An Abbreviated History of Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Chapter One: The Indians

By Maud Carter Clement, Chatham, Virginia, ca. 1952.

The first people to make Pittsylvania County their home were the Indians. Their villages stood beside the streams and their corn fields waved in the rich bottom lands. When white settlers came into this section, (about 1740), the red man was gone, but his going was of so recent a date that the locations of his villages and farm lands could be easily recognized. They were mentioned by the surveyors to mark the lines of early land patents.

At the time of the English settlements at Jamestown, Virginia had one of the largest Indian populations of any part of the United States. The tribes were members of two great races: the Algonquins, who occupied eastern Virginia, and the Sioux, who had settled midland Virginia. To the north along the Great Lakes lived the Iroquois, or Five Nations of the North; to the west across the mountains, were the Cherokee of the Tennessee country.

The Indians of Pittsylvania belonged to the Siouian race, and their tribal name was Sapony, their tribal sign, three arrow heads painted on the shoulder. Their chief towns Pintahae and Sapon Town were situated along the Staunton River, which was then known as Sapony River. Smaller towns and forts were scattered through the county, being mentioned by the surveyors. The nearest tribes were the friendly Toleros, whose chief town was near the present city of Roanoke, and the Occaneechi, who lived at the junction of the Dan and Staunton rivers. All were members of the Siouian race, speaking the same language and following the same customs.

The Occaneechi were a very wealthy tribe, being the merchant traders of this part of the East. Their town was the market for all Indian trade for 500 miles around, and the Occaneechi Trading Path extended from the James river to Augusta, Georgia. We are told that they always kept on hand a year's supply of corn and a thousand skins. This brings us to the story of the Indian fur trade which played so large a part in the early life of Virginia, and was the undoing of these, our local tribes.

As you know, Virginia was settled by a corporation known as the London Company, in which people bought shares. A list of the members of the London Company reads like a list of Pittsylvania's inhabitants of today, for they have the very same names of yourself and your neighbors. One of the chief interests of the English colonist was to locate something that could be shipped back to England and sold for money. There was neither silver nor gold such as had been found in South America. John Rolfe tried out growing tobacco which proved a success. But most profitable of all their efforts was the Indian fur trade. The pelts of the wild animals of the forest could be purchased from the Indians for a few beads, a yard of cloth, and later with guns and ammunition. Beaver skins were always in demand.

It was through the fur trade that the Indians of Pittsylvania became known to the colonists as early as 1640. The wealth of these local tribes spread abroad and people as far away as the Dutch of New York carried on an active fur trade with the, employing the Susquehanna Indians who lived at the head of Chesapeake Bay to act as their runners or agents. The Virginia colonists resented the fur trading of the Dutch, which Governor Berkeley claimed amounted to over "200,000 beaver skins from our precincts alone."

The first written account which we have of Pittsylvania's Indians is found in the diary of a trader named John Lederer, who visited them in 1670, spending three weeks at Sapon Town. He travelled alone except for an Indian guide, Jackzetavan, trusting to his trading goods which he thought would please the Indians. They questioned him closely and deciding that he meant no harm welcomed him warmly. (NOTE: You will find a copy of Lederer's Diary in the State Library, Richmond.)

Lederer described the Saponees a being tall and war-like, and Colonel William Byrd, who knew them in later years, said, "They are the bravest and honestest Indians Virginia ever knew," that there was "Something great and venerable in their countenances." A Siouian chief of today can be described in like words.

Lederer found these people of good intelligence and understanding and their chiefs were men of great eloquence. He said that thought they lacked the learning that the study of books gave, they were not wanting in a knowledge of rhetoric and government. "I have heard their seniors deliver themselves with as much eloquence and Judgment as I should have expected of men of civil education and literature."

Lederer saw in their temples a great store of pearls which had been taken in warfare from the Florida Indians, and which he said, were as highly prized by red man as by the white.

In the following year, 1671, three more traders visited our local tribe, Tom Woods, Tom Bolts, and Robert Fallam, who kept a journal of their trip. They were sent out by that experienced old trader, Major Abram Wood of Fort Henry on the Appomattoc River, who had found that the best way to secure the Indian trade was to go after it. The traders visited both Sapony Town and Sapony West, which was no doubt Pintahae, the King's Seat, and were joyfully received with much provisions, showing that Lederer had made a favorable impression.

While the young traders were visiting the Tolero town they heard that William Byrd and his party were only three miles away. Byrd and his uncle Thomas Stegg were active competitors of Major Wood for the fur trade of the South and West.

The Virginia Indians did not live in tents, but in arbor-like houses made of saplings which were bent at the top and tied with white oak thongs, giving a curved roof. The outside was covered closely with bark mats and skins, which kept out the wind and rain perfectly. The early writer (Beverly) said that their houses were "as warm as stooves but very smokey."

