The Catawba River was named after the tribe that first settled its banks, the Catawba Indian Nation. The Catawba, meaning “people in the fork of the river,” have lived in the valley for more than 10,000 years. The Catawba Tribe was already a relatively advanced civilization when early explorers discovered the site. The group depended on the fish in the river for sustenance. The river also provided the clay that allowed the Catawba to become master potters. During colonial times, the Catawba maintained a good relationship with the English colonists: They not only fought other Native Americans for the English colonists but also protected them from the encroachment of French and Spanish. They also helped the British to hunt runaway slaves.
Located near Rock Hill, South Carolina, Nations Ford was one of a series of natural fords on the Catawba River that provided safe crossing points for Native Americans. The path was vital for the Catawba Indian Nation, especially for trade and communication with northern tribes. The path later became an important trading path for manufactured goods such as guns, powder, kettles, and fabrics. Nations Ford has also played an important role in the American Revolution for it was a major crossing point of the Catawba River. Many argue that the strategic use of the river led to the surrender of the British army at Yorktown, Virginia.
After the Revolutionary War, many farms and towns were established in the Catawba Valley. Later, the region had its first discovery of gold in the early 1800s, which also brought more settlers. Then the first railroad passed over the river in the 1850s. However, that’s also when the Catawba Indian Nation lost control of most of their lands. After the Civil War, the region grew tremendously as it developed its textile manufacturing industry. By the end of the 19th Century, people started to recognize the potential of the river and James B. Duke, the founder of Southern Power Company, the precursor to Duke Energy, acquired the rights to build dams along the Catawba. Thus, Lake Wylie was built in 1904, becoming the first major lake to be established on the main stem of the Catawba River, as a result of the establishment of a dam in Fort Mill, South Carolina that hoped to encourage industrial development. Nonetheless, the dam was destroyed in the Great Flood of 1916 but was later rebuilt.