Catawba Indians Facts, Information - North Carolina Native American History, Culture

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The Catawba Nation once stretched from much of South Carolina through the Piedmont of North Carolina to the Virginia line. It lay on a well traveled trading route.[1] There were six villages along the Catawba River when the English began colonizing. The land was rich and fertile making excellent farmland. Catawbas cleared their land using the slash and burn method as other Native Americans did. Slashing and burning created clearings that grew tender grasses that attracted deer[2]. This made the land very attractive to the English. However, the area remained a frontier for the first half of the 18th century. Only traders and a few settlers ventured so far. The Catawba Nation remained somewhat isolated. Their location on the frontier created a natural buffer zone against hostiles for the English colonies.[3] It would be beneficial for both the English colonies and the Catawba Nation to maintain friendly relations. The Catawba tribe recognized early the futility of fighting the colonists. Instead, they adapted to the white mans ways to conform and performed many valuable services for the Colonists. Ultimately, they survived as a tribe therefore keeping much of their culture, tradition and a portion of their ancestral homeland.

Contact with English traders and colonists spread disease among the Catawba Indians and other Native American tribes in the Carolinas. Epidemics of European diseases decimated populations of Native American tribes in the Carolinas. Diseases killed off most of the elderly. In Native American culture, the elderly passed on the stories, history, herbal remedies, songs and skills by oral tradition. When elders died so did much of the culture. Traditional medicine men lost most of their influence as their healing methods proved ineffective on the new diseases. People lost faith in the old ways.[4] Yet, the medicine men still had their place for they ensured the dead received proper burial.[5] The heavy death toll left tribes open to attack from enemies. Tribes could no longer provide enough food for everyone because there were not enough able bodied people to hunt or tend to the crops. A solution to this growing problem was to merge with nearby tribes.[6] The Catawba Nation was the largest Siouan tribe in the Carolinas. Therefore, lesser Siouan tribes from the Piedmont of North Carolina and the upcountry of South Carolina merged with the Catawba Nation for survival.[7] The Eno from around Hillsborough NC moved south to merge with the Catawbas in the early 1700’s. Other tribes merged with the Catawba included the Cheraw, the Keyauwee, the Shahori, the Sissipaha also known as the Haw, the Woccon and the Waxhaw.[8] As tribes integrated so did customs and language. Some customs were adopted while others were lost. [9]

Trade brought change to both the Catawba tribe and the English. To Native Americans, trade was not only economical but a sign of friendship. English traders learned to speak Catawba and learned the Native American customs. When a new trader arrived, the chief offered him a woman to marry. It was an insult to refuse.[10] Many traders married so as not to offend but then found the woman useful as an interpreter and for negotiating trade.[11] The Catawbas offered deerskins, pottery, woven mats and other crafts for trade. In exchange, English traders offered guns, ammo, iron or brass pots, metal knives, woven blankets, clothing and other goods. These goods were superior in quality to the Native American craftwork. For example, the metal pots lasted longer than Native American clay pots. Woven blankets and clothing were more comfortable than skins or furs. Guns were better, more lethal weapons than bows and arrows. Metal hoes replace sticks for tending fields. In addition to being better quality, these goods made life easier for Native Americans. Thus, European goods replaced much of the Native American crafts. Although the making of crafts did not completely stop, the quality and production of the crafts produced diminished. For example, pottery once an ornate art became simpler as did the baskets and woven mats.[12]

When the deer became scarce due to over hunting, the Catawbas were hard pressed to find a replacement for trade.[13] Resourceful Catawba women began peddling, door to door, their pottery, moccasins, woven mats and baskets to nearby white settlers. The Catawba clay pottery rendered a special flavor to the okra dishes that the colonists relished so therefore became very popular. Soon, colonists as far away as Charleston wanted the Catawba clay pots to use for cooking.[14] 

Like other Native Americans, the Catawbas grew dependent on European goods. During the early 1700’s, English traders began to realize the dependency Native Americans had acquired. These traders began cheating the Native Americans. As a result several wars erupted.  The first and second war was with the Tuscarora. Catawba warriors together with other warriors from other tribes joined the English colonists to drive the Tuscarora out of the Carolinas. The Tuscarora were a fierce tribe that had many enemies. Catawba warriors captured Tuscarora Indians and quickly took them to Charleston to sell as slaves for profit. This made the English angry because they wanted to sell the captured Tuscarora Indians for profit and there weren’t any left.  In order to still profit from the war, the English tricked the Catawbas and other Native American allies into a meeting, then sold them into slavery. After which, the Catawbas never fully trusted the English again.[15]

