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Regions with significant populations
Virginia and North Carolina (historically)
Tutelo-Saponi, English
Christianity, Indigenous religion
Related ethnic groups
Tutelo, Occaneechi, Monacan, Manahoac, other eastern Siouan tribes

The Saponi or Sappony are a Native American tribe historically based in the Piedmont of North Carolina and Virginia. They spoke the Siouan Tutelo-Saponi language, which was related to the languages of the Tutelo, Occaneechi, Monacan, Manahoac and other eastern Siouan peoples.

Since the mid-20th century, certain groups in the Southeast have organized to assert their American Indian cultural identity; some claim descent from the historic Sappony. Among them are the Haliwa-Saponi, and the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation of North Carolina, who took names referring to the historic tribe; and the Indians of Person County (known as the Sappony since 2003). Other Saponi bands are located in Ohio, Georgia and Texas.

None of these organizations have federal recognition as a tribe, which grants to tribes the right to certain benefits and requires documentation as regulated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.


The name Saponi is sometimes said to mean "Red Earth People". This is the meaning given by several official tribal and state websites,[1][2][3] albeit with no further etymological explanation.

Some allege the Saponi gained their name from a specific tribe among them, known as the Sapon.[4] While their language is extinct, it can be assumed that the correct translation of Sapon is 'black,' as the Lakota word is Sapa. However, there is a precedent in Siouan language to contract words into each other to make a name, so the use of Sapon as the name of a tribe may have actually been meant to mean 'Blackfoot,' hence the colloquial title Eastern Blackfoot. In Lakota, the word for Blackfoot is Si-sapa or Sihásapa.[5]

Currently, there appears to be no recognized group of Saponi that uses the term Blackfoot. The existence of the name "Blackfoot" or "Blackfeet" among any eastern tribes, though most commonly Saponi and Cherokee, is the topic of ongoing debate. Claims of "Eastern Blackfoot" ancestry are generally believed to stem from "Blackfoot" being used in the southeast as code for people of African-American ancestry, or of mixed African-American, white and/or nonspecific Native ancestry, but these claims may also suggest Saponi ancestry.[6]

Pre-Revolutionary history[edit]

In their oral history, they claim to have migrated from Ohio to Virginia, chasing out a rival nation known as the Doeg.[7] It is believed that the Doeg may be the same as either the Powhatan, or the Nanticoke. While this isn't much to go on, this mirrors the oral histories of most other Siouan-speaking peoples. Most experts agree with the claims of the Dhegihan Sioux (Osage, Omaha, Ponca, Quapaw, Kaw) tribes.[8] It was possibly invasions of Iroquoian people who chased them out.

Early 20th-century anthropologist John R. Swanton agreed with James Mooney, Hale, Bushnell and other scholars that the Sappony were probably the same as the Monasuccapanough, a Virginia people mentioned in 1608 by John Smith as tributary to the Monacan. 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 Sappony was in 1670, when John Lederer found their village on the Staunton River at Otter Creek, southwest of present-day 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 the Stauton River between present-day Campbell County, Virginia. Here settlers during Bacon's Rebellion in 1676 murdered the friendly Sappony, as well as the closely related Occaneechi, without justification. The colonists were retaliating for raids conducted by the unrelated Doeg tribe.

Nearly decimated, the Sappony relocated to three islands at the confluence of the Dan and Staunton rivers in Clarksville with their allies, the Occaneechi, Tutelo, and Nahyssans.[9]

By 1701, the Sappony and allied tribes, often collectively referred to as "Saponi" or "Tutelo," had begun moving to the location of present-day Salisbury, North Carolina to gain distance 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.[10] 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 Sappony 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.

Smaller bands were noted in Pennsylvania as late as 1778. Some were still in North Carolina much later.[11] Since most of the Iroquois sided with the British in the American Revolutionary War, after the victory by the United States, the Sappony 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.[9]


According to William Byrd II, the Sappony 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 "...mentioned only in the report of the Albany conference of 1722. ... "[12] 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. Horatio Hale recorded the Tutelo language in considerable detail. In the 21st century, his work is being used by the Occaneechi as the basis for the revival of the Tutelo-Occaneechi language, also called Yésah.

