How the Catawba Hooked up with the Melungeons and Wound up in Kentucky part II of my Melungeon Series

Once upon a time there was a group of people called the Catawba who lived in what is now North Carolina. In 1521, they looked out and saw the coming of a new age and the beginning of the end of life as they had known it for a long time. They saw ships on the horizon. A man named Vasques de Ayallon led a party of Spanish explorers onto their shores for the purpose of luring some friendly Catawba aboard their ship and then sailing away with them, a tactic that seemed to be common among slavers during those days as it would be used on Squanto and some friends about a hundred years later.

 They taught one of these captives to speak Spanish and renamed him Francisco de Chicora, but the next time the Spaniards docked along Catawba shores they were not met by old friends. The Catawba saw them coming and went the other way. And Francisco, he escaped into the wilderness, telling everyone he met that the Spaniards were bad news and pretty soon word spread throughout the peoples of the Atlantic coast to beware of the Spaniards.

But there is an old saying that the enemy of my enemy is my friend and so it was with the Catawba. Cofitachique, in what I believe to be present-day Camden, South Carolina, was the hubbub of Catawba culture. So when Hernando De Soto encountered the Muskogee (Creek) they told him of Cofitachique, saying that it was a seat of great wealth and prosperity. Of course, De Soto had gold fever and headed out to find Cofitachique.

On May 1, 1540, De Soto and his party came upon a group of Cofiticachique who was led by an impressive woman, but just as Cortez had pretended to befriend Montezuma then took him captive, De Soto did to the Lady of Cofticachique, but she escaped and fled into the wilderness which she knew so well.

The Spanish hoped to colonize Cofitachique and Pedro Menendez de Aviles had the support of the Spanish crown in his efforts to do so. In colonizing the area, the Spaniards intended to keep the area out of the hands of the French, establish St. Elena on the coast and move 120 men, under Captain Juan Pardo, inland to find a land route to New Spain, now known as Mexico. In order to subdue the natives and make them subjects of the Spanish crown, Menendez felt it necessary to convert them to Catholicism, so a Father Sebastian accompanied the expedition as they traveled into the heart of Catawba country. These Iberian explorers lived among the Catawba. I can’t help but wonder what genetic impact they made among the Catawba. I read when researching for my writings on my article about Joe Pabilo, my great-great-grandfather, that many of the explorers had Basque roots. Did some also have Berber roots? Portuguese? Italian? Did contact with Pardo’s men leave a genetic trail among the Catawba? Did these explorers have any connection to the Catawba people later moving north to settle in Melungeon country when England laid claim to their homelands and war and disease decimated their numbers? I can’t help but wonder if the Melungeons they would later turn to in a time of trouble actually originated with Pardo’s men. Some would argue that Melungeons were pure European. Others would argue that they were African men and White women, but whoever they were, they were there when the Catawba came to them, but we’re getting there.  

To make a long story shorter, the Spanish colony among the Catawba failed. In 1572, the Spaniards pulled out of Catawba land and there was a lull in visitors from Europe. In the following years, the Catawba would go to war with the Tucsonans twice and would eventually absorb the last remnants of the weary Yamasee and become a sanctuary for their longtime allies, the Saponi and Tutelo when they sought a place of refuge. These Siouan tribes joined the Catawba, who fate would become their fate, too. The Catawba, Saponi, and Tutelo joined both culturally and genetically. Sometimes, you have to overlook your differences and join forces with your friends and neighbors in order to survive. It’s just a part of being human.

If the Spanish were a threat to the Catawba, the English were a nightmare come true. In 1521, the Catawba and their affiliates claimed 55,000 square miles as their homelands. Around 1670, the English began to show up, in droves. Every immigrant that set up a homestead took a little piece of Catawba homeland and the settlers kept coming. Some came to get rich. Some came as an alternative to English prison, which was horrid. Some came as Irish and Scottish slaves to English overlords. Some came because they were “travelers” i.e. Gypsies that England had expelled; some came for the hunting, the fur trade, they came from England and Ireland. They came from France and from Germany and Switzerland, from Rotterdam and Holland. For whatever reasons, they came, by the hundreds, by the thousands. They came.

Within 90 years of the arrival of the English and all those who came from whatever country, swearing allegiance to the British Crown, few Catawba remained on their once vast lands. In 1759, a Small Pox epidemic wiped out about half of the Catawba-Saponi-Yamasee people, now all considered Catawba. By the following year, their capital had been given an English name, Pine Tree Hill. Eventually, the Catawba agreed to leave Pine Tree Hill and move north to Waxhaw Old Fields. By the terms of the treaty they signed, the Catawba lost their lands in Virginia and much of the Carolinas. They got to keep 2 million acres but most of their ancestral homeland was gone forever.

The Catawba moved into their assigned region but settlers had already set up shop on some of this land and the governor of North Carolina refused to do anything about it because he hadn’t personally signed any treaty with the Catawba and he wasn’t going to honor one or enforce it. White hunters disregarded Catawba land rights and would literally steal the game that Catawba hunters had killed right out of their camps. When their leader, King Haigler, died in 1753, the English king disregarded the Catawba treaty altogether on the grounds that the man who had signed it was dead, and he gave away the rest of Catawba land. A second epidemic of Small Pox had taken another half of their numbers, as well. This once huge group of people was now just a handful and homeless. The English settlement of the Carolinas brought war, disease, death, and poverty to the Catawba people.

When the Revolutionary War broke out and the settlers were fighting against their own kind, the Catawba was completely confused, but one thing they understood was that the British troops would not show them any mercy. They witnessed something that shook them to their foundations. In 1780, when the English took Charleston, they massacred a number of Colonists soldiers at Waxhaw. When the Catawba saw what was happening they knew that there was nothing to stop them from moving to Catawba Town next and doing the same thing to them. Knowing they were in serious trouble, outnumbered and outgunned, they evacuated their homes in the wake of approaching British troops.

Now, I may have to revise this part as I learn more, but to the best of my current understanding, the Catawba basically split up. Some went to live among Monacans, Catawban speaking allies from the days when they were strong enough to have the Catawba Alliance. Some may have gone on toward Roanoke and took up with the Pamunkey. Another group went South and asked the Cherokee, their old enemies, to take them in and they did and some, who had been Christianized by French missionaries, or so that’s what I’ve read, went toward the Melungeons. Did they share a history with the Melungeons? Did they share a cultural connection? Or did they just simply discover a group of people who would offer them a place of refuge?

I promise to write more on this subject in the upcoming days. I also promise to try to be as accurate as I can and when I am finished, I will post a list of sources that I’ve used to learn from. I doubt I will quote anyone, but rather just give you a list so you can read for yourself.

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