Early History of the Catawba-Wateree River

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The basin has a long and colorful history that includes an advanced native-American civilization, America's first declaration of independence, America's first gold rush, an early canal system, the harnessing the of the river for cotton mills, the harnessing of the river to generate electricity and many other events.

Native American Culture

The Catawba-Wateree River was originally home to the Catawba Tribe, self-identified “people of the river” and the Wateree Tribe, whose name comes from a Catawban word meaning “to float on the water.”  Today the Catawba-Wateree basin is the home of approximately 2 million people. 

Observations by early explorers and travelers suggest that the Native-Native-American SettlementAmericans along the Catawba and Wateree Rivers were a relatively advanced civilization that was dependent upon the fish in the River for sustenance.  The fish weirs used by these people are still visible today near Ft. Mill, South Carolina.  The location of Catawba tribe also allowed them to control a key section of the primary trade route on the east coast of the continent.

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.

Excavation of Fort San Juan near Morganton

 Juan Pardo’s expedition of 1567 likely passed through the Catawba valley, and his “Ysa” tribe is likely a reference to the Catawbas.  The ruins of a small Spanish outpost (Fort San Juan) have been excavated near the Catawba River in Morganton, North Carolina. Based on Spanish records and archaeological findings, it appears that Fort San Juan was occupied in 1567-1568.

 Lawson, who passed through their territory in 1701, speaks of the Catawba as a "powerful nation" and states that their villages were very thick. He calls the two divisions, which were living a short distance apart, by different names, one the Kadapau and the other the Esaw, unaware of the fact that the two were synonymies. From all accounts they were formerly the most populous and most important tribe in the Carolinas, excepting the Cherokee.  Adair, 75 years later, says that one of the ancient cleared fields of the tribe extended 7 miles. In 1728 they still had 6 villages, all on Catawba river, within a stretch of 20 miles, the most northern being named Nauvasa. Their principal village was formerly on the west side of the river, in what is now York County, South Carolina, opposite the mouth of Sugar creek. 

The Catawba attached themselves to the interests of the English colonists after the beginning of settlement in the Carolinas during the 1660s. Their Great Falls of the Catawbaloyalty wavered only briefly during 1715. Otherwise, they fought other Native Americans for the British and protected the Carolina colonies from encroachment by the French and Spanish. They also were used by the Colonists to hunt runaway slaves. It was a common practice in South Carolina to force new slaves to pass in front of a Catawba warrior in warpaint to discourage escape attempts. For more information about the Catawba Tribe, click here.

In 1738 and again in 1759, smallpox raged through the region and killed many settlers and the native-americans.  Decimated by diseases and destitute, the Catawba and other local tribes nearly ceased to exist.  By 1860, the Catawba and Wateree tribes had lost control of almost all their land as a result of the settlement by whites.  

The Colonial Period

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 and early settlers. The presence of  Nations Ford led to development of trading paths which converged at this crossing point. This The Great Wagon Road in NCpath 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 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.  For more information about Nations Ford, click here or to see the route of the Great Wagon Road in North Carolina, click here or the map to the right.

By 1650, a profitable trade of manufactured goods such as guns, powder, shot, hatchets, kettles, fabrics, blankets, and trinkets was traveling through the Catawba Valley. In approximately 1747, Adam Sherrill and his eight sons became the first documented white settlers west of the Catawba River. They crossed the river at a ford located in the middle of what is now Lake Norman. The ford subsequently became known as “Sherrill's Ford.”  By July 1749, John Beatty had also crossed the Catawba at a site that became known as Beatty’s Ford (which is now under Mountain Island Lake).  By the 1750s, a new flow of traffic began in the form of settlers moving south on the “Great Waggon Road” from Philadelphia.  The old Catawba Path was primary basis for the "Great Waggon Road."   Other popular fords used by early settlers included Nation Ford (near Rock Hill, SC), Cowans Ford (near Huntersville, NC), and Island Ford (near Statesville, NC).  In the late 1700s, ferries began to be established at or near the major fords over the Catawba, including a ferry at Nation Ford, Rozzell's ferry (near Mt. Holly, NC), Hager's ferrry (about 1-mile upstream from Cowans Ford). 

