Catawba Indian History

A recent publication of the Smithsonian Institution (” Siouan Tribes of the East,” by James Mooney) asserts that the origin and meaning of the word Catawba are unknown. In 1881, the Bureau of Ethnology collected a vocabulary of 10,000 words from the tribe of Indians bearing this name, and, after critical examination by experts, their language was pronounced unmistakably of Siouan stock. The home of the Sioux family is believed to have been at one time in the upper Ohio valley, from whence one branch migrated east and the other west, and Mr. Mooney says that linguistic evidence indicates that the Eastern tribes reached the Atlantic slope long before the Western reached the plains.

The historian, Schoolcraft, in his “Indian Tribes of North America,” gives the full text of a traditionary account of the Catawba Indians which he found in an old manuscript, preserved in the office of Secretary of State of South Carolina. This document claims that the Catawbas were originally a Canadian tribe that was driven from its home by the Connewango Indians and the French about the year 1650; after telling of temporary settlements of the tribe in Kentucky and Virginia, it finally brings them to the Catawba River (Eswa Tavora) in South Carolina, where they engage in a fierce battle with the Cherokees, each side losing about 1000 men. After the battle peace is declared, the Catawbas agreeing to settle on the northeast side of the river, while the Cherokees were to confine themselves to territory west of Broad River (called by the Indians Eswa Huppeday, or line river), the intervening country being neutral ground. Nation Ford, one mile north of the present reservation, is named as the scene of hostilities, and it is claimed that the Indians heaped up a great pile of stones on the spot to commemorate the battle. However, Mr. Mooney, in his ” Siouan Tribes of the East,” discredits many of the details of this official paper, and he shows that the Catawbas, instead of being driven out of Canada in 1650, were found established near their present locality by Juan Pardo, a Spanish captain, who made an expedition into the interior of South Carolina from St. Helena in 1567; he also points out the probability of their having been the Gauchule mentioned by De Soto’s chroniclers.

At any rate, when South Carolina first began to be settled, the Catawba Nation was one of the most powerful and warlike tribes in the South. By right of savage manhood they controlled large territories in the two Carolinas, and in their strength they could successfully hold their ground against such formidable invaders as the Iroquois; while from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico “women trembled at the name of Hodenosanne” and the bravest warriors dreaded this foe, the Catawbas were not afraid to make expeditions even into the Iroquois country. Lawson, who visited the tribe in 1701, speaks of them as a powerful nation, and he tells us that their villages were very thick; Adair states that one of their cleared fields extended seven miles, and a later writer says that at this time the tribe perhaps numbered 10,000 souls.

The customs and religious rites of the Catawbas were mostly like those of other Indians. Some of both of these, however, seem to have been more or less peculiar to themselves. Schoolcraft mentions that a branch of this tribe, which at one time lived near the mouth of Santee River, had a practice of binding the heads of their children so as to make their foreheads flat and their eyes protrude, which they claimed made them better hunters. It might be mentioned here, incidentally, that no trace of this practice or any of its hereditary effects can be found among them now. To darken their skin, they oiled their bodies and then exposed them to the sun. Like other tribes, the Catawbas practiced the habit of plucking the beard. They used a comb set with rattlesnake teeth to scrape the affected part before applying medicine in cases of lameness, and scratching the shoulder of a stranger at parting was regarded by them as a very great compliment.

From the earliest times the Catawbas have been kindly dis-posed toward the white settler. They fought for him in the French and Indian War; they helped him to secure his independence from Great Britain; and more than once they marched under the Colonial flag against their own race. It is true that during the Yamasi War the Spaniards incited them to join the other Indian forces to crush the English settlers; but from this single instance of hostility the Colonists must have suffered little at their hands, for no deeds of violence attributed directly to them are recorded. The Catawbas made ample reparation for their conduct on this occasion, and it was the first and last time that they ever revolted against the Carolinians.

In 1711, Colonel Barnwell, of South Carolina, was sent with a small force against the Tuscarora Indians who had broken up the settlement of New Bern which had been made in North Carolina a few years before by Baron de Graffenried. More than one hundred Catawba warriors accompanied Colonel Barnwell, and in prosecuting the expedition several of them were killed.

