The Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation
The Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation - OBSN for short - is a small Indian community located primarily in the old settlement of Little Texas, Pleasant Grove Township, Alamance County, North Carolina.
The OBSN community is a lineal descendant of the Saponi and related Indians who occupied the Piedmont of North Carolina and Virginia in pre-contact times, and specifically of those Saponi and related Indians who formally became tributary to Virginia under the Treaties of Middle Plantation in 1677 and 1680, and, who under the subsequent treaty of 1713 with the Colony of Virginia agreed to join together as a single community. This confederation formed a settlement at Fort Christianna along the Virginia/North Carolina border in what is now Brunswick County, Virginia. The confederation included the Saponi proper, the Occaneechi, the Eno, the Tutelo, and elements of other related communities such as the Cheraw. All of these communities were remnants of much larger Siouan communities that had lived in North Carolina and Virginia in prehistoric times.
The Saponi confederation was closely allied with the Catawba confederation, and occupied several forts and settlements located in what are now Greensville County and Brunswick Counties, Virginia from about 1680 until the mid-18th century, when the last Virginia fort, Christianna, fell into disuse. They also continued to occupy fortified villages and other settlements in North Carolina into the mid-1700s during this period.
While maintaining distinctions among themselves (sometimes exaggerated by non-Indian contemporaries and by later historians), the various elements within the Saponi confederation had a common origin and were closely related, linguistically and culturally. Their final treaty with Virginia included an agreement among the four signatory groups to formally incorporate as one tribe under the name "Sapony". In January, 1715, Virginia's Governor Spotswood wrote a letter to the Bishop of London describing how he had "engaged the Saponie, Oconeechee, Stuckanox [Eno] and Tottero Indians (being a people speaking much the same language, and therefore confederated together, tho' preserving their different Rules) immediately to remove to y't place, which I have named Christ-Anna." In June of that year, Spotswood wrote to the Commisioners of Trade in London that he had ". . . been for a good part of last Spring, employ'd in finishing the fortifications of Christanna, and in settling there a Body of our Tributary Indians to ye number of 300 men, women and children, who go under the general name of Saponies . . .".
Acculturated members of the confederation and their descendants gradually formed a settled community that, over time, became geographically and culturally distinct from the traditional community. Formal marriages and common-law relationships between Indians of the community and their European neighbors contributed to divisions between the settled community and more conservative community members. Documentary evidence of the existence of the acculturated community begins to appear in local records as early as the 1720s. As these records involve adults, it is likely the acculturated community dates back into the 17th century. A great majority of the tribe's members can trace their ancestry back to the individual Indians identified in such records.
The acculturated community occupied a small tri-border area in what are now Greensville County, Virginia, Brunswick County, Virginia, and Northampton County, North Carolina. Their settlement was also midway between two forts built for the Indians by Virginia, and about 10 miles south of a third fort, near modern-day Purdy, Virginia, that was apparently built by the Indians themselves, probably for defense against Iroquois raiders from the north. More precisely, the community's land was located south of modern Emporia, Virginia (Greensville County), west into Brunswick County, and extending across the State line into the northwestern corner of Northampton County, North Carolina and to the Roanoke River. Researchers for the OBSN have documented the development of this community from the late 17th through the early 19th centuries, by which time emigration to the Midwest and other parts of the South had reduced it to a handful of families.
Beginning just prior to the Revolutionary War, and accelerating rapidly thereafter, individuals and bands of families began migrating from the acculturated settlement to Orange County, North Carolina. These migrants formed the community that was historically called "Little Texas" and that today calls itself the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation. Some families also migrated from Virginia to South Carolina (Sumter County), and beginning in the 1820s, most of the families remaining in Virginia or nearby areas of North Carolina emigrated to Ohio and other Midwestern states. Some Indians also migrated from Little Texas to join relatives in Ohio.
While there appear to be few if any descendants today in either Brunswick or Greensville County, Virginia there is a small remnant community still in existence across the State line in Northampton County near the town of Gaston on the Roanoke River. Even this community, called the "Portuguese Settlement" throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, has largely dispersed. Up into the 1950's, however, at least one of the community's schools, called the "Portuguese" school, was still located in Greensville County.
