“THE PLACE OF THE PEOPLE OF SAPOY”
At the beginning of the 1600s, Sappony Indians were living in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. They lived near some of their Siouan relatives.
In 1607, explorer John Smith asked the Algonquian-speaking Powhatan Indians about their native neighbors to the west. He was told of five villages along the western James River — Monahassanugh, Rassawek, Mowhemencho, Monassukapanough, and Massinacack. The Indians of Monassukapanough later became known as the Sappony.
The early map of eastern North Carolina and Virginia by John Ogilby features the towns and places visited by the explorer John Lederer, in 1669 and 1670. The map shows the ancestral Sappony towns of Sapona and Nahisan as well as the island town of Akenatzy (Occaneechi). Lederer described the various tribes living in the Piedmont as “distinguished into several Nations of Mahoc, Nuntaneuck, Nutaly, Nahyssan, Sapon, Managog, Mangoack, Akenatzy, and Monakin, etc.”
Though the exact locations of these towns are unknown, Lederer’s travels shown on the Ogilby map confirm that in the early 1670s the Sappony were still in the Virginia Piedmont, somewhere north of Occaneechi Island.
Between 1671 and 1772, the Sappony and Tutelo moved away from the Virginia foothills to avoid Iroquoian enemy attacks. They settled with the Occaneechi on islands at the junction of the Staunton and Dan rivers, near present day Clarksville, Virginia. This island location allowed the Indians to benefit from trade between the English settlers and other Indian tribes to the west.
In 1676 these Indians became involved in Bacon’s Rebellion, a war that began with conflicts between the English and the Iroquoian Susquehannocks. The English and several Indian tribes friendly to the colonists, including the Sappony, signed a treaty at the end of the war. This Treaty of Middle Plantation changed the relationship of the Sappony and their allies with King Charles of Great Britain and with the English colonials. Now the government recognized the Sappony as a “tributary tribe,” meaning they agreed to maintain peace with the colonists and pay a yearly tribute in fur and skins. For this, they were guaranteed homeland and protection by the Colonial government.
Following Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, despite assurances of protection and peace from the colonial government, the Sappony and many of their Siouan allies faced threat from hostile colonists and enemy Iroquoian tribes. They chose to leave the south-side Virginia area and move to safety in North Carolina. The Sappony joined their Siouan cousins, the Catawba, at the Trading Ford along the Yadkin River.
In 1701, explorer John Lawson encountered the Sappony while they were living on the Yadkin. He commented that the Sappony King was “a good Friend to the English.” Lawson also said that the “Toteros, Saponas, and Keyawees… were going to live together, by which they thought they could strengthen themselves…” Shortly after Lawson’s encounter with the Sappony, some of the tribe moved and settled Sapona Town, fifteen miles west of present-day Windsor, North Carolina.
By 1708, the Sappony returned to south-side Virginia, but by this time Virginia colonists occupied their former Sappony tribal lands. So they settled east of present day Emporia, Virginia. Then in 1714, under the direction of Governor Alexander Spotswood, the colonial government set aside a six-mile square tract of land on the south side of the Meherrin River in what is today Brunswick County, Virginia, near Lawrenceville. Alongside this land, Spotswood constructed a fort, Fort Christanna, to protect the Sappony and their Siouan allies.
Fort Christanna was built at what was then the western frontier of Virginia and served many purposes. It was a place where the Virginia Company conducted fur trade with the Indians. Indian children were taught English and Christianity there. And the fort protected the Virginia frontier settlers and the friendly Indian tribes from hostile Indian attacks. During this period, Governor Spotswood began referring to the Sappony, the Tutelo, and the Occaneechi collectively as the “Sappony.”
In 1718 after Governor Spotswood lost funding for Fort Christanna, the fort was closed and the Sappony dispersed. Some of the Indians stayed in the Fort Christanna area while others moved to various communities in the Piedmont.
The Dividing Line
The North Carolina Piedmont was as familiar to the Sappony as their Virginia homelands. When William Byrd surveyed the Virginia-North Carolina Piedmont border in 1728, he was led by a Sappony guide, Ned Bearskin, who was residing near Fort Christanna. Bearskin guided Byrd and his surveying party through the Piedmont from Currituck Sound on the North Carolina shore to the Dan River, the western frontier of these states at that time.
Time of Transition
After the closing of Fort Christanna, the Sappony established several communities. Some stayed in the Christanna area. Others settled along the trading path in what is now Dinwiddie County, Virginia. From this community, the descendants of several families of the High Plains Indian Settlement can trace their heritage.
The 1730s and 1740s were a time of transition for the Sappony. For a short time in the 1730s some Sappony lived again with the Catawba. Around 1740, some of these Sappony moved north to New York. Others however, followed the traders into a community on both sides of the Meherrin — the Flat Rock Creek settlement — in current Lunenburg and Mecklenburg Counties.
After the American Revolution, members of the Flat Rock Creek community began a migration into North Carolina. The Sappony moved south into present-day Person County, North Carolina, a safe and isolated area near the ancestral trading path that they had used since at least the 1670s. This is the same area Ned Bearskin had guided William Byrd through in 1728. After 1800, there was a gradual increase in the number of Sappony in the High Plains area.
HIGH PLAINS SETTLEMENT
“You were expected to go to school, you had to be honest, expected to go to church, expected to work hard. And you know, that was just instilled in us, that a good character was important.” – Virginia Epps
The church was becoming a core institution of the community by the time the Sappony reached High Plains. First they were part of Bethel Hill Baptist Church. Some are listed in Bethel Hill Church records as early as 1801.
