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Haliwa-Saponi tribal history

The Haliwa-Saponi Indian people number over 4,000 enrolled members and are descendants of the Saponi (or Sapona), Nansemond, Tuscarora, and some other regional tribes. Throughout the English colonial era, these tribes continually maintained autonomous villages in what is now northeastern North Carolina and southern Virginia.

The Saponi Indians were a Sioux-speaking tribe making their first documented acquaintance with Virginia traders along the Staunton (or Roanoke) River in southern Virginia around 1670. At that time the Saponi enjoyed political alliance with the culturally related Tottero (or Tutelo), and together comprised the Nassaw Nation. Another related tribe, the Occaneechee, also lived in the region. These were once numerous and powerful peoples. However, due to the frequent incursions from the north of the Iroquois Five Nations (situated in what is now New York), the Saponi and their neighbors frequently moved around what is now Virginia and North Carolina seeking economically and militarily advantageous alliances.


By 1709, many decades of war with the Five Nations and bouts with imported infectious diseases had decimated the Saponi. They numbered altogether around just about 750 souls. Seeking strength in both combination and geography, the Saponi and Tottero joined with the Occaneechee, and moved into northeastern North Carolina to be closer to colonial trade. In 1711 the Carolina colonists went to war with some Tuscarora. Following the war, which lasted more than two years, the Saponi and their closest allies met at Williamsburg with the Tuscarora and Nottoway Tribes to enter into a new treaty of peace and trade with Virginia Governor Alexander Spotswood. On February 27, 1714, the tribes and colony reached an agreement and the Saponi, Tottero, Occaneechee, Keyauwee, Enoke (or Eno), and Shakori consolidated as “The Saponi Nation.” Another refugee band known as the “Stuckanox” Tribe soon joined the Saponi Nation. The years between 1709 and 1714 were hard on the Saponi with population decline continuing — the Saponi Nation now numbered only about three hundred people. That same year, the Virginia Council asked the Nansemond Tribe to merge with the Saponi to strengthen their settlements and add to the buffer zone the colony was building between the plantation settlements and the northern raiders of the Five Nations.

Spotswood convinced the colonial Board of Trade to approve the establishment of Fort Christanna between the Roanoke and Meherrin rivers, about thirty-two miles north of the Haliwa-Saponi Powwow grounds. The fort was to protect the colonists from the northern Iroquois, and to Christianize and educate the Saponi and other groups. The fort also served as a major trading post for the corporate Virginia Indian Company. At least seventy Saponi children were educated and Christianized by missionary teacher Charles Griffin of North Carolina. By 1717, under charges of monopoly, the Colonial Board of Trade lost interest in the fort and ordered the Virginia Indian Company disbanded. But the Saponi Nation maintained peaceful trade relations with the colonists, and a portion of the Saponi Nation continued living in the Fort Christanna area from 1717 to 1729. One group of the Saponi moved into northern Virginia, near Fredericksburg, and at least one band of Saponi and Tottero made peace with their former enemies, the Iroquois, at Albany in 1722. Eventually, the Iroquois adopted these tribes into their Nations, with formal confirmation of adoption coming in 1753. Another group of Saponi migrated south to their cultural kinsmen the Catawbas in what is now northeastern South Carolina. They occupied a village there between 1729 and 1732, afterwards returning to Virginia in 1733 with some Cheraw Indians, only to discover that colonists had taken patents on their former lands. Upset that their lands were taken, the Saponi made agreements with Virginia for new lands, but also made a separate arrangement with the Tuscarora Indians in April of 1733 to live with and under them.

The Tuscarora Reservation, known as Reskooteh Town and Indian Wood, was located in Bertie County, North Carolina, approximately thirty miles east of the modern Haliwa-Saponi community. The reservation consisted initially of 40,000 acres, bordered eastern Halifax County, and included a village known as the Sapona Town. By 1734 some Nansemond were also living with the Nottoway Indians in Virginia, and other Nansemond had resettled near the Tuscarora in North Carolina. Also migrating with these Indians were Virginia traders who wanted to continue their trade relations with these tribes. One of the most noted traders was Colonel William Eaton, an “Old Granville” (modern-day Franklin, Warren, Vance) County resident, who traded with the Saponi, Catawba, and others. From the 1730s to the 1770s, Haliwa-Saponi tribal ancestors closely associated in and near the modern Haliwa-Saponi area. The Haliwa-Saponi Tribal community began coalescing in “The Meadows” of southwestern Halifax County immediately after the American Revolution.


During the early 1800s these Haliwa-Saponi tribal ancestors remained relatively isolated in the Meadows, having little known contact with other Indian tribes, and attempting to live peaceably alongside their non-Indian neighbors. During the 1830s, when the United States enforced policies to remove all Indians living east of the Mississippi River, the federal government basically ignored most of the relatively landless and powerless small tribes settled in the southeastern coastal region. However, Haliwa-Saponi Tribal elders tell of several families migrating west to Indian Territory on their own, some merging into the general population, while others were adopted by one of the Five Civilized Tribes in Oklahoma. Still, over the course of the 1800s the Haliwa-Saponi maintained a close, tight-knit tribal community in modern Halifax, Warren, Nash, and Franklin Counties.

The Haliwa-Saponi spent the late 1800s attempting to organize its tribal government and fighting for separate Indian schools. In the 1870s the Haliwa-Saponi began meeting at Silver Hill, which is a remote location within the Meadows. These early efforts at formal organization resulted in the Indian schools, Bethlehem School (1882) in Warren County and the Secret Hill School in Halifax County. Early tribal leaders such as Tillman Lynch, Alfred Richardson, Manuel Richardson, Stephen Hedgepeth, Cofield Richardson, Bennet Richardson, Solomon Mills, and Bill Silver tried to formally re-organize the tribe, but found great opposition and little support because many Indians were simply afraid. However, the push for a formal organization was finally realized through the leadership of John C. Hedgepeth, Lonnie Richardson, B.B. Richardson, Chief Jerry Richardson, James Mills, and others by 1953. After living for years in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, W.R. Richardson returned home to the community and soon became the first elected Chief of the modern tribe, with Percy Richardson being elected Vice-Chief.


From 1957-1969, the Haliwa-Saponi built, maintained, and operated the Haliwa Indian School, the only non-reservation, tribally-supported Indian school in the state. After a few years of operation, the state Department of Public Instruction provided funding for teacher salaries. However, tribal members paid for supplies and materials, the building, and maintenance out of their own pockets. Then the tribe had much to celebrate when in 1965, the state of North Carolina formally recognized the Haliwa Indian Tribe. The tribe incorporated in 1974 and added Saponi to its tribal name in 1979 to reflect historical origins of the people. The tribe has since built an administrative building, multipurpose building, and instituted various service programs. Programs include tribal housing, daycare, senior citizens program, community services, Workforce Investment Act, cultural retention, after-school and youth programs, energy assistance, and economic development.

Federal recognition through the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Office of Federal Acknowledgement (OFA) remains a top priority of the tribe. The tribe submitted a formal petition in 1989 and is currently seeking and compiling additional information in order to respond to the OFA’s Letter of Obvious Deficiencies (L.O.D.). The tribe continues to perform research, update our files, and monitor the federal acknowledgement process.

The Haliwa-Saponi’s latest and most exceptional accomplishment is the opening of the Haliwa-Saponi Tribal School, which is ninety-eight percent Indian, and boasts a curriculum based on standard course of study, small classrooms, technology, and American Indian Studies. The school currently operates grades K-12, with an aim to add one grade per year. The tribe continues to be culturally active and is proud of the community’s many dancers, singers, and artists.