Catawba Tribe

D. A. Harris
D. A. Harris

Catawba Indians, Catawba Nation (probably from Choctaw katápe, ‘divided,’ ‘separated,’ ‘a division.’ – Gatschet). The most important of the eastern Siouan tribes. It is said that Lynche creek, South Carolina east of the Catawba territory, was anciently known as Kadapau; and from the fact that Lawson applies this name to a small band met by him southeast of the main body, which he calls Esaw, it is possible that it was originally given to this people by some tribe living in eastern South Carolina, from whom the first colonists obtained it.

The Cherokee, having no b in their language, changed the name to Atakwa, plural Anitakwa. The Shawnee and other tribes of the Ohio valley made the word Cuttawa. From the earliest period the Catawba have also been known as Esaw, or Issa (Catawba iswä‘, `river’), from their residence on the principal stream of the region, Iswa being their only name for the Catawba and Wateree rivers. They were frequently included by the Iroquois under the general term Totiri, or Toderichroone, another form of which is Tutelo, applied to all the southern Siouan tribes collectively. They were classed by Gallatin (1836) as a distinct stock, and were so regarded until Gatschet visited them in 1881 and obtained a large vocabulary showing numerous Siouan correspondences. Further investigations by Hale, Gatschet, Mooney, and Dorsey proved that several other tribes of the same region were also of Siouan stock, while the linguistic forms and traditional evidence all point to this eastern region as the original home of the Siouan tribes. The alleged tradition which brings the Catawba from the north, as refugees from the French and their Indian allies about the year 1660, does not agree in any of its main points with the known facts of history, and, if genuine at all, refers rather to some local incident than to a tribal movement. It is well known that the Catawba were in a chronic state of warfare with the northern tribes, whose raiding parties they sometimes followed, even across the Ohio.

Catawba Tribe History

Benjamin P. Harris
Benjamin P. Harris

The first notice of the Catawba seems to be that of Vandera in 1579, who calls them Issa in his narrative of Pardo’s expedition. Nearly a century later, in 1670, they are mentioned as Ushery by Lederer, who claims to have visited them, but this is doubtful.

Lawson, who passed through their territory in 1701, speaks of them as a “powerful nation” and states that their villages were very thick. He calls the two divisions, which were living a short distance apart, by different names, one the Kadapau and the other the Esaw, unaware of the fact that the two were synonymies. From all accounts they were formerly the most populous and most important tribe in the Carolinas, excepting the Cherokee.

Virginia traders were already among them at the time of Lawson’s visit. Adair, 75 years later, says that one of the ancient cleared fields of the tribe extended 7 miles, besides which they had several smaller village sites. In 1728 they still had 6 villages, all on Catawba river, within a stretch of 20 miles, the most northern being named Nauvasa. Their principal village was formerly on the west side of the river, in what is now York County, South Carolina, opposite the mouth of Sugar creek. The known history of the tribe till about 1760 is chiefly a record of petty warfare between themselves and the Iroquois and other northern tribes, throughout which the colonial government tried to induce the Indians to stop killing one another and go to killing the French. With the single exception of their alliance with the hostile Yamasi, in 1715, they were uniformly friendly toward the English, and afterward kept peace with the United States, but were constantly at war with the Iroquois, Shawnee, Delawares, and other tribes of the Ohio valley, as well as with the Cherokee. The Iroquois and the Lake tribes made long journeys into South Carolina, and the Catawba retaliated by sending small scalping parties into Ohio and Pennsylvania. Their losses from ceaseless attacks of their enemies reduced their numbers steadily, while disease and debauchery introduced by the whites, especially several epidemics of smallpox, accelerated their destruction, so that before the close of the 18th century the great nation was reduced to a pitiful remnant. They sent a large force to help the colonists in the Tuscarora war of 1711-13, and also aided in expeditions against the French and their Indian allies at Ft Du Quesne and elsewhere during the French and Indian war. Later it was proposed to use them and the Cherokee against the Lake tribes under Pontiac in 1763. They assisted the Americans also during the Revolution in the defense of South Carolina against the British, as well as in Williamson’s expedition against the Cherokee.

In 1738 smallpox raged in South Carolina and worked great destruction, not only among the whites, but also among the Catawba and smaller tribes. In 1759 it appeared again, and this time destroyed nearly half the tribe. At a conference at Albany, attended by delegates from the Six Nations and the Catawba, under the auspices of the colonial governments, a treaty of peace was made between these two tribes. This peace was probably final as regards the Iroquois, but the western tribes continued their warfare against the Catawba, who were now so reduced that they could make little effectual resistance. In 1762 a small party of Shawnee killed the noted chief of the tribe, King Haiglar, near his own village. From this time the Catawba ceased to be of importance except in conjunction with the whites.

