by D.H.T. Shippey & Michael Burns

The Catawba were revered as warriors by other Native American tribes. Sometimes, to prove themselves, braves from as far north as the Great Lakes would make the journey to the Carolinas just to challenge them. The most respected Catawba war captains tattooed their backs with two blacksnakes, one on each shoulder blade. The southern blacksnake was a hunter that would actually prey on venomous copperheads and was a symbol of great renown among the Indians.

The Catawbas’ skills as scouts, hunters and warriors were legendary. Although almost forgotten by history books today, the tribe willingly stood resolute with the Patriots throughout the War for Independence.

    By 1775, both the British and the newly defined “rebels” were actively seeking Indian alliances. On July 1 1775, the Continental Congress resolved to recruit Native

American tribes to the Patriot cause and adopted the following resolution:

“That in case any agent of the ministry shall induce the Indian tribes, or

any of them, to commit actual hostilities against these colonies, or to

enter into an offensive alliance with the British troops, thereupon the

colonies ought to avail themselves of an alliance with such Indian nations

as will enter into the same, to oppose such British troops and their Indian


While most of the Indian tribes would side with the British or attempt to remain neutral, a few nations/tribes such as the Stockbridge and Oneida gave support to the fledgling Patriot cause. The Colonists’ fear of the tribes supporting their British enemies was well founded; many of their Native American neighbors had fought against them in the French and Indian War only twelve years before. These heightened fears were realized when Lord Dunmore solicited the Ohio nations to attack any settlements on the Virginia frontier who failed to affirm their Loyalty.  The man who led the British party of Provincial officers sent to put the plan into action, John Connolly, was captured by Maryland minutemen at Hagers Town in November 1775. The plot was discovered when incriminating papers were found in Connolly's baggage. This exposed conspiracy is what led Thomas Jefferson to include among the list of the King’s offenses mentioned in the Declaration of Independence.

"He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions."

Some western and northern tribes were able to remain neutral or stay out of the tensions, but the Catawba found themselves surrounded by Loyalists and Patriots and had no such luxury. In July of 1775, the Catawba were invited to Charleston to speak with the Patriot Council of Safety about the disputes between the Colonists and their British opponents. The Catawba were shown the arguments and offered pay to join with the Patriots. Eight months later 34 warriors entered the service under Captain Samuel Boykin.

      If the Catawba had only served as scouts (a job at which they excelled) their service would be worth remembering, but their contribution was far greater. In June of 1776, 750 Rangers and about 35 Catawba forced 3,000 British troops to retreat at the Battle of Sullivan’s Island.

Catawba fought at the defense of Charleston, the Battle of Rocky Mount, the Battle of The Hanging Rock, the Battle of Fishing Creek, the Battle of Kings Mountain, and countless other skirmishes throughout the war.       

After the fall of Charleston, South Carolina, when the Patriots had lost their state’s capitol city, the Catawba invited the Patriots to encamp on their tribal land, bringing supplies from their own stocks to feed the beleaguered troops. In 1780, the feared British Gen. Lord Cornwallis' forces threatened the Catawba lands.  The women and children of the tribe travelled to Virginia to stay with a friendly tribe. When they returned from their exile, they found their villages destroyed and livestock gone. They had lost everything, and the British seemed to have conquered the South. Throughout the war King’s ambassadors attempted to sway the steadfast tribe to abandon the American cause, but they never did.

       Close existence with the Patriots left its mark on the tribe.  Many took American names and adopted American dress. Prow, the Catawba King, was replaced by “General” New River. After the war the Catawba who had lived and fought alongside the Patriots for seven years invited many of their poorer landless comrades to settle on their land.

      It is probably their remembered service which allowed the Catawba the ability to survive and remain in the Carolinas while so many other tribes were relocated, but that is not to say they did not struggle to survive. In 1822, Catawba veteran of the Revolution Peter Harris petitioned the Government:

"I'm one of the lingering embers of an almost extinguished race, Our graves will soon be our only habitations, I am one of the few stalks that still remain in the field; where the tempest of the revolution passed, I fought against the British for your sake, The British have Disappeared, and you are free, Yet from me the British took nothing, nor have I gained anything by their defeat. I pursued the deer for my subsistence, the deer are disappearing, & I must starve God ordained me for the forest, and my ambition is the shade, but the strength of my arm decays, and my feet fail in the chase, the hand which fought for your liberties is now open for your relief. In my Youth I bled in battle, that you might be independent, let not my heart in my old age, bleed, for the want of your Commiseration."

In response to this the state of South Carolina awarded Peter Harris a pension of $60 a year.

After 1785, the state of South Carolina sanctioned the Catawba ability to lease their land and commissioned the government to act as bookkeeper under the pretense that the state would be helping the Catawba and white settlers. The money collected from the leases would theoretically go to educate the Catawba. Unsurprisingly, the state-assigned commissioners kept poor records (the first record book was lost) and many tenants refused to pay the Catawba rent. By the 1830’s, the state of South Carolina wanted to buy the land from the Catawba. In 1838, the legislature passed an act to support the Catawba and purchase land in Haywood County North Carolina for the Catawba Nation. However, contentions erupted between states and the North Carolina government refused to sell land to South Carolina for this purpose. For more than two years, tribal members were in limbo. In 1842, the state finally purchased 630 acres in the same area that had once belonged to the Catawba. The remaining Catawba returned to their much diminished homeland, where the tribe remains today. The Catawba people abandoned the art of tattooing in the 18th century. The last war captain, Revolutionary veteran Pine Tree George, died sometime during this period. Near the end of his career in the Continental army, Pine Tree George was presented with a silver gorget in recognition of his service. The front of this gorget contains his name in bold letters. Not satisfied with only his name, which he possibly could not read, George engraved the reverse of this prized commendation with two blacksnakes.

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