The Colonial Catawba of the Carolinas

South Carolina’s Native American history is one that is rich, vast and reaches back in time thousands of years. One of the most prominent tribes is the Catawba (yeh is-WAH h’reh or “people of the river”), who have lived along the Catawba River for roughly 6,000 years. In 1540, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto passed through the Piedmont region of North Carolina on his expedition west. There he would encounter the Catawba people, marking the first documented contact with the tribe after remaining largely private previously. While noteworthy, it was the election of King Hagler (Nopkehee) in 1754 that ushered in an era where the tribe would begin to expand

King Hagler statue located on Town Green in Camden (created by Maria J. Kirby-Smith)

King Hagler, often referred to as the “patron saint of Camden,” brought progress to the Catawba Nation. The Catawba endured many hardships leading up to this time, including a smallpox epidemic in 1738 that afflicted the population substantially. Hardship was not the only challenge they were faced with, as the 1750s saw an influx of European settlers making home on the land around them. Hagler, a fierce but fair negotiator, strived to establish an agreement with the new settlers that would allow them to coexist and work together. This relationship proved successful as the Catawba became known not only for their remarkable pottery but also as renowned traders, especially of quality furs. The tribe continued to prosper under Halger as he strived to maintain peaceful relationships with the settlers and expand opportunities for his people. While enjoying this newfound

success, the Catawba would soon find themselves faced with hardship once again in 1759 when stricken with another smallpox outbreak. The epidemic proved tragic for the burgeoning Catawba Nation, resulting in the deaths of nearly half their population. The remaining Catawba persevered and pressed on, with the continued guidance of Hagler. While the Catawba worked through the challenges and hardships they were facing, the world was changing as a war waged on around them. The Catawba

John Evans 1756 map indicating Catawba warrior number and location (source – The Catawbas by James Merrell)

would become involved in the French and Indian War, with Hagler sending men to fight alongside George Washington in the Ohio territory. The Catawba were fierce warriors, as noted in Washington’s journals, where he also talks about how valuable their support was in the war efforts. Their friendship and support to the English settlers was recognized in 1763 when the King of England granted the Catawba 144,000 acres of land, which they would then rent to settlers. Tragically, about this same time, King Hagler was killed by members of a rival tribe as he traveled back from Charles Towne. Unfortunately, their hardships continued as the colonists renting their land would pressure them about allowing them to own the land for themselves. The state of South Carolina entered negotiations with the Catawba hoping to strike a new deal. An agreement was reached that called for the Catawba to concede their 144,000 acres in exchange for a tract of land with a smaller population and monetary payment. This deal marked the end of an era for the Catawba Nation, but it would not be their demise.

While fascinating, this blog only scratches the surface in telling the story of a people-group that goes much deeper. We hope to continue telling the story of South Carolina’s rich history in future installments, including expanding upon groups like the Catawba. Please continue to follow us as we strive to preserve, educate and celebrate the history that makes South Carolina, and Historic Camden, so important!

By: Lance Player – Historic Camden Staff

Sources

  1. Lewis, Kenneth E. The Carolina Backcountry Venture: Tradition, Capital, and Circumstance in the Development of Camden and the Wateree Valley, 1740-1810. The University of South Carolina Press, 2017.
  2. “About The Nation.” Catawba Indian Nation, www.catawbaindian.net/.
  3. Merrell, James Hart, and Frank W. Porter. The Catawbas. Chelsea House Publishers, 1989.
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