. . . The group began a concerted effort to conduct research into their history, and to seek to correct the racial mis-classifications on their birth certificates and other official documents that resulted from Jim Crow and other racist laws that had at one time been on North Carolina's books. . .http://www.ibiblio.org/dig/html/split/report48b.html
The 1790 census does not list the race of the heads of household in Orange County. Both Whitmores are listed in 1830 as "Free Negro Heads of Households" along with numerous Jeffrieses, Corns, Burnettes, Haithcocks, Joneses, and others for the North District of Orange County. This "Free Negro" list also enumerates nearly all the families that were ancestral to present-day Indian communities in other parts of North Carolina such as the Lumbee, Coharie, and Meherrin.
Their uncertain racial status resulted in 13 separate court cases involving members of the Jeffries or related families.
The first, an Ohio Supreme Court case, occurred in 1842 in Greene County, Ohio, when Parker Jeffries was refused the right to vote by the officials of Xenia Township because "they were of the opinion, as they said, that he was a person of color and not entitled to vote" (Greene County Clerk of Courts 1842). The jury, however, found "that the plaintiff (Jeffries) is of the Indian race, the illegitimate son of a White man and a woman of the Indian race, and that he has not more than one fourth of the Indian blood in his veins." On this basis, Jeffries was awarded six cents and allowed to vote thereafter. Few other details are given in the court records concerning evidence presented or information about Parker Jeffries's mother.
The second case occurred in 1866 in Whitley County, Indiana, and is referred to as Jeffries vs. Smith et al. In substance, it was similar to the Parker Jeffries case. The facts were that Mortimer Jeffries had attempted to vote in 1864 and that the defendants "with knowledge of all the facts concerning the plaintiff's pedigree and blood, willfully refused to receive his vote on account of his color" (Kaler and Maring 1907). According to court records, Mortimer Jeffries was the son of a quarter-blood Indian father and a white mother, making him white within the scope of the law. The Indiana Supreme Court found in favor of Jeffries. A history of Whitley County, Indiana, gives some additional information about the trial and about Mortimer Jeffries. His father, Herbert Jeffries, was a native of Greensville County, Virginia, who married a woman, supposedly of French descent, in North Carolina. It further states that "Herbert was of French and Indian extraction and his children in this township have always claimed to be free from African blood, which their stature and physiognomy does not belie." During the trial, an alleged expert witness was called by the defense to examine a lock of Jeffries's hair, the witness supposedly being able to determine African ancestry by examination of a person's hair. Unbeknownst to the witness, however, Jeffries's lawyer submitted a lock of hair from the presiding judge, which was duly found to be from an individual of African ancestry. The judge was not amused, and Jeffries won his case "and was granted suffrage for himself and brothers, which they afterwards exercised undisputed under the scornful eyes of some of their neighbors."
The third and final case, Jeffries vs. O'Brien Guinn et al. (Rush County Clerk of Courts 1869), is the most detailed of the three, and provides more information about the situation of the Indian people while they were living in the Greensville County, Virginia, area. This information is contained in the depositions of four witnesses called by William M. Jeffries to give evidence as to the race and background of his parents. Four persons gave depositions; three of them appear to have been white while the fourth, Shadrack Jeffries, was an Indian and a relative of William Jeffries. All agreed that: (1) Jeffries mother was of Indian and white ancestry; (2) she was born in Northampton County, North Carolina, near the Virginia line; (3) she did not associate with blacks; (4) his father was Macklin Jeffries, of Greensville County, Virginia; and (5) Macklin Jeffries was a mixed-blood Indian. The testimony of Susan Wooten is particularly interesting in that she states that "Jeffries' mother associated with White people and those who had Indian blood with regard to her Indian blood. She descended from an old Indian settlement in that neighborhood." This indicates that: (1) there were a fair number of these Indian people in the area who had social (as well as kinship and marriage) ties; and (2) they stayed in some distinct geographic location. Jeffries's mother, who was named Mary Turner, could have been Nottoway, Saponi, Meherrin, or a member of some other tribe. All three of these tribes lived in that general area and, although the Turner name was found among the Nottoway prior to their absorption into the general population, the "settlement" may also have been that of the Saponi of Greensville County, Virginia, or the so-called Portuguese settlement near Gaston, in Northampton County, North Carolina, where the Turner name also occurs. It may also refer to another settlement entirely. Susan Wooten was born, by her reckoning, in 1799, so the settlement she refers to could have dated to the mid-1700s, if she thinks of it as an "old" settlement. It could conceivably even refer to Junkatapurse, which may have been inhabited until the 1740s.
