriors in hot pursuit all the way to Pennsylvania. The Seneca did not always win the race. With the sudden influx of so many new native enemies, the Catawba turned to the British. They found what they were looking for ...firearms. The colonists also found what they were looking for ally.

Warfare between the Iroquois and Catawba continued with very few interruptions for almost 100 years. Since both tribes were British allies, the British wanted an end to it. The Iroquois, however, saw things differently. They were allies of New York. Whether this automatically made them allies with Virginia, the Carolinas, or their native allies was a different matter. With British encouragement, the Catawba arranged a peace with the Iroquois in 1706. This achievement was only temporary. The League was in its imperial phase by this time and determined to dominate other tribes through treaty and the covenant chain. The Catawba still hated the Iroquois and were too stubborn and proud to submit. Eventually, the peace collapsed, and Seneca raids resumed. Against the Yuchi and Shawnee the Catawba were more successful. Well-armed, the Catawba kept the Yuchi at bay and eventually drove them southwest into the arms of the Creek Confederation. A Catawba victory over the Shawnee in 1707 forced most Carolina Shawnee north to Pennsylvania where they found a refuge among the Delaware and Iroquois (strange as it seems). The remaining Savannah retreated west to the protection of the Creek. Meanwhile, while the Catawba were defending themselves from the Iroquois and Shawnee, they rendered service to the British against the new French presence on the Gulf of Mexico. In 1703 Catawba warriors attacked the French outpost at Mobile Bay. Five years later, they joined the Cherokee and Alibamu in fighting the Mobile, the primary French trade middleman in the area. However, these efforts did not go unnoticed by the French, and shortly afterwards, the Catawba began receiving regular visits by war parties from French allies near Detroit. By 1711 the Iroquian-speaking Tuscarora had endured so much abuse from the North Carolina colonists that there was a general uprising. Joined by other tribes, the Tuscarora War (1711-13) expanded beyond North Carolina's resources, and they called on South Carolina for assistance.

While the Iroquois threatened and Virginia procrastinated, South Carolina sent a force of 30 militia with 500 Catawba and Yamasee. They entered North Carolina and defeated the Tuscarora in two battles during 1712. After a truce, the South Carolina army prepared to return home, but problems arose when North Carolina refused to pay for their expenses. The South Carolina solution was to capture several hundred Tuscarora and sell them as slaves. For obvious reasons, the truce ended right there. The following year the South Carolinians returned, this time with more than 1,000 Catawba and Yamasee, and the Tuscarora were quickly crushed by the onslaught. Many prisoners were tortured to death, while another 400 were sold into slavery. During 1714 the Tuscarora left enmass for the Oneida in New York and by 1722 had become the sixth member of the Iroquois League. They never forgot the part the Catawba had played in their defeat, and the Iroquois had another good reason to punish the Flatheads.

After the Tuscarora had left, the Catawba and Yamasee found they were subject to the same abuse that forced the Tuscarora to fight. British traders routinely seized the wives and children of Catawba warriors and sold them as slaves to pay for debts (usually whiskey). For this reason, the Catawba joined the general uprising of 1715 in the Carolinas (Yamasee War). Several British forts fell at first, but the colonists brutally repressed the revolt. The survivors were forced to make peace during 1717, but so many small Carolina tribes disappeared completely in this conflict, they will not be listed(See Southeastern Siouan). The Catawba, however were not one of these. They absorbed many of the refugees and, perhaps because of past service and legitimate grievances, were soon back in the good graces of South Carolina.

Despite their incorporation of other tribes, the Catawba population was in a precipitous decline. Only 1,400 were left in 1728 after 70 years of warfare, whiskey and disease. A terrible blow came in 1738 when a severe smallpox epidemic killed over half of them. A peace concluded with the Ohio Wyandot (French allies) in 1733 brought some relief, but despite all attempts by the British government and protests by southern governors, the protracted war with the Iroquois League continued until 1752. By this time the Catawba could only field 120 warriors from a population of 700. The Catawba had escaped Iroquois domination but had paid dearly. Peace with the Iroquois was reconfirmed at Albany in 1759, but the Shawnee remained a dangerous enemy.

The Catawba were used as scouts by the British army during the first years of the French and Indian War (1755-63), but a second smallpox epidemic (1759-60) once again took half of them leaving the survivors demoralized. With only 60 warriors left, the Catawba served as scouts against their old enemies during the Cherokee War (1760-61), but this was their last important contribution. During 1758 they had abandoned their last towns in North Carolina and now lived entirely within South Carolina. Through the treaty of Pine Hill (1760) and Augusta (1763), a fifteen mile square reservation was established for them along the Catawba River near the North/South Carolina border, but the murder of the last important Catawba chief Haiglar(or Hagler) by a Shawnee war party during 1763 is generally regarded as the end of Catawba power.

From the beginning, the Catawba reservation suffered from encroachment by white colonists. Between 1761 and 1765, many simply ignored the boundaries and moved in. A Catawba protest to South Carolina in 1763 was answered with a promise to evict the trespassers, but nothing was ever done. Despite this the Catawba supported the American cause during the Revolution serving as scouts. When a British army invaded South Carolina, the Catawba withdrew north into Virginia but returned after the Battle of Guilford Court House (1781). With the South Carolina government unwilling to move against its white citizens, the Catawba land base continued to shrink. By 1826 virtually all of the reservation had been either sold or leased to whites. Crammed into the last square mile, 110 Catawba lived in poverty.

In 1840 the Catawba sold their land to South Carolina at the Treaty of Indian Ford. This was a state, not federal, treaty and probably was a violation of the Nonintercourse Act. The Catawba moved north across the border, but North Carolina refused to provide land for them, so many were forced to return. Despite past differences, the North Carolina Cherokee generously invited the Catawba to join them. Many did, but this did not last. By 1847 most of the Catawba had left the Cherokee and returned to South Carolina. All that remained for them Catawba was 600 acres of their old reservation, and obviously this could not support them. The possibility of moving to the Choctaw section of Oklahoma was explored but ultimately rejected A second attempt to relocate the Catawba west to the Choctaw in Oklahoma also failed during 1853. Still residents of South Carolina, Catawba soldiers fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, but the census of 1910 could only locate 124 Catawba. Although recognized by South Carolina, the Catawba did not receive federal recognition until 1941. In 1959 they petitioned Congress to terminate their tribal status, and tribal landholdings were distributed among the membership during 1962. The final tribal role call of that year gave a population of a little over 600. After termination, many Catawba emigrated to the Choctaw in southeast Oklahoma. After a change of heart in 1973, the Catawba tribal council was reorganized and recognized by the state of South Carolina. During 1994, the Catawba regained federal recognition after a lengthy court battle.

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