History of Nations Ford

— filed under:

The Nation Ford and Nation Ford Road have witnessed an extraordinary span of human history. From the days of pre-history when Catawbas and other Native Americans traveled the trail and fished the river to the coming of European traders and settlers; from ancient battles between Indian tribes to the struggles of the American Revolution and Civil War; from the passage of common men to the flight of a President and his crumbling Cabinet; from the flames of armed conflict to the destruction of raging floods; from travel on foot and horseback to the coming of the railroad; from the early grist mill to the textile age. Through all these events, the Nation Ford Road had helped to shape our modern world.

The following information was taken from the submission to have Nations Ford listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Nations Ford, located near Rock Hill, South Carolina, was one of a series of natural fords on the Catawba River which provided safe crossing points for Native Americans. 

The presence of the ford led to development of trading paths which convNative-American Settlementerged at this crossing point. The major trading path to the northern tribes led to Virginia and beyond. This path was being used by white traders by 1650. It was known by several names, including the “Occaneechi Path,” the “Catawba Path,” and on Mouzon’s map of 1775 as the “Indian Road.”  

One of the oldest documented travel routes in the southeast, it began at the James River at the site of present Petersburg Virginia, crossed the Piedmont of North Carolina, passed into South Carolina, and forked just south of the crossing of the Catawba River at Nation Ford. In the section of the route near its southern terminus at Nation Ford, it came eventually to be known as Nation Ford Road. South of the ford, it split, with one fork leading west to the Cherokee lands, and the other leading south to the Native American tribes around present-day Augusta. 

The trail provided the Catawba Indians and other southern tribes with an access route for trade and communication with northern tribes. The date of the first contact between the Catawbas and Europeans is unknown. The route of Hernando de Soto’s travels through South Carolina in 1540 is a subject of debate, but he may have passed through Catawba territory. Juan Pardo’s expedition of 1567 likely passed through the Catawba valley, and his “Ysa” tribe is likely a reference to the Catawbas. Later travelers Lederer (1670) and John Lawson (1701) provide descriptions of the Catawbas. The greatest impact on the Catawbas, however, came from Virginia. As early as 1644, the Acts of the Virginia Assembly contain references to the trading path to the south. 

By 1650, a regular and profitable trade was moving down the path from Virginia to the Catawba Nation. The convergence of trading paths at Nation Ford made the position of the Catawbas a strategic one, as they could to a large degree control the flow of trade to other tribes. Pack trains of horses were loaded and headed south carrying goods such as guns, powder, shot, hatchets, kettles, fabrics, blankets, and trinkets, all to be traded to the Catawbas and other tribes for skins and other products. 

When John Lawson traveled to the Catawba valley in 1701 from Charleston, he observed iron pots being used by the Waxhaws and Catawbas, and he met a Virginia trader named John Steward who was living temporarily with the Catawbas. As the South Carolina settlement at Charleston gained power, a trade was established from Charleston, and efforts were made to reduce the flow of trade northward to Virginia. This change in trade patterns reduced the use of the Catawba Path for a number of years.

By the 1740s and 1750s, the Catawba Path had largely fallen into disuse when a new flow of traffic began in the form of settlers moving south. The “Great Wagon Road” from Philadelphia and other northern areas carried many of the Scots-Irish and other settlers who settled the back country of the Carolinas before the Revolution. There were a number of routes for this traffic of settlers, but the old Catawba Path was one of the most important.

One of the first documented settlers in the area of the Catawba Nation was Thomas “Kanawha” Spratt. Although the date is uncertain, he settled along the Nation Ford Road about two miles north of the ford in the mid 1750s. Traveling south from Mecklenburg County, he camped along the road, was befriended by the Catawbas, and was persuaded by them to settle in the area. The friendly relations between Spratt and the Catawbas seemed to follow a pattern contrary to the strife experienced with many other tribes. Spratt invited a number of settlers to share in the land he had been given by the Catawbas. The tribal members also began entering into long-term leases with settlers, and by the early 1800s, most of the Catawbas most productive land was in the hands of Europeans, leaving the tribe in a declining condition. The Nation Ford Road and the crossing at Nation Ford was the chief route for movement of European settlers into the eastern section of York County. 

The strategic importance of Nation Ford and Nation Ford Road was apparent during the American Revolution. The ford remained one of the principal crossing points of the Catawba River. On several occasions, it was the site of military encampments. In July of 1780, General Thomas Sumter and 500 men camped at Nation Ford.  After the defeat of the British at Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780, Lord Cornwallis began to move his troops from Charlotte to the relative safety of Winnsboro. He came down Nation Ford Road from Charlotte, only to find the Catawba River in flood, making the crossing at Nation Ford too dangerous. Cornwallis camped his troops for several days at the Spratt springs above the ford waiting for the river to fall. He finally moved downstream to cross at Landsford. 

Activities clustered around the ford because of the level of traffic passing by. By 1786, a ferry was chartered by the Legislature “near a place known by the name of Old Nation Ford” to be operated by Thomas Sprot [Spratt] and Daniel Sturges [Sturgis]. The ferry was reauthorized a number of times, but the ford itself continued in use. In the 1780s and 1790s, York County appointed Road Commissioners to lay out and mark a road from Nation Ford to York Court House, and later to the Chester County line. Later, a grist mill was established just below the ford. Richard Austin Springs and William Elliott White, both of whom owned land in the area, established the mill in 1832, and it operated until it was washed away by a flood in 1887. 

