Catawba People

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Origin and History

The Catawba people were a small autonomous nation of Siouan-speaking group of Native Americans whose homeland centred on Sugar Creek branch of the Catawba River. The name ‘Catawba’ was not recorded by the English until the beginning of the 18th century when it became shorthand for a number of Siouan-speaking nations living along the piedmont of present-day North Carolina and South Carolina.

In 1540 the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto’s expedition passed travelling along the Catawba River and a century later another bigoted Spanish explorer Juan Pardo mentions the Catawba band. Piedmont populations were devastated by waves of disease brought by European intruders, including from the English of Virginia, from earliest contact until the 18th century, causing social upheaval and havoc to personal identity. During the same period, trade developed with deerskins being exchanged for European goods carried from the James River. In 1670 the colony of South Carolina was founded in Sewee territory, The piedmont Siouans were subject to raids from the Savannah River by the Westos – a loose collection of uprooted peoples from Virginia and Florida – who carried out raids on the piedmont peoples until hunted down by the Savannah, who became allied to the English in the 1680s. From the late 1670s they were also increasingly raided by the Five Nations Iroquois from the north. Combined, these traumas loosened autonomous nations from their original settlements to seek refuge and or establish closer relations with fellow Siouans.

Territory of the Catawba People - Copyright: Kronoskaf

In 1692, a delegation of Congarees, Waxhaws and Esaws from the piedmont paid their first visit to Charleston. Sometime between November 1708 and June 1709 a delegation of Catawba arrived in Charleston. ‘Catawba’ had become the English designation for the group of small but united Siouan nations, the Catawba, Esaw, Sugaree, Shuteree and others in the Catawaba River and Sugar Creek valleys. A Shawnee headman stated: ‘The Catawbas were a people of Great Extent, and there were many Nations under that name.’

At the end of the 17th century, English colonists began to settle in the region. They estimated the Catawba people to a total of approx. 4,600, including 1,500 warriors. Neither understood the other. By 1708 Afro-American slaves outnumbered the colonists.

During Queen Anne’s War (!702-1713), in 1703, Catawba warriors attacked a French outpost at Mobile Bay.

In 1706, the British managed to convince the Iroquois and Catawba to make peace. After all, they were both allied with the British. Nevertheless, a protracted conflict continued for a long time.

In 1709, South Carolina invited the Catawba and Waxhaws to help defend the colony against the Spanish.

During the spring of 1711, the Catawba and other piedmont nations informed the South Carolina government in Charleston that the Savannah Shawnee had killed some of their people and that they would fall on them and their colonial friends.

In September of that year many Catawba warriors joined South Carolina, who sent two expeditions, one of 33 and the other 30 colonials, in response to Tuscarora (a tribe who later joined the Iroquois Confederacy) who had been goaded into attacks on North Carolina settlements. These expeditions killed hundreds of Tuscarora and drove the rest to seek refuge with the Iroquois Confederacy. A tenuous peace was agreed in April 1712. During the campaign the Catawba saw more of the colonial world than they had seen before, this contradicted British boasts of their power.

Prior to 1715, Charleston received numerous complaints from the Catawba and other piedmont nations about abuses by traders and aggressive squatters. However, most of the complaints came from the Yamasee on the coast. On April 15, the Yamasee fell on colonial settlements around Fort Royal. On May 8, Catawbas, Cherwas and Waterees killed some colonial traders and joined the attack in South Carolina. The land between the Santee River and Charleston emptied of British settlements, On May 15 they ambushed a relief force. However, on June 13, Captain George Chicken with a force of 70 colonists and 40 Afro-Americans and Native Americans, caught warriors, and some of their women and children celebrating their victories at a deserted plantation near Schenkingh by surprise and forced to fight an open battle. The Catwabas and their allies slipped away at nightfall after losing 60 men. They never returned to any low country battlefield.

In July 1715, four Cheraws met with Governor Spotswood of Virginia to arrange for peace between them and the Catawba with South Carolina. This peace was not forced on them by Iroquois war parties or George Chicken but the absence of traders. A formal treaty was signed with South Carolina in the summer of 1716.

