8.2 General history and contemporary community
By Dante Desiderio, Sherry Epps Munford, Kara Stewart, and other Sappony tribal members
The Men had something great and Venerable in their countenances… and indeed they ever had the Reputation of being the Honestest, as well as the bravest Indians we have ever been acquainted with.
— Explorer William Byrd’s 1728 statement about the Sappony while drawing the dividing line between Virginia and North Carolina.
Visit the rolling hills of Person County, North Carolina and Halifax County, Virginia, between Hyco River, Mayo Creek, and the Dan River and you are in Sappony country. The High Plains community that straddles the Virginia/North Carolina border is the homeland of the Sappony, a community of Native Americans who knew the Piedmont area long before the English set foot there. They were historically a powerful tribe which, along with their Siouan cousin tribes lived, traveled and traded up and down the Piedmont until they settled in the High Plains in the 18th century. “Siouan” is a term used for one of the three major language groups of Virginia and North Carolina Indians — Siouan, Algonquian, and Iroquoian.
Sappony history tells us that long ago these people lived at times in the foothills near Charlottesville, Virginia, along the Yadkin River near Salisbury, North Carolina, and throughout the Piedmont areas that lie between those locations. They are an Eastern Siouan people whose ancestors spoke a language similar to that of Siouan Indians who lived on the Plains.
Today, the nearest town to High Plains is Virgilina, Virginia. However, the town of Christie, when it maintained a post office, was the center of High Plains. The town name of Christie has its roots in Sappony history, the name being derived from the period when the Sappony occupied the area of Fort Christanna and were known as the Christie Indians.
For over two centuries, the Sappony living in High Plains grew tobacco as a primary subsistence crop. This, along with their Indian church and school, allowed the community to remain self-sufficient. The tribal insignia features a tobacco leaf because of its importance to the tribe.
[Note to teachers: Two lesson plans at the end of this chapter teach students about the importance of tobacco in the lives of the Sappony people: “Sappony Insignia: The Story Behind the Image” and “Sappony Life, School, Church, and Farming — Then and Now.”]
Church and school
The church has always been the center of the Sappony community. It has been a place to meet, worship, and was even used for education before a separate school was built. The current Calvary Baptist Church is in Person County, North Carolina.
The first school began as one room in their Baptist church in Halifax County, Virginia in 1878. In 1911, the Sappony built and funded the High Plains Indian School in its final location in Person County, North Carolina after receiving legislative recognition from the state of North Carolina. Virginia state recognition followed in 1913. The Indian school was closed in 1962 with the advent of assimilation.
Sappony history is one of family bonds, hard work, moral values and loyalty. It is the history of a people whose lives changed with the changing of times — from hunters and farmers of pre-contact days to trading partners with the English during colonial times, from tenant and landed farmers throughout the 1800s and 1900s to a contemporary Indian people in a diversified world. Today they are a community descended from, and still formed of, seven main families: Coleman, Epps, Johnson, Martin, Shepherd, Stewart/Stuart and Talley. They are a unified community despite the man-made state boundary line that cuts through High Plains and despite the changes time has brought.
The Sappony have ever been a people whose ability to adapt to new lifeways enabled them to survive and to benefit from new opportunities. Today, tobacco farming in the region is no longer economically viable. Tribal members now pursue higher education and have become skilled in a variety of fields, currently working in many professions other than farming including education, medicine, finance and technology. Throughout hundreds of years of changes, they have maintained their tribal and family bonds as Sappony people.
The Sappony are currently pursuing initiatives in the areas of economic development, health, education and cultural preservation. They hold annual tribal events, such as the Spring Festival and Fall Stew, and are involved in Native American health and education issues and organizations. Additionally, their summer youth camp is included in their Heritage Program.
For more information, please see the Sappony Heritage Program booklet (PDF).
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
The church and school have a long history of being integral to the Sappony community. Education has always been a top priority among the Sappony. 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 over the years. 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, 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.
- Article: First Graduating Class of the High Plains School (PDF)
- This scanned newspaper article gives a history of the High Plains School and reports on five young Indian women who were in the school’s first graduating class.
For eighty-four 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.
The Sappony continue their emphasis on education. Academically, Sappony students are the highest performing tribe in North Carolina. The tribe’s Education Committee encourages higher education with an annual scholarship for college students, and a number Tribal members seek post-graduate degrees. The Sappony are also active on North Carolina’s State Advisory Committee on Indian Education.
The Sappony have a long history of faith, with the church and school as the center of their community. Records as early as 1801 show the Sappony as part of Bethel Hill Baptist Church in Person County, North Carolina. But 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 the Sappony 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 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.
Sappony Homecomings, a three day celebration held every Labor Day weekend, brings Sappony tribal members from far and wide to participate in the Homecoming church service, spend time with family, and fellowship over a huge spread of homemade foods brought to the church fellowship hall for lunch. This meal, traditionally known as “Dinner on the Grounds,” was historically held on picnic tables under trees on church grounds and remembered fondly by elders as one of the highlights of the year.
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.
- Next: Detailed Sappony history