Excavated Village Unlocks Mystery of Tribe's Economy

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
November 14, 2005

A recent excavation by archaeologists has cast new light on how the Catawba Indians lived two centuries ago in a village near the North Carolina- South Carolina border.

The discovery of pottery fragments and other artifacts indicates that the Catawbas had found a niche in the early American economy.

"The perception of the Catawbas has been that they were in a perpetual state of decline," said University of North Carolina archaeologist Brett Riggs, who worked on the project.

"The archaeological record counters that view. They were a very vibrant society. They had a declining population, but they were meeting that challenge in very creative ways."

The three-year dig, funded in part by the National Geographic Society, was conducted on private property near Rock Hill, South Carolina.

The village consisted of small log houses on about 40 acres (16 hectares) where a few hundred Catawba Indians lived in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The archaeologists found clear indications that by the time this village was active, the Native Americans there didn't support themselves solely with the traditional occupations of hunting, fishing, and farming. Instead their livelihood also came from more modern sources.

"By now they were landlords, leasing much of their reservation to white settlers," said Steve Davis, another UNC archaeologist who worked on the dig.

Living History

In the 1930s Isabelle Baker was the first scholar to study the village as a student at Queens College in Charlotte, North Carolina. Baker visited the site in 1935 with Samuel Blue, a former chief of the Catawba tribe.

Blue related the description of the village that had been given to him by his mother. Baker wrote about her visit and interview with Blue in a 1935 letter to a UNC archaeologist.

The log cabins were about 12 feet by 16 feet (3.5 meters by 5 meters), with walls that were "about shoulder height," Baker wrote. "The roofs, also of logs, were gabled. The logs were covered with rough boards and the cracks daubed with mud. The huts had dirt floors."

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