Ft DobbsDuring the French and Indian War (1754-1763), the Catawba River was on the fringe of western civilization in the Carolinas.  Fort Dobbs, a key fort, was located just east of the Catawba River, near present day Statesville, North Carolina, near where the Catawba River turns west and the Upper Catawba Valley served as a gateway into the unsettled mountains.

Role of the Catawba River in the American Revolution

The fords over the Catawba River played a significant role in the American Revolution by limiting British movement.  It can be argued that the Catawba River is responsible for the surrender of the British army at Yorktown, Virginia because a swollen Catawba River prevented the British from catching the patriot forces and caused the British to burn many of their supplies in order to lighten the load so that they could cross the river.

On several occasions, the banks of the River were the site of military encampments, battles and skirmishes. In June 1780, Patriot militia defeated loyalist forces at Ramsour's Mill on the South Fork of the Catawba River in Lincolnton, North Carolina.  In July of 1780, General Thomas Sumter and 500 patriot men camped at Nation Ford and fought battles with British.at Peay's Ferry and Rocky Mount, which are located near Great Falls, South Carolina.  In August 1780, General Sumter's Patriot militia were camped near the junction of Fishing Creek and the Catawba River after capturing two British supply trains when they were surprised by Tarlton's cavalry and routed.  These battles were not decisive in the fight for independence, but they did set the stage for key battles in the fight for independence at Kings Moutain and Cowpens, and they set in motion a series of events leading to the end of the war.

The "Mountain Men" who were responsible for victory at the Battle of Kings Mountain camped at Quaker Meadows on the banks of the Catawba River near Morganton, NC a mere seven days before the Battle of Kings Mountain. The Battle of Kings Mountain, which occurred just west of the Catawba Basin, began on October 7, 1780.  In The Winning of the West, Theodore Roosevelt wrote that "This brilliant victory marked the turning point of the American Revolution." Thomas Jefferson called it, "The turn of the tide of success." Herbert Hoover said, "Here less than a thousand men, inspired by the urge of freedom, defeated a superior force intrenched in this strategic position. This small band of patriots turned back a dangerous invasion well designed to separate and dismember the united Colonies. It was a little army and a little battle, but it was of mighty portent. History has done scant justice to its significance, which rightly should place it beside Lexington, Bunker HIll, Trenton and Yorktown."

At Kings Mountain, a small body of Patriot militia, frontiersmen and irregulars defeated a larger force of British regulars under Major Ferguson.  Maj. Ferguson was trying to protect the left flank of Lord Cornwallis' main army, which was located in the Catawba basin in the vicinity of Charlotte, North Carolina.  Many of the men in the Patriot force were recruited from frontier outposts in the Catawba basin and joined the with other Colonial frontiersmen traveling from what is now Tennessee.  The victory at Kings Mountain was made possible by the swift movement of the Patriot forces and the route of the Patriot forces has been memorialized as the Overmountain National Historic Victory Trail.  Much of the trail is located in the Catawba Basin and one of the key places where forces joined together was at the home of Joseph McDowell, which is located on the upper Catawba River between Lake James and Old Fort, North Carolina.

After the defeat of the British at Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780, Lord Cornwallis retreated south from Charlotte to the relative safety of Winnsboro, South Carolina. He went down Nation Ford Road from Charlotte, but was unable to cross the Catawba River at Nation Ford due to flooding. 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.  For the next couple of months, the forces skirmished and the Patriot forces moved quickly to avoid a major battle.

On January 17, 1781, an elite British force chased the Patriot forces to the Broad River (the next river west of the Catawba River) at Cowpens, South Carolina.   Although the Patriots seemed to be trapped with their backs against the Broad River, it was actually part of an elaborate plan to lure the British forces into a trap.  The result was a decisive victory for the southern Continental Army and the Patriot militia.  Morgan's army took 712 prisoners and decimated some of the best units in Cornwallis's army - the British Legion and the dragoons - which suffered an 86% casualty rate.  Cowpens was a surprising victory that lifted Patriot morale and demoralized Loyalists and British forces. In the aftermath of Cowpens, British General Cornwallis ordered the main body of his army to burn their baggage and chase down the Patriot forces under General Morgan and General Greene, which had retired to the east side of the Catawba River near Charlotte.

High water levels in the Catawba River and the presence of Patriot forces at the fords over the Catawba River, particularly Beatties Ford, Cowans Ford and Sherrills Ford, thwarted British efforts to chase down theBattle of Cowans Ford Continental Army and forced the British to take time to regroup at Lincolnton, North Carolina between the Sourth Fork of the Catawba and the main branch of the Catawba River. 