At that time, the Catawba attacked the Waxhaws as they refused to make peace with South Carolina. In the winter of 1716/1717, the Catawba ignored Charleston’s request to hunt hostile Santees and Congarees. The Catawba welcomed and protected refugees.

However, in the spring of 1717 rumours that colonists had designs to destroy them circulated. Villages on the Catawba-Wateree River built forts to protect themselves. In April 1717 the Catawba became the principal spokesmen for a group of eight nations in conference with Virginia. Also, in April 40 Virginian traders with 200 pack-horses arrived. South Carolina traders countered this so that by 1720 visits from Virginia were fewer.

In 1721, Francis Nicholson became the first royal governor of South Carolina and designated all Native Americans north-west of Charleston as ‘Catawba’. There was a noticeable fall in populations due to losses from war, disease – smallpox had struck in 1718 - and in the early 1720s, attacks from the Iroquois and Lenape, and encroachment by colonial squatters for the first time.

In September 1727, a Catawba leader and eight others visited Charleston to explain crimes committed by Waccamaws and Cheraws living amongst them to Arthur Middleton president of the council. On askance as to whether the Waccamaws were of the people the Catawba leader replied, ‘I have talked to their leader but he regards me not.’ The Waccamaw village was a half mile from that of the Catawba leaders. Catawba social structures were in turmoil at the time. Outside pressure helped the people become one nation, that of Iroquois raids and the pressure from obnoxious settlers.

In 1731, South Carolina planned to sweep the low country of its remaining indigenous people and force them to join with the Catawbas. Having an uneasy truce with the Cherokee on their western border allowed them to roam between the Savannah and James Rivers at will, sometimes raiding the Meherrins, Nottoway and remaining Tuscarora. They were a match for the northern raiders on them. Edmond Atin stated that, ‘... in War, they are inferior [to] no Indians whatever.’ They were swift to pursue Iroquois raiders, their villages being close to each other enabled them to muster a force quickly. They were also famous for taunting their foes.

Hunting parties ranged from upper Cape Fear to the Edisto and from the Pee Dee to the Broad. By the 1740s the Catawba’s principal hunting territory lay in the vast cane swamp between the Congaree and Wateree Rivers.

In 1738, a smallpox outbreak significantly weakened the Catawba population.

In 1739, the Catawba told William Bull that, ‘... looked upon the English as their fathers and Brothers.’ This established a symbolic relationship which the English failed to recognise the meaning and obligations of unlike for example the Cherokee who were regarded similarly.

In 1743, even after incorporating several small tribes, the Catawba numbered between 300 and 500 warriors.

In 1749, Governor James Glen feared ‘the Total destruction of the poor nation.’ Since the Catawbas victory over the Oneida in 1729 they began to lose more battles than they won. In the 1730s, the Savannah Shawnee removed from Pennsylvania to the Ohio country and began raiding the Catawba. In the 1740s, the Cherokee made peace with the Iroquois providing an excellent staging area for raids on the piedmont. As the Catawba spurned French overtures, Canadian officials encouraged other nations to attack them. Edmond Atkins stated that they were being raided by eleven different nations.

In 1746, four forts were erected by the Catawba. A trader, John Evans, reported in 1748 that ‘the Catawba Nation is so infested with the Enemy that neither White People nor Indians dare go no where without being in a Body.’

In the fall of 1749 the Catawba eractasswa (spokesman) Yanabe Yalangway (Young Warrior) and fifteen of the most prominent leaders attended a conference in Charleston and all died either of infectious diseases acquired from Europeans or due to being attacked by an Iroquois war party. This left Catawba politics in chaos. Yanabe Yalangway had been ‘... very absolute among his People, which is unusual with Indians,’ wrote Governor James Glen. Nonetheless, the nation’s council of headmen, important warriors, and ’beloved men’ from each town were the true fountain of authority in the election of eractasswa and decision making.

Nopkehe (Hagler) became eractasswa after the death of Yanabe Yalangway. In keeping with Catawba tradition, he was the former eractasswa's sister's son and was confirmed in a general council to represent the nation.

