The history of the Catawba tribe

Most people today don’t realize how many different Native American tribes there are. In addition to the popular ones that everyone has heard about, there are dozens of obscure, smaller, and lesser-known people groups. 

Among these many Native American tribes of less fame and repute, you’ll find the Catawba tribe. 

The Catawba Indians are an inspiration and a great example of making the most of your circumstances. 

Despite their repeated attempts at making peace and coexisting with white settlers, the Catawba were often the victims of persecution, betrayal, and misfortune. 

This article is dedicated to the proud, noble history of the Catawba tribe. 

Catawba tribe, 1913

Early Origin and History 

The Catawba tribe was the first group to settle along the Catawba River in the eastern United States in South Carolina and North Carolina. 

It’s unknown when they first arrived in the Carolinas, only that they lived there when European explorers first arrived in the 1600s. 

Often referred to as the Catawba Nation for reasons we’ll discuss later, the Catawba people spoke the Siouan language. 

They were closely related to various other tribes and peoples in the Carolinas at the time but separated to form their own tribe. 

The Catawba were also known as Flathead Indians by white settlers because they would flatten the heads of infant males when they were born. 

Lifestyle, Language, and Living Conditions

The Catawba were a very peaceful people that lived a sedentary lifestyle, as opposed to Indians in the Great Plains region, that typically lived a nomadic lifestyle. 

The Catawba lived in various villages in bark-covered cabins. Each village had its own council and chief that acted as the government for the village.

However, because each village spoke the same Siouan language, they could easily communicate and live together in peace. 

Culture and Economy of the Catawba Tribe 

The Catawba culture and economy revolved mostly around farming, hunting, and gathering. 

Unlike other Native American tribes where the women were the farmers, men did all of the farming in the Catawba tribe. While maize (corn) was their primary crop, the Catawba would also grow various beans, gourds, squash, and other fruits and vegetables. 

In addition to the food they gained from farming, harvesting, and gathering, the Catawba diet also consisted of carrier pigeons, fish, and big game. 

They would raise passenger pigeons for winter food and fish for sturgeon, herring, and other fish throughout the year. 

While the men were farming, hunting, and fishing, the women were responsible for village life. 

They were masters of pottery and basketry and made pots, pitchers, mats, baskets, and other crafts. The Catawba would then keep what they needed and trade the rest to Europeans for other goods. 


The Catawba have a religion and belief history almost as unique as their history as a whole. 

Traditionally, Catawba Indians were polytheistic and believed that everything in the universe was connected. As such, they were responsible stewards of the environment and never wasted plants or food. 

While the Catawba were very resistant to Christianity and similar religions, they later warmed up to them. 

By the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, many Catawba had become Mormons, Baptists, Methodists, and various other Christian denominations. 

The Catawba Tribe Throughout History

The Catawba tribe is a good example of how Native American tribes were treated from the 1700s to the 1800s. 

Despite living in relative peace and harmony with each other and integrating well with white settlers, the Catawba were frequently mistreated and taken advantage of. 

It’s estimated that around 20,000 Catawba Indians were living in the Carolinas when the English first landed on American shores in the 1600s. 

Despite being welcomed with open arms, the English quickly started displacing the Catawba people and forcing them from their villages. 

They also inadvertently spread disease throughout the Catawba Nation, and some estimates say that their numbers fell to around 5,000 in the late 1600s. 

Additional disease and warfare further depleted their numbers until fewer than 500 Catawba remained in the late 1700s. This depletion came despite more than 30 other tribes merging with the Catawba to form the Catawba Nation. 

These tribes merged because their numbers had been so depleted by warfare and disease that there were very few surviving members, and the tribes didn’t want to go extinct. 

While the Catawba occasionally fought with other Native American tribes, namely the Iroquois, a bulk of their warfare came as a result of getting caught up in European conflicts. 

During the Tuscarora and Yamasee Wars, the Catawba sided with the British. They also sided with the British in the French and Indian War before siding with the colonials during the Revolutionary War.   

Throughout the mid-1700s, the Catawba had managed to carve out a small reservation for themselves, despite their rapidly declining numbers.

However, by 1826, there were fewer than 30 Catawba families still alive in the Carolinas. As a result, many of them decided to head out west and try their fortune elsewhere. 

They merged with various other Native American tribes, including the Choctaw Nation, the Creek, and the Cherokee Indians in Colorado, Texas, and Oklahoma. By this time, fewer than 200 Catawba Indians were remaining. 

The Catawba Tribe Today

While merging with other Native American tribes helped prevent the Catawba tribe from going extinct, they also lost part of their tribal identity. 

This problem was compounded when they decided in 1959 to terminate their tribal status. This decision was terrible for the Catawba tribe as a whole, and they attempted to rescind the termination. 

During this time, the Catawba were spread throughout the country in parts of Oklahoma, South Carolina, North Carolina, Texas, and Colorado. 

However, in 1973 when they decided to rescind their tribal termination and once again gain status as an organized tribe, a tribal council and many tribe members gathered in South Carolina. 

The court case to regain their tribal status took 20 years, but finally, in 1993, the Catawba were once again recognized federally as an organized tribe. 

They were given reservation lands outside of Rock Hill, SC, and quickly got to work settling in. Today, there are now more than 3,300 members of the Catawba Nation, 2,200 of which live on the Rock Hill reservation. 

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