Jesse Chavis, Saponi Indian from Granville County – An Update!

I have a major update and correction to the genealogy of Jesse Chavis (1766-1840) of Granville County. This is a big breakthrough for Chavis, Gibson, and Granville County researchers. And what I will discuss below is a major correction to the genealogy that researcher Paul Heinegg has provided for Jesse Chavis. As I’ve shown in other blog posts, researchers sometimes conflate the records of multiple people who happen to share the same name into a single person. I can confirm that Jesse Chavis of Granville County was NOT the son of Elizabeth Chavis of Amelia and Mecklenburg Counties, VA. Instead Jesse Chavis was from the family of Granville community founders William Chavis and his wife Frances Gibson.


 

The Wrong Jesse Chavis

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This is the genealogy that Paul Heinegg presented for Jesse Chavis. He conflated two different Jesse Chavises into one person. Source: freeafricanamericans.com

In his section on the Chavis family, Paul Heinegg wrote about a woman named Elizabeth Chavis (b. 1751) who lived in southside Virginia and was the mother of several children born out of wedlock. On 13 November 1769, Elizabeth Chavis had a son named Jesse Chavis who was bound out. No other information is provided as to what happened to Jesse Chavis after he was bound out. As you can see from the text above, no additional records are provided on this Jesse Chavis of Mecklenburg County. What Heinegg then does is assume that a Jesse Chavis who appears in the Granville County records is the same Jesse Chavis who was bound out in Mecklenburg County. This is not an unfair assumption to make because Mecklenburg County shares an important border with Granville County and many of the Native families in Granville that I have discussed came from Mecklenburg. However Heinegg provides no records to demonstrate that the Jesse Chavises are indeed the same person. In the following sections, I will examine the records of Jesse Chavis more closely and present some new records that I found which help to sort out this mix up.


 

The Family of William Chavis (1709-1777)

Jesse Chavis family tree.001
Family Tree of Jesse Chavis (1766-1840). All of these family relationships are explained in this blog post. © Kianga Lucas

I have referenced William Chavis (1709-1777) many times in previous blog posts though I have yet to write a full blog solely dedicated to him. The reason for this is that I’m still gathering and analyzing records related to William Chavis. He is such an important ancestor not only for Granville County but for other Native communities as well, so I want to make sure I get it right.

William Chavis was the original land owner of a massive, continuous tract of land that he likely received directly from John Cateret, 2nd Earl of Granville in the 1740s. Local Granville/Vance County historian Oscar W. Blacknall (1852-1918) wrote about the Native American identity of William Chavis and his massive land holdings which I previously discussed here. It is the Chavis land tract that provided the original land base for the Native community. William Chavis’ wife was Frances Gibson (1700-1780), who was the daughter of Gibby Gibson (1660-1727) originally from the Charles City County, VA area. Before marrying William Chavis, Frances Gibson had a son named John Smith.

William Chavis Original Land Tract
Granville County’s Native American community founder William Chavis originally owned land that stretched from Lynch’s Creek 16 miles upstream to Fishing Creek and went 5 miles inland from the Tar River. This is approximately 80 square miles or 51,200 acres of continuous land. This was the land base for the community. © Kianga Lucas

Perhaps most importantly, William Chavis was part of a group of Saponi Indians who were documented several times in the colonial records in the 1750s and 1760s, living in Granville County next to the land of Indian trader Col. William Eaton. I have previously blogged about these records here and here. I can’t stress enough how important this documentation is for establishing that not only were these individuals identified as Saponi, but they were collectively identified as a recognized Saponi Nation. These were not random individuals living together who just happened to be Native Americans. These were individuals that were deeply connected through a shared national identity. And these documents are from the 1750s/1760s which is many decades after the closure of Fort Christanna located in Brunswick County, VA which was the site of the Saponi reservation that the colony established.

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1754 census of Native Americans in North Carolina shows 14 men, 14 women, and children of the Saponi (“Sapona”) living in Granville County. Source: http://docsouth.unc.edu/csr/index.html/document/csr05-0089

Together William Chavis and Frances Gibson had the following children (birth dates are approximations):

1. Phillip Chavis (b. 1726)– executor of his father William Chavis’ estate and sold what was left of his father’s land. Philip moved around a lot between North Carolina and South Carolina, eventually settling in Bladen Co (later Robeson Co). He is the common ancestor of the Chavises of the Lumbee Tribe and Tuscarora of Robeson County.