Nopkehe travelled to the reviled town of Charleston in late 1750 to receive a military commission as ‘Chief of the Catawbas’ from Governor Glen, a form of colonial recognition of indigenous national leaders. South Carolina had not forgotten the Yamasee War and were in the 1750s still weary of the ferocious Catawba.

By 1750, European settlements were impinging into Catawba territory. The Congaree and Wateree valleys were thick with plantations.

In June 1751, Nopkehe and a delegation of five other Catawba leaders along with Lieutenant Governor William Bull, travelling by ship, attended a conference in Albany, New York and agreed peace with the Six Nations Iroquois. The following year, the Catawba were visited by an Iroquois delegation and an exchange of prisoners was made. The Catawba also brokered a peace treaty with Shawnee. The Catawba were invited to incorporate with the Cherokee but Nopkehe refused.

Nonetheless, in 1753, a South Carolina trader found: ‘They could not hunt, [because of] the enemy.’ The Iroquois were continuing to raid the Catawba.

In 1754, Hagler supported, against the tradition of his people, the execution of a Catawba warrior who, while drunk, had murdered a young girl. The execution was carried out by the perpetrator's cousin in the presence of colonial witnesses, ‘... the White people, in Order to shew our Willingness to punish such offenders.’ On August 29, in a speech in Catawba to James Carter and Alexander Osborne, Commissioners of the State of North Carolina, Nopkehe spoke out about stopping the sale of alcohol to his people.

In 1754, a Catawba went out after a war party that had killed 16 settlers, and occasionally joint expeditions with their colonial neighbours similarly took place.

Role during the War


By 1755, the Catawba were almost surrounded, some 500 families lived within 30 miles, and a few North Carolina surveyors were dragging chains through their villages. Nonetheless, the Catawba were determined to retain their land. Nopkehe had stated a year earlier that ‘... for the Great man above made us he also... fixed our forefathers and us here to Inherit this Land.’ They were resoled to remain in their ‘little Bed of land.’

Even so, in 1755, Nopkehe complained, due to squatters in the Catawba’s hunting territory, ‘All the rest [of the men] and most of their Women and Children, were forced to go to a great distance to Hunt for Food [,] the White People having taken their Lands from them.’ Catawba production of deerskins fell off, and trade all but ceased.

In the winter of 1755-1756 South Carolina sent 700 bushels of corn to Catawba towns, and in the following year 900 bushels, which continued throughout the French and Indian War.

Great Britain’s need for allies temporarily gave the Catawba the advantage in their dealings with colonial governments. They were aware of the good fortune the war had brought and in the latter 1750’s they were not afraid to approach the limits of polite discourse in order to get the point across, for example ‘We have waited on long Time for your Powder you promised to send us.’ Nopkeke stated ‘... that the White people spoke much and performed but little.’

1756-1757 In February 1756, Virginia sent William Byrd III (from a family of traders with whom the Catawba had traded at Petersburg) to recruit warriors. Within a month, 40 Catawba warriors were on their way to the western borders of Virginia and Pennsylvania. Catawba war parties continued to patrol this area until the Treaty of Easton was agreed.

In May 1756, Nopkeke was asked to provide Catawba warriors to support the British, and he pledged to contribute the services of 40 warriors. In return, he requested that North Carolina Governor Arthur Dobbs supply gifts and ammunition and construct a fort to protect the Catawba while their warriors were away. Dobbs reluctantly agreed, and a site was selected and purchased near what is now Old Fort, North Carolina. He then sent General Hugh Waddell and a troop of rangers to begin building. The project was interrupted several times, as relations between Nopkeke and Dobbs were not always good, but the fort would eventually be completed in late 1760.


In mid-May 1758, Catawba warriors joined a force of 500 or so Cherokee heading for Pennsylvania to join General John Forbes’ army for its expedition to take Fort Duquesne. These met with Colonel Bouquet at Fort Loudoun on June 14. However, they grew discontented with the slowness of the campaign's progress and drifted home by late summer.

In the fall of 1758, 25 Catawba warriors returning from the expedition, brought smallpox home. Almost immediately several of the Nation’s best men died and the illness afflicted several more. The epidemic continued through the winter, ‘making terrible Havack among them.’ By November Catawbas still able to walk began to flee into the woods and backwaters.