Soon Sappony leaders donated land and built their own Indian church. The first sanctuary was a log cabin. Then in 1850, Christ Church Mayo Chapel was built, giving them their first true church building for worship. The community grew and in 1879, an addition was added to Mayo Chapel. It served the community for almost 70 years. In 1946 Calvary Baptist Church (link to photo(s) in resources) was built, and in 1972 a fellowship hall was added to continue the tradition of gatherings at the church.
Church records tell of the early church. Financial records show expenses included the cost of painting the church, a salary for the pastor, and the cost of a spittoon. The first church had a list of rules and regulations. According to the rules, all members were to attend all church meetings. Male members’ names were called at each meeting and if unable to attend, the church had to approve the absences. Church rules also addressed how business would be handled in the church and social norms. But the church was about fellowship as well as rules.
Tribal members still remember “…riding to church in the back of a wagon with brothers, sisters and other relatives they picked up on the way with quilts piled high atop them in winter to keep the snow off and ward the chill away during the wagon ride to church.”
Following services, members gathered at each other’s homes for meals. Adults shared news while children played until late in the day.
Although many things have changed, the church continues to be a focal point of the community. From Sunday services to family reunions, from tribal activities to school graduations, the church is where the Sappony community gathers to express faith and renew as a people.
High Plains Indian School
“We all knew each other; we knew each other’s family. And we were all connected there. We knew each other and we kinda encouraged each other. It was small and it was an Indian school.” ---Ethel Epps Barker
In 1879, William Epps, a Sappony Tribal member, supported both the religious and education needs of the community when he gave land to build Mayo Chapel. He stated that there should be a schoolhouse as well as the church. Sappony community leaders continued the support of education. One such leader was Green Martin, who, in 1888, gave land for a new one room school. Other support came from members Ditrion W. and Mary Epps who donated land for a new school when additional space was needed. The schools were built and maintained by Sappony leaders.
The High Plains Indian School first got funds only from North Carolina in 1911, but Sappony students lived in both North Carolina and Virginia. In 1913 Virginia joined in the funding of the school. The states paid for the teachers and the books; the community was required to build the school and playgrounds. By 1958 the school had expanded to six rooms; one room included a stage for student plays. The High Plains Indian School eventually came to have classes for all grades through high school.
For 84 years Sappony children attended the High Plains Indian School. Generations of Sappony have stories to tell about their days at the school. There are rich memories about beloved teachers, plays performed, playground games and antics, and the many lessons learned. The school was unique – it was a school for Indians only, those of the High Plains community. The school helped keep the Sappony community together. The children of the seven main family groups all grew up together – they were educated together in this small school, they went to church together, and they worked together on family farms.
In 1962 the school was closed with the advent of assimilation and the children were sent to other schools in the area. The quality of the education may have improved by this change, but all are certain that the closing of the school took away a beloved institution in the community. From its beginning to its closing, the Indian School at High Plains supported the strong sense of family ties and community among the Sappony people.
During the 1800s, Sappony life became a life of farming. For most, the main crop became tobacco. (link here to lesson plans and resource booklets Farm Tools the Sappony Way and Growing & Selling Tobacco the Sappony Way) It wasn’t until the 1890s that a town, Christie, Virginia, grew up near the community. Early Virginia records give the population of Christie as 25 in 1906 and 60 by 1911. Though the town itself was small, its impact on the Sappony of High Plains was significant. It was there they went to the store or the post office. It was also a place to socialize and a stepping off point for journeys to other places.
The arrival of trains with the laying of the Atlantic & Danville Railroad track near the Virginia/North Carolina border created a new link to the world for the Sappony. Especially for those who lived near the tracks, the sound of the trains even today brings back childhood memories.
Tribal member Ethel Epps Barker recalls that she and her brothers would “wave at them …and see the smoke coming out. … It was awesome to watch that. Momma would always say to us, “Don’t get near that track.”
A small depot was built as a drop-off for mail and as a place for people to board trains to Virgilina, Danville, Richmond or other towns. Some traveled out-of-state as far away as Pennsylvania to join family members and find jobs. For some Sappony, the railroad provided jobs that allowed them to stay in the community.
Also significant to Sappony life during this time was the Christie Store, situated just across from the train depot. This two-story frame store was probably built by John Franklin around 1891. Other owners remembered by Sappony elders are Mr. & Mrs. Callaway and Claude Martin, himself a member of the High Plains Indian community. When the Sappony needed items they did not make or raise, Christie Store was the place to go. Sappony farmers bartered with the store owners for goods or bought what they needed on credit, then paid back the debt in the fall when crops sold.
Christie store was a gathering place for the Sappony. On Sundays the families gathered at the church and at their homes. But during the week, the Christie store was the place where community connections were made. Tribal member Mark Stuart remembers that “It was not only a place for supplies. It was a place of fellowship. …I’ve seen ’em have tobacco leaf tying parties out there on the side of the store.” Many elders have childhood memories of walking to the store to buy goods for the family. Young and old went to share news, relax on the porch after working all day in the fields, or warm themselves around the pot-bellied stove. Children hoped for a treat, like the favored BB Bats, from the penny candy jar. Or maybe on a special day, ice cream was the treasured treat.
When Claude Martin, a Sappony, began running the store in the 1950s, it was then in community hands. He and his family ran the store until it closed in the 1960s. Christie Store still stands as a reminder of those days when it was central to the needs of the Sappony Indians of High Plains.