Soon after the Tuscarora war ended, the Yemassee War began. This time the Catawbas fought with other tribes against the English. The war started because of the unfair treatment Native Americans received from the white settlers. Many settlers cheated Native Americans in trade and land deals. Most often the settlers plied the Native Americans with liquor before negotiating transactions to make them more agreeable. Other mistreatment left unpunished involved murder, rape, stealing and slaving. After dealing with dishonest English traders, Native Americans had large debts. These dishonest Englishmen often settled the huge debts by forcing Native Americans into slavery or taking their land. Native Americans complained to authorities. When their pleas for justice were not satisfied, Native Americans rallied to drive the English out. The war spread from Florida, to Alabama and through North Carolina. [16] It was during this war that the Catawba realized the futility of fighting the English for they soon ran out of ammunition. They made peace with the English colonists and then turned on the other Native American tribes still fighting. It was the last war the Catawba Indians fought against the English colonists.[17]

Contact with the English resulted in changes to lifestyle and culture for the Catawba Nation. They adapted some of the English ways. Some Catawbas owned slaves. Many started wearing English clothing. They took English names yet used their Catawba names among one another. Their huts became square instead of round to resemble English houses.[18] However, the tribe never fully deserted their ways. They still kept their hair styles, dances, hunting and planting ways. For example, Chief Hagler knew English but preferred to speak Catawba. He always used an interpreter even in negotiations.[19]

The Catawbas performed many valuable services for the English. Therefore, the English colonists thought it important to remain friends with the Catawbas. The most important service the tribe offered the English was the natural buffer zone the nation formed against their enemies. Catawba warriors had a fierce reputation. Catawbas were excellent trackers and knew the territory. Therefore, Catawba warriors hunted down escaped slaves and runaway horses. Since they knew the territory, Catawba Indians served as guides through the wilderness. These services were exchanged for English goods.[20] The colonists recognized the need for the Catawbas’ services and preferred to keep the Catawbas content. They did not want war anymore than the Catawbas.[21] From the 1740’s till his death in 1763, Chief Hagler, frequently petitioned the South Carolina governor for many gifts and received them. The South Carolina government wished to ensure the Catawbas continued friendship therefore they often sided with the Catawbas in disputes against white settlers.[22] Each group benefited from the other.

The Catawbas like other Eastern Native American tribes practiced the mourning war raids to appease the dead and help grieving families cope. Catawba warriors raided other tribes to take scalps or captives to either adopt or torture to death. [23]After the English built their plantations, captives were sold as slaves for a good profit. Catawba warriors collected bounties on hostile Native American scalps that use to go to grieving families to avenge the dead.[24] Although English contact did not force the Catawba to abandon the mourning war tradition, it did change the purpose of these raids. In addition, the English often incited wars between Native American tribes to obtain more captives for slaves.[25]

Up to the mid 1700’s, the Catawba Nation enjoyed a relative isolated life.[26] They maintained friendly relations with the Colonials. In the 1750’s, white settlers began venturing into Catawba territory. Conflicts arose. Lessons of the past, taught the Catawbas that it was fruitless to start a war with the white settlers. Instead of war, the Catawbas met with colonists to try and solve the conflicts. Chief Hagler of the Catawba tribe believed that much of these conflicts between the colonists and Catawbas were caused by intoxication. Hagler asked the colonists to refrain from giving any Catawba liquor in a reply to the complaints in 1754. [27]

In the treaty of Pine Tree Hill of 1760, Chief Hagler skillfully negotiated and was able to retain two million acres of Catawba land. In exchange for Catawba land, South Carolina promised to stop white settlers from encroaching on Catawba land and forcibly remove squatters. In addition, the tribe retained hunting rights to much of South Carolina. However, South Carolina did not honor the treaty. In violation of the treaty, whites attacked Catawba hunting parties that roamed beyond the reservation and squatters remained. Even though North Carolina did not participate in negotiations, its governor thought the two million acre reservation to be too generous. North Carolina had already issued land grants to settlers on the Catawba reservation. They’d issued these land grants before the border between North and South Carolina was surveyed. [28] After many years, the resulting controversy was finally settled by King George III who in 1772 decreed the border between the two colonies run the boundaries of the Catawba reservation.[29] Three years after the signing of the treaty of Pine Tree Hill, the Treaty of Augusta was signed. Prior to negotiations, Chief Hagler was murdered and the record of the treaty of Pine Tree Hill lost. These two events made negotiations less fruitful for the Catawbas. In the Treaty of Augusta, the Catawbas surrendered more land. The reservation was reduced to 144,000 acres.[30]