At the end of February 1759, Nopkeke with a band of survivors surfaced near Pine Tree Hill having not been near the Nation for months. He had no idea of how many of his people were still alive. In a single season the Catawba population had dropped from about 1,500 people to around 500, the number of warriors, to less than 100. The Catawba returned to their homeland but settled on Twelve Mile Creek, downstream from the junction of Sugar Creek and the Catawba River.

In September, Nopkeke threatened to attack some planters near the Nation and to drive others out.


In 1760, some 45 Catawba warriors took part in the British expedition against the Cherokee people, where they served as scouts.

European squatters increasingly encroached on Catawba sovereign lands, now sparsely populated, leading, in July 1760, Nopkeke to negotiate the Pine Tree Hill Treaty with Edmond Atkin, Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Southern District at Pine Tree Hill (now Camden, South Carolina). This guaranteed the Catawba a territory near Waxhaw, North Carolina occupying some two million acres along the Catawba River, in exchange for 55,000 square miles that the Catawba considered to be their traditional home, occupying part of present day North Carolina, much of South Carolina and extending into Virginia.


In 1761, 20 Catawba warriors took part in another British expedition against the Cherokee people.

In September, Nopkeke and 40 Catawbas arrived for talks with the governor but were seen by Councillor Othniel Beale. They were heartily welcomed and thanked for their part in the Cherokee campaign but then, with expenses in mind, informed Nopkeke, ‘... unless on real Business, they could not expect Presents.’


In May 1762, Nopkeke and several young men were greeted by Governor Thomas Boone: ‘Glad to see you..., but as you have been lately here, I presume you are no come upon particular business.’ Nopkeke had. The Cherokee were still a threat, North Carolinians were encroaching on the Nation’s territory, but Boone while polite was sceptical in that they came only for presents. The assembly agreed with Boone. In early July a party of 11 led by Captain Ayers ( Hixa-Uraw?) were told by Boone: ‘You have been told that when Indians come hither on no particular business nor no message from their Nation and without invitation from the Governor, that they are to expect no presents.’ No one head spoken to a Catawba headman in those terms before. The Catawba could be insulted without our fear of war.

On July 5, Governor Arthur Dobbs wrote: ‘Their number of Warriors have been reduced in a few years, by Haglar's Confession, from 300 to 50 and all their males do not exceed 100, old and young included, so they are now scarce a nation but a small village.’


Throughout the spring and summer of 1758, the Catawbas on Forbes’ expedition received guns, gunpowder, powder horns, lead, many flint, knives, pipes, shirts, matchcoats, cloth, blankets, hats, ribbon, shoes, deerskin for making moccasins, wire, garters, thousands of wampum beads, tomahawks, gorgets, silver broaches, armbands and vermillion.


Catawba men, during the 18th century, shaved their head except for a patch at the crown, which was kept long and probably worn as a single plait judging from a sketch of 1771. Earlier fashion describes a ‘horse’s tail’. One description mentions another variation, the head being shaved so that the hair on top stood up ‘like a cock’s comb’. The hair was oiled with bear’s grease. Others, older men may have worn their hair long, possibly tied in a queue as per current European fashion. English wigs could also have been worn by diplomats.


Some Catawba men may have worn a head band, probably as a symbol of office, about four inches broad, wrought or woven, and decorated with stones, beads, wampum, bird quills &c., its circumference decorated either with upright red deer hair or a row of upright feathers of birds associated with war.


Catawba men tattooed at least their faces.


A description of a party of 50 Catawba warriors visiting Fort Christiana were described as having their faces painted blue and red.

Ears and Nose

Ears and noses were pierced and had silver ornaments dangling from them. The ear and perhaps nose piercings alternatively could have feathers stuck through them, probably according to the wearer’s personal dreams or visions.

Ornamentation and Necklaces

Catawba men were likely to have worn necklaces or collars of wampum, which are beads cut out of clamshells, necklaces of glass beads and silver armbands and bracelets. Silver gorgets or shell discs were also worn suspended from the neck.