2. Sarah Chavis (1730-1785)– married to Edward Harris and received a parcel of her father William Chavis’ land which her children later sold. Many of Sarah’s descendants remained in Granville and Wake Counties. Sarah Chavis and Edward Harris were also my 6th great-grandparents.

3. Gibby/Gideon Chavis (1737-1777)– namesake of Gibbs Creek in Granville/Vance Co off of the Tar River. He was married to Ann Priddy and because he died somewhat young (according to historian O.W. Blacknall, he was killed as a result of a horse race), his three children were looked after by his widow’s family. One of his sons named William Chavis eventually moved away by 1785 to South Carolina or Georgia (according to a letter written to the British Claims Commission). Heinegg guesses but does not firmly assert that Gibby’s son William Chavis married Sarah Kersey in 1790 and lived in Wake Co but this is not correct. After William Chavis sold his father Gibby Chavis’ land in 1785, he moved out of state.

4. William Chavis Jr (b. 1741)– was married to a woman named Ellender (maiden name not known) and by the 1780s, relocated down to Bladen (Robeson ) Co with his brother Philip Chavis. It is unknown if he had any surviving children.

5. Lettice Chavis (1742-1814)– was married to Aquilla Snelling and their descendants are mostly found in neighboring Wake Co and some relocated to Tennessee and Kentucky.

6. Keziah Chavis (b. 1742) – was married to Asa Tyner. Asa Tyner and his father-in-law William Chavis had a very tumultuous relationship which will be discussed in more detail below. Keziah’s descendants remained in Granville Co and many later moved out to Stokes/Forsyth Cos, NC.

7. Fanny Chavis – she appears on a tax list in her father William Chavis’ household in 1761 but nothing is known about her after that and she is not named in William Chavis’ estate papers.

Because William Chavis was a substantial land owner, tax payer, and had a close relationship with Indian trader Col. William Eaton, his children are well documented since they all at some point owned parcels of their father’s land and/or appear in his estate papers.


 

Newly Discovered Records for Jesse Chavis

William Chavis died in 1777 and his estate papers are digitized and available on Ancestry.com. Please be aware that the index for Ancestry’s North Carolina Wills and Probate collection is not so accurate, so the stop and end points of folders are not indexed properly and there are pages from different folders mixed in together. William Chavis’ estate papers are a necessary read if you are a William Chavis descendant and/or researcher. Heinegg only makes brief references to the content of the estate papers and so they are definitely worth a look because you will learn a lot more.

So while I was reviewing William Chavis’ estate papers, I came across a very interesting page. It was a court order from 5 February 1777 that called for several people to report to court to settle William Chavis’ will. The following people are named to report to court: Frances Chavers (William Chavis’ widow), Phillip Chavers (William Chavis’ son and executor of the estate), Anna Chavers (I’m not yet sure who she is), Joseph Hill, John Nevil, William Mills, John Kittrell, William Ashley, and Major Evans (from the Native America/”free colored” Evans family who intermarried and had several land transactions with the Chavises). And scribbled in between these names is a “Jesse Chavers”. (Chavers is another common spelling of Chavis).

Jesse Chavis court order
On 5 February 1777 a number of family and friends of William Chavis were summoned to come to court to settle his will. “Jesse Chavers” (Chavis) was among them. Source: North Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998

 

The court order does not specify Jesse Chavis’ relationship with the deceased William Chavis but I found another page in the estate files that does help clarify. William Chavis owned a lot of land and property, so it took a number of years to finally settle his estate. His widow Frances (Gibson) Chavis died in 1780 which likely added to the complications of William Chavis’ estate. A page dated 9 Aug 1780 named Jesse Chavis as an orphan of William Chavis, deceased, and ordered that Jesse Chavis be bound out to Thomas Person until the age of 21 years.

Jesse Chavis apprenticeship
A page from William Chavis’ (1709-1777) estate records shows that Jesse Chavis was his orphan who was bound out to Thomas Person on 9 August 1780. Source: North Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998

 

Perhaps the reason why Jesse Chavis was not originally bound out in 1777/78 when William Chavis died was that Frances (Gibson) Chavis was still living and was financially secure from her husband’s estate to raise Jesse. But when Frances died in 1780, Jesse Chavis was truly orphaned.

