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The Catawba Indians

The origin and meaning of Catawba are unknown. It is said that Lynche creek hi South Carolina, east of the Catawba territory, was anciently known as Kadapau; and from the fact that Lawson applies the name Kadapau to a small band met by him southeast of the main body of the tribe, which he calls Esaw, it is possible that it was originally applied to this people by some tribe living in eastern South Carolina, from whom the first colonists obtained it. The Cherokee, having no b in their language, changed the word to Atakwa, or Anitakwa in the plural. The Shawano and other tribes of the Ohio valley made the word Cuttawa. From the earliest period the Catawba have also been known distinctively as the ” river [Catawba, iswa people,” from their residence on what seems to have been considered the principal river of the region, Iswa, ” the river,” being their only name for the Catawba and Wateree. The name appears in the Issa of La Vandera as early as 1569, in the Ushery (iswa-here, “river down there”) of Lederer, and hi the Esaw of Lawson. They were also called Flatheads (Oyadagahroene) by the Iroquois, a name which leads to some confusion, as it was also frequently applied by the same people to the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Cherokee. The name was properly applicable to the Choctaw, who practiced the custom of head flattening, as did also the Waxhaw of South Carolina adjoining the Catawba; but there seems to be no allusion to the existence of this strange custom among the Catawba themselves. They were also frequently included by the Iroquois under the general term of Totiri or Toderichroone (whence the form Tutelo), applied to all the southern Siouan tribes collectively. Like most other tribes the Catawba know themselves simply as “people,” or 44 Indians,” in their language nieya or nieye, abbreviated to nie or ye, or sometimes expanded into Kataba nie, “Catawba Indians”.1

Gallatin in 1836 classed the Catawba as a distinct stock, and they were so regarded until Gatschet visited them in South Carolina in 1881 and obtained from them a vocabulary of over 1,000 words, among which he found numerous Siouan correspondences. On the strength of this testimony they were classed with the Siouan stock in the First Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, published in the same year. No further investigation of the subject was made until Hale’s account of the Tutelo language, published in 1883, Gatschet’s further discovery of the Biloxi in 1886, and the author’s notice of the Siouan affinity of the Saponi in 1890 proved beyond question that some of the oldest forms of the Siouan languages must be looked for in the east. The material obtained by Mr. Gatschet was then turned over for critical examination to Mr. Dorsey, a specialist in the well-known Siouan tribes of the west, with the result that he pronounced the Catawba a Siouan language. This established, it followed that the Woccon and other languages known to be closely related to the Catawba must also belong to the same stock. As nearly all the tribes of both Carolinas from Cape Fear river to the Combahee were closely allied politically with the Catawba, with whom they were afterward incorporated, it is probable, though not certain, that they were all of the same linguistic stock.

According to a Catawba tradition related in Schoolcraft, the people originally came from the north, driven by the “Connewangos,” by which is evidently meant the Iroquois. They settled on Catawba river, and after a desperate struggle with the Cherokee, who claimed prior rights in the region, they succeeded in maintaining their position; and Broad river was adopted as the boundary between the two tribes. So much of the tradition may be accepted as genuine. The rest of it, relating with great exactness of detail how they had lived in Canada, how the Connewango were aided by the French; how the Catawba lived for a time in Kentucky and in what is now Botetourt county, Virginia; how they settled on Catawba river about 1660, how in one battle with the Cherokee they lost 1,000 men and the Cherokee lost 1,100, and how the Catawba exterminated the Waxhaw to the last man immediately afterward-all this is absurd, the invention and ignorant surmise of the would-be historian who records the tradition, and of a piece with Schoolcraft’s identification of the Catawba with the lost Eries.” The Catawba were found living about where we have always known them as early as 1567. Kentucky River was called by that name among the Shawano and other northern tribes because up that river lay the great war trail to the Catawba country. The creek bearing the name in Botetourt County, Virginia, was so called from a chance encounter of Shawano or others with a party of Catawba, who used to enter Pennsylvania and cross over to Ohio valley in their raiding excursions, just as the Iroquois and other northern tribes used to penetrate to South Carolina against the Catawba.

The French had nothing to do with the expulsion of the Catawba from the north, as shown by the connected accounts of all the important French dealings with the tribes from their first occupancy. So far from being exterminated, the Waxhaw were found by Lawson living on Waxhaw creek in 1701, and were described in detail by him at that time. It is hardly necessary to say that no tribe in the United States ever lost 1,000 warriors in a single battle with another tribe. As for the Erie, there is no question as to their identity; they were an Iroquian tribe on Lake Erie whose conquest and incorporation by the Iroquois is a matter of history.2)

From the earliest historical period the Catawba have always lived where the small remnant may still be found, on Catawba River, about on the border of North Carolina and South Carolina. Westward and northwestward they bordered on the Cherokee and Sara, with the former of whom they were in a state of chronic warfare, while on the south and east they had as neighbors several small tribes closely akin to themselves and most of whom afterward united with them in their decline. Their villages were chiefly within the present limits of South Carolina.

