The first inhabitants of Catawba Island were natives who came to trade furs and then built houses in the late 1700s. At that time, the Portage river separated Catawba Island from the mainland. Eventually, either the river eroded its banks and was filled in, or the river dried up, and Catawba Island became a peninsula.
Betsy Mo-John, daughter of the Chief of the Ottawa tribe, remained with her siblings and mother after the Chief and his tribe moved on in 1831 because game was becoming scarce. Betsy Mo-John Luckert Bonet died in January 1908 when in her 90s, the last survivor of the Ottawa Tribe in the county. The log cabin that she and her second husband built in 1855 remains on the property of the Mon Ami Winery.
In 1836 the first settlers from the east arrived, the island being part of the Firelands, land granted to Connecticut citizens whose homes were burned down by the British during the American Revolution. The first Methodist Church and a one-room school were built in 1838, and a cemetery was established in 1848, when the census showed Catawba Island’s population to be 515. Ottawa City was formed on the northern tip of the island, but never gained city status.
In 1853 New Yorker James R. James set up a cement factory on the limestone-rich island which lasted approximately 5 years. The recently removed (2013) limekiln was an artifact of this company. The Catawba grape was introduced in 1860 by H. Newton and Henry Ellithorpe, and grape growing became a flourishing industry. The grape variety got its name from its origin on the banks of the Catawba River in South Carolina, and then gave its name to the township.
Originally called Van Rensselar/Rensalaer Township, and including the other Ottawa County Lake Erie islands, the magistrates of Ottawa City split the township into the present day Catawba Island and Put-In-Bay Townships.
By 1874 six hundred acres were in vineyards, producing 40,253 gallons of wine. Then in 1878 J.W. Gamble and A.S. Reynolds planted two thousand peach trees. By 1898 there were 30,000 peach trees producing the fruit, and by 1913 peach production was the leading industry. The United Fruit Company built a distillery for producing peach brandy. The Ottawa City Post Office was called “Peachton” by the residents.
Commerce increased when companies built shipping piers on the northern point of Catawba Island from which a third of the peach crop was shipped. In 1913 William Miller began a ferry service to Put-In-Bay, and hotels were built along the shoreline bringing tourists on Cleveland steamers. Tourism developed, and with it hotels, cottages, trailer parks, boat marinas, and subdivisions of new homes.
In 1962 a severe winter killed or damaged thousands of productive trees. Today the high limestone cliffs, known as Catawba Cliffs, house a gated community, the Catawba Island Club, and Catawba State Park; and Catawba Island remains a center of boating, fishing, ferry service to the islands, golfing, camping and general recreation.
(sources: Our Ottawa County, by Sadie Clements Hellwig, 1965; The History of Catawba Island, a paper by Bill Cooper, 1969, with information from the Atlas of Ottawa County, Ohio, 1900, H.J. Goodman Publishing Co.; The Heritage of Port Clinton, Ohio, edited by Barbara J. Bailey, p. 13, “Last of the Ottawas.”)