The Sappony 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. This contains a number of items showing it to be virtually the same language as recorded by Hale.[13] The other source is William Byrd II's History of the Dividing Line betwixt Virginia and North Carolina (1728), in which he recorded the names of some local creeks. Byrd's scant list has been found to have included several names from unrelated Indian tribes.[14]


Very little of Saponi culture has been recorded. Catawba Texts, written by Frank G. Speck in 1934, about the closely related Catawba people to the south, gives some indications of cultural practices and beliefs held in common with both the Catawba and neighboring tribes of other language groupings, such as the Cherokee.[15] The book mentions a story of a giant, blood-sucking snake that was killed by a giant eagle. This mirrors other Siouan stories of Thunderbirds facing off against evil snake monsters.[16] Catawba Texts also includes practical instructions such as methods of making pottery, baskets and traps, various ways of fishing, instructions on how to make hominy and cornbread, and how to tan hides and make soap.[15]

After the American Revolution[edit]

Like other Native Americans in interaction with other peoples, the Sappony intermarried. 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.[17] Because of slavery society, some whites in slave state areas tended to classify anyone of visible African ancestry as African, even mixed-race people who identified and lived culturally as Native American. But in other parts of the South, race was considered a more fluid concept, with mixed-race people being classified as "white", "Indian", "negro", "mulatto", or sometimes even "Mexican", as the situation suited them.

In Maryland, the Catholic Church kept records that recognized its Indian parishioners identifying as Native American; these have helped some descendants prove continuity of communities.

Because South Carolina taxed American Indian slaves at a lesser rate than African slaves as early as 1719, that colony had legislated that "all such slaves as are not entirely Indian shall be accounted as negro."[18] After the legal decision in Hudgins v. Wright in 1808, Virginia tended to classify persons of mixed Native American and African ancestry as 'Negroes', a decision that favored slaveholders after Indian slavery was ended.

Colonial and early United States governments generally failed to recognize how people identified culturally. The problem grew more severe at the turn of the 19th century, resulting in records that are biased toward classifying all free people of color as African American, when some identified culturally and by descent as members of specific Native American tribes. There have been many academic disagreements about the cultural identity of numerous people recorded simply as free blacks or free people of color.[19]

Jack Forbes has noted that the terms "mustees" and "mulattoes" at one time referred to persons of part American [Indian] ancestry. A mustee may have been primarily part-African and American [Indian], and a mulatto was usually part-European and American [Indian], but the latter term particularly was used more generally to refer to mixed-race people of African American and European ancestry. At the time, the federal censuses had no classification for American Indian, and did not ask people with which culture they identified.[20]

Paul Heinegg and Virginia DeMarce have found that a high percentage of people identified as "free blacks" or "free people of color" in federal censuses from 1790 to 1810 (when there was no designation for Indian) in the Upper South were descended from families classified as free African Americans in colonial Virginia. Most were free because they were descended from unions between white women (who were free) and African or African-American men. Their children and descendants maintained this free status. At the time, most working-class people shared living and working quarters. These families were 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 by owners as early as the mid-17th century. By the early decades of the 19th century, such free families had many descendants; they often moved to frontier areas where racial strictures were reduced.[21] 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.[21]

Issues about identity became more confusing under Jim Crow in the late 19th century as white Democrats imposed racial segregation to enforce white supremacy. In the 20th century, as both North Carolina and Virginia adopted one-drop rules as part of their racial segregation laws, requiring all individuals to be classified as either white or black (essentially, all other or all people of color). 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, issued orders to field offices 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. In later years, their descendants have had difficulty in proving their communities' continuity of identity.