On February 1, 1781, 5,000 British redcoats attempted to cross the Catawba at Cowans Ford from the Lincoln County (west) side, fighting several hundred patriots on the Mecklenburg County (east) side of the River.  Although the British succeeded in crossing the Catawba, the Battle of Cowans Ford was a phyrric victory because the British lost many of their canon in the water crossing the Catawba, they incurred further casualties and the battle slowed the British pursuit of Patriot forces under Nathaniel Green and Daniel Morgan.

After a long chase Cornwallis, finally caught the Patriot forces at Guilford Court House, near Greensboro, North Carolina.  Although the British defeated the Continental Army at Guilford Court House (for more information go to Guilford Court House), the series of battles from Kings Moutain to Guilford Court House so weakened Corwallis's army that he gave up on his attempts to pacify the Carolinas and withdrew to Yorktown, Virginia, to rest and refit. This allowed Washington to trap and defeat Cornwallis at the Battle of Yorktown, which ultimately resulted in the British giving up their efforts to retain their American colonies.

Settling the Catawba Basin - Canals, Railroads and Gold

1800s Harvest in Catawba Valley Burke CountyAfter the Revolutionary War, the rich bottom land of the Catawba Valley began to fill up with farms and towns began to appear throughout the basin. The River was vital to the economy of the region and Robert Davidson was appointed as "Overseer and Commissioner" a portion of the Catawba (arguably, Robert Davidson was the original Catawba Riverkeeper).  His responsibilities included keeping the river open for the passage of fish.  Although there were a number of grist mills along tributaries of the Catawba River, during this period the Catawba River itself remained untamed.  

In the early 1800s, various visionaries began to contemplate the construction of canals to make the Catawba and Wateree Rivers navigable for commercial barges.  Landsford Canal Chanel and BridgeThe "Landford Canal" was the farthest upstream of a series of canals built on the Catawba and Wateree Rivers to provide a direct water route between the upstate settlements and the towns along the Catawba River.  Landsford Canal, as it later became known, is located east of Chester, South Carolina.  It is named for an early settler, Thomas Land, who owned the land with a ford across the Catawba River. It is the centerpiece of the Landsford Canal State Park (this link will take you away from the Riverkeeper web site).  Unfortunately for the entrepreneurs who built and financed the canals, the canals along the Catawba and Wateree Rivers were never commercially successful.  They were eventually replaced by the railroads.  Construction of Landsford Canal was completed in 1824 and it was out of operation by 1840.  (For more information on Landsford Canal, click here.)

The region benefited from the first discovery of gold in the United States in the early 1800s and in 1837 a branch of the U.S. Mint was established in Charlotte to mint gold coins.  Although the quantity of gold extracted from the region was relatively small compared to later gold rushes, gold mining in the region has continued into modern times.

The first railroad passed over the Catawba River in the 1850s.  The route of the railroad south from Charlotte followed closely the old Nation Ford Road. The Catawba River was the largest river crossed by the line between Petersburg, Virginia and Augusta, Georgia.  

The Civil War

By the time of the Civil War, Charlotte was a major rail hub and the Confederates moved the Norfolk naval ordinance facility to Charlotte because of the good transportation facilities and because the Catawba valley was considered relatively safe from attack.  However, because the rail trestle over the Catawba River at Nation Ford was one of the longest spans on the line between Georgia and Virginia, 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 destroy1860s - General Shermans 14th corps crossing the Catawba near "Rocky Hill" SC railroad lines in the vicinity of Salisbury and Charlotte.  On April 16, 1865, the Confederate Home Guard tried to stop Stoneman's Raiders from crossing the Catawba at Morganton.  The Confederates were able to prevent the Union troops from crossing at their intended location, but they were subsequently outflanked when the Union troops crossed at Flemming's Ford.  In an action at Nation Ford on April 19, 1865, the rail bridge over the Catawba River was destroyed.  The loss of the trestle deprived the Confederacy of a vital link in its supply lines. A few days after this action, on April 27, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and the remnants of his Cabinet crossed the river at Nation Ford on their flight to the southwest.  General Sherman's 14th Corps crossed the Catawba at Nation Ford (depicted above) shortly before the end of the war.

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