However, with that said, I don’t believe that Jesse Chavis was William Chavis and Frances Gibson’s son despite being called their “orphan”. For one, Jesse Chavis was born in the 1760s since he was still a minor in 1780. Frances was born around 1700, making her too old to give birth in the 1760s. And second, in the many estate records dealing with transfer of land ownership and with companies attempting to collect outstanding debts from William Chavis’ estate, Jesse is never mentioned as a son to potentially collect debt from. William Chavis’ sons are consistently listed as Phillip, Gibson, and William Jr.

So if Jesse Chavis was not William Chavis and Frances Gibson’s son, then what was his relationship? I believe the most likely scenario is that he was their grandson that they were raising. I’m not 100% certain which of William Chavis’ children was Jesse Chavis’ parent, but we can definitely eliminate a few. Again, keep in mind that Jesse Chavis was born in the 1760s and based on other biographical information discussed later, I have estimated his birth at around 1766.

Phillip Chavis was married to wife Celia before Jesse was born, was living in Bladen County and then South Carolina around the time of Jesse’s birth, and lived long past his father William’s death, so he’s not a candidate.

Sarah Chavis was married to Edward Harris by about 1750, so she couldn’t be Jesse’s mother.

Gibby/Gideon Chavis died in 1777, however Gibby’s children were named in their maternal grandfather Robert Priddy’s will. Gibby’s own will which was written in 1777 only names one son named William, so we can rule him out.

William Chavis Jr moved down to the Bladen (Robeson) Co area in the 1770s and lived long after his father died, so he doesn’t seem to be a possibility.

Lettice Chavis was married to Aquilla Snelling by 1761 and her children are named in her will, so she couldn’t be Jesse’s mother.

Keziah Chavis was married to Asa Tyner in 1766 (according to tax lists and testimony from William Chavis’ estate papers). If Jesse was born before Keziah Chavis married Asa Tyner, then it is a possibility. I will explore this some more below.

And finally there is Fanny Chavis who we know very little about because she only appears in a tax list once in 1761 and no additional records for her. It’s quite possible she was Jesse’s mother and she died a short time after, thus Jesse’s grandparents raised him.

Mixed in with William Chavis’ estate papers, I found a sworn deposition provided by Joshua Hunt on 9 August 1780. Mr. Hunt was a witness to a proposed marriage contract some 15 years earlier between William Chavis and his future son-in-law Asa Tyner. It appears Asa Tyner never received his payments from William Chavis and sued the estate to be fully compensated. According to Joshua Hunt, William Chavis offered Asa Tyner: 500 £, two slaves (“Dick” and “Dilcie”), 644 acres of land that included two plantations, a large quantity of cattle and hogs, and an assortment of household items if he married William’s daughter Keziah Chavis.

Joshua Hunt deposotion
Joshua Hunt provided a deposition on 9 August 1780 to the Granville County court in which he testified to being a witness to a marriage contract between the deceased William Chavis and his son-in-law Asa Tyner. Source: North Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998

Offering a dowry to marry off a daughter was certainly not unheard of for this time period, but that is quite a lot to offer to pay. I don’t know if William Chavis made similar offers to his other son-in-laws such as Edward Harris or Aquilla Snelling. So this leaves me wondering why he offered so much? Could it be that Keziah Chavis was already an unwed mother to Jesse Chavis, so William had to offer more to persuade Asa Tyner to marry her? We also know from court records that Heinegg provided, that when William Chavis was still living, he and Asa Tyner were involved in a number of legal disputes. So it appears they had a hostile relationship and some of it may stem from William Chavis never fully compensating Asa Tyner for marrying Keziah.

So at this time, my best leads are that Jesse Chavis was a son of either Fanny Chavis or Keziah Chavis. Hopefully additional research will clarify exactly who Jesse’s parents were.


 

Jesse Chavis and His Family

Let’s continue reviewing the additional records that Heinegg provided for Jesse Chavis and you will see they are consistent with him being from William Chavis’ family. In 1787, Jesse Chavis was a tithable in Hugh Snelling’s Granville County household. 1787 is also the year that Jesse Chavis was 21 years old, so his indenture to Thomas Person was over. Hugh Snelling was a grandson of William Chavis through his daughter Lettice Chavis and her husband Aquilla Snelling. Aquilla Snelling was deceased by 1779, so oldest son Hugh Snelling acquired most of his parent’s possessions. Hugh was a substantial land owner in Granville County and it makes sense that Jesse Chavis would reside with his first cousin Hugh Snelling. This is yet another confirmation that the Jesse Chavis of Granville County was not the same Jesse Chavis of Mecklenburg County.