State-recognized tribes[edit]

Three groups, each recognized by the state of North Carolina, claim descent from the historical Sappony. The people known as the "Indians of Person County" were recognized by North Carolina in 1911 as an American Indian tribe.[22] In 2003 they formally changed their name to Sappony.

The Haliwa-Saponi, a group based chiefly in Halifax and Warren counties, is another Native American band formally recognized by North Carolina in 1965. They organized that year under the name Haliwanash Indian Club. They changed their name in 1979 to include a reference to the historic Sappony.

This group attracted media attention for claiming its tribal council had reviewed and approved a loan for $700,000 and a $600,000 HUD grant for matching funds. The North Carolina Auditors became involved at that time.[23][24]

The Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation was recognized by the state of North Carolina in 2002, after being organized in 1984 as the Eno-Occaneechi Indian Association. In 1995 it added Saponi to its name.[25]

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, where there was initially a lower level of development of plantations.

These two communities each stressed cultural identification with historic American Indians. Their applications for recognition as American Indian tribes were approved by the state of North Carolina in 1911 and 1965, respectively.

Other Tribes & Organizations[edit]

Ohio is home to the second-largest population of people claiming Saponi ancestry; the Ohio Saponi community was established by migrants from Halifax, Warren,[26] Orange, Alamance, Granville,[27] and Robeson counties of North Carolina (and bordering counties in Virginia). These families migrated to the Midwest in response to a period of intensified violent oppression of free people of color in the South that extended from approximately 1810 to 1860.

This period of oppression was codified in a set of legislative acts that included federal laws such as the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which set off a period of attempted violent removals of Native Americans from the entirety of the Southeast that resulted in at least 19,000 deaths on the Trail of Tears, as well as state laws such as the North Carolina Constitution of 1835, which removed the right of free Native Americans and African-Americans to vote;[28] and the Act Concerning Slaves and Free Persons of Color (1855), which restricted the residencies and movement of free Native Americans or African-Americans, and also prohibited them from serving as witnesses in courts of law.[29]

The Haliwa-Saponi Tribal History describes the cause of the migration as follows: "In 1835 North Carolina amended its constitution and barred people of color from voting and participating in the government. Many Haliwa-Saponi families reacted by migrating to areas north and west such as Chillicothe, Ohio, which had more favorable laws for non-white peoples. Other families chose to continue their lives in the Meadows." [30]

Scholar and Director of the Haliwa-Saponi Historic Legacy Project, Dr. Marty Richardson further writes, "A large group of Meadows Indians migrated to Ohio after 1835 and took advantage of fewer race-based restrictions. Their migration provided more economic opportunities, education, freedom of movement, and inspired Civil War military service as part of the U.S. Colored Troops. Those who stayed in the Meadows faced another challenge in 1865, after the end of the Civil War and emancipation. They developed social and religious institutions to maintain their distinct identity as Natives, while also exercising rights as Americans. Using institutions such as landownership, family, the military, and church, Meadows Indians debated the consequences of these changes and how they could keep their core identity markers alive." (pg 26, Chapter 1) [31]

In the present day, members of midwestern Saponi communities are dispersed across multiple counties in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. Members generally belong to one of three self-organized tribes based in Ohio; the largest of these is the Saponi Nation of Ohio. In 1998, the Saponi Nation of Ohio submitted a letter of intent to Petition for Federal Acknowledgement of Existence as an Indian Tribe to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.[32]

In addition, the Carmel Indians of Carmel, Ohio; and a group in Magoffin County, Kentucky claim descent from the historic Sappony tribe.[33] They also identify as Melungeon, a primarily Appalachian ethnic group considered by outsiders to have a mixture of European, Native American, and African ancestry.[34][35]

Other groups claiming Sappony ancestry include the Mahenips Band of the Saponi Nation of Missouri in the Ozark Hills, with headquarters in West Plains, Missouri.[36] In 2000, the Saponi Nation of Missouri submitted a letter of intent to Petition for Federal Acknowledgement of Existence as an Indian Tribe.[37]

