In 1760, in the Treaty of Pine Tree Hill, an Indian agent sent by the King of England cut a deal with the Catawba Indians who were encamped around here in South Carolina's up-country.

The English would enjoy the benign support of the small Catawba tribe. For their part, the Catawbas would be guaranteed a 15-mile-square sanctuary forever. Both sides went away from Pine Tree Hill satisfied.

History has pretty well mucked up that agreement. White settlers grabbed part of the land. Indians leased part of it to other whites for tiny fees. And in 1840, the State of South Carolina wiped out the old deal with a new treaty of its own.

Now the Indians want it back - all 144,000 acres of it, including this industrial city, which lies smack in the middle. If they carried their claim all the way, they would unsettle more than 50,000 people, take over two small cities, and demand a compensation of something like $20 million for past injuries.

Most whites do not take those claims seriously, and the Catawba leaders are careful to avoid alarmist statements that would trigger white protest.

"The white people like to make little jokes about it," observes Gilbert Blue, the Catawbas' elected tribal chief. "They're always coming up and smiling and saying, "When you going to run me off my land.?'"

His cousin, Carson Blue, chimes in: "They say, 'Are you really going to take over this town?' I say, 'No, we are not really going to do that.' So they really are kind of in favor of us now. But they may change their minds when it get down to the nitty-gritty."

The Catawbas' case - which the South Carolina government takes very seriously - is one of many ancient Indian land clains that have sprung up in Eastern states in the past five years, baffling some states, angering others.

A few years ago, the claims would have been dismissed lightly as idle talk of tiny tribes most whites thought no longer existed. Unlike the many militant Western tribes, which have persistently asserted claims to land, water, fish and game for years, the Eastern tribes had been largely somnolent, their members scattered and intermarried with white and for generations.

But five years ago, the new winds of tribal nationalism drifted eastward, igniting the claims of tribes ranging from the Passamaquoddies in Maine to the Catawbas in South Carolina. Old maps and treaties have been dusted off and old statutes successfully tested in court. Before it's over, about a dozen land claims will be renegotiated or tested in court.

In Maine's celebrated case, the pasamaquoddies and Penobscots are seeking 12.5 million acres, nearly two-thirds of the state, and the federal government has backed up their claims to about 10.5 million acres and $300 million in compensation.

In Massachusetts, one clan of Wampanoags has already won back 250 acres of common land at Gay Head, and another clan is laying claim to the resort city of Mashpee - offering now to settle for only three-fourths of the town. In New York's Adirondack Mountains, the Mohawks are claiming a 612-acre site that includes a once-fashionable girls' summer camp.

There are others that never made the headlines - claims staked out by the Narragansetts in Rhode Island, the Western Pequot tribe in Connecticut, the Oneidas and Cayugas in New York State. In Vermont, the all-but-forgotten Abnaki tribe has reorganized, won state recognition, and demanded statewide hunting and fishing rights.

The natural tendency of white officials to laugh such claims out of court was changed to shock when a federal judge issued a ruling in the Maine case. He held that the two tribes had a legal trust relationship with the U.S. government, which was bound by law to assert the Indians' claims in court. The Interior Department subsequently decided that its duty is to support virtually the entire Indian claim.

The legal underpinning of most cases goes back of the late 1700s, when colonists were anxious to pacify Indians and Indians were anxious to win protection.

In the treaties and understandings of the time, tribes were guaranteed certain tracts and hunting and fishing privileges. Those grants were sealed into law by the Indian Non-Intercourse Act of 1790, which insisted that no Indian land could be taken, leased or purchased unless specifically authorized by an act of Congress. It was mainly designed to protect the Indians from White man's fraud.

History and the land-hungry white man ignored the law for many years - buying and leasing the tribal lands and making treaties not approved by Congress. In the Eastern states, the Non-Intercourse Act was rarely invoked, and not until the Passamaquoddies and Penobscots filed suit in 1972 was it invoked for a major land area.

That one had a bizarre beginning 20 years ago, when Indians protested the clearing of one section of land that had been traded in a poker game. That led to sit-ins, litigation over a 6,000-acre tract, and ultimately to the major suit filed by a young attorney. Tom Tureen, working for the Native American Rights Fund.

It was Tureen's suit, backed by a large Washington law firm, that overturned decades of court rulings holding that the tribes were not protected by the Non-Intercourse Act.

Settlement of the Eastern claims, on paper, would require a massive logistical effort. In Maine, it is estimated that 350,000 non-Indian landowners must be located and notified. The Indian heirs must prove their tribal entitlement.

But despite the fierce rehetoric and sweeping claims to vast acreages, the Indian claims probably, when resolved, will not require the massive shifts of private property the suits suggest. A lot of the language is bargaining talk. Privately, the Indians acknowledge that they'll settle for less.

The impending Catawba suit here in South Carolina is an example. In a letter to Gov. James B. Edwards, the Indians' attorney outlined the claims and vowed to file suit in federal court for 144,000 acres, which includes Rock Hill and Fort Mill. First, however, they offered to negotiate and have scheduled a meeting next month with the governor.

Gilbert Blue, their tribal chiefs, says, "We want as much land as we can get." But he quickly adds, "Which land is a negotiable item. We know we're not going to get the whole 144,000 acres and the city of Rock Hill."

A likely settlement would give the Indians some of the farmland and woods adjoining the 630-acre reservation given them some time ago by South Carolina. There would also be a cash grant - the Catawbas talk in terms of $20 million - to be placed in trust and used to re-establish a Catawba society with schools, housing, and community services on the reservation.

Only about 40 Catawba families live on the old reservation now. Gilbert Blue says the tribal roll now bears the names of about 1,200 people claiming Catawba blood. Most of them live and work in the Rock Hill area.

White officials here have shown no panic. Indeed, most still treat the Catawbas' claim as a joke.

"I don't know if it's a frivolous thing or not, but if I had to guess one way or the other I'd say it it just that - frivolous." says Bayles Mack, chairman of the York County Council.

"It would be unfair to have to take land away from people that's been bought and sold many times," says Mack. "I know the Indians have suffered, but to take everything people have owned for years - you just can't do that."

State officials are ready and even anxious to start negotiating with the Catawbas and their lawyers, hoping to avoid the dilemma in Maine, where the Indian claims cast a shadow over land titles and prevented issuance of about $27 million in municipal bonds.

"We take it as a very serious thing, because of what's happened in Maine and Massachusetts," acknowledged Roger Kirk, an assistant to the governor.

The governor's office already has helped the tribe get job training grants and is working to recapture some ancient tribal cemeteries now in private hands.

Kirk agrees that the Indians have a claim that isn't frivolous. "But I don't think they really want the whole city of Rock Hill," he says, adding a bit hesitantly, "Do they?"