Friday, December 11, 2009

Catawba Nation

[Revised 12/12/2009]

The Catawba Nation in the 18th Century:

The Catawba Indians of South Carolina was one of a small number of Indian nations that sided with the newly formed United States of America over Great Britain. That the Catawbas chose to ally themselves with the Americans is notable as they had long been in conflict with their neighbors. Throughout the 18th Century, a steady influx of settlers moved into the traditional lands of the Catawbas. At first this movement was tolerable. In the words of historian James Merrell:

“A log cabin, a gristmill, a slave or two, a few cows: it all seemed innocent enough. But together these additions to the piedmont formed a powerful acid that ate away the Indians’ world.”

The Catawbas might have chosen to submit to this demographic tide or abandon their lands in the hope of finding a refuge among other Indian nations. Instead, the Catawbas determined to resist the settler invasion. By the mid-18th Century, a low-grade conflict was underway with white neighbors. The Catawbas initiated this conflict through the intentional destruction of settler property, and by killing and eating settlers’ cows and hogs when it became more difficult to subsist by hunting.

Merrill noted that “Efforts to stop the rash of thefts or settle any other disputes were doomed, for Catawba and Carolinian alike possessed a streak of independence that made them hard to rein in.” Even worse, “A common fondness for liquor often loosened what few restraints there were.”

Despite a number of ugly incidents, all-out war did not occur. Mutual antipathy was mitigated by trade and by common enemies (specifically, the Cherokees, Iroquois, Shawnees, and Tuscaroras).

A major shift in Catawba-settler relations occurred in 1759 when a party of Catawba returned from a campaign against the French. These men brought with them smallpox, and the resulting epidemic killed at least 60% of the Catawba nation. Losses among fighting-age men were so great that the approximately 300 warriors they had at the time of the French and Indian War was reduced to less than 100 afterwards. In the wake of this catastrophe, the Catawbas realized that resistance against the settlers was impossible. The Catawbas and the state of South Carolina largely resolved the conflict over land when the former agreed to live on a reservation. The establishment this reservation reduced, but did not eliminate, the encroachment of settlers. The Catawbas maintained their homes and farmlands in only a small part of the reservation, reserving the remainder for hunting. As time passed, the unoccupied areas attracted white settlers. The Catawbas resolved this issue in a novel manner. Rather than attempt to forcibly evict the whites from their reservation, the Catawbas allowed them to rent the land they had settled.

The Catawba Nation and the American Revolution:

In 1775, the Catawbas, like other Indian nations, were compelled to choose between the rebellious colonies and the British crown. The Catawbas chose to side with the colonists, and in turn, the new government of South Carolina agreed to continue to recognize the Catawbas’ reservation.

Catawba Indians were soon recruited to aid in the American war effort. For the most part, the Catawbas were organized in military bodies that were commanded by white officers, but otherwise distinct from the colonists’ militia regiments.

Parties of Catawbas were used to search for runaway slaves in coastal South Carolina in 1775-1776, and a company of Catawbas commanded by Captain Samuel Boykin participated in the battle of Sullivan’s Island (June 28, 1776). Also that year, a company of Catawbas played a leading role in an expedition against the British-allied Cherokee nation. After the British threatened with South Carolina with invasion in 1779, a company of Catawbas commanded by Captain David Garrison went to Charleston to join the American forces under Major-General Benjamin Lincoln.

One exception to this form of service concerned Catawba Indian Peter Harris, who enlisted in the 3rd South Carolina regiment, and was wounded at the battle of Stono Ferry.

After the British captured the American army under Lincoln at Charleston, the British advanced into the South Carolina Backcountry and posed a direct threat to the Catawba nation. In June, 1780, British Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Rawdon promised the Catawbas protection if they would submit to royal authority. The Catawba response was courageous: rather than feign loyalty to the British or equivocate, they abandoned their homes, fields, and whatever livestock they could not take with them and headed for the Virginia wilderness. British provincials, or perhaps more likely, Loyalist militia antipathetic to the Catawbas, burned their homes and carried away everything of value.

Not all of the Catawbas fled to Virginia; a number of the men remained behind to join the growing American resistance to the British occupation. These men formed a company of 41 Catawbas under Captain Thomas Drennan on or around July 5th [see Note 1]. Like the earlier companies of Catawbas, this group was in the pay of the Americans and was commanded by a white officer. Whether Drennan was more than a nominal commander is difficult to gauge. Also with the company was the Catawbas’ General New River, who led his nation during this period. Drennan’s company was active for 98 days, and participated in the battles of Rocky Mount, Hanging Rock, and Fishing Creek. Only 9 men served with the company for the entire time (including Captain Drennan and General New River). It is thought that between 12 and 35 Catawbas were at the battle of Hanging Rock.

One of the most important services that the Catawbas provided during this time was to help supply Sumter’s brigade. According to Colonel Richard Winn, "When we took the field after the fall of Charleston we often Encamped on their land for days together those friendly Indians drove to us Beef from their Own Stocks."

Later Years:

The Catawbas returned to their reservation in 1781, and due to their patriotism, relations with whites were substantially improved. On the death of King Frow, leadership of the Catawba was assumed by General New River. This end (at least symbolically) of monarchical rule among the Catawbas was in keeping with the spirit of the times and it became a public relations coup.

Nevertheless, the postwar years were not good to the Catawbas. The Catawbas did not increase in numbers or in wealth, rather, the nation became increasingly irrelevant, prone to exploitation, and impoverished. Few whites lived on the reservation at the time of the Revolution; in later years their numbers increased dramatically, and in 1840 the Catawbas were pressured into selling their reservation to their tenants. Afterwards, some of the remaining Catawbas went west to live among other Indian nations. Others continued to live alongside their white neighbors.


The Catawbas fighting with the Americans during the Revolution shaved their head except for heads except for a scalp lock that resembled “a cock’s comb.” Their faces were tattooed and they also wore face paint when going into battle. Both men and women wore a silver nose ring.

When the Catawbas embarked on the expedition against the Cherokees they wore deer tails in their hair so the Americans could better distinguish between men of the two nations.

Catawba men and women frequently wore the same clothes as their white neighbors. During the war, one of the leading Catawbas seems to have worn a “Greencloth Coat, with gold binding.”


1. According to a roster for this company, a Catawba by the name of Willis was killed at the battle of Rocky Mount (July 30, 1780); he had served 25 days with the company. Aside from Drennan, several other whites were affiliated with this company. It’s possible theses men were tenants of the Catawbas, but I don’t have any information on this matter. Some Catawbas traditionally regarded as having served in the Revolution during this period do not appear on the roll for Drennan’s company. Consequently, the number of Catawbas that served with Sumter at one time or another may have been considerably greater than 41, though the total was surely well below 100. Following Fishing Creek, the Catawbas remained intermittently involved in military operations against the British. Most notably, 30 or more Catawbas were attached to Major-General Nathanael Greene’s army in the Spring of 1781 and participated in the Guilford Courthouse campaign, including Pyle’s Defeat.


Douglas Summers Brown. (1966). The Catawba Indians: The Peoples of the River.

Will Graves transcribed General Richard Winn's Notes -- 1780. (.pdf file).

James H. Merrell. (1989). The Indians’ New World: Catawbas and Their Neighbors from European Contact through the Era of Removal.

Michael C. Scoggins. (2006). A History of the 3rd South Carolina Regiment. In Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution newsletter. Volume 3, Number 12. (.pdf file).