Catawba Indian Reservation

The reservation of the Catawba Indians was at one time in the remotest backwoods of South Carolina, but within the last twenty years the signs of civilization have been rapidly creeping toward it. Since the South began to draw Northern capital a few years ago, the development of this section of Carolina has been phenomenal. The nearest town of consequence to the reservation is Rock Hill, nine miles distant. Fifteen years ago there were scarcely half a dozen farm houses in the town today, Rock Hill is an important city with a number of cotton factories and a population of about ten thousand. However, the* peaceful stillness of the forests on the reservation is yet undisturbed, and here the woodman’s axe has left the Indians a noonday shade.

I first visited the reservation in the spring of 1893. I set out from Rock Hill early in the morning and went on horseback that I might more easily make a tour of the grounds. The limit of the Indian land is about one mile from the principal highway through that section. Mistaking the road, it happened that I entered the reservation from the southwest corner. Here the trees and undergrowth were so thick that it was with much difficulty I made my way, until I found a path along the banks of a small stream. Following the path for half a mile or more, the woods came to an end, and here I had an excellent view of the Catawba River, about three hundred yards beyond. 1 Looking up the river I saw a long strip of bottom-land of uniform width between it and the edge of a high bluff upon which I was standing the scenery on all sides was strikingly wild and picturesque.

Turning my horse diagonally into the woods on my left, I started in search of the Indians, none of whom I had so far seen. After going about one hundred yards, I saw through the trees a small clearing not more than fifty feet square and in the midst of it was an old weather-boarded one-room hut, which appeared to be on the verge of falling. Going around to the door, I saw a very old Indian woman all alone and sitting on the floor with a book in her hands. The greeting I received was neither cool nor cordial, but, after hitching my horse, I entered the house. It was truly a peculiar-looking abode for a human being. It appeared more like a corn crib, for all around the room was a kind of loft, upon which was stored apparently six or eight bushels of unshucked corn. The furniture on the lower floor consisted of a plain, dirty-looking bed, several rickety chairs, and an old-fashioned spinning wheel. The woman proved to be the widow of Chief Harris, who had died a few years before, and the book she had was a Bible, which, however, she could not intelligently read.

It was nearly a quarter of a mile to the next house; this one consisted of two rooms, and, although simply constructed, it appeared new and comfortable. Several Indian men were lounging near the house, talking. They were dressed in seedy clothes, which had probably been bought at a bargain from some farmer in the neighborhood. Several women were in the house, one of whom was preparing dinner at an open fire-place; the others were chatting and watching a dirty little Indian baby that was crawling on the floor. From what I saw, I presumed the dinner consisted entirely of corn-bread and fried bacon. Here I was also received in an indifferent manner, and when I left the apparently contented group, my departure seemed to interest them no more than did my arrival.

Following a well-defined path through the woods, I came to an inviting spring, and here I stopped to lunch. While there, an Indian boy and his little sister came with their buckets to get water. I could not draw them into conversation until I offered them some lunch, after which the children directed me as to where I should go next, and I ended my tour at the house of Uncle Billy George, who has the universal good-will, not only of the Indians, but of the white people in the neighboring country. Here, as at some of the other houses, I was received very kindly.

Some of the following statements, as to the condition of the tribe, are reproduced from an article published in the Charleston News and Courier last summer:

I found about 80 Indians on the reservation, all told; of this number less than a dozen were of pure Indian blood, the remainder being half-breeds or more nearly white. They do not mix blood with the Negroes, for whom they entertain the strongest antipathy, and it is said that a Negro cannot be induced to go on the Indians’ land.

The houses on the reservation were generally small and rudely constructed; most of the dwellings consisted of log huts, widely scattered over the long, high bluff which overlooks the river. These cabins remind one of the typical Negro home in the fanning regions of the South. The reservation has some good timber on it, which, however, is being used by the Indians for kindling purposes the principal trees are pine and oak. The land is well adapted to cattle raising, but during all my visits the only stock I saw on the place was a cow and two mules. A few members of the tribe worked parts of the arable land, but little attention is paid by the Indians to the profitable corn crops which might be raised on their fine bottom lands. It is safe to say that the condition of the Catawbas, generally, is a little be-low the standard of the average Southern Negro.