The first European acquaintance of the Catawba was with the Spaniards about the middle of the sixteenth century. It is possible that the Guachule of De Soto’s chroniclers, although evidently situated southwest of Catawba river, is identical with the Usheree or Catawba tribe of the later English writers, as Guatari and Hostaqua are identical with Wateree and Oustack or Westo. They are mentioned under the name of Issa by the Spanish captain, Juan Pardo, who conducted an expedition from Saint Helena into the interior of South Carolina in 1567.

The next important notice is given a hundred years later by Lederer, who visited these Indians in 1670 and speaks of them under the name of Ushery. He describes them as living on one side of a great lake, on the farther side of which lived the Oustack (Westo) of whom they were in constant dread. As there is no such lake in that part of the country, it is evident that he must haue visited the region at a time when the low bottom lands of Catawba River were flooded by heavy rains. The swamp lands of Carolina are subject to heavy overflow, and Lawson records the statement that on his journey he found Santee river risen 36 feet above its normal level. While at war with the Westo, the Catawba in 1670 were in alliance with the Wisacky (Waxhaw), a subordinate neighboring tribe. Lawson describes the Catawba women as “reasonably handsome,” and delighting much in feather ornaments, of which they had a great variety. The men were more effeminate and lazy than other Indians generally, a fact which may account for the little importance of the tribe in history. He notes the fact of the universal custom of plucking out the beard. They were acquainted with the Spaniards, who lived only two or three days’ journey southwestward. The Sara, living northwest of the Catawba, also were acquainted with the same nation.

According to Lederer’s account, the Catawba had the fire dance found among so many tribes; he says:

These miserable wretches are strangely infatuated with illness of the devil; it caused so small horror in me to see one of them wrythe his neck all on one side, foam at the mouth, stand barefoot upon burning coal for near one hour, and then, recovering his senses, leap out of the fire without hurt or signe of any.3)

As it is impossible to do justice to the Catawba within the limits of this paper, only a brief sketch of the tribe will be presented, with especial attention to the obscurer tribes; the fuller descriptions being reserved for a future work on the Indians of the southern Atlantic region.

In 1701 Lawson passed through the territory of the Catawba, whom he calls by the two names of Esaw and Kadapau, ‘evidently unaware that these names are synonyms. In Esaw may be recognised Iswa, whence is derived the name Ushery of Lederer. Kadapau, of course, is another form of Catawba, the band which he calls by this name living some little distance from those designated by him as Esaw. He calls the Esaw a “powerful nation” and states that their villages were “very thick.” From all accounts they were formerly the most populous tribe in the Carolinas excepting the Cherokee. He was everywhere received in a friendly manner, in accord with the universal conduct of the Catawba toward the English save during the Yamasi war. Virginia traders were all among them then, and the great trading path from Virginia to Georgia was commonly known as the Catawba path. He says nothing of head-flattening among this tribe, although he describes the custom in detail as found among the neighboring Waxhaw. Incidentally he mentions that scratching a stranger on the shoulder at parting was regarded as a very great compliment. He also notes the use of a comb set with the teeth of rattlesnakes for scraping the body before applying medicine to the affected part in cases of lameness.4 A similar practice still persists among the Cherokee.

Adair states that one of the ancient cleared fields of the Catawba extended 7 miles, besides which they had several other smaller village sites.5 In 1728 (1729 by error) they still had six villages, all on Catawba river, within a distance of 20 miles, the most northerly being called Nauvasa.6 Their principal village was formerly on the western side of the river in what is now York County, South Carolina, opposite the mouth of Sugar creek.7

