Catawba natives pose in front of a building in traditional Indian garments, one in the center holds an infant.

Catawbas in Rock Hill, SC, ca. 1913. Wikimedia Commons.


Catawba legend relates that the tribe arrived in South Carolina, near present-day Fort Mill, from the north a few hundred years before European contact.

Catawba legend relates that the tribe arrived in South Carolina, near present-day Fort Mill, from the north a few hundred years before European contact. The first recorded contact with these people was by Hernando de Soto in 1540. There is no known origin for the name Catawba, as the members called themselves “Ye Iswa,” meaning “the people of the river,” but the name was in common usage by the beginning of the eighteenth century. The Catawbas were ferocious warriors feared not only by neighboring tribes but also by Indian nations to the north. For years the Catawbas and the nations of the Iroquois Confederation had traveled back and forth along the Appalachian trails to raid each other’s towns. However, when the British arrived, the Catawbas befriended their new neighbors, and a strong trade alliance began. That alliance led the Catawbas to fight alongside the British in the French and Indian War and the Cherokee War. Despite this history of alliance with the British, however, the Catawbas supported the patriot cause during the Revolutionary War. In return for their alliance in the French and Indian War, King George III in the 1763 Treaty of Augusta ceded the Catawba tribe of South Carolina a tract of land “fifteen miles square” comprising approximately 144,000 acres.

European settlers began moving onto the Catawba reservation sometime before the Revolutionary War. One of the first European settlers among the Catawbas was Thomas “Kanawha” Spratt II, who settled on the land near present-day Fort Mill about 1761. Though Spratt got along well with his Catawba neighbors, he soon began selling parcels of land that he had leased from the Catawbas. Within a few years, almost all of the most fertile tracts within the reservation had been leased to English colonists. In 1782 the Catawbas petitioned Congress to secure their land so that it would not be “Intruded into by force, nor alienated even with their own consent.” Not wanting to deal with the tribe, Congress the following year passed a resolution stating that the British title over the Catawba Nation had passed into the hands of South Carolina. Congress recommended that South Carolina “take such measures for the satisfaction and security of the said tribe as the said legislature shall, in their wisdom, think fit.” Thus, the Catawba Nation became the beneficiary of a trust relationship with the state of South Carolina rather than with the United States.

Settlers continued to invade Catawba lands. By the early 1800s virtually all of their remaining land had been leased out. The non Indian leaseholders worried about the permanence of their leases, so in 1838 Governor Patrick Noble authorized commissioners to enter into negotiations with the Catawbas for the sale of their land. The Catawbas were willing to part with full title if the state provided enough money for land acquisition near the Cherokees in North Carolina. In 1840 the Catawba Nation and the state of South Carolina entered into the Treaty of Nation Ford, which provided that the Catawbas would cede the land granted to them under the Treaty of Augusta in 1763 in return for a tract of land of approximately three hundred acres in North Carolina; if no such tract could be procured to their satisfaction, they were to be given $5,000 by the state. The commissioners further promised that the state would pay the Catawbas $2,500 at or immediately after the time of their removal and $1,500 each year thereafter for the space of nine years.

Unfortunately, in its haste to remove the Catawbas, South Carolina had neglected to secure North Carolina’s permission to have the Catawbas moved to the Cherokee reservation. When the permission was belatedly requested, North Carolina refused. Some Catawbas journeyed to the Cherokee reservation and did reside there for a time; however, old tribal jealousies and the stress suffered by the remaining Cherokees as a result of the Trail of Tears tragedy prevented them from making a permanent home with the Cherokees. Eventually most of the Catawbas found themselves back on their former soil but without land or money. The settlement of $2,500 and the annual payment of $1,500 promised them under the 1840 treaty were withheld by the state because the Catawbas had returned to the ceded land. The plight of the Catawbas led the South Carolina Indian agent Joseph White in 1843 to secure for them a tract of 630 acres near the center of the “Old Reservation.”

South Carolina and the United States continued to try to rid themselves of the “Catawba problem.” Congress appropriated money in 1848 and again in 1854 in an effort to remove the Catawbas west of the Mississippi. Conflict between South Carolina and the tribe over the provisions of the Treaty of Nation Ford continued until 1905, when the Catawbas launched a legal battle to recover their lands.

The Catawba tribe, unlike many eastern bands, was able to maintain its internal cohesiveness and social identity throughout the nineteenth century despite the lack of federal or state protection. In 1911 Charles Davis of the Bureau of Indian Affairs reported that, in his opinion, the four leading factors in maintaining tribal identity were size, tribal organization, religion, and character. The tribe was small at that time, consisting of only ninety-seven individuals recognized by South Carolina as living on or near the Catawba reservation. Since the tribe had not intermarried much with their white neighbors and virtually not at all with their black neighbors, according to one observer, “[t]he large majority are so nearly full blood as to retain the Indian characteristics, and by reason thereof they have retained their tribal life and organization.” During the twentieth century there was more intermarriage with non-Indians, which affected the physical characteristics of the tribal members but not their Indian status. Because the Catawba membership rolls have been based on “descendancy” rather than “blood quantum,” as found among the western tribes, intermarriage with non-Indians did not affect the legally recognized Indian status of the Catawba children.