By 1840, eastern York County had become relatively thickly settled, and the Catawba Indians had lost control of almost all their land. Decimated by diseases and destitute, they were in danger of passing out of existence. The State of South Carolina had appointed Indian Commissioners to deal with the Catawbas. Meeting at The Crossroads, just south of Nation Ford, the Chiefs of the Catawbas entered into a treaty in 1840 with the Indian Commissioners. Under this agreement, the Catawbas ceded to the state all their lands, totaling 144,000 acres, in return for a cash settlement and the provision of a reservation on the banks of the river.  Following this treaty, the state granted lands which had been leased to their lessees, in most cases at no cost. The Treaty of 1840 was successfully contested by the Catawba Nation during a long legal challenge in the 1980s and 1990s, leading to a final settlement. 

In the late 1840s, plans began for the development of a railroad to connect Charlotte, Columbia, and Augusta. The route of the railroad south from Charlotte followed closely the old Nation Ford Road. The Catawba River would be one of the largest stream which would be crossed by the line.  A trestle was constructed directly over the crossing at Nation Ford. The rail trestle and line were completed in 1852, creating a significant impact on the development patterns in the area. Rail depots were established five miles south of Nation Ford at Rock Hill and three miles north of the Ford at Fort Mill. These depots became important trading centers for eastern York County, and these communities are today the centers for growth in the area. 

The Civil War brought new importance to Nation Ford and the rail corridor which crossed at the site. The movement of troops, information, and supplies along the rail toward the Virginia front was critical for the Confederacy. Because the rail trestle on the Catawba was one of the longest spans on the line, it was vulnerable to enemy action. In the spring of 1865, as the Confederacy disintegrated, Union General George Stoneman assigned Colonel William J. Palmer’s cavalry forces to destroy railroad lines in the vicinity of Salisbury and Charlotte.  On April 19, Palmer’s force of 400 made its way south from Charlotte toward the Catawba trestle. General Samuel W. Ferguson, in command of the Rebel Troop and the Ashley Dragoons of the Third South Carolina Cavalry, had been assigned to move to the area and counter the Federal threat. When Ferguson’s force reached Charlotte, he found that Palmer was already headed toward the Catawba.

The bridge was being defended by Home Guards. A small battery had been erected on the south side of the river. It is unclear whether this position had been established previously by the Home Guards or hastily erected by Palmer’s men. A skirmish ensued, and Palmer easily overcame the Home Guards. At some point during the action, the trestle was set ablaze. Ferguson’s men reached the area too late to save the trestle. The action at Nation Ford on April 19, 1865 was significant. The loss of the trestle deprived the Confederacy of a vital link in its supply lines. A few days after this action, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and the remnants of his Cabinet crossed the river at Nation Ford on April 27 on their flight to the southwest. The stone pillars which supported the trestle at Nation Ford were used in the reconstruction of the rail span following the war. The trestle was destroyed in a flood on the Catawba in July 1916.  It was again rebuilt on the original stone pillars.   

Additional Information




Document Actions
Help Catawba Riverkeeper

Your River needs you as much as you need the River

Support Our River

Help in other ways

Jan 25, 2017 NC Riverkeeper Report
From the perspectives of 12 NC Riverkeepers, this report discusses how multiple environmental issues pose challenges in the pursuit of clean, plentiful water. Whether you are in North Carolina or downstream in South Carolina, read this report about the state of environmental enforcement.
Dec 13, 2016 Community Foundation of Gaston County grants $5,000 to CRF for Riverkeeper Program
The Community Foundation will fund Catawba Riverkeeper's work in Gaston County.
Dec 12, 2016 A Successful Launch of our Water Education Program at Great Falls Elementary
Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation in partnership with 4-H Clemson Cooperative Extension successfully completed our pilot Education Outreach Program with 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students from Great Falls Elementary.
Sep 27, 2016 Lake Wateree Fall Cleanup a Sweeping Success
86 volunteers collected 5,490 pounds of trash from Lake Wateree
Jun 13, 2016 Dozens of Youth Reached in Water Education Outreach Program Pilot Lessons
More news…
Report Pollution in the Catawba River

Help protect your River! 

Tell your Riverkeeper if you see:

  • Sewage Overflows
  • Failure to control sediment from construction sites
  • Illegal clearing of buffer areas
  • Fish kills 
  • Unpermitted discharges
  • Other issues that concern you

Click here to fill out a pollution report or to report water pollution to Catawba Riverkeeper by phone, call 1-888-679-9494 or 704-679-9494.  In addition, to informing your Riverkeeper, you should also report spills or contamination to federal, state and local environmental officials.

To report South Carolina water pollution call 1-888-481-0125.

To report North Carolina spills or fish kills, call your local regional Department of Environment & Natural Resources office during normal business hours (704-663-1699 for most Catawba basin areas or (828) 296-4500 for Burke, Caldwell, McDowell and other mountain counties) or 800-858-0368 after hours.  (For more information on NC spill reporting, click here)


The Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation is a proud member of EarthShare North Carolina, the North Carolina Conservation Network, River Network and the Waterkeeper Alliance.  It also in in an alliance with Clean Air Carolina to address issues, such as sprawl, that cause air and water problems.

Clean Air / Clean Water Alliance Logo

NC Conservation Network Logo


EarthShare of North Carolina Logo


4-H Clover leaf logo


River Network Logo


SC 4H Science on the Move logo



715 N. Church St., Suite 120 . Charlotte, NC 28202 . Phone: 704.679.9494 . Fax: 704.679.9559