Ancestors of the historic Catawba probably migrated to the southern Piedmont from across the Appalachian Mountains several centuries before Columbus. When Europeans arrived, the Catawba bordered on the Cherokee to the west, the Cheraw, Occaneechi, Saponi, Tutelo, and other Siouan-speaking Piedmont groups to the north, the Tuscarora to the east, and the Mississippian chiefdom of Cofitachique to the south. Contact with their fellow Piedmont peoples appears to have been peaceful; relations with other neighbors were marked by conflict. Initial contact with Europeans came with Hernando de Soto's exploratory army in 1540, but continuous contact with Europeans did not begin until the middle of the following century, when traders from Virginia (and, after 1670, South Carolina) pushed into the Piedmont.
Mutually beneficial trade relations induced the Catawba to ally with the English colonists against the Tuscarora in 1711, but in 1715 abuses by colonial traders led the Catawba to join Yamasee, Creeks, and others in a war against South Carolina. Following their defeat, Catawba relations with the English intruders were peaceful. Catawba warriors fought on the side of the British in the Seven Years' War and allied with the Patriot cause in the American Revolution.
In a 1763 treaty with representatives of the British Crown, the Catawba Nation agreed to give up its claims to much of the Carolina Piedmont in exchange for a reservation of 225 square miles (144,000 acres) along the Catawba River. In 1840, however, the Indians, under intense pressure from settlers (to whom they had leased much of the reservation), signed the Treaty of Nation Ford with South Carolina, relinquishing these lands in exchange for promises of money and the purchase of land somewhere else. Efforts to settle them elsewhere—including an abortive attempt to remove them across the Mississippi River with other Southeastern Indians—were unsuccessful. After a short stay among the neighboring Cherokee, the Catawba returned to the Catawba River, where in 1842 South Carolina purchased a 630-acre reservation for them. In 1943 the Catawba established a relationship with the federal government that included the addition of 3,500 acres to the reservation. This relationship with the federal government was terminated in 1962, and the "new" (federal) reservation was broken up. Today many Catawba remain on or near the "old" reservation established by South Carolina in 1842.