The Indians always fixed upon the richest ground for their villages so that their near gardens and corn fields would have fertile soil for the growing. The Virginian Indian was a skilled agriculturist and an industrious farmer, growing large quantities of vegetables. Many of our staple foods we owe to Indian skill in horticulture. The red man bred from the wild form and gave to the world such well-known foods as the sweet and white potato, corn in all its many varieties, pumpkin, squash, and many varieties of peas and beans.

In 1676 came that upheaval in Indian life which was brought about by Bacon's Rebellion. As you will recall, this war was caused by an invasion of the Susquehanna Indians, who fled down into Virginia when attacked by the Iroquois and whites. Governor Berkeley, who no doubt had used them in his own fur trading, ordered the no to molest the Susquehanna, who soon grew bold and began to plunder the outlying settlements. When they South side Virginia, the colonists, under Bacon, attacked the marauders, who fled to the Occaneechi for protection. Having long had business relations with them, the Occaneechi took the Susquehanna in and fed them. These crafty people, probably lured by the rich stores of fur and food, turned on the Occaneechi and it was with difficulty that they were driven off. When the Virginians arrived. The Occaneechi, who had always been on friendly terms with them, join the colonists and defeated the Susquehannas.

Then the story takes a strange turn. Some of Bacon's men at once returned home, their mission having been finished. But a great number remained at Occaneechi Town, day after day, until the Occaneechi became alarmed. The colonist claimed that they were waiting for food, but it is more probable that they too, like the Susquehanna, were tempted by the Indians' great store of furs. Rosseechy, King of the Occaneechi, sent swift runners out, checking for help from his tribal brothers. The Sapony warriors hurried to his aid.

There were three forts at Occaneechi Town, which were armed and the town put in a state of defense. While matters were in this tense state a shot was fired killing one of Bacon's men, and the battle was on. It raged for a day and a night, and the Indians were severely beaten. King Rosseechy and the King of the Monocans were slain as well as many warriors, women and children.

Bacon, a newcomer, had been living in Virginia only a year and did not know well the different tribes. Had an old experienced Indian trader like Major Wood been in command that day these friendly tribes would not have been so needlessly destroyed.

When a treaty between the Indian tribes and the Colony of Virginia was drawn up the following year, it was signed, along with other Kings and Chiefs, by Mastogonoe, a young King of the Saponees, and by Tachapooke, chief man of the Saponees. The Pittsylvania tribe thus became subject to the government of Virginia for the first time in its history.

The Iroquois, or Five Nations of the North, took advantage of the weakened condition of our local Indians, and made continuous attacks upon them. Their great war trail led down the Valley of Virginia, crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains through the water gap of the Staunton River, and passed southward through what are now the counties of Henry and Franklin.

Finding it impossible to defend themselves separately in their exposed positions, the three kindred tribes decided to unite; and the Saponees and the Tutelos forsook their villages and farm lands and joined the Occaneechi at the junction of the Dan and Staunton Rivers. After their union the three tribes took the name of our local Indians, and thereafter were known as the Saponees.

Colonel Cadwallader Jones, of the Rappahannock River, had for years carried on an extensive fur trade with the Occaneechi. In a letter to the Governor of Maryland, in 1681, he mention this trade, and said through it he learned that the Senecas (Iroquois) had so oppressed the Indians that they had made no corn this year. He also said that they took from the Indian town thirty-five persons and four or five from several smaller towns.

The attacks of their enemies continued without ceasing, and the Saponees were unable to maintain themselves even with the river as a barrier. The daughter of the Tolero King, fearing that she would not be treated with the respect due her rank, rather than suffer indignity, poisoned herself with the root of the trumpet vine.

Then Governor Spottswood, who felt a great pity for these friendly Virginia Indians, took them under the protection of the Colony. He settled them in what is now Brunswick and built for them Fort Christiana, employing schoolmasters to educate and Christianize the children. We are told that near a hundred children learned to road and say their prayers. But William Byrd said that the good purpose of Governor Spottswood was brought to naught by white man selling the Indian rum which caused the red man to break the laws of the Colony. When one of the great men of the tribe committed murder while drunk, and was tried in the courts according to law, and hanged for the offence, the Saponees felt great grief and indignation and left Virginia.

Feeling themselves insecure and unsafe under the laws of the Colony, and being no longer strong enough to stand alone, in 1740 the Saponees moved north and united with their ancient enemies, the Iroquois, and were afterwards known as the Sixth Nation of the North.

Thus passed from Virginia the noble tribe of red men, leaving but a faint outline of their tragic story.

[Go to next chapter.]


Related Book

(Available from the sponsor.)

History of Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Maud Carter Clement: History of Pittsylvania County, Virginia (1929)

This website is sponsored by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House, Chatham, Virginia. (See also guides to Pittsylvania County, Chatham, and Danville.)