The name Catawba was probably native to the tribe. Also called: Ani'ta'gua, a Cherokee name; Iswa or Issa, signifying "river," and specifically the Catawba River; originally probably an independent band which united early with the Catawba proper. Other names known as: Oyadagahrcenes, Tadirighrones, Iroquois names; Usherys, from iswahere, "river down here."
The Catawba belonged to the Siouan linguistic family, but Catawba was the most aberrant of all known Siouan languages, though closer to Woccon than any other of which a vocabulary has been recorded.
The Catawbas were primarily located in what are present-day counties of York and Lancaster, South Carolina, but they also extended into the neighboring parts of the state and also into North Carolina and Tennessee.
Two distinct tribes are given by Lawson and placed on early maps, the Catawba and Iswa, the latter deriving their name from the native word meaning "river," which was specifically applied to Catawba River.
In early days, this tribe had many villages but few names have come down to us. In 1728, there were six villages, all on Catawba River, the most northerly of which was known as Nauvasa. In 1781, they had two, called in English, Newton and Turkey Head, on opposite sides of the Catawba River.
The Catawba appear first in history under the name Ysa, Issa (Iswa) in Vandera's narratives of Pardo's expedition into the interior, made in 1566-67.
Lederer visited them in 1670 and calls them Ushery.
In 1711-13, they assisted the whites in the wars with the Tuscarora, and though they participated in the Yamasee uprising in 1715, peace was quickly made and the Catawba remained faithful friends of the colonists ever after.
Meanwhile they declined steadily in numbers from diseases introduced by the whites, the use of liquor, and constant warfare with the Iroquois, Shawnee, Delaware, and other tribes.
In 1738, they were decimated by smallpox and in 1759 the same disease destroyed nearly half of them.
Through the mediation of the whites, peace was made at Albany in 1759 between them and the Iroquois, but other tribes continued their attacks, and in 1763 a party of Shawnee killed the noted Catawba King Haigler.
The year before they had left their town in North Carolina and moved into South Carolina, where a tract of land fifteen miles square had been reserved for them. From that time on they sank into relative insignificance.
They sided with the colonists during the revolution and on the approach of the British troops withdrew temporarily into Virginia, returning after the battle of Guilford Court House.
In 1826, nearly the whole of their reservation was leased to whites, and in 1840 they sold all of it to the State of South Carolina, which agreed to obtain new territory for them in North Carolina. The latter state refused to part with any land for that purpose, however, and most of the Catawba who had gone north of the state line were forced to return.
Ultimately, a reservation of 800 acres was set aside for them in South Carolina and the main body has lived there ever since. A few continued in North Carolina and others went to the Cherokee, but most of these soon came back and the last of those who remained died in 1889.
A few Catawba intermarried with the Cherokee in later times, however, and still live there, and a few others went to the Choctaw Nation, in what is now Oklahoma, and settled near Scullyville. These also are reported to be extinct.
Some families established themselves in other parts of Oklahoma, in Arkansas, and by the Sanford, Colorado, where they have gradually been absorbed by the Indian and white population.
About 1884, several Catawba were converted by Mormon missionaries and went to Salt Lake City, and in time most of those in South Carolina became members of the Mormon Church, although a few are Baptists.
Besides the two divisions of Catawba proper, the present tribe is supposed to include remnants of about 20 smaller tribes, principally Siouan.
Mooney (1928) estimates the number of Catawba in 1600, including the Iswa, at 5,000.
About 1682, the tribe was supposed to contain 1,500 warriors or about 4,600 souls; in 1720, 400 warriors or about 1,400 souls; and in 1743, after incorporating several small tribes, as having less than that number of warriors. In 1752. we have an estimate of about 300 warriors, or about 1,000 people; in 1755, 240 warriors; in 1757, about 300 warriors and 700 souls; and in 1759, 250 warriors.
Although there is an estimate accrediting them with 300 warriors in 1761, King Haigler declared that they had been reduced by that year, after the smallpox epidemic of 1760, to 60 fighting men. In 1763 fewer than 50 men were reported, and in 1766 "not more than 60." In 1775 there was estimated a total population of 400; in 1780, 490; in 1784, 250; in 1822, 450; in 1826, 110. In 1881 Gatschet found 85 on the reservation and 35 on adjoining farms, a total of 120. The census of 1910 returned 124, and in 1912 there were about 100, of whom 60 were attached to the reservation. The census of 1930 gave 166, all but 7 in South Carolina.
The Catawba, whether originally or by union with the Iswa, early became recognized as the most powerful of all the Siouan peoples of Carolina. They are also the tribe which preserved its identity longest and from which the greatest amount of linguistic information has been obtained.
The name itself was given to a variety of grape, and has become applied, either adopted from the tribe directly or taken from that of the grape, to places in Catawba County, NC; Roanoke County, VA; Marion County, WV; Bracken County, KY; Clark County, OH; Caldwell County, MO; Steuben County, NY; Blaine County, OK; York County, SC; and Price County, WI.
It is also borne by an island in Ohio, and by the Catawba River of the Carolinas, a branch of the Wateree.