The history of the Catawba up to about the year 1760 is chiefly a record of the petty warfare between themselves and the Iroquois and other northern tribes, throughout which the colonial government was constantly kept busy trying to induce the Indians to stop killing each other and go to killing the French. With the single exception of their alliance with the hostile Yamasi in 1715 they were uniformly friendly to the English and afterward to their successors, the Americans; but they were at constant war with the Iroquois, the Shawano, the Delaware, and other tribes of Ohio valley, as well as with the Cherokee. In carrying on this warfare the Iroquois and the lake tribes made long journeys into South Carolina, and the Catawba retaliated by sending small scalping parties into Ohio and. Pennsylvania. Their losses by the ceaseless attacks of their enemies reduced their numbers steadily and rapidly, while disease and debauchery introduced by the whites, and especially several wholesale epidemics of smallpox, aided the work of destruction, so that before the close of the eighteenth century the great nation of Lawson was reduced to a pitiful remnant (details may be found in the Colonial Documents of New York, in 12 volumes, 1856-1877). They sent a large force to help the colonists in Tuskarora war of 1711-13, and also aided in expeditions against the French and their Indian allies at Fort Du Quesne and elsewhere during the French and Indian war. Later it was proposed to use them and the Cherokee against the lake tribes under Pontiac in 1763. They assisted the Americans also during the Revolution in the defense of South-Carolina against the British, as well as in Williamson’s expedition against the Cherokee.

In 1738 the smallpox raged in South Carolina, and worked great destruction – not only among the whites but also among the Catawba and smaller tribes. In 1759 it appeared again and this time destroyed nearly half the tribe, largely because of their custom (common to other Indians likewise) of plunging into cold water as soon as the disease manifested itself.8 In order to secure some protection for them in their weakened condition the South Carolina government made strong protests to the governor of New York against the incursions of the Iroquois and Ohio tribes from the north, who did not confine their attention to the Catawba alone, but frequently killed also other friendly Indians and negroes and euen attacked the white settlements. Governor Glen, of South Carolina, at last threatened to take up the quarrel of the Catawba by offering a reward for every northern Indian killed within the limits of South Carolina. This heroic measure was successful, and in- the next year (1751), at a conference at Albany attended by the delegates from the Six Nations and the Catawba, under the auspices- of the colonial governments, a treaty of peace was made between the two tribes, conditional upon the return of some Iroquois prisoners then held by the Catawba.9 This peace was probably final as regards the Iroquois, but had no effect upon the western tribes, whose interests were all with the French. These tribes continued their warfare against the Catawba, who were now so far reduced that they could make little effectual resistance. In 1762 a small party of Shawano killed the noted chief of the tribe, King Haiglar, near his own village.10 From this time they ceased to be of importance except in conjunction with the whites. In 1763 they had confirmed to them a reservation (assigned a few years before) of 15 miles square, or 225 square miles, on both sides of Catawba river, within the present York and Lancaster counties, South Carolina.11

On the approach of the British troops in 1780, the Catawba Indians withdrew temporarily into Virginia, but returned after the battle of Guilford Court House and established themselves in two villages on the reservation, known, respectively, as Newton (the principal village) and Turkey Head, on opposite sides of Catawba rivet.12 In 1826 nearly the whole of their reservation was leased to whites for a few thousand dollars, on which the few survivors chiefly depended. About 1841 they sold to the state all but a single square mile, on which they now reside.13 About the same time a number of the Catawba, dissatisfied with their condition among the whites, removed to the eastern Cherokee in western North Carolina, but finding their position among their old enemies equally unpleasant, all but one or two soon went back again. An old woman, the last survivor of this emigration, died among the Cherokee in 1889. Her daughter and a younger full-blood Catawba still reside with that tribe. At a later period some Catawba removed to the Choctaw nation in Indian Territory and settled near Scullyville, but are said now to be extinct. About ten years ago several became converts to Mormon missionaries in South Carolina and went with them to Salt Lake City, Utah.

The following figures show the steady decline of the tribe from the first authentic reports to the present time. At the first settlement of South Carolina (about 1682) they numbered about 1,500 warriors, equivalent perhaps to 6,000 souls.14 In 1701 they were “a very large nation, containing many thousand people”.15 In 1728 they had but little more than 400 warriors, equivalent perhaps to 1,600 souls.16 In 1738 they suffered from the smallpox, and in 1743, even after they had incorporated a number of smaller tribes; the whole body consisted of less than 400 warriors. At that time this mixed nation consisted of the remnants of more than twenty different tribes, each still retaining its own dialect. Others included with them were the Wateree, who had a separate village, the Eno, Cheraw or Sara, Chowan(7), Congaree, Notchee, Yamasi, Coosa, etc.17 In 1759 the smallpox again appeared among them and destroyed a great many. In 1761 they had left about 300 warriors, say 1,200 total, ” brave fellows as any on the continent of America, and our firm friends”.18 In 1775 they had little more than 100 warriors, about 400 souls; but Adair says that smallpox and intemperance had contributed more than war to their decrease.19 They were further reduced by smallpox about the beginning of the Revolution, in consequence of which they took the advice of their white friends and invited the Cheraw still living. in the settlements to move up and join them.20 This increased their number, and in 1780 they had 150 warriors and a total population of 490.21 About 1784 they had left only 60 or 70 warriors, or about 250 souls, and of these warriors it was said, “such they are as would excite the derision and contempt of the more western savages”.22 In 1787 they were the only tribe in South Carolina still retaining an organization.23 In 1822 they were reported to number about 450 souls,24 which is certainly a mistake, as in 1826 a historian of the state says they had only about 30 warriors and 110 total population.25 In 1881 Gatschet found about 85 persons on the reservation on the western bank of Catawba river, about 3 miles north of Catawba Junction, in York county, South Carolina, with about 35 more working on farms across the line in North Carolina, a total of about 120. Those on the reservation were much mixed with white blood, and only about two dozen retained their language. The best authority then among them on all that concerned the tribe and language was an old man called Billy John. They received a small annual payment from the state in return for the lands they had surrendered, but were poor and miserable. For several years they have been without a chief. In 1889 there were only about 50 individuals remaining on the reservation, but of this small remnant the women still retain their old reputation as expert potters. They were under the supervision of an agent appointed by the state.