Soon after the treaty of Augusta was signed, the Catawbas petitioned the King George III for a land title to their reservation. The petitioned was granted in 1763. It gave the tribe a land base protected by Anglo-American law. This would ensure that tribal land remained in Catawba hands forever. Title to the land gave the Catawbas legal rights to remove trespassers. The Catawbas soon realized that it would be impossible to fully enforce their legal rights to their land. White settlers were still squatting on Catawba land. To counter future conflicts with the settlers, the Catawbas decided to lease the land. Thomas Spratt was the first settler to lease land from the Catawbas. Soon, he became friends with the Catawbas and worked as their Indian agent. Spratt witnessed land leases to ensure that the Catawbas were not cheated by whites. He recruited white settlers to lease Catawba land. After a smallpox epidemic, Spratt adopted several orphaned Catawba children. Many white settlers who leased land from the Catawbas subleased the land to other settlers. Everyone profited from this arrangement.[31]

War helped cement friendly relations between the Catawbas and white settlers. During the American Revolution, the Catawbas joined Thomas Sumter’s colonial army. The Catawbas served as scouts and trackers. They provided food for the continental militia. Prior to the American Revolution, the Catawbas referred to their chief as king. To show their sympathies lay with the Americans, the Catawbas removed their king and elected a general of their tribe. Fear of reprisals from the British, forced the Catawba to move their women and children to Virginia for safety as did the Americans. The Catawbas risked the same fate as the Americans bonding them to one another.[32] Many young men from Mecklenburg county North Carolina served along side the Catawbas in Sumter’s State troops. These men made lifelong friends with the Catawbas. The Catawbas knew the men were poor and would not receive much after the war for their service. Therefore, the Catawbas encouraged the men to settle on their land.[33] Furthermore, the Catawbas would not lease land to those known to have fought on the side of the British. These acts showed loyalty to both the new government and fellow patriots.

After 1785, the state of South Carolina sanctioned the Catawbas land lease. Governor Moultrie used the pretense that the state would be helping the Catawbas and white settlers. The land was affordable to white settlers. Taxes were considerably lower here than elsewhere. The money collected from the leases would go to educate the Catawbas. However, problems arose when the state took over. The state assigned commissioners kept poor records. For example, the first record book was lost. Because of the poor record keeping, many tenants refused to pay the Catawbas rent.[34] There was never any clear evidence to act upon. Problems continued into the 1820’s when leases were worded clearer so there would not be anymore misunderstanding.[35] By the 1830’s, the state of South Carolina wanted to buy the land from the Catawbas. The governor of South Carolina admitted that the Catawbas were cheated out of their annual rents because most settlers instead of cash paid the Catawbas in goods that did not equal the value of their rents. [36] “In 1838, the legislature passed an act to support the Catawba, which punished leaseholders who failed to pay their rents by requiring them to post a bond with the state treasury and pay a penalty of seven percent interest.”[37] This act was met with large resistance from settlers. Soon after, the State of South Carolina purchased the Catawba land. The treaty of Nation Ford was signed in which the state of South Carolina agreed to purchase land in Haywood County North Carolina for the Catawba Nation. They also agreed to pay annual salaries to the tribe for the next century. However, the North Carolina government refused to sell land to South Carolina for this purpose. For two years, tribe members had no where to go. A few went to live with the Cherokee in North Carolina. Some went west. Eventually, tribe members started coming back to their ancestral homeland. Many white settlers took pity on these remnants and let them stay on their land till the problem was resolved. In 1842, the state finally purchased 630 acres in the same area that once belonged to the Catawbas.[38] Even though the Catawbas were cheated, they faired better than most Native Americans. They were allowed to stay in the Carolinas while other tribes were force to move west.[39] When the Catawbas returned to their homeland, they began teaching their children the old ways so their culture would not die. The elders taught the children the history of the Catawba nation, stories, skills, herbal medicine and more. These children did not learn English. They spoke only Catawba. Even though the tribe had lost most of their homeland, they were able to retain most of their culture.

Contact with the English brought new challenges to the Catawba tribe. Diseases brought by the Europeans decimated their populations. By merging with other tribes, the Catawbas were able to survive intact. The Catawbas realized early that it was fruitless to fight the English. Instead the Catawbas provided invaluable services for the English that gave the English an incentive to remain on friendly terms. When American Revolution broke out, the Catawbas fought along side the Americans thus gaining their loyalty. By providing invaluable services and remaining friendly with the English, the Catawba nation was able to keep most of their culture and remain on a portion of their homeland.

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