In 1763 they had confirmed to them a reservation, assigned a few years before, of 15 miles square, on both sides of Catawba river, within the present York and Lancaster Counties., S. C. On the approach of the British troops in 1780 the Catawba withdrew temporarily into Virginia, but returned after the battle of Guilford Court House, and established themselves in 2 villages on the reservation, known respectively as Newton, the principal village, and Turkey Head, on opposite sides of Catawba River.

In 1826 nearly the whole of their reservation was leased to whites for a few thousand dollars, on which the few survivors chiefly depended. About 1841 they sold to the state all but a single square mile, on which they now reside. About the same time a number of the Catawba, dissatisfied with their condition among the whites, removed to the eastern Cherokee in western North Carolina, but finding their position among their old enemies equally unpleasant, all but one or two soon went back again. An old woman, the last survivor of this emigration, died among the Cherokee in 1889. A few other Cherokee are now intermarried with that tribe. At a later period some Catawba removed to the Choctaw Nation in Indian Territory and settled near Scullyville, but are said to be now extinct. About 1884 several became converts of Mormon missionaries in South Carolina and went with them to Salt Lake City, Utah.

Catawba Indians Culture

The Catawba were sedentary agriculturists, and seem to have differed but little in general customs from their neighbors. Their men were respected, brave, and honest, but lacking in energy. They were good hunters, while their women were noted makers of pottery and baskets, arts which they still preserve. They seem to have practiced the custom of head-flattening to a limited extent, as did several of the neighboring tribes. By reason of their dominant position they gradually absorbed the broken tribes of South Carolina, to the number, according to Adair, of perhaps 20.

In the early settlement of South Carolina, about 1682, they were estimated at 1,500 warriors, or about 4,600souls; in 1728 at 400 warriors, or about, 400 persons. In 1738 they suffered from smallpox; and in 1743, after incorporating several small tribes, numbered less than 400 warriors. In 1759 they again suffered from smallpox, and in 1761 had some 300 warriors, or about 1,000 people. The number was reduced in 1775 to 400 souls; in 1780 it was 490; and in 1784 only 250 were reported. The number given in 1822 is 450, and Mills gives the population in 1826 as only 110.

In 1881 Gatschet found 85 on the reservation, which, including 35 employed on neighboring farms, made a total of 120. The present number is given as 60, but as this apparently refers only to those attached to the reservation, the total may be about 100.

For Further Study

The following articles and manuscripts will shed additional light on the Catawba as both an ethnological study, and as a people.

  • Lawson, History of Carolina, 1714 and 1860.
  • Gatschet, Creek Migration Legend, 1-11, 1884-88.
  • Mooney, Siouan Tribes of the East, Bull. 22, B. A. E., 1894.
  • Mooney in 19th Rep. B. A. E., 1900.
  • H. Lewis Scaife, History and Condition of the Catawba Indians, 1896.


York County SC,

Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906.

26 thoughts on “Catawba Tribe”

  1. Looking for lineage information and filling in the gaps for the following persons. Any all info with links to Catawba Nation are appreciated.
    Mary Wooten (Catawba)
    John P. Waters
    French Huguenot came to SC…later settled in Ready’s River
    Elizabeth Collum of Wilkes County, Mulberry Creek
    d. ~1814/1815(?) when Waters deserted
    E. Collum and J. P. Waters had 5 CHILDREN (4 male, 1 female)
    Wilburn Waters(m) b 11/20/1812 Wilkes Co, NC; d 66yo (~1868?) Ashe
    aka “hunter bear hermit of White Top” (Catawba)
    Zelphia Waters (f)
    lived in Big Horse Creek, Ashe

    William P. Watters. Spelled with 2 ‘T’

  2. Hello, I am looking for more information about my great-grandmother. She was was native we have proof of that much but we are not sure what tribe she belonged to. Some of her belong we took into a historian at USC(alum) and he said they were most likely linked to the catawba because they absorbed local tribes that were too small. She used different names earlier in her life it seems she was escaping an abusive forced marriage possibly . Her most Common name was Emma or Ada Sanders born in the late 1800s/ early 1990s, she had brothers John(Idle) and Joesph, William, Louis some of whom may have served in the war . There could be more siblings but it is unclear because those days so many children lived and died. Her Fathers name was John Sanders we believe.

