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Archaeologists, students at UNC, discover two Indian settlements key in US history

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Students working on the project

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CHAPEL HILL -- Using centuries-old records, trowels, spoons and other tools -- and generating much sweat equity in the process -- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill archaeologists and students have discovered what they say are two of the most important Indian settlements in the early history of the United States.

Their team has unearthed remnants of cabins that Catawba Indians collectively called Old Town and New Town on hills sloping up from the Catawba River in rural Lancaster County, S.C., just south of Charlotte. During their painstaking work, they found thousands of artifacts discarded at the sites, ranging from shards of English, American and Catawba pottery and snaffle bits for horses' bridles to coins and broken Jews' harps -- small instruments that produced musical tones when held in the mouth and plucked.

None of the finds has financial value, but they are worth their weight in gold to investigators trying to enlarge the history of one of the Carolinas' most storied Indian groups, said Dr. R.P. Stephen Davis of UNC's Research Laboratories of Archaeology, based in the College of Arts and Sciences. The scientists will not reveal the exact locations to keep vandals and relic hunters from trespassing and destroying the fragile records.

"Old Town, where the Catawbas lived on the eve of the American Revolution, should provide insights into what life was like at a time when they were still an important and strategically positioned ally of South Carolina on their western frontier," Davis said.

"At New Town, occupied between about 1800 and 1820, the Catawbas' relationship to their white neighbors was more economic than strategic in that they were landlords to dozens of white farmers who leased lands on the Catawba Reservation and also were engaged in the commercial production of pottery for sale."

Overall, UNC's Catawba Project seeks to examine the emergence and endurance of the modern Catawba Indian Nation, which has maintained the longest continuous pottery tradition in the eastern United States, he said.

"We have identified a chronological sequence of Catawba town sites that date from the mid-1700s through the first quarter of the 1800s," said Davis, co-project director with Dr. Brett Riggs, also a UNC staff archaeologist. "This was a dynamic period during which the Catawba underwent significant political, economic and social change."

By studying Catawba lifestyles and the ways in which their lives changed during that period, the archaeologists hope to understand better how and why they survived as a people despite all odds and predictions made by contemporary observers.

"The Catawba's story is an important part of the history of both Carolinas," he said. "We are particularly excited about being able to contribute to the modern Catawbas' understanding of their past."

For both town sites where they excavated, the researchers know the names of many of the Catawba families who lived there and, in some cases, can identify probable descendants of those families, Davis said.

"This close link between our research and modern peoples offers an all-too-rare opportunity for archaeology to contribute something meaningful to the Native American community," he said. "It also provides an opportunity to work with and learn from the Catawba."

Riggs said that when explorers and traders from Virginia and South Carolina first entered the middle Catawba-Wateree Valley in the late 1600s, they encountered a large native population comprised of Sugerees, Esaws, Kadapaus and others. This diverse community soon became known to the English as the Catawba Nation.

"During the first half of the 1700s, as European-introduced diseases, Iroquois raiding and Indian-Colonial wars took their toll on native peoples throughout both Carolina colonies, more than 20 neighboring tribes sought refuge among the Catawba and established several towns," he said. "In 1759, a smallpox epidemic devastated the entire native community and the survivors, now all known as Catawba, resettled in two towns near the current excavations. We plan to dig at those sites in a few years."

Not long after the epidemic, the distinct histories of the Catawba and the disparate groups who settled among them merged to form a single history of the modern Catawba Nation, Riggs said. He called theirs an "amazing" story of accommodation and survival.

"Along with the Chickasaw, they were among the most warlike people in the East, and considered themselves to be professional soldiers," he said. "They tied their fortunes to the British colony of South Carolina, and fought as allies to the colony in every war from 1680 until the American Revolution."

At the same time, they were politically astute, and sided with their American neighbors in the Carolina backcountry against the British Crown during the Revolution, the archaeologist said. When the British under Gen. Cornwallis swept through the Piedmont in 1780, they ravaged the Catawba lands and homes.

"Later, Catawba troops took their revenge on the British at Guilford Courthouse and Yorktown. In one small incident in Alamance County, a group of Catawbas ambushed a patrol of Tarleton's hated Green Dragoons (British heavy cavalry) and left them in a mass grave," Riggs said. "The Catawba nation contributed, in proportion to their population, the highest rate of military service of any American community during the Revolution, and they were known as the Patriot Indians for decades."

Catawbas even changed the title of their leader from "king" to "general" to fit better into the new republic, he said.

"This discovery and the field school, which this year involved a dozen students, two graduate assistants and an undergraduate assistant, is an excellent example of how, at a university like UNC, teaching and research go hand in hand," said Dr. Vincas Steponaitis, professor of anthropology and director of the UNC Research Laboratories of Archaeology. "The students are taking a course and learning the techniques of archaeology, while at the same time participating in real research. We also had several volunteers, including three members of the Catawba Indian Nation.

"Finding these Catawba towns is a major breakthrough that will greatly increase our knowledge of this important tribe's history," Steponaitis said. "This project brings together history and archaeology in very innovative ways."

UNC News Services


Note: Davis and Riggs can be reached at 962-3845 and 962-3843, respectively. Steponaitis' number is 919-962-6574.

Photo url: For a photo of students working on the project, go to

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