Catawba Synonymy

Atakwa, Anitakwa.-Mooney (singular and plural Cherokee forms).
Cadapouoes.-Pénicaut (1708) in Margry, Découvertes, 1883, vol. v, p. 477.
Calabaws.-Humphreys, Account, 1730, p. 98 (misprint).
Calipoas.-Census of 1857 in Schoolcraft, Ind. Tribes, 1857, vol. vi, p. 686.
Canapouces.-Pénicaut (1708) in Margry, op. cit.
Catabas.-Montcalm (1757) in Now York Col. Docs., 1858, vol. x, p. 553.
Catabans.-Rafinesque in Marshall, Hist. of Kentucky, 1824, vol. i, p. 24.
Catabaw.-Document of 1738 in New York Col. Docs., 1855, vol. vi, p. 137.
Catapaw.-Map of North America and the West Indies, 1720.
Catauba.-Filson, History of Kentucky, 1793, p. 84.
Cataubos.-Map of 1715 in Winsor, History of America, 1887, vol. v, p. 346.
Catawba. -Albany Conference (1717) in N. Y. Col. Docs., 1855, vol. v, p. 490.
Catawbau.-Carroll, Historical Collections of South Carolina, 1836, vol. ii, p. 199.
Catawbaw.-Map in Mandrillon, Spectateur Américain, 1785.
Cataupa.-Potter (1768) in Mass. Hist. Soc. Colls., 1st series, 1809, vol. x, p. 120.
Cattabas.-Document of 1715 in N. C. Records, 1886, vol. ii, p. 252.
Cattabaws.-Albany Conference (1717) in New York Col. Docs., 1855, vol. v, p. 490.
Cattawbas.-Clarke (1741) in ibid., 1855, vol. vi, p. 208.
Cattoways.-Stobo (1754) in The Olden Time, 1846, vol. i, p. 72.
Cautawbas.-Clinton (1751) in New York Col. Docs., 1855, vol. vi, p. 716.
Chatabas.-Buchanan, North American Indians, 1824, p. 155.
Contaubas.-Oglethorpe (1743) in New York Col. Docs., 1855, vol. vi, p. 243.
Cotappos.-Document of 1776 in Historical Magazine, 2d series, 1867, vol. ii, p. 216.
Cotawpees.-Rogers, North America, 1765, p. 136.
Cotobers.-Document of 1728 in Va. State Papers, 1875, vol. i, p. 215.
Cuttambas.-German map of British Colonies (about 1750).
Cuttawa.-Vaugondy, map Partie de l’Amérique Septentrionale, 1755.
Ea-tau-bau.-Hawkins (1799), Sketch of the Creek Country, 1848, p. 62 (misprint).
Elates.-Craven (1712) in North Carolina Records, 1886, vol. i, p. 898 (misprint).
Esau.-Martin, History of North Carolina, 1829, vol. i, p. 194.
Esaws.-Lawson (1714), History of Carolina, reprint of 1860, p. 73.
Flatheads (?).-Albany Conference (1714) in New York Col. Docs., 1855, vol. v, p. 386. Albany Conference (1715) in ibid., pp. 442-444 (subjects of Carolina, Oyadagahroenes).
Issa.-La Vandera (1579) in French, Hist. coll. of La., 1875, vol. ii, p. 291.
Kadapau.-Lawson (1714), History of Carolina, reprint of 1860, p. 76.
Kadapaw.-Mills, Statistics of South Carolina, 1826, p. 109.
Katabas.-Malartic (1758) in New York Col. Docs., 1858, vol. x, p. 843.
Katahba.-Adair, History of American Indians, 1775, p. 223.
Kataubah.-Drake, Book of Indians, 1848, book iv, p. 25.
Kattarbe.-Cumming(1) (1730) in Drake, Book of Indians, 1848, book iv, p. 27.
Kattaupa.-De l’Isle map in Winsor, History of America, 1886, vol. ii, p. 295.
Ojadagochroene.-Albany Conference (1720) in New York Col. Docs., 1855, vol. v, p. 567. (“The flatheads Alias in Indian Ojadagochroene,” “They live to the west and south of Virginia”).
Oyadagahroenes.-Document of 1713 in Now York Col. Docs., vol. v, p. 386, note.
Tadirighrones.-Albany Conference (1722), op. cit., p. 660 (same?).
Toderichroone.-Albany Conference (1717), op. cit., p. 491 (so called by Iroquois).
Totiris.-Chauvignrie(?) (1736) in New York Col. Docs., 1855, vol. ix, p. 1057 (here intended for the Catawba).
Usherees.-Byrd (1728), History of the Dividing Line, 1866, vol. i, p. 181.
Usherys.-Lederer, Discoveries, 1672, p. 17.


