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@2009 - Sue Ashby                                                                                           Updated 10/11/2009

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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

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 notreceive 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.

More on the Catawba
By V. Ann Tippitt and Wenonah Haire

Many centuries ago, along the river that still bears their name, the Catawba lived in a large expanse of land that straddled both states of the Carolinas. Today their tribal home, located outside Rock Hill, SC, is a one-mile-square reservation. Yet the size of their home has not constrained the size
of their spirit. During the 1970s, the Catawba revitalized
their cultural identity. They began compiling historical
accounts, holding pottery and language classes, and taking
action to reclaim their tribal lands and gain Federal
In 1989 the Catawba Nation, a small community in north-
central South Carolina, formed the Catawba Cultural
Committee to protect and promote the tribe's history and
arts. Since then, the committee has carried out many
projects in cooperation with nearby universities and
museums, from renovating an old school building as a
cultural center to working with South Carolina's Winthrop
University on educational packets about the Catawba for
public schools.
One of the most mutually beneficial collaborations has
been with the Schiele Museum in Gastonia, NC. In 1975, the
museum initiated relationships with several Native American
groups in the Carolinas by adding southeastern ethnographic
materials to its collections, promoting local Native
American exhibits, providing school and public programs,
sharing research, and supplying meeting space and staff
assistance. During this time, a special relationship grew
between the Catawba Nation and the museum.
In 1984, under the direction of Dr. Alan May, the museum
began a county-wide archeological survey of the Carolina
Piedmont. A major focus of the survey has been the late
prehistoric occupation of the middle Catawba River Valley,
using archeological and ethnohistoric research to identify
and better understand prehistoric Catawba sites. Several
Catawba participated, and the findings have been presented
to the Nation. This year, a new survey will identify
historic and prehistoric sites on the reservation.
European expansion into the Piedmont brought many changes
to the tribe but one thing remains constant: the making of
pottery. The pottery making tradition is strong and
dynamic, says Catawba bibliographer Dr. Tom Blumer, because
it gracefully balances the contradictory themes of tradition
and innovation. At the museum, a permanent Catawba pottery
exhibit illustrates the continuity of surface treatment,
manufacturing techniques, and vessel forms that still
inspires Catawba potters.
On the museum grounds, a Catawba Indian village exhibit
was built as part of the 400th Anniversary Celebration of
the Roanoke Voyages. This "village" does not merely
replicate a prehistoric site, but rather features several
structures from different historic and prehistoric periods,
illustrating social and technological changes among the
Catawba specifically and among southeastern native groups
generally. A number of Catawba were involved in the
planning of the village including Chief Gilbert Blue,
Assistant Chief Fred Sanders, and Francis Wade of the
pottery committee. The North Carolina Indian Commission,
the Metrolina Native American Association, and Arnold
Richardson of the Haliwa-Saponi (a North Carolina tribe)
also provided assistance.
The exhibit further solidified the relationship between
the museum and the Catawba Nation, stimulating more
research. Steve Watts, director of the museum's
Southeastern Native American Studies Program, began a decade
of intensive study on the Catawba, focusing on aboriginal
technologies. This research, along with ethnographic
descriptions of hunters and gatherers, serves as background
for a series of adult and teachers' workshops at the
museum's Catawba village. The school program "Indians of
North Carolina" also draws heavily on this information,
combining the region's natural history with Native American
adaptations to it. The program, which mixes in elements of
the tribe's material culture, serves to introduce students
to their Catawba neighbors.
Each fall, at "Fap-Fe-Iswa"--a Catawba-hosted outdoor
festival on the reservation--the museum staff has a chance
to participate outside their normal setting, by setting up
exhibits, demonstrating crafts and skills like
flintknapping, providing transportation, and most
importantly, sharing the spirit of the Catawba.
Right now, the museum is renovating the pottery exhibit
and building another structure in its Catawba village. The
renovated exhibit will include interviews with potters and a
video of the pottery manufacturing process. The video will
also incorporate footage of noted potter Doris Blue, filmed
by the museum in 1975. And this June, participants in a
workshop on prehistoric house building constructed a bent-
pole, bark-covered house perhaps typical of those used by
the peoples of the lower Catawba River Valley.
For more information about the Schiele Museum, contact
curator Ann Tippitt or Steve Watts, Schiele Museum, 1500
East Garrison Blvd., P.O. Box 953, Gastonia, NC 28053.
Phone (704) 866-6900.
For more information about the Catawba, contact Dr.
Wenonah Haire, Chairwoman, Catawba Cultural Preservation
Project, 611 East Main, Rock Hill, SC 29730.

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