By 1790, Jesse Chavis was the head of his own household in the Fishing Creek district of Granville County. Fishing Creek was the heart of the Native community and the location of most of William Chavis’ family and their land holdings. In August 1794, Jesse Chavis was charged with having an “illegitimate child” with Nelly Bass. Absalom Bass (b. 1760) and Benjamin Bass (b. 1756) were his securities for the “bastard bond”. Nelly, Absalom and Benjamin were from the Native American/”free colored” Bass family that I previously blogged about here. Absalom and Benjamin were brothers and Nelly was likely their sister or niece which is why they were the sureties for the bond. I don’t know the name or gender of the child that Jesse Chavis had with Nelly Bass or what happened with that child.

In his Jesse Chavis discussion, Heinegg included a record from 8 April 1798 which states a Jesse Chavis of Petersburg sold 8 heads of cattle in Granville County. This is most likely a different Jesse Chavis, perhaps the one living in Mecklenburg Co or yet another Jesse Chavis that was contemporary to one we are discussing. The fact that the record says this Jesse Chavis was of Petersburg, indicates that he was not local and instead was from Petersburg and came to Granville County to sell cattle.

In the 1790s, Jesse Chavis also fathered an “illegitimate child” with Rhody Anderson (b. 1770). The name of that child was Henry Anderson (1790-1850). We know this because Rhody Anderson went on to marry Darling Bass (1771-1845) and Darling’s will makes mention of his step-son Henry Anderson. Rhody Anderson was the daughter of Lewis Anderson Jr (1743-1805) and Winnie Bass (1752-1809). Winnie Bass was a sister of Absalom Bass and Benjamin Bass discussed above and Lewis Anderson Jr. was from the Anderson family that I blogged about here.

Sampson Anderson and wife Jane Anderson and and son Robert F Anderson
Sampson Anderson (1844-1906) was the son of Henry Anderson (1790-1850) and was the grandson of Jesse Chavis (1766-1840) and Rhody Anderson (b. 1770). He is pictured with his wife Jane Anderson (1852-1923) and son Robert F Anderson (1872-1914). The family lived in Granville and Wake Counties and relocated to Washington, D.C. in their later years. Source: Ancestry, Username: rewinder11

Jesse Chavis was a tithable in 1802 and appears in the Granville County census in 1810, 1820, and 1830. His 1810 household included 6 people which would indicate that by 1810 Jesse was married and had several children (the 1810 census does not provide age and sex of household members). In 1820, Jesse is listed in the Fishing Creek district and is the head of a household of 8 people. In this census we can see the age and gender breakdown of the household and it appears to include Jesse, 4 children (2 boys and 2 girls ages 14 and under), and 3 women in the same age range as Jesse. One woman is likely a wife but I’m unsure who the other 2 women are. Perhaps siblings or in-laws or even a mistake by the enumerator.

In 1830, Jesse Chavis is the head of a household of 5 people (Ancestry has this incorrectly indexed as 15 people). The household looks to include Jesse (age 55 or over), a wife (female age 55 or over), two adult sons (one age 24-36 age, one age 36-55), and a daughter (age 10-24). Though the 1830 census did not name districts, I know from looking at Jesse Chavis’ neighbors that he was still in Fishing Creek. In fact he is listed two households over from my 5th great-grandfather Sherwood Harris (1761-1833). Sherwood Harris (who was the son of Sarah Chavis and Edward Harris) and Jesse Chavis were first cousins.

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Jesse Chavis enumerated in the 1830 census in Granville County. He is living amongst other members of the Native community in the Fishing Creek district. Living two households above him is Jesse Chavis’ first cousin (and my 5th great-grandfather) Sherwood Harris. Source: 1830; Census Place: South Regiment, Granville, North Carolina; Series: M19; Roll: 121; Page: 78; Family History Library Film: 0018087

1830 is the last census that Jesse Chavis appears in, so he died sometime before the 1840 census. I do not have a precise date of his death and have not located a will or estate papers for him.

We do know that Jesse Chavis was married at least once. On 2 May 1812, he married Nancy Mitchell (b. 1775). Interestingly, Darling Bass was the bondsman for the marriage, so Jesse appears to have been on good terms with his son Henry Anderson’s step-father. Nancy Mitchell was the wife living in Jesse’s household in the 1820 and 1830 censuses, but she couldn’t have been with him in the 1810 census as that was before they were married in 1812. Recall that the 1810 census included 6 individuals in the household, so Jesse Chavis was most likely married before Nancy Mitchell and had children with that wife. I have not located any other marriage records for Jesse, so I don’t know the identity of this first wife.

