Stone celts are among the many visual reminders of Pittsylvania County's indigenous peoples of long ago. (From the collection of W. W. Simpson, Jr., of Hurt, Virginia.)
Pittsylvania County's first settlers in the early-to-mid-1700's found evidences of recent habitation by a native population, but there is no record of any contact between settlers and natives. Pittsylvanians ever since have had a sense of curiosity about our “missing” former Native American inhabitants. They may have disappeared, but evidences of their former presence remain. Many county residents through the years have amassed impressive collections of stone points (“arrowheads” and “spear points”), celts (“tomahawk heads,” “axes,” and “hoes”), and pottery fragments. Somewhat rarer are mortar-and-pestle type grinding stones, and a wide variety of bone instruments. Known to many are the numerous fish weirs (v-shaped rock dams) still visible in the Banister and Pigg Rivers. A few ancient earthen mounds of probable Native American origin are topics of ongoing speculation.
The purpose of this article is to provide a summary of information about the last Native Americans who occupied the Pittsylvania County, Virginia, area. This data may be particularly useful to classroom teachers who need to respond to the students' question, “Who were ‘our’ Indians?” Notes at the end of this article should assist in pursuing further research.
Dr. Alan Vance Briceland of the VCU History Department discusses accounts of early explorers in a presentation to the Pittsylvania Historical Society.
When the first Europeans arrived at the Piedmont, they found the Saponi tribe was centered to the northeast of present-day Pittsylvania; the Occaneechis were settled to the east; the Saura tribe was established to the south and west; and the Tutelo tribe controlled territory to the northwest. They were linguistically related, probably speaking a Siouan language, and also militarily and politically allied with each other and with other tribes of the Virginia and North Carolina Piedmont. The name Monacan has been used as an overall grouping, especially with regard to the Virginia Sioux. The North Carolina affiliates included Saura (Cheraw), Keyauwee, Eno, Shakori, Wateree, and the much larger and possibly linguistically separate Catawba tribe. Virginia's Siouan groups dominated an area sandwiched between the Algonquian tribes of the Chesapeake Bay area and a wide array of Iroquoian tribes: the Five Nations (Mohawk, Oneida, Onandaga, Cayuga, and Seneca — all now associated with Canada but then controlling all the way down to central Virginia); the Cherokee in the mountains to the southwest; and the Meherrin, Nottoway, and Tuscarora in Tidewater Virginia and coastal North Carolina.
European explorers beginning in 1670 documented contacts with the Piedmont Siouan tribes.1 In 1670, Dr. John Lederer visited a Saponi town near Charlotte Court House, an Occanneechee town near Clarksville, and then six other towns in Piedmont North Carolina.2 In 1671 an expedition led by Thomas Batts and Robert Fallam visited the Saponi town near Charlotte Court House, and then a second Saponi village on Long Island at Pittsylvania's northeastern boundary. The same group moved on to a Tutelo town at Radford.3 In 1674 trader James Needham was killed by an Occaneechi whom he had hired as a porter.4
Accounts of these three expeditions to our area have been analyzed thoroughly as to activities and locations by Dr. Alan Vance Briceland of the VCU History Department.5
In 1728 Col. William Byrd surveyed the Virginia / North Carolina boundary, accompanied by Saponi hunter Ned Bearskin.6 On this trip, Byrd reported the presence of abandoned Saura cornfields along the Dan River with southwest Pittsylvania. He noted that the local natives had left the area due to depredations of the northern Iroquois tribes.7 In 1731 Byrd passed through the area again, noting evidence of a large Iroquois raiding party's having just passed present-day Danville on the way south toward their long-time enemies' tribal centers in central North Carolina.8
Actually, a whole series of events had caused the local native population to disappear. First, there was mutual animosity with the surrounding Iroquois nations which had gone on for many decades, if not centuries. Second, the Occaneechis were attacked by Susquehannas during Bacon's Rebellion in 1676; Nathaniel Bacon's soldiers, who were battling the Susquehannas, in ignorance or greed turned on their own supposed allies the Occaneechis and Saponis and almost destroyed them.
