Catawba Indian Nation Reservation

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Once the one of the largest and most powerful tribe tribes in the southeast, the story of the Catawba people is one of decline and reemergence.

Known as the “People of the River”, the Catawba territory was primarily located in present day York and Lancaster Counties. The Catawba were primarily farmers and traders preferring to live in one place as opposed to a migratory existence. Deerskin and pottery were their primary trade goods.

By the 18th Century, they had absorbed a number of smaller tribes to become a force to be reckoned with. In the 1720’s and 30’s, their warriors chased a number of Lenape raiding parties all the way back to Delaware. Conflicts with northern tribes are said to have happened in present day Leesburg, Virginia; Franklin, West Virginia; the mouth of the Potomac South Branch in West Virginia; and the mouths of Antietam Creek and Conococheague Creek in Maryland.

The continued pressure from northern tribes coupled with rampant disease brought by European settlers would decimate the years to come.

The Catawba Tribe’s Early History

The early origins of the Catawba people are the source of a great deal of debate. Henry Schoolcraft the famed ethnologist, founding father of American cultural anthropology, and author of a six-volume study of Native Americans published in the 1850 argued that the Catawba people originally came from Canada. They were pushed out by the Iroquois, first migrating to Kentucky, then Virginia, and by 1660 arriving in the Carolinas.

However James Mooney, renowned ethnographer who conducted numerous studies on Southeastern Indians especially the Cherokee argues that the Catawba had been living by the river in the Carolinas for at least 100 years longer than Schoolcraft believed. He notes that Spanish explorer Juan Pardo encountered the Catawba in 1567. He argued that “Catawba Creek” in Botetourt, Virginia was named after a confrontation the Catawba had with tribes to the north, not because that Catawba lived by the creek as Schoolcraft claimed.

Decline of the Catawba Tribe

The period before they were encountered by the Spanish was the high point for the Catawba nation. Pardo estimated that the population of the Catawba people was between 15,000 and 25,000 in 1567. But by the time the English settlers first arrived in the area, the Catawba population was estimated at only 4,600 in total with 1,500 warriors.

Smallpox and the Catawba

The rapid decline is blamed primarily on infections disease brought by Europeans especially Smallpox. While the disease killed both whites and natives, it was especially devastating to native who didn’t have any immunity built up.

In 1738 Smallpox was running rampant in South Carolina, and by 1743 the Catawba had dropped to 400 warriors. Another epidemic 1759 killed nearly half their remaining population, and by 1775 their population was estimated at 400 total.

One of the things that may have helped and hurt the Catawba was the alliances made with European colonists. The settlers were in a position to help with the conflicts with other native peoples, but also exposed the Catawba to European diseases much more than tribes that had less contact with settlers. This may have been why the Catawba were hit much harder by Smallpox than other native peoples.

Continued Conflicts

Although their numbers were shrinking, they still faced attack from other native tribes. In 1763, Catawba chief King Hagler was killed by a party of Shawnee, a migratory group primarily from the Ohio Valley. With their numbers so low, there was very little the Catawba could do.

Also in 1763, South Carolina’s colonial government set aside 225 square miles on both sides of the Catawba River as a reservation.

With the coming of the American Revolution, unlike other native people like their ancestral adversaries the Cherokee, the Catawba chose to side with the colonists instead of the British. Although their numbers were too small to help in combat, they proved invaluable as scouts and tracking down loyalists. In 1780 when Cornwallis moved up the Catawba River and into Charlotte, The Catawba fled to Virginia, only to return after the Battle of Guilford Court House when Cornwallis abandoned the Carolinas.

19th Century and the low point for the Catawba Indian

The years after the Revolution saw the once proud Catawba Nation continue to decline. In 1826, they leased half of their reservation land to whites. The influx of money helped the tribe sustain itself, but it wasn’t enough. In 1840, the Catawba sold all but 1 square mile of their reservation to the State of South Carolina in the Treaty of Nation Ford. The treaty was never approved by the US Senate, a fact that would come into play in the next century.

As they lost their land, some Catawba abandoned their ancestral lands to live among other native peoples. Some left to live among the Cherokee, but found life among their former enemies as bad as among whites and moved back. Others relocated to Indian Territory in Oklahoma where they assimilated into other nations mostly the Choctaw.

By 1896 the Catawba Nation that once numbered 25,000 and was so powerful that they assimilated other smaller tribes becoming the largest Siouan-speaking tribe in the southeast numbered only 110 members.

20th Century Resurgence of the Catawba People

The Twentieth Century saw a resurgence of the Catawba Nation and identity. In 1941 the Catawba gained federal government recognition and in 1944 South Carolina granted the Catawba state citizenship, but not the right to vote. That would have to wait until Voting Rights Act of 1965.

A setback occurred in 1959 due to shifting policies at the nation at level. The federal government decided to end the special relationship it had with native tribes. What this meant was that tribes lost sovereignty over their own lands and provided that state law would apply to the tribe as if they were non-Indians.

By 1973, the Catawba began the process of getting their federal government status reinstated and pressed a claim against the State of South Carolina over the sale of the reservation in 1840. In a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. Because the land purchase was never approved by the Federal Government as required by the Nonintercourse Acts (not to be confused with the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809), the Catawba sought to invalidate the sale.

The case was settled in 1993 with the Catawba agreeing to release their aboriginal title to the lands in exchange for $50,000,000. The agreement was approved by a voice vote in Congress in August 1993. Part of the legislation approving the settlement repealed the termination of the Catawba’s federal recognition.

As of 2006, the Catawba population has increased to 2600.

Visiting the Catawba Indian Reservation

For details on our visit check out our Catawba Reservation Field Report

Cultural Center

Unfortunately the Catawba Cultural Center is currently closed. From what I’ve been told, they are having a hard time getting building materials for their remodeling. Last I heard, they hoped to reopen in October 2021. I’ll update as soon as I know more. The Yehasuri Trail and Greenway are open for hiking.

The cultural center provides an overview of the Catawba People, their traditions, and history. The story is told through exhibits and a number of programs and classes throughout the year. A craft store located in the center offers items made by local artisans including the poetry the Catawba are famous for.


Yehasuri Trail

Located behind the Cultural Center, the Yehasuri Trail is an interpretive trail along an old Catawba wagon road leading down to the river. Along the way there are a number of exhibits including a reproduction of a typical Catawba home from the 19th Century, a heritage garden where traditional plants are tended by the tribe’s youth, canoe, and totems of the Yehasuri. Interpretive signage gives more information about the exhibits as well as the native flora and fauna.

The Yehasuri are described as “Little Wild Indians” and are the Catawba version of “Little People” legends that are found among not indigenous people of North America, but South America and Europe as well.

Catawba Indian Nation Greenway

This trail starts at the end of the Yehasuri Trail and runs upstream along the Catawba river for about 1.2 miles. Along the trail you’ll be treated to some of the best vies of the river around. You may spot turtles sunning themselves on boulders or fallen trees in the river.

Most of the trail is shaded, but as you reach the half way point it opens up into a small green space. The shaded path resumes just past a boat ramp, and continues for a little ways until you reach an opening in the trees leading up the hill to the Long House or government complex.

Fast Facts About the Catawba Indian Reservation

Type:Native American Cultural Center and Hiking Trails
Admission:Trails Free – Some Activities at Cultural Center have a cost – check website for more info
Location:1536 Tom Steven Rd, Rock Hill, SC 29730
Jump to map

Things to do: Hiking, cultural events, education

Map to the Catawba Nation Cultural Center