At the beginning of the French and Indian War, Governor Dinwiddie, of Virginia, appealed to the Catawba Nation for aid The Catawbas promptly agreed to join the Colonial forces, but they were restrained from doing so by Governor Glenn, of South Carolina, who, having at heart their future welfare, reminded them that peace was their policy, as their ranks had already beer thinned by war and that terrible scourge, smallpox, which was brought to America at an early date by the whites.

Soon, however, General Washington, then colonel in the British army, discovered that the French were attempting to alienate the affections of the Southern Indians, and he made repeated efforts to bring the Catawbas into his service. Washington complained to Governor Dinwiddie of “the magistrates in the back parts of Carolina, who were so regardless of the common cause as to allow 50 Catawbas to return, when they had proceeded near seventy miles on the march, for want of provisions and a conductor to entice them along.” For this he was severely criticized by Governor Dinwiddie, who accused him of unmannerly conduct. Eventually the Catawbas went to the assistance of the Colonial army, and for an account of the services they rendered the reader is referred to General Washington’s correspondence.

In one of his letters Washington stated: “Unless we have Indians to oppose Indians, we can expect but small success.” In another, from Fort Loudoun, he wrote to John Robinson, Speaker of the House of Burgesses, of Virginia: “Bullen, a Catawba warrior, has been proposing a plan to Captain Gist to bring in the Creek and Chickasaw Indians. If such a scheme could be effected by the time we march to Fort Duquesne, it would be a glorious undertaking and worthy of the man.”

In 1757, when a large party of Cherokee, who had been serving in the British army against the French in the West, and in the conquest of Fort Duquesne, were returning home through Virginia, some of the young warriors took possession of a number of horses belonging to the whites. The latter retaliated by killing several of the Indians who had so lately fought in their defense. This unwarranted conduct on the part of the whites incensed the whole Cherokee Nation, and to further arouse the Indians’ spirit of revenge, the garrison at Fort George butchered to a man twenty Cherokee hostages when they resisted being manacled. A serious Indian war was thus precipitated.

Once more in the time of sorest need the Catawba Nation came to the rescue and offered their services to the Governor of South Carolina. The Catawbas joined the forces under Colonel James Grant, who immediately marched his army into the Cherokee country. The battle of Etchoe, which followed, is thus referred to in Simm’s ” History of South Carolina:” “The auxiliary Indians of the army were brave experts, who answered the yells of the Cherokees in their own style, and met them with like stratagem; and the result was the victory of the Carolinians, after one of the fiercest battles with the red men on the records of America.”

It is claimed that the first white man to permanently settle in the Catawba country was one Thomas Spratt, an Irishman, whose descendants still live in that section. When the Catawbas learned that Spratt was in the neighborhood, they went to him and asked him his business and where he was going; offering to give him their protection and all the land he wanted, they persuaded him to locate among them. It is said that on one occasion Spratt went to Charlotte, N. C., about twenty miles away, where he got on a spree and was put in jail. As soon as the Catawbas heard of his misfortune, they marched in a body to the town, broke down the doors, and carried the prisoner home in triumph. Spratt fought through the Revolution and died at an old age in 1807.

Every nation venerates the memory of some great hero, and among the Catawbas this personage is King Haiglar, their most noted chief. The Catawbas might well be proud of Haiglar, and, though a monarch of a savage tribe, his character presents traits which must be admired by those who live in the higher conditions of life. The following story, which is no doubt true, well illustrates the character of the man:

“Once a Frenchman, who was a great fiddler, was traveling through the country. The Indians were charmed and looked in wonder at the box from which the mysterious music came. One of them was so infatuated that he lay in ambush and murdered the poor musician to get possession of the fiddle. The news spread and the whites appealed to Spratt for protection. He went to King Haiglar and laid the case before him. The King promised that justice should be done, and blew a piercing blast on his hunting-horn. Soon the Indians began collecting from every quarter, while the King stood alert with his rifle resting in the hollow of his arm. At length the guilty Indian appeared, carrying a dead deer upon his back. Without a word of warning, King Haiglar raised his rifle and shot him through the heart. Thus was the poor musician’s death avenged, and this is the only record of a white man ever having been murdered by a Catawba.”

Another remarkable incident in Haiglar’s life is the fact that he was probably the first person to present a temperance petition in the Carolinas. The following petition to Chief Justice Henley, dated 26 May 1756, has recently been found in the State archives of North Carolina:

“I desire a stop may be put to the selling of strong liquors by the white people to my people, especially near the Indians. If the white people make strong drink, let them sell it to one another or drink it in their own families. This will avoid a great deal of mischief, which otherwise will happen from my people getting drunk and quarreling with the white people.”

