Growing up on the banks of the Catawba I became well versed on the history of our Native American brothers living across the river bearing their name. Sure! I was well versed in what I had been taught watching too many cowboy and Indian episodes on my black and white TV. The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Rin Tin Tin and the local Fred Kirby Show were almost a daily fare with certain movie reruns thrown in for emphasis. Like most kids of my era I believed this “was really the way it was.”
TV wasn’t my only outlet. I heard stories from my grandparents and great grandparents of arrowheads being found in fields and on the riverbank, collected from long ago battles fought between the Catawba and the nearby tribes, mostly the Cherokee from across the Broad River which was rumored to be the border between the two enemies. I was also told stories of contact with either the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto or Juan Pardo on their failed search for gold. Later I would learn how the Catawba made friends with the pale English speaking visitors that ventured above the fall line or down from Virginia or Pennsylvania in hopes of finding fertile land to settle on. The Scots-Irish were successful in their venture and I am a product of those efforts. It was easy for the five or six-year old me to visualize buckskin clad warriors battling each other to the death using bows and arrows, stone axes and spears, usually from the backs of their small but spirited horses. This is, after all, how I saw Native Americans on my television. I wondered if these natives had made contact with John Wayne or maybe Jimmy Stewart. Where was Fort Apache?
Early in my memories, foggy memories at that, I think I met my first Catawba Indian on the old ferry that ran across the river near Van Wych. I did not know it at the time and was too young to tell the difference between one “white” man in working cloths and an “Indian” in working cloths. I probably could not tell the difference today. What I do remember was how scary the trip was. Driving onto the rickety old wooden ferry was scary enough but the “hundred” mile trip across the river was terrifying. If stories are true, or my memory accurate, the operator of the ferry was a Catawba. Very soon a bridge would be built and the river crossing would become much shorter and less scary. The ferry would be no more, along with the revenues the crossings generated. As I got older I remember trips to Rock Hill past the old landing with its ferry rotting away on dry land as the years scrolled past. I am not sure I could find the spot again with a gun held to my head.
In the winter of my sixth year I would have one of my “first life bubbles” burst. I could hardly control my excitement as I waited for the end of school and my parents to return home from work at Springs Mills. They would bathe, change cloths and as a family we would return to Fort Mill for the annual Christmas Parade. This was going to be a special parade. Always exciting with bands, homecoming queens waving from convertibles, clowns, homemade floats, venders barking out their wares and the little elf dressed in red riding on top of a firetruck this one was going to be even more exciting. Today I was here not to see Santa Claus but to see Chief Samuel Taylor Blue, newly elected chief of the Catawba Indian Nation. He was to be the grand marshal and in my mind’s eye I saw him riding majestically on his painted horse, clad in buckskins decorated to show his station. I wondered if he would be in war paint and how big a headdress he might be wearing. I was so excited I was afraid that I might not be able to hold my water.
As I thought about whatever six year olds think about my reverie was disturbed as yelling and applause erupted. The parade had started and I scanned down the parade route on Tom Hall Street and saw nothing but a black convertible. In the back seat was an old white haired man in his seventies or eighties dressed in wide lapelled gray stripped black suit. In his hand, a dark fedora was being waved to the cheering crowd. He had a smile as wide as the lapels on his suit. A hand lettered sign had been taped to the door that read Chief Blue. What? No horse, no bow and arrows, no buckskins or war paint. My disappointment was great to say the least.
Despite his age and his lack of buckskins or hatchets, I have found out that Chief Blue was quite the warrior…as an activist and politician. Twice elected chief, he often spoke in front of our General Assembly and was a key figure in working toward settling land claims with South Carolina and York County, gaining citizenship for himself and the members of his nation, something not done in South Carolina until 1944, and gaining federal recognition for the Catawba as a tribe accomplished earlier in 1941. An advocate of Native American arts, his was called the “last native speaker” of the Catawba language. The Catawba are known world-wide for their pottery and woven baskets.
A practicing Mormon, Blue was considered a hero who helped protect missionaries from mobs in the early Twentieth Century. He and his wife would travel to the Great Salt Lake in 1950 and speak in front of the General Conference. Chief Blue died in 1959 after a lifetime serving his tribe and his church. Despite my youthful preconceptions I would say that he died a true Native American Warrior…with or without his buckskins.
In the picture, I understand Chief Blue is sitting on the right holding the child in the middle row.
Don Miller has written three books which may be purchased at http://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM
Inspirational true stories in WINNING WAS NEVER THE ONLY THING can be downloaded for $1.99.
“STUPID MAN TRICKS” explained in FLOPPY PARTS for $.99.
“Southern Stories of the Fifties and Sixties…” in PATHWAYS for $3.99.
All may be purchased in paperback.