I did find Jesse’s widow Nancy (Mitchell) Chavis in the 1850 and 1860 censuses in the Beaver Dam district in Granville County. Beaver Dam is right below Fishing Creek, on the other side of the Tar River and was a location that some of the Fishing Creek community members moved into, including other descendants of William Chavis.

In the 1850 census, Nancy (Mitchell) Chavis is shown living with a Redding Chavis, age 49 years and a married couple – Benjamin Anderson age 60 and Franky Anderson age 52. Redding Chavis was Jesse Chavis’ son from his first unknown wife since he was born in 1801, which is before the 1812 marriage date with second wife Nancy Mitchell. Franky Anderson’s maiden name was Franky Mitchell and she was Nancy Mitchell’s daughter from before marrying Jesse Chavis. In the 1830 census, Franky Mitchell’s husband Benjamin Anderson is also shown only living two households away from Jesse Chavis. Benjamin Anderson was also the younger brother of Rhody Anderson, the woman who Jesse Chavis had a child with.

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Jesse Chavis’ widow Nancy (Mitchell) Chavis was enumerated in the Beaver Dam District of Granville County in the 1850 census. She is listed with her step-son Redding Chavis, her daughter Franky (Mitchell) Anderson and Franky’s husband Benjamin Anderson. Source: Year: 1850; Census Place: Beaver Dam, Granville, North Carolina; Roll: M432_631; Page: 126B; Image: 251

In the 1860 census, Nancy (Mitchell) Chavis is shown again living with her step-son Redding Chavis in Beaver Dam district in Granville Co. That is the last time she appears in the census, so she died sometime before 1870. Redding Chavis was never married but he did father a child with Fanny Harris b. 1815 named Emily Harris (1834-1907). Fanny Harris was also a descendant of William Chavis, and in fact Redding Chavis and Fanny Harris were second cousins. Emily Harris married Thomas Evans (1827-1911) and their family like many other Saponi families from Granville County, relocated to Ohio and later Michigan where the Saponi Nation of Ohio and the Midwest Saponi Nation are today.

Emily Harris Evans death
The death certificate for Emily (Harris) Evans, confirms that she was the daughter of Redding Chavis and Frances “Fanny” Harris. Redding Chavis was the son of Jesse Chavis and his first unknown wife. Emily was the wife of Thomas Evans who also hailed from Granville’s Native American community. Source: http://cdm16317.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p129401coll7/id/271747
Joseph Evans
Joseph Evans (b. 1869) was the son of Emily Harris and Thomas Evans. He was a grandson of Redding Chavis, and a great-grandson of Jesse Chavis. He was born in Ohio, after the family left Granville County. Joseph later moved to Michigan. Source: Ancestry, Username: shaithcox
Ida (Evans) Allen  & sister Kathyrn Evans
Sisters Ida Belle Evans (1893-1971) and Catherine Evans (b. 1884). They were daughters of Richard Evans, granddaughters of Emily Harris and Thomas Evans, great-granddaughters of Redding Chavis, and great-great granddaughters of Jesse Chavis. Source: Ancestry, Username: shaithcox

So to recap, Jesse Chavis was from the family of William Chavis and Frances Gibson and most likely a grandson of theirs. He was bound out to Thomas Person and then lived with his first cousin Hugh Snelling. He had a child with Nelly Bass, a child with Rhody Anderson named Henry Anderson, a first unknown wife with whom he had at least one son named Redding Chavis, and then later married Nancy Mitchell.

Looking at his household numbers in the census records, it’s quite apparent Jesse Chavis had other children. He likely had more children with his first unknown wife and children with his second wife Nancy Mitchell.