Above all, King Haiglar was great in the affections of his people, and at his death no man could have been more sincerely mourned. The story of his assassination is thus told in Mill’s “Statistics of South Carolina:”

“In the year 1762, seven Shawnese Indians penetrated into the province and waylaid the road from the Waxhaws towards the old Catawba town on Twelve Mile Creek. King Haiglar was then returning home from the Wax-haws, attended by a servant, and was there shot and scalped by them; six balls penetrated his body. His servant escaped and gave notice; but they were pursued without success.”

About the year 1764, a treaty between the Catawba Indians and the Province of South Carolina was made and signed at Augusta, Ga. This was probably the first treaty regarding their lands that the Catawbas made with the white people, and by the terms of it 144,000 acres of land on the Catawba River were confirmed to the tribe.

About the beginning of the Revolutionary War, the tribe suffered from a severe epidemic of small-pox. Probably in imitation of a treatment formerly applied by the whites, the Catawbas, as soon as attacked by the disease, exposed their bodies to a very high temperature in a kind of oven and then jumped into the river. From its virulent type and their malpractice in treating it, hundreds of them are said to have fallen victims of the plague, and for a long time the woods were offensive with their dead bodies, which became the prey of dogs, wolves, and vultures.

During the Revolution, the Catawbas rendered valuable assistance to the Colonists. A company, consisting of 100 warriors of the tribe, under the command of Colonel Thompson, took part in the defense of Fort Moultrie; and besides being in a number of other battles, they were particularly useful throughout the war as guides, scouts, and runners. When Colonel Williamson marched against the hostile Cherokees, whom British emissaries had incited to commence a series of brutal massacres upon the frontiers of Carolina, a large number of Catawba warriors joined him, and in this campaign several of them were killed. Toward the close of the war, the entire tribe, except the members who were in active service in the American army, were compelled by the British to seek refuge in Virginia, where they remained until after the battle of Guilford Court House, in which some of the tribe took part.

In 1782, deputies from the Catawba Nation appealed to Congress to secure to the tribe certain tracts of land, so that it could not be “intruded into by force, nor alienated even with their own consent.” Whereupon Congress passed the following resolution:

“Resolved, That it be recommended to the Legislature of the State of South Carolina to take such measures for the satisfaction and security of the said tribe as the said Legislature shall, in their wisdom, think fit.” (See “Laws of the Colonial and State Governments Relating to Indians and Indian Affairs,” from 1633 to 1831 inclusive, published by Thompson and Homans, of Washington, D. C, in 1832. Also see Brevard’s “Digest of the Laws of South Carolina,” Vol. I., Title 96, Indians.)

In 1791, General Washington had a conference with the Catawbas in what is now Lancaster County, S. C.; and in his diary, under date of 27th May of that year, he wrote: “At Mr. Crawford’s, I was met by some of the chiefs of the Catawba Nation, who seemed under apprehension that some attempts were being made, or would be made, to deprive them of a part of the 40,000 acres which was secured to them by Treaty, and which was bounded by this Road.”

During the next fifty years, several writers allude to the tribe: Finlay’s “American Topography,” published in 1793, states that though the Catawbas still retained their former courage, their numbers had greatly declined, and the author attributes the cause to the whites encouraging their thirst for intoxicants; Ramsay’s “History of South Carolina,” published in 1809, tells us that of the 28 tribes of Indians inhabiting South Carolina when it began to be settled, all except the Catawbas had disappeared, and that these were so generally addicted to habits of indolence and intoxication, they were fast sinking into insignificance; in 1826, Mill’s “Statistics of South Carolina” gave a more detailed account of the tribe, and it is from this authority that the following passage is taken:

“There are no other settlements, as villages, in the Yorkville district, except the Indian settlements on the Catawba River. These Indians have two towns; the most important is called Newtown, situated immediately on the river; the other is on the opposite side and is called Turkey Head. The Indian lands occupy an extent of country on both sides of the river equal to 180 square miles, or 1 15,200 acres. The most of this has been disposed of by them to the whites, in leases for ninety-nine years, renewable. The rent of each plantation (about 300 acres) is from $10 to $20 per annum. The annual income from this source must be at least $5000, which, if prudently managed, would soon place the Indians in a state of comfort; for the whole number of families does not exceed 30, or about 1 10 individuals. These wretched Indians, though they live in the midst of an industrious people and in an improved state of society, will be Indians still. They often dun for their rent before it is due, and the $10 or $20 received are spent in a debauch; poverty, beggary, and misery then follow for a year. Their lands are rich, but they will not work; they receive large sums as rent, but they cannot save money. What a state of degradation is this for a whole people to be in, all the result of neglect of duty on our part as guardians of their welfare.”