  3. Hello, I’m looking for 2 different families. Holland Watts (1780-1845) and Salatha (Smith) Watts (1784-1846). Their daughter was Susannah Watts Rhodes/Rhoads (1811-1880)

    Also, Barshebe Carter (possibly Sourjohn) (1802-1881) married William Woodward “Woody” Russell (1801-1870).

  4. I’m looking for info on a William Vail(Vale). He was born in Lancaster County, South Carolina. He supposedly married a Catawba woman named Elizabeth. They had twin sons named Jeremiah and John Micheal Vail around 1790. I’m trying to find out if this information is accurate.

  5. Hi I’m looking for info on a William Vail(Vale). He was born in Lancaster County, South Carolina. He supposedly married a Catawba woman named Elizabeth. They had twin sons named Jermiah and John Micheal Vail around 1790. I have a newspaper article that says Jermiah had two children named Joshua and Annie, from his first wife who was also Indian. I’m trying to find out if this information is accurate.

  6. Looking for info on William Bear Hart Jackson and daughter Rachel Aruna hart Jackson who had been kiddinaped from her home by Indians of another tribe and returned home to husband pregnant.

    1. William Bear Heart Jackson is my great great great grandfather. Any information regarding him would be greatly appreciated.

      1. I am a descendant from William Hart Jackson, some say Chief Bare Hart, or Chief Standing bear, but I’m having a hard time finding anything on him. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Family tree includes Sizemores.

  7. Looking for family history of grandmother Neely Crawford who was brought to Lancaster SC and married Paul Crawford and had 10 children

  8. My wife and I are doing family history and found Sarah Meeks name. She born either in South Carolina or Tennessee and was a Catawbe Indian. She married Thomas Waldroop. Can you help me?

    1. My wife and I are doing family history and found Sarah Meeks name. She born either in South Carolina or Tennessee and was a Catawbe Indian. She married Thomas Waldroop. Can you help me?

    2. judy canty martin

      dates and no one is in any records. you can google the subject catawba indians you will find mt research, judy canty martin

  9. Connie Trowbridge

    I am researching my family history and have hit a dead end. I am a direct descendant of Sarah Livingstone who had a daughter named Lucy Jenkins. According to family legend Sarah was a medicine woman of either the Cherokee tribe or of the Catawba tribe. Because she lived around the Buford, SC, Van Wyck, SC, and Union County, NC area, I tend to lean towards the Catawba. If anyone has information about either of these two women, I would love to know what you have. Thanks

  10. Hello.

    I’m researching John Harris who migrated from SC to TN around 1800. My wife is a descendant of his daughter (or granddaughter) Dorcus and the family was always told he was Cherokee. It was also told that he was a Chief. After reading of the Catabwa and Cheraw, and especially the names of Harris, I’m beginning to wonder if John Harris might have been Catabwa or even Cheraw. I would love to know if anyone has insight into these thoughts.


    1. “The Indians New World”, by James Merrell, 1989, is a great source to explore the Evans/Harris Families.
      John Harris, was aka Chief of the Cheraws. In merging with the Catawbas was aka Captain John Harris. He was the son of John Evans (white) and unknown Cheraw. The Evans name resurfaces in later generations and is long linked to the Catawbas leadership. John Evans/Harris is my 5th ggf.

      1. I’m researching our Evans family and found John ‘Jack’ Jehu Evans b1765 and his family as being with the Catawba Nation. How can I determine whether or not he was Indian and also further history of him? He would be my husband’s 3rd great grandfather, I believe. Thank you.

    2. Hello, I am researching the same family. I read that he (Chief Bear Heart/Hart or Big Bear or William Jackson) may have been 1/4 Cherokee. I have that he married Mary Williams and Winnifred Dorcas Green. Trying to find some info and clarity. Someone said he would be 1/4 Cherokee assuming his Grandmother Ann Dawson was full Cherokee. Doing research back, his grandparents came from England???? Parents born in North Carolina. Curious. Would appreciate any info/clarity. Thanks!

      1. Looking for info on William Bear Hart Jackson and daughter Rachel Aruna hart Jackson who had been kiddinaped from her home by Indians of another tribe and returned home to husband pregnant.

      2. Hi, I am researching Chief Bear Heart as well, I am wondering if you have found more information regarding his marriage to Mary Williams and or if he was Cherokee?

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