I can confirm that William Chavis (1801-1854) was a son of Jesse Chavis. And given his approximate birth date of 1801, he would be from Jesse Chavis’ first unknown wife. Census records and tax lists place William Chavis in very close proximity to where Jesse Chavis and his known family lived in the 1830s and 1840s. William Chavis married Delilah Guy (1819-1860) on 16 Oct 1834 and the Guy family as well lived in Fishing Creek and were neighbors to Jesse Chavis. William Chavis’ will makes mention of giving his mother title to the land that she was already living on in the Beaver Dam district. The text of the will was transcribed by fellow Granville County researcher Jahrod Pender:

Will of William Chavis

Jan. 26 1854 proved Feb. Court 1854

William Chavis wills to his mother the land in Beaverdam district where she now lives for her life then to my wife if she be living and if not to my children; To wife Delilah Chavis, for life or widowhood, all else I own but if she marry again then to be taken over by my excr. For use of my wife and children, and after her death to all my children.

Exrs. Col Lewis Parham

Wts W.W Dement, W H Paschall.

Though the will does not give the name of William Chavis’ mother, Nancy (Mitchell) Chavis is the only elder female Chavis who is listed in the census for Beaver Dam district in 1850 and 1860. Nancy was actually his step-mother but was the mother that raised him for most of his life since she married his father Jesse Chavis when William was about 10 years old. And this explains why in the census records for 1850 and 1860, Nancy was the head of the household and not her adult step-son Redding Chavis who resided with her.

Bibby family 1898
Julia Chavis (1845-1939) is the elder woman seated in the middle. She was the daughter of William Chavis (1801-1854) and Delilah Guy. William Chavis was a son of Jesse Chavis (1766-1840). Julia is pictured here with her husband William Solomon Bibby, children, and grandchildren at the family farm in Franklinton, NC in 1898. My great-grandfather Edward Brodie Howell’s first wife Mary Bibby is standing on the right.

 

I hope this blog post was informative and clarifies exactly who Jesse Chavis of Granville County was. I especially hope it’s a helpful reminder for researchers to be patient with the records and to carefully review all of the content. This is the best way to avoid mistakes such as conflating records of different individuals.

 

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Siouan, Iroquoian, and Algonquian Place Names in Granville County

In what has become a classic Anthropology text, author Keith Basso in “Wisdom Sits in Places: Language and Landscape Among the Western Apache” explores how Apache culture and place names are inextricably linked. Before European colonization, every mountain, forest, river, lake, road, canyon, etc had a place name in the local indigenous language. How each land feature earned its name, is a history lesson in itself so these place names are also ways of learning about the past. In this blog post, I will discuss what the historical record has revealed about the indigenous place names in Granville County found in the Siouan, Iroquoian, and Algonquian languages.


 

Background

In an earlier blog post, I discussed the work of local historian Oscar W. Blacknall who wrote about the Native community. In one essay, Blacknall presented a story about how Gibbs Creek which runs off the Tar River, received its name. Gibson/Gideon Chavis 1737-1777 (son of William Chavis and Frances Gibson) of the Native community had a racing horse named “Black Snake” which won him a lot of money. After another successful horse race, Gibson Chavis’ losing opponents killed him at that creek and it was afterwards called Gibbs Creek. So the story of what happened to Gibson Chavis lives on forever in the name of that creek.

The tribes indigenous to the area that became Granville County are the Saponi and Tuscarora. During colonial times in the 1700s, especially after the Tuscarora War, the area was more so a Saponi settlement as indicated by the the numerous reports of a Saponi Indian community living next to Col. William Eaton who was an Indian trader. (These are the direct lineal descendants of Granville’s Native community – see my previous blog posts here and here for more info). Thus the indigenous place names found within and around Granville County are going to be in the Saponi/Tutelo (the Saponi and Tutelo spoke nearly identical languages) and Tuscarora languages. The Saponi language is an Eastern Siouan language and the Tuscarora language is an Iroquoian language. Although Algonquian speaking tribes are not indigenous to Granville County, many Granville Indians have some roots among the Algonquian-speaking Powhatan Confederacy and Algonquian speaking tribes in North Carolina were not that distant. Long, windy rivers that stretch across the ancestral territory of many tribes carry place names in the Algonquian language, often times because they were the peoples with whom European colonists had first contact with.

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1754 census of Native Americans in North Carolina shows 14 men, 14 women, and children of the Saponi (“Sapona”) living in Granville County. Source: http://docsouth.unc.edu/csr/index.html/document/csr05-0089

It is important to remember in our discussion about indigenous place names that none of these languages before European contact, were written languages. So applying the Roman alphabet to indigenous languages, is going to cause all kinds of corruption and inconsistency in how these indigenous words were transcribed. So in the historical archive, we are going to find multiple variations of the exact same place name. To the best of my ability, I will provide all variations that I am aware of.


