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This article is from the Encyclopedia of North Carolina edited by William S. Powell. Copyright © 2006 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. For personal use and not for further distribution. Please submit permission requests for other use directly to the publisher.

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Saponi Indians

by Michael D. Green, 2006

See also: American Indian Tribes in North Carolina; Sappony Indians

The Saponi Indians were a Siouan-speaking people who lived in the Virginia Piedmont near present-day Charlottesville. John Smith found them there, in a region he broadly labeled Monacan, in 1607. Sometime during the next several decades they moved south, seldom remaining stationary until the mid-eighteenth century. A small group of corn farmers and hunters, the Saponi moved to find protection from more powerful enemies.

In 1670 German explorer John Lederer found the Saponi among the Nahyssan on the Staunton River in Virginia. In the 1680s, they were on the upper Roanoke River, living adjacent to the Occaneechi. When John Lawson visited them in 1701, the Saponi were on the Yadkin River near present-day Salisbury, along with the Tutelo and Keyauwee. The Saponi chief told Lawson that the three tribes were planning to join and move again. In 1714 the Saponi, Occaneechi, Tutelo, and other small tribes concluded a treaty with Virginia governor Alexander Spotswood to return to that colony and settle on a six-mile-square reservation laid out on the Meherrin River. Named Fort Christanna, the reservation was to be a refuge for Piedmont Indians willing to serve the Virginia settlements as frontier scouts. In 1729 the Saponi and their friends abandoned the fort and headed for the Catawba River, where the Catawba Nation offered sanctuary.

In 1731 growing dissatisfaction with their situation caused the Saponi to fragment. A few remained with the Catawba, but most left. Some moved north to join those Tuscaroras who remained in North Carolina after the Tuscarora War (1711-13); others migrated to New York, where the Cayuga, one of the Six Nations of Iroquois, adopted them. Still others drifted toward the English settlements, where they were ultimately absorbed into the general population. By the early 2000s the Haliwa-Saponi tribe was a small, state-recognized tribe with headquarters in the town of Hollister in Halifax County.


James H. Merrell, The Indians' New World: Catawbas and Their Neighbors from European Contact through the Era of Removal (1989).

Douglas L. Rights, The American Indian in North Carolina (2nd ed., 1957).




I recently got my results back and Hannah Honor Love is my 5th grandmother on my dad's side, through Stephen Austin. I have looked her up and there seems to be a lot of information out there but none that really seems to tell me anything about her and her family's involvement in the Saponi Tribe. Being from NC, my family and I would really love more information if anyone can pass it along. Thanks!


I just got my results back and she is my 9th great grandmother down the same line to Boswell and I came across your question while also try to research that's crazy stuff so we are related somehow I'm glad that I'm not the only one racking their brain trying to connect all the dots



Thanks for visiting NCpedia and asking your question.

I am forwarding your query to our Reference services who can assist you:

Erin Bradford, Government and Heritage Library


I have recently traced back my lineage and found out that my family comes from the Saponi tribe in VA for generations. When I first looked I encountered generation after generation listed as "Mulatto" and I found it strange. I believed that mulatto meant you had one black parent and one white. And if this was the case why would it say Mulatto for generation after generation? Well I did my homework on Native history, learned about paper genocide and the recategorization of the Indians who did not wish to live on the reservation to Mulatto and eventually Negro. My grandmother told me stories of her mom having long straight hair past her waist... How can I go about claiming my identity and joining my fellow Saponi members? I saw an application of the Occaneechi-Saponi of NC. But none associated with VA. Funny enough on my fathers side I have traced back his side to the Occaneechi tribe in NC and I am sure I can submit an application based off of his lineage. However. my mom is so happy and excited to claim her(our) heritage and I don't want to let her down!! Any suggestions?


Dear Kea,

Thank you for your comment and for visiting NCpedia! You have an excellent questions!

Regarding people who were listed as "mulatto" in the U.S. Census, note that race in the census was often based on complexion. Census enumerators were not allowed to ask about someone's race, so they based race on their interpretation of an individual's complexion. There is a lot of human error in the census.

Regarding applying to the Saponi tribe in Virginia, unfortunately Virginia does not have a recognized tribe of the Saponi. There are the Saponny ( and Haliwa-Saponi ( tribes - I'm not sure if either of those are the Saponi you are looking for.

You likely will want to contact the tribe you want to join directly to see how you can go about joining and applying for membership. There also is a guide to Native American tribal enrollment available from the National Indian Law Library here:

I hope this helps and please let us know if you have any further questions. Best wishes!

Taylor Thompson, Government & Heritage Library


Hi, I just found out that my gggrandmother or my mother had another lover (very possible) were Native and may be Saponi or related to and I would love to find out where my true relatives are. I have no idea how to begin this search as this is all new news to me. Everyone relevent is dead except one and he's in not in any condition to remember yesterday let alone his childhood.
Possibly family names are Barnard (Unlikely), McKeage (Likely), Bales (Likely, no other reference of my grandmother prior to her marriage to my grandfather exists that I can find), Saunder NO S on the end (My new found 1/2 Brother could also be the connection if my mother had another lover , I have not been able to get a reply from him as of yet. The Barnard side oft he family lived for a long time in Massatuchettes (15's 1600's), and Danville, Quebec (1700 on). I have an extensive family tree and could compare names but I have no idea where to start looking.

Any help would be amazing.


I'm trying to find information regarding a few surnames in Virginia. One of my great aunts told me that the family was "Blackfoot". Her sister told me we are Cherokee. I did research on the area where my family (maternal line) came from and came across the Saponi. The surnames are Johnson (Campbell County), Pannell (Halifax County), Bennett (Campbell County) and Tinsley (Lynchburg). Any help would be greatly appreciated.


I have been trying to find info on my gggrandmother who may have been Saponi. Her name was America Combs ( or Collins). She may have been married to Sander Vardy. I have always been told I had Native American in my blood line but can’t find any info.

Any help would be much appreciated.



I am sending your question to our reference librarians who can assist you. 


Erin Bradford, Government and Heritage Library


I am searching for my family's identity. I was told by my grandmother whose name was Mary Moore Rice and my father James Irvin Rice that we are Saponi, Cherokee and Monacan Indian which meant we were many colors. They are labeled as colored on their birth certificates. I was called "Half-breed or Issue and was labeled colored yet I have all Indian features. I know my birth certificate was changed by Walter Plecker who worked for the Bureau of Vital Statistics in Amherst County. He died in 1947.I have felt and claimed Indian as my race all my life, but have no documentation. Can anyone help me?

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