Some of the early Acts of the Legislature of South Carolina mention the Catawba Indians, but these mostly refer to the purchase of skins and matters of insignificance. However, in 1839, after the subject had been before the House of Representatives for twelve years, Governor Noble was authorized to appoint a Commission to enter into negotiation with the tribe to cede their lands to the State, which up to this time the Catawbas were unwilling to do.

The following extracts are taken ‘from the Report of Commissioners, which was made at the next session of the Legislature:

“The Catawbas have leased out every foot of land they held in their boundary, the propriety and expediency of which we need not inquire. Some remonstrated against it. while others (with the Indians) contended they had a right so to do, and for the last few years they have been wandering through the country, forming kind of camps, without any homes, houses, or fixed residence and destitute of any species of property save dogs and a few worthless horses, and they now seem desirous of having a tract of land on which they can again settle and build little houses, according to the number of families, and procure some cattle, hogs, and poultry, which they were once in the habit of owning, and your Commissioners are of opinion $5000 would purchase a tract of land sufficient for their accommodation in any place they may wish, and in a mountainous, barren, thinly populated region might procure a considerable bounds, which might suit them best, and would recommend that their land should be secured in such a way that they should not have it in their power to again lease, sell, or parcel it out except it might become the desire of the tribe to remove to some distant place. Your Commissioners would, with due deference, state, in behalf of the Catawba Indians, that probably they are entitled to some favor from the State or, at least, to its sympathy and kindness. Their chief (General Kegg) remarked that when they were a strong nation and the State weak they came to her support, and now when the State was strong and the Catawbas weak she ought to assist them.

“One of your Commissioners stated from his own knowledge and recollection that during the Revolution they left the State, he thinks for about eighteen months, or at least removed their women and children to a place of greater safety, by which move they lost their stock and poultry and all such articles as they could not take with them, while in the meantime a number of their warriors were in active service in the American cause several of them were in the battles of Guilford, Hanging Rock, and Eutaw; were in several scrimmages with the Tories, and were particularly useful, as guides, scouts, and runners, and never were known to be in a British or Tory camp. They have now lived in the midst of a dense population for more than half a century, and your Commissioners all concur in testimony that they never have known or heard a dishonest charge made against a Catawba or their meddling with anything that did not belong to them, and have always been harmless, peaceable, and friendly, but (as is perhaps characteristic of Indians generally) they are indolent and improvident and seem to have little idea of laying up for their future wants, and your Commissioners believe that if they would have agreed to have paid them in hand for each one to have used as he chose, they might have effected a treaty for one-third or even one- fourth the amount. From a once populous tribe they dwindled down to 12 men, 36 women, and 40 young ones, boys, girls, and children; in all 88, nine of whom are counted with a family of Pamunkey Indians and it is believed will not be removed.”

“It is not easy to ascertain with accuracy the amount of annual rents their lands have heretofore yielded. If the original survey is correct, their boundary contains 225 sections, which at ten dollars each would produce $2250. Some of the lands have been leased at a much higher rate and some not so high, but the foregoing is as near the amount as we have the means of ascertaining, and their income has been rather a nominal one, having in a great many instances been badly paid in articles at high prices, that often answered them but little purpose. It is believed that one-third the amount judiciously managed might have been made to do them more good. Your Commissioners are of opinion that there are between 500 and 600 families now living on lands under lease from the Catawba Indians, and from 600 to 800 voters, and the lands have been divided and subdivided into various small tracts, of which transactions no regular record has ever been kept; it is a matter of wonder that the lessees have not got into more difficulty and litigation.”

The following treaty, which was submitted by the Commissioners, was ratified by an Act of the Legislature passed during the session of 1840:


Scaife, H. Lewis. History and Condition of the Catawba Indians of South Carolina. Philadelphia Pennsylvania: Press of Wm. F. Fell & Co. 1896.

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