The History of the Catawba

Long before the Catawba River was dammed in 1963 to create Lake Norman, the river and surrounding area was home to the Catawba tribe of North Carolina. Now with a reservation in Rock Hill, SC, this Indian Nation lived along the Catawba River for the past 6000 years. The river itself has long been a part of the historical narrative of settlers, as its presence provided sites with water and key cartographic information for traveling. One can visualize the importance of this location over the last few centuries.

Because of the river's desirability and the overarching push toward American colonialism, settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries fought over these lands with indigenous peoples. The removal of Native Americans from the Southeast is well-documented, especially with the plight of the Cherokee Nation through their journey on the Trail of Tears. The Catawba faced a similar struggle, as they attempted to preserve their own culture while maintaining alliances with the Cherokee and other tribes. Although the process of removal began centuries prior, emphasized in the 1700s with the rise of slavery and cotton agriculture, the 1840 Nations Ford Treaty ceded Catawba land to South Carolina and provided in return “three hundred acres of which is to be good arable lands, fit for cultivation, to be purchased in Haywood County, N.C., or in some other mountainous or thinly populated region." In a letter sent by North Carolina Governor John Motley Morehead in 1841, he “refused to accept the Catawba” and “sarcastically proposed that the North Carolina Cherokee should instead settle themselves in South Carolina." Such sentiments proved common during this period, as in 1847 the governor of South Carolina, David Johnson, remarked, “They [the Catawba] are, in effect, dissolved."

Accordingly, although the Catawba were effectively displaced from today's Lake Norman region, their namesake and artifacts remain. Considering the long-time historical presence of the Catawba, it follows that some pieces of their material culture would exist underneath the now flooded region of Lake Norman. Pottery, for example, is considered a “cultural legacy” to the Catawba, and was traditionally “dug from clay holes along the banks of the Catawba river." Other artifacts may include tobacco pipes, gun parts, glass beads, and nose bangles. Before the influence of firearms through trading, arrows were also used; these arrowheads today are now considered prized collector's pieces. Today, archeologists are still finding new sites where the Catawba and other Native Americans lived. Further up the river in Morganton, past the dams built by Duke Energy, a 500-year old village was discovered in 2012. Research on the Catawba's presence in the Carolinas continues to be a long-term effort for archaeologists and historians alike, as seen in the “Catawba Project” run by UNC Chapel Hill. Similar places and archaeological remains likely exist beneath the waves of the lake, sitting alongside the farmlands, cemeteries, and other physical remnants predating the 1960s.


The construction of the Cowan's Ford Dam and the subsequent creation of Lake Norman in the late 1950s and early 1960s represented just one part of a larger hydroelectric project on the Catawba River, dating back to the early 1900s. Furthermore, it fits into the larger context of river manipulation and the “energy-water nexus” that developed in the U.S. South in the early to mid-1900s. Over the course of the twentieth century, public and private entities across the U.S. South sought water management solutions for two primary purposes: environmental control—limiting flooding and drought—and electric power production.

In 1900, Walker Gill Wylie and Robert H. Wylie formed the Catawba Power Company, which was purchased by the Duke brothers upon the completion of the construction of its first power station in 1904. Throughout the early 1900s, the Duke Power Company sought to build a market for hydroelectric power and develop an interconnected hydroelectric system, rather than “random development of isolated sites.” While Duke Energy's permit to construct the Cowan's Ford Dam was not obtained until 1958, the company's “plans for the project date back to 1904”. As part of its project to expand demand for electricity, the Duke Power Company invested in textile mills throughout the region. By 1928, the Catawba River system was nicknamed “the world’s most electrified river,” with ten dams and dozens of powerhouses dispersed up and down the river.

On August 25, 1957, the Charlotte Observer reported Duke Power Company's proposal to build the Cowan's Ford Lake, “the latest (and last) of Duke Power Co.’s dammed-up creatures of the Catawba”. In the article announcing the company's plan, the Charlotte Observer framed the infrastructure project largely in terms of hydroelectric power and recreation opportunities, declaring that the dam would create “a whopping charge of electrical energy for Duke and a new sportsman’s playground for water-wacky Carolinians”.

In a 1959 meeting at the Statesville Kiwanis Club, Duke Energy representative Bill Ward explained that the primary motivation behind the construction of the Cowan's Ford Dam was to provide “power for peak load periods." Unlike the steam-generated power plants Duke had already constructed in the area, the Cowan's Ford Dam would include “water-driven turbines” that could easily be started and stopped to control energy generation. The creation of the dam was therefore an opportunity for Duke Energy to increase its market share in the textile industry, which was transitioning production from “steam-generated power to electricity."

However, this was not the only ambition behind the project. In a 1959 publication of the Statesville Record & Landmark, home-sites that would soon become lakefront properties were being advertised by Duke Energy to potential customers. Furthermore, the company discussed its goal of bringing new industry to the area surrounding the soon-to-be lake. While these plans provided future economic stimulus for the surrounding area, they also marked a distinct shift from the industry and communities that were currently residing in the path of the impending flood.

