These Native peoples all spoke the ancient Siouan language, and shared
traditions, ceremonies, lifestyles and dress. There was a common bond among
the tribes, and at the time of European contact, it was estimated that
they numbered in excess of 20,000. It is this grouping of tribes that will
be referred to here as the "Catawba", and the reasons for the name are
explained further on.
First recorded contact with the Catawba was by DeSoto in 1540. It
was noted that they were a tall and graceful people who dressed in skins
and fur. The bodies were painted, and facial tatoos were favored by both
men and women. Special note was made of their long fingernails!
They used shells for many things, and fashioned shell decorations
for their clothing and ceremonial items. They valued feathers and all manner
of beautiful stones (probably the many varieties of gems found in this
part of the country.) Their arrowheads and spear points were made of quartz
By the time the English discovered the Catawba, they had developed
a liking for silver breastplates, silver arm bands and brass bells. They
wore silver ornaments in their ears and noses. It can be assumed that these
items were introduced by the Spanish, but this is only an assumption since
the source of these metals was not discussed.
The Catawba were farmers, hunters and fishermen, and were not nomads
by nature. They settled in one area as long as the land was good and, when
it was not, they moved their villages to a better location. They did not
live in tipis, but rather in permanent structures built of trees and brush
that would withstand the weather. Deep snow is not common in this area,
but high winds, thunderstorms, lightening storms, hail and even sleet were
commonplace. The dwellings were grouped in a community fashion, and surrounded
by wooden palisades 6 to 8 feet high to keep out wild animals and unwelcome
visitors. They were fierce warriors who fought to protect their families
and their lands against neighboring, unfriendly tribes.
Original relationships with the white men were friendly and profitable,
and went on peacefully for many, many years. The traders who blazed the
first trails into Catawba territory were respectful and honored tribal
protocol. In return, the traders were invited to trade each Spring and
Fall, and they were provided shelter on the outside edge of the villages
during their stays. Many traders learned the Native ways, were adopted
into the tribe, moved inside the village compounds and took Catawba wives.
The mixing of cultures and bloodlines for the Catawba dates back to the
1500's, and the existence of a full-blood Catawba today is rare indeed.
Early in trading history, the log book of one trader alone listed
over 7,000 deer hides shipped out of the territory in a single season.
Combined with the hides were furs of every description; pottery pots, dishes
and utility pieces; baskets, rugs and all types of work woven from the
reeds and canes of the lakes and rivers of the area. Of course, as word
of this wealth spread, more, and less honorable, traders moved into the
region. With them came the dreaded white diseases of cholera and smallpox
which swept over the Catawba in waves, year after year. Villages lost so
many of their people that those remaining would join with the nearest village
just for survival. As the epidemics continued, more and more fell victim
to disease until all the remaining villages drew together and grouped along
the Catawba River. They became known as "The People of the River", and
finally, "The Catawba".
As the Catawba lost their land to politics and greed, they began
to move away from their homeland. A few stayed behind to fight for their
rights and their lands under treaties signed with the white government.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, only approximately 1,000 Catawbas
could be accounted for. In the mid-1950's, the U.S. government declared
the Catawba extinct, and "terminated" them.
Happily, events are taking a better turn today. Claims for tribal
recognition and the return of their homeland were filed with the government,
and were won by the Nation. A Catawba reservation was established in Rock
Hill, South Carolina, and there is a return of the people to their native
lands. Always famous for their pottery and basketweaving, these skills
are once again being taught in the traditional way. A gathering is held
on the reservation once each year and, amazingly enough, the 1993 gathering
hosted over 5,000 Catawba!
There is a concentrated effort to rebuild the history of the Catawba.
An active search is being conducted for old land deeds, photographs, family
histories and original craft items such as baskets, pottery, jewelry; anything
relating to the Catawba. If you or someone you know has historical ties
to this part of the country, please contact Anthropologist, York County
Museum, Rock Hill, South Carolina.
The most comprehensive history of the Catawba can be found in the
writings of Frank G. Speck. Called the "Catawba Texts", they are usually
NOT found in the American Indian sections of libraries, but rather under
literature and/or anthropology.