Published on October 26, 2010 by John
Saponi is one of the eastern Siouan-language tribes, related to the Tutelo, Occaneechi, Monacan, Manahoac and other eastern Siouan peoples. Its ancestral homeland was in North Carolina and Virginia. The tribe was long believed extinct, as its members migrated north to merge with other tribes. It disappeared from the historical record as a tribe by the end of the eighteenth century.
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There are three contemporary groups whose members claim descent from the historical Saponi and are recognized by the state of North Carolina. The people known as the Indians of Person County were formally recognized by North Carolina in 1911 as an American Indian tribe. In 2003 they formally changed their name to Sappony.
The Haliwa-Saponi, a group based chiefly in Halifax County, is another Native American band formally recognized by North Carolina (1965). They also changed their name to include a reference to the historic Saponi.
The Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation are also recognized by the state of North Carolina.
Swanton agrees with Mooney, Hale, Bushnell and others that the Saponi were probably the same as the Monasuccapanough, a people mentioned as tributary to the Monacans by John Smith in 1608. Their main village as described then is believed to have been in the vicinity of present-day Charlottesville, Virginia.
The first known contact between a European explorer and the Saponi was in 1670, when John Lederer found their village on the Staunton River at Otter Creek, southwest of Lynchburg, Virginia. In 1671 Thomas Batts and Robert Fallam led an expedition that passed through the same village, as well as a second in Long Island in present-day Campbell County, Virginia. Here settlers during Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 attacked the Saponi, as well as the closely related Occaneechi, without justification. The colonists were retaliating for raids conducted by the unrelated Doeg tribe.
Nearly decimated, the Saponi relocated to three islands at the confluence of the Dan and Staunton rivers in Clarksville with their allies, the Occaneechi, Tutelo, and Nahyssans.
By 1701, the Saponi and allied tribes, often collectively referred to as “Saponi” or “Tutelo”, had begun moving to the location of present-day Salisbury, North Carolina to distance themselves from the colonial frontier. By 1711 they were just east of the Roanoke River and west of modern Windsor, North Carolina. In 1714, Governor Spotswood resettled them around Fort Christanna in Virginia. The tribes agreed to this for protection from hostile tribes. Although in 1718 the House of Burgesses voted to abandon the fort and school, the Siouan tribes continued to stay in that area for some time. They gradually moved away in small groups over the years 1730-1750.
One record from 1728 indicated that Colonel William Byrd II made a survey of the border between Virginia and North Carolina, guided by Ned Bearskin, a Saponi hunter. Byrd noted several abandoned fields of corn, indicating serious disturbance among the local tribes. In 1740, the majority of the Saponi and Tutelo moved to Shamokin, Pennsylvania. They surrendered to the Iroquois and joined the latter in New York. They were formally adopted by the Cayuga Nation in 1753.
But, smaller bands were noted in Pennsylvania as late as 1778. Some were still in North Carolina much later. Since most of the Iroquois sided with the British in the American Revolutionary War, after the victory by the United States, the Saponi and Tutelo who had joined the Iroquois were forced with them into exile in Canada. After that point, recorded history was silent about the tribe.
According to William Byrd II, the Saponi spoke the same language as the Siouan Occaneechi and the Steganaki (also known as Stuckenock). It was probably the same as that spoken by the Meipontsky, a minor tribe noted in the record in 1722. By the time linguistic data was recorded, these related eastern Siouan tribes had settled together at Fort Christanna in Brunswick County, Virginia, where the colonists sometimes referred to them as the Christanna Indians. The Tutelo language was fairly well recorded by Horatio Hale. In the 21st century, it is being used by the Occaneechi as the basis for the revival of the Tutelo-Occaneechi language, also called Yésah.
The Saponi dialect is known from only two sources. One is a word list of 46 terms and phrases recorded by John Fontaine at Fort Christanna in 1716. It contains a number of items revealing it to be virtually the same language as recorded by Hale. The other source are a few translated creek names noted by William Byrd II in his History of the Dividing Line betwixt Virginia and North Carolina in 1728. Byrd’s scant list also proved to include several names from unrelated Indian tribes.