The local newspaper record from the late 1950s and early 1960s showed little concern for the land and communities that would be flooded and displaced due to the creation of Lake Norman. According to the Charlotte Observer, the land that would be flooded was 70% timberland and “most property to be submerged…[was] already owned by Duke." In anticipation of the flooding after the completion of the dam, Duke Power employed forester Carl Blades to purchase land from “reluctant farmers,  He ultimately purchased 30,000 acres of “family farmland” that would end up submerged. Because Lake Norman was anticipated to be relatively shallow, Duke had to “scrub the land clean of trees, homes, and other debris” to “remove underwater hazards." Those individuals who would be displaced were often hesitant, but “there weren’t any huge protests." Some residents even “turned the burden” of the new lake “into a boon." A number of farmers benefited by holding on to what would soon become expensive lakefront property, while other residents refused to sell to Duke Energy and as a result leased their water rights to the company."

The project to construct Cowan’s Ford broke ground in 1959. Upon the dam’s completion in 1962, the lake began to fill with water. After the construction of the Cowan’s Ford Dam, the Catawba River slowly covered the 30,000 acres of land where farms, mills, plantations, and entire communities once resided.[48] Historic sites, such as the battlefield for Revolutionary War Battle of Cowan’s Ford, were also flooded during the creation of Lake Norman.

The mill towns of East Monbo and Long Island closed in 1959 and 1961, respectively, in anticipation of the formation of the lake. Situated on the banks of the Catawba River, the mills were extremely at risk of inundation. The proposal for Lake Norman and Cowan’s Ford Dam had brought uncertainty to the “community of oldtimers” living in these mill towns. In a segment titled “Where will the lake come?”, Douglas Eisele of the Statesville Record and Landmark remarked on the mill communities’ public memory of earlier flooding and resilience, writing: “will man’s ingenuity finally take down what two historic floods could not destroy?”. While the foundations of the mill towns’ building remain beneath the lake, some families moved their houses outside the range of the lake flooding.

Furthermore, several cemeteries, such as the Caldwell Family Cemetery and Flemming Family Cemetery, are now covered by the lake. Duke Energy tracked down family members of those buried in the surrounding cemeteries to determine how the graves should be handled before the flood. Many individuals asked for the gravestones to be transported to a new location and Duke ensured the markers were “cleaned and repaired” once they were moved.

Duke Power partnered with the state of North Carolina to establish Lake Norman State Park. It has also built two bank fishing areas and eight public boating access areas along the shoreline. One site is leased to Mecklenburg County and one to Iredell County. Game fish in Lake Norman include catfish, crappie, bluegill and yellow perch, as well as striped, largemouth, spotted, white bass hybrids, and long-nosed gar. Lake Norman has also become home to multiple species of wildlife, including eastern box turtle, soft shell turtle, snapping turtle, black (eastern) rat snake and the Northern water snake.


Lake Norman was named after Norman Atwater Cocke, former president of Duke Energy. Cocke was born on November 20, 1884 to father James Cocke and mother Sarah Atwater in Prince George County, Virginia. He was educated at Petersburg Academy and then went on to New York Law school. He graduated from the latter institution in 1905.After law school, he was admitted to the New York bar. A year after, he was also admitted the North Carolina and South Carolina Bar. Using his education, he began a further his career leading him to Duke Energy (then known as Southern Power and then Duke Power.

He first began his career with Duke Energy in 1906 as an attorney. He continued to provide legal services for Duke until 1958, over 50 years! He then went on to become the Vice President and Director of the Company in 1929. Cocke was president of Duke Energy from 1953 to 1958. While working for the company, he also got involved in contributing to other organizations in the South. From 1929 to 1959, Cocke served as the Vice President of Piedmont & Northern Railway co. which was the rail service that fueled the growth of North Carolinas Textile industry. He also served as Director and first president of Carolinas Virginia Nuclear. In his non-business work, he served as the director and first president of North Carolina Episcopal Church Foundation, Inc. This group helps to aid the expansion of Christian Church in North Carolina.

In his many roles of leadership, he accomplished many notable achievements. Under his economic guidance and generosity, Duke helped many textile Mills stay open during the great depression. He also created the Duke Power Forestry Department to help combat erosions by tenant farmers. This was one he nations first public utility environmental programs. He was a very charitable man, serving as one of the original trustees for both the Duke Endowment and John Motley Morehead Foundation both committed to funding the advancements of higher education. In 1960, Duke Energy named the lake after Norman Cocke. Cocke was very relevant to the project, serving as the president during some of the main years of development Cocke was president that communicated with Davidson College in order to establish the Davidson College Lake campus. Norman's legacy will always be remember through the Lake and those who enjoy it.

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