The weakened remaining Occaneechis and Saponis and their allies the Tutelos gathered to live in three villages on the three islands (now inundated) at the confluence of the Dan and Staunton Rivers at Clarksville.
Beginning around 1700 the three tribes became, in effect, wandering war refugees, seeking security through a number of alliances with other tribes and with the colonial governments of Virginia and North Carolina, and occupying several locations in central and eastern North Carolina and Virginia. Their conflict with the northern Iroquois was almost constant, and they (assisting the colonial governments) also waged a war against the Tuscaroras; their resulting losses brought them to the brink of extinction.9 By 1740 a remant of Saponis and Tutelos surrendered to and joined the Iroquois in Pennsylvania. At this point there is no further trace of the Occaneechis. The Tutelos were "adopted" into the Cayuga tribe, and eventually with the Tuscaroras became the "Sixth Nation" of the northern Iroquois confederation. The Iroquois, under their chief Gen. Joseph Brant, sided with the British during the American Revolution, and as a result were forced to move into Canada, at which point there is no further record of the Saponis. Today, over two hundred years later, an identifiable remnant of the Virginia Tutelos resides near Brantford, Ontario.
Nikonha, the last living full-blooded Tutelo, was photographed at 106 years old in Ontario by researcher Horatio Hale (see next paragraph below) in 1870. Nikonha is seen in his British uniform coat from the Revolutionary War; he had served in the British army under General Joseph Brant. Thus, besides documenting the passing of the Tutelo people of Virginia, this photograph is one of the very few in existence of Revolutionary War veterans from either side of the conflict.
A succession of researchers has studied the Tutelos in Ontario, trying to sort out their history, their language, their music, and other cultural remnants. In an 1883 paper Horatio Hale identified them as linguistically Siouan. Hale had in 1870 interviewed and photographed Nikonha, the last living full-blooded Tutelo, a 106-year-old who could still speak and interpret the Tutelo language.10 A further work on the "Eastern Siouan" thesis was published by James Mooney in 1894.11 (It should be noted that the Siouan designation is not accepted by all researchers.12) During the 1930's Frank G. Speck of the University of Pennsylvania recorded and analyzed the remnant rituals practiced among the Tutelos of Ontario.13 Beginning in the 1940's and continuing for decades, Gertrude Kurath of the University of Michigan painstakingly recorded, analyzed, and wrote musical scores of the Tutelo rituals, and photographed many of the Tutelo descendants who still performed the ceremonies.14
Closer to home, Peter M. Houck, M. D., of Lynchburg, has documented the story of a community of Monacan descendants continuing today at Bear Mountain in Amherst County. Houck proves that though the old tribal organizations may have collapsed and most of the tribal members may have moved elsewhere in the 1700's, some individuals stayed behind.15 This author has also talked to Halifax County residents whose families have an ancient tradition of descent from local Native Americans and the very first English settlers (see note 9), but seemingly have no interest in raising the question after all these centuries of any sort of tribal connection. Additional word-of-mouth accounts have also been heard with regard to the possibility of local native American descendants having remained in Henry County. Several other groups in the Carolinas are vigorously attempting now to (re)develop a more formal Siouan tribal identity.
During the early-1700's dispersion of local Native Americans, it was thought that a number had taken refuge with the Catawbas in the Charlotte area. The Sauras (Cheraws) moved to South Carolina. Others may have formed or joined with an extensive Native American community in present-day Robeson County, North Carolina.
With some historical mysteries, the passage of time decreases the likelihood of finding answers. However, in the case of the Piedmont's “missing Indians,” the pace of discovery seems to be quickening. With more creative and dedicated research, it seems likely that a much more complete picture of history, culture, and genealogy will emerge.
This webpage is sponsored by Mitchells Publications.
Copyright © 1997–2012 Henry H. Mitchell.