Breechclout and Apron

Catawba men wore a breechclout. Bartram described them for the neighbouring Cherokee as usually consisting of ‘... of a piece of blue cloth, about eighteen inches wide; this they pass between their thighs, and both ends being taken up and drawn through a belt round their waist, the ends fall down, one before, and the other behind, not quite to the knee; this flap is usually plaited and indented at the ends, and ornamented with beads, tinsel lace, &c.’


Catawba men wore tight fitting half leggings, gartered below the knee and attached to the waistbelt for the breechclout by strap. It is not known whether the seam was down the side of the leg with a flap or down front of the leg and over the instep of the foot. These were generally of less expensive blue or black cloth or red for better wear. It is likely that skin leggings could have been worn when hunting or at war, although in wet weather these would take longer to dry and hence uncomfortable.


Garters may have been used to secure the leggings below the knee. Garters were made of woven woollen fibres typically dyed red or black possibly with white bead patterns incorporated into the weave.


Catawba moccasins were made of deerskin smoked with basswood to produce a dark brown colour. The moccasin was made of single skin with a puckered seam up the instep. The cuff of the men’s moccasin was separated at the heel so that the two sides spread apart, whereas the cuff on women’s moccasins was a continuous band.


The cloth shirt was a common item traded to the Catawba. A European shirt, cut in contemporary European fashion, was popular and could be daubed with grease and paint to waterproof it. These were made of cheaper fabric for the Indian trade. Some of the most requested fabrics included cotton, calico and chintz. It is likely that some wore a sash or belt around the waist over the shirt.


Broaches of silver, replacing those of copper or brass, became increasingly abundant through the 18th century in adorning clothing and also came to be used as money. There several designs of broach. The simplest and most numerous was a ring across which a tongue extended like a buckle. This is affixed to cloth by pinching the material up so that the tongue penetrates it twice and when drawn back holds it firmly in place. Smaller ones can often line the edges of breechclouts, etc. whilst those of larger diameter decorated the upper body of shirts. Another very common broach fixed in the same manner is a circular ornate disc perforated with punched out or embossed regular patterns which can have embossed or crenulated edges sometimes known as a round buckle.


The Catawba wore blankets wrapped around themselves for warmth. These were made from woollen cloth or deerskin.

European Dress

By the mid-18th century some Catawba leaders wore English dress from head to toe, including shoes, stockings, garters, ruffled shirts, suits of scarlet or blue, hats trimmed with gold and silver lace and occasionally a wig when visiting colonists. Otherwise, men might put on an old coat but shunned hats and wore breechclout, leggings and moccasins.


The Catawba were well supplied with firearms from Euro-American traders based in South Carolina and Virginia who made frequent trips to their towns. These were also given as gifts when the Catawba travelled to aid their Virginian or Carolinian allies. These trade guns were likely to have been short, light flintlock muskets of .66 or smaller calibre, called fusils, fuzee or fuke and were approximately similar to the later ‘Northwest gun’.

A powder horn and a shot pouch would have been worn over the shoulder and high up under the arm to minimise them flapping about whilst moving. Pouches could have been made of woven fibre with white bead patterns woven into the threads or of deerskin, perhaps with geometric painted designs. Shoulder straps were of deerskin or woven fibre.

A tomahawk or war club would have been worn stuffed into a belt at the back. It is possible that belts were worn, either of skin wrapped twice around the body and tied at the front or of finger woven wool, being enriched by the addition of white beads, which were carried on a special thread in zig-zag or diamond and hexagonal designs V and W designs predominated in narrow sashes. Beads were also worked into the deep yarn fringes (20 inches to a yard long). Sashes were usually red but shades of blue, sage green, old gold and white were also made.


Calloway, Colin G., The Indian World of George Washington, New York: Oxford University Press, 2018, pp.141.

Fitts, Mary Elizabeth, Mapping Catawba Coalescence, North Carolina Archaeology, Vol. 55, 2006, pp.1 – 59.

Merrell, James H., The Catawbas, New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989.

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

Wikipedia – King Hagler

N.B.: the section Role during the War is partly derived from our articles depicting the various campaigns, battles and sieges.


Larry Burrows for the initial version of this article