The Catawba Indians bear an anomalous relation to the State of South Carolina; if they are wards of the State, it has proved a bad and faithless guardian for them. The Commissioner of Indian Affairs at Washington says that they are citizens of South Carolina, but they are not taxed and they do not vote.

The Catawbas have no form of tribal government, although they elect a chief every four years; this official is now “Bob Harris,” whose term of office expires in November. It is remarkable how near these people come to being an ideal nation, in the sense that they need no laws they are quiet and peaceable, and bloodshed on the reservation is almost a thing unheard of. The tribe is directly amenable to the laws of South Carolina, but it is a notable fact that they have never given the authorities of the State any trouble. The only recorded tragedy that has occurred among them for a hundred years took place in 1881, when one of the Indians was stabbed to death by two white men. A brother of the dead Indian, who had witnessed the killing, testified in court that the white men were the aggressors; but the latter, after a trial which lasted for three days, were acquitted.

When the Catawbas work, which is very seldom, the chief occupation, especially of the women, is the manufacture of pottery, earthenware, and pipes. These articles are made in a primitive way, which, like the taste for making them, is probably instinctive. They make graceful pitchers, flower-jars, vases, and various kinds of toys and ornaments. Their wares generally have a soft yellowish appearance, especially their tall flower-vases, which are not too mean to be touched by the brush of an artist. Their pipes, after having been burned, are jet black; they are of all shapes and sizes, and are usually of fantastic design, sometimes in the form of squirrels, turtles, birds, pots, shoes, and other familiar objects. To give these articles an historic interest, the clay they use is taken from the Waxhaw Swamps, where a battle during the Revolution was fought between Colonel Buford”, of the American army, and Tarleton, of the British. It was in this battle that the British commander received the name of “Bloody Tarleton,” for allowing the American prisoners to be butchered after they had surrendered. The Indians carry their wares to Rock Hill, where they barter them for old clothes or anything that is offered for them. In the course of a few years these souvenirs will be appreciated by collectors, for all the full-blood Catawbas will soon be dead. Had these people a competent person to dispose of these wares for them at their real value, their chosen work could be made a lucrative industry among them.

For many years the Catawba Indians retained the ancient rites and customs of the tribe, but gradually these have become adapted to their changed condition and surroundings; the energy formerly displayed in savage pursuits has given place to indolence. The old men say in a tone of pathos: “Our people are getting out of the old ways and the young folks take no interest in what our fathers used to do.” Thus the old order has changed, until now but a few of the tribe still retain the air of the typical Indian. Some of these have never learned the English language, but when they are gone the musical tongue of the Catawbas will be stilled forever; and with this generation will, perhaps, pass away traditions and conceptions which have traveled down from tongue to ear through the centuries. The old Indians will talk of their boyhood days and of how their fathers went on the warpath against the Cherokees, but when questioned as to the mounds in the surrounding country, the reply of “Hiawatha” may be read in their faces:

“On the grave-posts of our fathers
Are no signs, no figures painted;
Who are in those graves we know not,
Only know they are our fathers.”

The oldest Indian on the reservation is “Uncle Billy George,” who bears in the Catawba language the name of Corrichee. He is the only living Indian among those who signed the present treaty between his tribe and the State of South Carolina. He says that he signed it “as a witness or somehow that way.” The old man recently remarked to a visitor that sometimes he could not sleep for thinking about his people. Uncle Billy is a fragment of the old times and is one of those links which connect us with other days. Here is a sketch of his life in his own words:

“I was born in York County on Cowan’s plantation, above Ebenezer. I am about ninety years old. My people would go out from the reservation to work a. year or two that’s when I was born. I came to the reservation when only a boy. I remember my father. He’s dead now, and was buried in Union County, North Carolina. He was like the old Indians talked Indian better than English. Our people talked differently then from now. They ought to keep up the language the Lord gave them. The language they speak now is changed a great deal. I was ten or twelve years old when my father died. I have heard him talk about the Revolutionary War. Some of his people were in it. He was not himself. My father was fifty or sixty when he died.

“The foreign Indians used to come here and fight with the old Indians. The last fight was close to Rock Hill, and we went upon them and killed them out that was before I was born. My father was in it. He said that the foreign Indians slipped in and killed some of our people, and when we saw them we went upon them and killed them.