Other non-tribal organizations include the Saponi Descendants Association based in Texas.[38]

A group previously organized (but now apparently defunct) was called the Manahoac Sappony Mattamuskeet Nation, and was based in Georgia.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Home". Retrieved 2021-02-01.
  2. ^
  3. ^ "Haliwa Indians and Haliwa-Saponi Tribe | NCpedia". Retrieved 2021-02-01.
  4. ^
  5. ^ Buechel, Eugene & Manhart S.J., Paul "Lakota Dictionary: Lakota-English / English-Lakota, New Comprehensive Edition" 2002.
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ a b Mitchell, Henry H. (1997), "Rediscovering Pittsylvania's "Missing" Native Americans", The Pittsylvania Packet (Pittsylvania Historical Society), Chatham, Virginia: 4–8
  10. ^ Swanton, p. 72
  11. ^ Swanton p. 73
  12. ^ Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of Ethnology. U.S. Government Printing Office. 1894. pp. 37–.
  13. ^ G. Oliverio, Tutelo Grammar and Dictionary, 1996.
  14. ^ Salvucci, Claudio R.; et al. (2002), Minor Vocabularies of Tutelo and Sappony, Evolution Publishing, pp. 1–7, ISBN 1-889758-24-8
  15. ^ a b Speck, Frank G. Catawba Texts 1934.
  16. ^ Walker, James R. & Jahner, Elaine A. "Lakota Myth (Second Edition)" 2006.
  17. ^ Jack D. Forbes, "The Use of Racial and Ethnic Terms in America: Management by Manipulation", Wicazo SA Review, Fall 1995, vol. XI, No. 2
  18. ^ Forbes p. 55.
  19. ^ Jack D. Forbes, "The Use of Racial and Ethnic Terms in America: Management by Manipulation", Wicazo SA Review, Fall 1995, vol. XI, No. 2, pp. 55, 58-59. Pages 58 and 59: Quote: "In 1857, a William Chavers was charged "as a free person of color" with carrying a shotgun. Chavers was able to win his case eventually ... because he is charged as "a free person of color" whereas ... the act ... makes it penal for any "free negro" to carry arms ... Free persons of color maybe ... persons colored by Indian blood. The indictment cannot be sustained."
  20. ^ Forbes, Jack D. (1993). Africans and Native Americans : the language of race and the evolution of red-black peoples. ISBN 0-252-02014-6. OCLC 1013305190.
  21. ^ a b Paul Heinegg, Free African Americans in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware, 1999–2005
  22. ^ "Tribal Information". North Carolina Museum of History. Retrieved January 24, 2020.
  23. ^ Costly mistake", The Daily Herald
  24. ^ audit report", North Carolina Auditor
  25. ^ Occaneechi Saponi timeline", Occaneechi Saponi
  26. ^ Richardson, Marvin M. (August 2016). "1". Racial Choices: The Emergence of the Haliwa-Saponi Indian Tribe, 1835-1971 (PhD). University of North Carolina. Retrieved January 17, 2020.
  27. ^ "A Brief History of the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation – Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation". Retrieved January 17, 2020.
  28. ^ Faulkner, Ronnie W. "Constitution of 1835". North Carolina History Project. Retrieved January 17, 2020.
  29. ^ "Summary of Slaves and Free Persons of Color. An Act Concerning Slaves and Free Persons of Color". Documenting the American South. Retrieved January 17, 2020.
  30. ^
  31. ^
  32. ^ "Federal Register, Volume 63 Issue 50 (Monday, March 16, 1998)". Retrieved January 17, 2020.
  34. ^ [2] The Saga of the Carmel Indians, Melungeon Heritage Association
  35. ^ [3] Messinger on Kessler and Ball, 'North From the Mountains: A Folk History of the Carmel Melungeon Settlement, Highland County, Ohio'
  36. ^ [4] House Resolution No. 3516, State of Missouri
  37. ^ [5]
  38. ^ [6] Saponi Descendants Association

External links[edit]