  1. Gatchet, A. S. A Migration Legend of the Creek Indians, with a linguistic, historic and ethnographic introduction. Volume i (published as no. 4 of Brinton’s Library of Aboriginal American Literature), Philadelphia, 1884; vol. ii (in Transactions of Saint Louis Academy of Science), Saint Louis, 1888. 

  2. French, B. F. Historical Collections of Louisiana, vol. ii, p. 291. New York, 1875. (Contains narration of Juan de la Vandera, 1569. 

  3. Lederer, John. The discoveries of John Lederer, in three several marches from Virginia to the west of Carolina, and other parts of the continent. Begun in March, 1669, and ended in September, 1670. Together with a general map of the whole territory which he traversed. Collected and translated out of Latin from his discourse and writings, by Sir William Talbot, baronet, etc. London, etc. 1672, pp. 17-18. Map and 33 pages. (Copy in Library of Congress. 

  4. Lawson, John. The history of Carolina, containing the exact description and natural history of that country, etc., pp. 71, 75-77. (Reprint from the London edition of 1714.) Raleigh, 1860. 

  5. Adair, James. The history of the American Indians, particularly those nations adjoining to the Mississippi, east and west Florida, Georgia, South and North Carolina, and Virginia, etc., p. 225. London, 1775. 

  6. Byrd, William. History of the dividing line between Virginia and North Carolina, as run in 1728-’29, vol. i, pp. 181. Richmond, 1866. 2 volumes. 

  7. Mills, Robert. Statistics of South Carolina, p. 595. Charlestown, 1826. 

  8. Gregg, Alexander. History of the old Cheraws, containing an account of the aborigines of the Pedee, the first white settlements, etc., extending from about A. D. 1730 to 1810, with notices of families and sketches of individuals; pp. 15-17. New York, 1867. 

  9. New York. Documents relative to the colonial history of the state of New York. Procured in Holland, England, and France, by John Romeyn Brodhead, etc. Edited by E. B. O’Callaghan, Glen letter (1750) vol. vi, p. 588. Albany, 1856-’77. 12 vols. 

  10. Mills, Robert, op. cit., p. 106. 

  11. New York, op. cit., Clinton letter (1751) vol. vi, p. 714. 

  12. Mills, Robert, op. cit., p. 114. 

  13. Gatschet, Ibid. 

  14. Adair, James, op. cit., p. 225. 

  15. Lawson, John, op. cit., pp. 34-5. 

  16. Byrd, William, Ibid. 

  17. Adair, James, op. cit., p. 224-5. 

  18. Glen, James, Description of South Carolina, containing many curious and interesting particulars relating to the civil, natural, and commercial history of that colony… London, 1761. 

  19. Adair, James, op. cit., p. 224 

  20. Gregg, Alexander. History of the old Cheraws, containing an account of the aborigines of the Pedee, the first white settlements, etc., extending from about A. D. 1730 to 1810, with notices of families and sketches of individuals; p. 17. New York, 1867. 

  21. Massachusetts. Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. 1st Series, vol. x, Boston, 1809; 4th series, vol. ix, Boston, 1871. Anonymous writer of 1676, pp. 167-8. 

  22. Smyth, J. F. D. A tour in the United States, 1784. 2 volumes. Volume i, pp. 185-6. 

  23. Gregg, Alexander, unknown page reference. 

  24. Morse, Jedidiah. A report to the Secretary of War in the United States on Indian affairs, etc., p. 32, New Haven, 1822. 

  25. Mills, Robert, op. cit., p. 773. 

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