Religion also affected internal cohesion. Most members of the Catawba tribe converted to the Mormon religion in the 1880s, and as late as the 1950s the majority of the tribe still affiliated with the Mormon Church. The double minority status of tribal members (race and religion) tended to bind them together against the outside world. In the bipolar racial world of South Carolina during the era of segregation, Catawba Indians felt themselves ostracized, not considering themselves “black” but not being accepted as “white” (South Carolina census takers in the early twentieth century listed Catawba Indians as “black” because they had no category for Indian). As Mormons among a population of Baptists, Methodists, and Episcopalians, the Catawbas were further marginalized. Ironi- cally, it was this isolation and marginalization that helped to insure the tribal identity of the Catawbas. Banned from attending the white schools and refusing to attend the black schools, the Catawbas erected, with the help of the Mormon Church, a school on the reservation, another factor that helped retain their community.

In 1934 the South Carolina General Assembly passed a resolution recommending that the care and maintenance of the Catawba Indians should be transferred to the United States government. However, it was not until 1943 that a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the tribe, the state, and the U.S. Department of the Interior. South Carolina acquired 3,434 acres of farmland for a federal reservation and conveyed it to the department secretary. The tribe adopted a constitution under the Indian Reorganization Act, and the federal government assumed its trust responsibility over tribal affairs.

Federal recognition of the Catawbas was short-lived. In keeping with the federal government’s overall termination philosophy instituted in 1953, both federal and state authorities approached the Catawbas in 1958 with a proposal for termination. The Bureau of Indian Affairs assured the Catawbas that their long-standing land claim against the state of South Carolina based on the Treaty of Augusta and the Treaty of Nation Ford (which still had not been resolved) would be unaffected by the termination. In 1962 the federal trust relationship between the United States and the Catawba tribe was terminated, and the 3,434-acre federal reservation was divided up and distributed to tribal members. South Carolina continued to hold the 640-acre tract from the 1840 treaty in trust for the tribe. At the time of termination there were 631 enrolled tribal members.

The activism of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the early 1970s served to reignite the determination of the Catawbas– and many other tribes–to reinstitute their land claim. The tribe contacted the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), and in 1976 papers were filed with the Department of the Interior to recover the land recognized under the 1763 Treaty of Augusta. Negotiations were proceeding between the tribe, the state, and the federal government until protests to those negotiations came from non-Indian landowners and nonresident tribal members who wanted to join in the action in hopes of securing land, benefits, or both. Negotiations stalled, and an impasse continued until 1980 when the Catawbas filed suit in federal district court to recover possession of the 1763 treaty reservation.

After a decade in the courts, the Fourth Circuit Court found in 1989 that there was still some standing for the claim. That ruling made it possible for the Catawba tribe to institute land claims, not only against South Carolina but also against an estimated 61,000 landowners. At this point Congressman John Spratt (a descendant of Thomas “Kanawha” Spratt), Governor Carroll Campbell, and Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan expressed their interest in a negotiated settlement. Negotiations began again in 1990. In Congress on January 5, 1993, Spratt introduced the Catawba Indian Tribe of South Carolina Land Claims Settlement Act of 1993. Congress passed the act that summer, and the final agreement was signed by Governor Campbell on November 29, 1994, at the Catawba reservation. (The tribe had already voted on February 20, 1993, by a margin of 289 to 42 to accept the settlement.)

The settlement provided that the Catawbas would once again become a federally recognized tribe. An amount of $50 million would be put into trust funds for land acquisition, economic development, education, social services, and elderly assistance. The tribe was given ten years to expand the existing reservation to 3,600 acres. Tribal jurisdiction was recognized over basic governmental powers, including zoning, misdemeanors, business regulation, taxation, and membership, but South Carolina reserved the right to continue to exercise criminal jurisdiction on the reservation.

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the Catawba Nation continued to be a strong and forceful voice for the rights of Native Americans. The noble heritage of this ancient people is being reinvigorated through cultural awareness, particularly relating to pottery making, and through the education of the children in the traditional language and customs of the people.

Brown, Douglas Summers. The Catawba Indians: The People of the River. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1966.

Merrell, James H. The Indians’ New World: Catawbas and Their Neighbors from European Contact through the Era of Removal. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Wilkins, David, and Anne M. McCulloch. “‘Constructing’ Nations within States: The Quest for Federal Recognition by the Catawba and Lumbee Tribes.” American Indian Quarterly 19 (fall 1995): 361–88.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Catawbas
  • Author
  • Keywords Native Americans, American Indian Movement (AIM), removal, land appropriation, federal recognition, government aid
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date April 21, 2024
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update July 20, 2022
Go to Top