 

The Roanoke, The Tar, and The Neuse Rivers

Let us first start with the three major waterways that pass through or are immediately adjacent to Granville County. The Roanoke, Tar, and Neuse Rivers all flow into the Atlantic Ocean and have long, winding courses that pass through diverse topography. In addition to sources that are linked within the discussion, I was assisted with the translations in this section by my Tuscarora friend/cousin/fellow researcher Duane Brayboy Williams. Nya:weh (thank you) to Duane for all his help.

The Roanoke River does not technically touch Granville County, but comes very close when it passes through northern Warren County, NC and on Granville’s northern border with Mecklenburg County, VA. Many smaller creeks in Granville County are tributaries of the Roanoke.

“Roanoke” is an Algonquian word meaning a string of wampum beads. Wampum is made from a highly prized clam shell called a quahog which is found only in salt water. Thus it would be quite odd for fresh water to be named after something found in salt water. Therefore it is possible that the English colonists mistook the name “Ohanoke” for “Roanoke”. Ohanoke is an Algonquian word for a crooked place, and perhaps it may have referred to the crooked, winding shape of the river.

Before the river was called the Roanoke, it was called the Moratuck River (also “Moritoco”). Moratuck is also an Algonquian word but it appears to be a corrupted Algonquian word because there is no “r” sound in the Algonquian dialect called Renape which is spoken in current day Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. The “r” would be pronounced more like a “d” and it is believed that the name is rooted in the Algonquian world “madah” which means bad. The Roanoke River is noted for being a river with violent currents and so it is understandable how that would play a role in its naming. Our ancestors probably had many heroic and tragic stories about the rapid currents of the river. And when we consider both words: “Ohanoke” meaning crooked and “Moratuck” meaning bad river, it’s clear that the tumultuous nature of the river is how it was characterized.

Roanaoke River
The Roanoke River is shown in this map. The main body of the river does not pass directly through Granville/Vance Counties, but many tributary creeks are located in Granville/Vance. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roanoke_River

 

The Tar River also has an interesting and complex history. The Tar cuts right through the center of Granville County and the Native community is most concentrated off of tributary creeks of the Tar River such as Fishing Creek, Tabbs Creek, Gibbs Creek, and more. We know from earlier historical records that the Tar River was called the Taw (or Tau) River but that is also not the river’s original name. For that we need to turn to the map created by German explorer John Lederer in 1671. Lederer lead several expeditions from Virginia through the North Carolina Piedmont and back in 1669/70. Most of the men who accompanied Lederer on his voyage left early on, leaving just Lederer and his Iroquoian speaking Susquehannock Indian guide. Because of the lack of other eyewitnesses to corroborate his journey, many of Lederer’s contemporaries believed that he fabricated aspects of his voyage and historians today still debate the veracity of the expeditions.

However what is clear is that on the map that Lederer created, he refers to the Tar River as the Torpaeo (also Tarpaeo and Tarpaco) River. From the map we can see that Lederer erroneously believed that river was a tributary of the Roanoke. Because Lederer’s Indian guide was an Iroquoian speaking person, it would be a fair assumption to think that “Torpaeo” was an Iroquoian word. The problem is that there is no known translation of this word. It could be that Lederer mistranscribed the word and unfortunately his accounts do not give us any additional background information. “Torpaeo” may also be an Algonquian word but if so, no definition has been located.

Another strong possibility for the original place name of the Tar River, could be from the Tuscarora village known in English as Torhunte or Tarhuntes. The correct Tuscarora spelling of the village is Teyurhę̀h·θa?. We know from accounts from Col. John Barnwell who lead the attack against the Tuscarora during the Tuscarora War, that Torhunte was located off of Cotechney Creek which runs northeast off of the Neuse River. However the Tar River is very close by, and it is believed by some that after the war, the village was reestablished closer to banks of the Tar River. Whatever the case may be, the fact that a Tuscarora village called Torhunte was in very close proximity to the Tar River is quite revealing and it’s conceivable that Torhunte/Tarhuntes could be corrupted and shortened to Taw/Tar. Torhunte means “a place to stay overnight”.

But there is still more…

The Tar River and the Pamlico River are actually the same river. What happened was that during Lederer’s time, a different group of European colonists lead an expedition on the river, starting from the Atlantic Coast. There they encountered Algonquian speaking Indians referred to as the Pamlico (also the Pamticough) Indians and they became the namesake of the river.