“When the Revolutionary War was over, George Washington gave us 15 square miles of land. We have been cheated out of it.
“I was living during the War of 1812 was only a boy; I heard talk of the fighting when it was going on.
“I was not in the late war; other Indians were, though; a good many went, about 20.
“I have married twice and have five children in all. We can’t have but one wife, and that ain’t right.” [Influence of Mormon teachings.]

Uncle Billy George is nearly half a century older than his present wife. His youngest child, Lucy Jane, is now about eleven years old.

The old Indian’s principal means of giving his family bread is obtained by selling pipes, and, occasionally, an old-fashioned locust bow, with feathered arrows. With one of these bows his feeble hand can still send an arrow across the Catawba River, or if shot vertically upward, until lost to sight.

The George family live in a little two-room cabin near the river. A large oak and a few fruit trees shade their doorsteps; a wild rose bush near the chimney perfumes the air; the tall pines in the forest sigh. Here, in nature’s abode, I last saw Uncle Billy George sitting in his cabin door with his arm around his little girl beside him, the breeze from the river playing alike with grizzled hair and raven locks. When the old man thus sits and peers listlessly into the forest, his dim eyes seem to brighten, for, in his dotage, he perhaps sees familiar forms gliding among the trees they are invisible to other eyes, for they are shadows of a generation that has passed away. The bent form and in firm step of poor Uncle Billy George plainly show that he too will soon be with these shadows we live to old age only to die at last. 2

The present condition of the tribe, morally, socially, and financially, is a disgrace to themselves, but it is more a disgrace to the State in which they live. On the streets of Rock Hill these miserable creatures may often be seen begging, and if they are befriended they ever after besiege their benefactor. When one of them finds a purchaser for his wares, he is like the bee he returns and brings with him a swarm. I have often found a dozen or more of them, of both sexes, perched on the steps and veranda of my boardinghouse, loaded down with wares, having waited half a day to intercept me on my return. To show the standard of honor among them, I refused to buy a certain jar from one of the men; I told him, however, that if he would find a pot made by the old Indians I would pay him handsomely for it. In a few days the fellow brought in the same vessel, with its bottom broken out, and otherwise disfigured; it was covered with mud, and he claimed it to be a valuable relic just washed up by the river. However, there are several members of the tribe who are far from being deceitful and thievish, and among the few who bear good reputations are Bob Harris and Uncle Billy George.

It is said that the Catawbas are more or less addicted to the morphine habit, and they often beg for simple household medicines, which they take on account of the opiates they contain. They are not habitual drunkards because they are too poor to buy the whiskey. It is not an uncommon Sight to see these poor creatures, and, frequently, the women, on the streets of Rock Hill late at night, starting on foot in a pouring rain for the reservation, nine miles away.

There is neither a church nor a school on the reservation it is a shame that in a Christian country they never hear the Gospel preached. In our ardor for foreign missions let us not pass by and neglect the heathen in our midst.

Would the Catawba Indians receive more religious instruction if they were in a Pagan land? To compare the religious condition of the Western Indian to that of the Catawbas, the following extract from a report to the United States Civil Service Commission, made by the Hon. Theodore Roosevelt in 1893, is given:

“When I reached the Cheyenne River Agency the great Indian Episcopal Convocation was in session. The sight was exceedingly interesting and imposing, some 2000 Indians having gathered for the convocation. There were present a large number of native preachers and catechists, and very many lay delegates from the different tribes. Doubtless, many of the Indians came to the convocation with no particular religious feeling, a good deal as white men go to a county fair; but with many the religious sentiment was evidently very strong, and I was greatly pleased at the intelligence and fine feeling shown by many, both among the laymen and among the preachers. The women’s meeting was also very interesting, and it was remarkable to see them contribute literally thousands of dollars for various missionary and church purposes.”

If the Christian people of South Carolina will not look after the spiritual welfare of the heathen at their very doors, may Providence put it into the hearts of these Christianized Indians in the West to send missionaries to the Catawba Indians who live almost in the sound of the church bells. If the Christian people of South Carolina deny these Indians a helping hand, it will be inconsistent in them to sing the grand old missionary hymn, which now should be echoing in every land:

“Waft, waft, ye winds, His story,
And you, ye waters, roll;
Till like a sea of glory,
It spreads from pole to pole.”


  1. Catawba wine is so-called because it was first made from the wild grapes found on the banks of this stream.[]
  2. Uncle Hilly George has died since the above was written.[]


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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