20th-century state recognition
Both the Indians of Person County/Sappony and the Haliwa-Saponi Tribe of North Carolina were at one time classified by some anthropologists as among groups known as tri-racial isolates. Members were observed to have (or claimed) European, African and Native American ancestry, to varying degree. Some such groups settled and created communities in frontier and border areas of the southern states.
These two communities each stressed cultural identification with historic American Indians. They acculturated new members in that tradition in the 19th century, a process known as ethnogenesis. Their applications for recognition as American Indian tribes were approved by the state of North Carolina in 1911 and 1965, respectively.
Individual members of both tribal bands have claimed documentation that shows their descent from the historical Saponi people. Such individual ancestry is a different issue than whether the tribes as groups can satisfy criteria for federal recognition. Briefly, the latter criteria are based on demonstrated community continuity of culture and organization from recorded tribes.
Some late 20th-century history and genealogical researchers have found that a high percentage of people identified as “free blacks” or “free people of color” (when there was no designation for Indian) in federal censuses from 1790-1810 in North Carolina were descended from families of people classified as free African Americans in colonial Virginia. This was documented through extensive research in colonial records of Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay Colony, including court records, land deeds, wills and manumissions. Some free African Americans were descended from enslaved Africans freed as early as the mid-17th century. By the early decades of the 19th century, free families had many descendants.
At the time, the federal censuses had no classification for American Indian, and did not ask people with which culture they identified. Native Americans and some people of mixed-race Native American and European, or Native American and African descent, tended to be classified as mulatto or free people of color without regard to how they identified themselves. In some of the early Spanish and Portuguese colonies, mulatto meant mixed-race African and Native American, but under the English tradition, it came to mean persons of European and African ancestry. By contrast, in Maryland, for instance, the Catholic Church kept records that showed how its Indian parishioners identified themselves, regardless of their ethnic ancestry.
Most of the free African Americans in colonial Virginia were descended from unions of White women, indentured or free; and African or African-European/American men, indentured, free or slave. In many cases these free families migrated to frontier areas of Virginia and North Carolina before the end of the eighteenth century. Later some moved on to settle in frontier areas of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio. Migrating to the frontier gave them the chance to purchase affordable land and avoid the social strictures of the coastal plantation areas. They were generally well accepted by neighbors. In some areas, the lighter-skinned descendants formed close communities in which they called themselves or were known as Indian, Portuguese or one of a variety of terms, such as Melungeon. In some cases, descendants married more into one or another of their ancestral communities, becoming increasingly white, black or Indian.
Given intermarriage, people of mixed race could have African American, Native American and European ancestry. The colonial and early United States governments generally failed to recognize how people identified culturally. Critics have contested the conclusions of researchers about the identity of the numerous free blacks or free people of color recorded at the turn of the nineteenth century.
Several other groups and organizations whose members claim Saponi ancestry include the Mahenips Band of the Saponi Nation in the remote Ozark Hills, with headquarters in West Plains, Missouri; the Saponi Descendants Association based in Texas; Manahoac Saponi Mattamuskeet Nation based in Georgia; and the Saponi Nation of Ohio.
In addition, communities such as the Carmel Indians of Carmel, Ohio; and a group in Magoffin County, Kentucky claim to be Native-American descendants of the Saponi. They also identify as Melungeon, a historic mixed-race group.
Issues about identity became more confusing in the 20th century, as both North Carolina and Virginia adopted one-drop rules related to their racial segregation laws, which classified all people as either white or black (essentially, all other). They classified as black any person with any black ancestry, regardless of how small. Walter Ashby Plecker, the Registrar of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics, became notable for issuing orders to change birth records of individuals whose families he had decided were trying to pass as Indian to avoid being classified as black. Due to his application of the Racial Integrity Act, records of many Native American-identified people were changed without their consent, and often without their knowledge.