Other local histories refer to the Indian blood of the Jeffrieses. R. F. Dill's History of Greene County, Ohio (Dill 1881) contains short biographies of prominent persons, and gives the following information about James Jeffries: "James Jeffries, Furniture Manufacturer . . . was born in Greenville County, Virginia, January 30, 1821 . . . son of Silas and Susan (Pruitt) Jeffries. Silas was a descendant of the Catawba tribe of Indians." Similar information is given for Mason Jeffries, son of Uriah Jeffries, of Greensville County, Virginia, who is also said to be a descendant of the Catawba tribe.
ancestry were eligible for part of the settlement, and many of these people applied to the U.S. Court of Claims for a share (Jordan 1987-1990). It is interesting to read these applications, since a significant percentage of applicants were not Eastern Cherokee, but members of other tribes. These persons would now be identified as Lumbee, Alabama Creek, Meherrin, Haliwa, and Occaneechi (Saponi), along with a number of individuals who probably were of unmixed white or black ancestry.
At least 20 Occaneechi descendants also applied; all were rejected by the commission as not being of Eastern Cherokee ancestry. Among these were Aaron Thomas Guy, born in Caswell County, North Carolina, the son of Henry Guy and grandson of Henry Guy. Henry Guy, Sr., was the brother of Richard Guy, Buckner Guy, and others who moved to Macon County, North Carolina, from the Texas community in the 1820s. Aaron Guy stated that his mother was a free woman of color, born free and raised by the Quakers in Guilford County, North Carolina. There is also testimony from a former slave who knew Henry Guy, Jr., to the effect that he was an Indian, married to a colored woman. Aaron Guy was living in Indiana at the time of his application.
William and Joe Gibson, from Murphy, North Carolina, applied, and the note "Probably Negros" was written on their application. William Gibson stated that his parents "passed as part Indian. No Negro blood in them." He further stated that his father spoke the Indian language. On the bottom of his testimony is a note, presumably written by the agent, which says, "This applicant shows the Indian so does his brother now with him. However, their ancestors were never enrolled." These Gibsons, who lived at various times in Tennessee and North Carolina, probably were also related to the Gibsons found in the so-called Melungeon groups of eastern Tennessee and western Virginia, which appear to have originated in the early mixed-blood populations of the North Carolina Piedmont area. http://www.sgarner349.com/bethany_school.htm
The Bethany School
The Portuguese Settlement
In the northwest section of Northampton County, North Carolina, just a mile or two from the Virginia state line, lie the fading remnants of what was once called the "Portuguese" Settlement. Centered in Gaston Township, along the Roanoke River , this community of Poythresses, Basses, Turners, Scotts, Newsoms, and Peterses had it's own school, Bethany, and it's own church, run as a mission by a white Gaston congregation. At least one store in the community was owned by a member of the group.
While local legend has it that these people descend from Portuguese workers brought in to work on the dam on the Roanoke, the family names cane be traced back well into the late 18th Century in the area. Their ancestry is almost certainly Indian, from either or both the Saponi and the Nottoway. Several of the Scotts who moved from the area to South Carolina obtained papers attesting to their Indian ancestry after they arrived in Sumpter County.
There are many descendants of this community in the region today, but the community as a whole has disintegrated. Only the old graveyard remains to mark the site of this once thriving community of primarily small tenant farmers.
1910 US Census
The 1910 Federal Census for Gaston Township listed the following heads of families and their members' race as "Ot" for "Other", with the notation in the margin "Portuguese". All these families lived along River Road, and their relative further down the road, who were enumerated by a different census taker, were listed as Black or Mulatto.
This is a total of 17 families containing 88 individuals, with the surnames Newsome, Conwell, and Ellis also appearing.
The Scotts, Poythresses, and Turners all intermarried with the Jeffries and Haithcocks who were living in both Greensville and Northampton. One of the main lines of Occaneechi Jeffrieses in Alamance descends from the marriage of Drewry Jeffries and Sylvia Scott in Greensville Co. in 1790. Macklin Jeffries, the father of William Jeffries, who moved to Rush Co., Indiana, had married Mary Turner in Northampton County before moving to Indiana.
Above is a photograph of the Diamond Grove school in southern Greensville County, Virginia, taken in 1997. It lies about 3 miles north of the NC/Va. State line. This school, formerly a Black school, was apparently used as a school for the "Portuguese" residing in Greensville County until the late 1950's. The Turners were the most well-known family of the group in Greensville, described by some of the whites as "gypsy-looking", and remaining separate from both white and Blacks in the area. Douglas Summers Brown's papers contain brief notes on the Indian background of the Turners.