Lederer Map
John Lederer Map of 1671. The Tar River was called the Torpaeo River and is circled in red. Source: http://rla.unc.edu/archives/accounts/lederer/lederertext.html
Tar River Pamlico River
Map showing that the Tar River and Pamlico River are the same river. Source: https://prezi.com/_ajcpjrv-us-/tarpamlico-river/

The Neuse River barely touches Granville’s southern border with Wake County but many creeks that run through lower Granville County are tributaries of the Neuse. The Neuse River was the home of the Neusiok Indians. Neusiok is an Algonquian word, meaning a settlement at the neck of a place. However the Neusiok Indians themselves were actually believed to be Iroquoian speaking peoples. Neusiok is what their Algonquian speaking neighbors referred to them as, and because it was the name that European colonists heard first, it became the name of the tribe. The Neusiok peoples likely lived in a bend/neck of the Neuse River and thus derived their name from their settlement along the river. During the Tuscarora War, what remained of the Neusiok people were absorbed into the Tuscarora.

Neuse River
The Neuse River is shown here. It reaches Granville’s southern border with Wake County. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuse_River

Local Granville County Place Names

The following discussion focuses on place names found within Granville County. The information on these place names comes primarily from the expedition that Col. William Byrd II (1674-1744) lead in 1728 along the Virginia/North Carolina border. In addition to other Euro-American colonists, Byrd brought along Saponi Indian guides from the Saponi reservation at Ft. Christanna. One of these men was Ned Bearskin, and he provided important information about Saponi culture and the local landscape. Byrd authored “The History of the Dividing Line” based upon the 1728 expedition and the full text can be found here. In addition, I reviewed the material from some of the other men including the Christopher Gale/Edward Mosely/John Lovick/William Little journals found here and the fieldbook of Alexander Irvine found here.

James Mooney (1861-1921) was an American ethnographer who was doing field research on the Ghost Dance of the Great Plains in the late 19th century. During this research, he became interested in studying the Eastern Siouan speaking tribes. Mooney was drawn to the linguistic evidence which showed that the Siouan speaking people of the East and Siouan speaking people of the Plains spoke a similar language. In “Siouan Tribes of the East” published in 1894, Mooney drew upon the Saponi language that Ned Bearskin provided in Byrd’s notes to make that linguistic connection. Therefore I also used Mooney’s book to help translate the Saponi place names that Bearskin provided. A full text can be found here.

All of these place names are of creeks and the suffix “mony” or “moni” refers to water.

Place names in the Saponi language provided by Ned Bearskin:

Mausa-mony (also spelled Massa-mony): This translates into “paint creek” and is a reference to the red ochre paint that is found along the banks of the river. Natural paints like red ochre were used for a variety of purposes including for ceramics, burial ceremonies, and body paint. This creek is today called Grassy Creek and is located in northern Granville County.

Yapatsco Creek (also spelled Yapatio Creek): This translates to “beaver creek” and is a reference to the many beavers and beaver dams situated along the river. In fact Byrd makes specific note that they had some difficulty crossing that creek because of the manner in which the beavers had dammed the water. Col. Byrd also tells a story of how our ancestors would mix the “juice” from the body of a dead beaver with ground up bark from the sassafras tree which grows in abundance in this territory and would use that as a bait to attract more beavers. Today the creek still goes by its English translation of Beaver Pond Creek and is located in northern Granville County.

Ohimpa-mony (also spelled Ahimpa-mony): This translates into “jumping creek” and is named so after the jumping of fish in the creek. Clearly fish was an important part of our ancestor’s diet and they knew which creeks provided the best opportunities for fishing. Today this creek is known as Grassy Creek, located in northern Granville County.

Tewawho-mony (also spelled Keew-ahomony): This translates to “Tuscarora creek” and is a reference to a story about a Tuscarora who was killed by the Saponi and his body was thrown into the creek. The Saponi and Tuscarora during these colonial times were “enemies”, but later on some Saponi were adopted into the Iroquois when they relocated to upstate NY and the “neutral” Tuscarora who remained in the Indians Woods reservation did have friendly relations with the Saponi. This creek though serves as a reminder to a time period when the two tribes were warring against one another. Today this creek is known as Aarons Creek and is located in northern Granville County.

Hico-oto-mony (also spelled Hycoote-mony): This translates into “turkey buzzard creek” and is a reference to the large number of buzzards who roost in the trees situated along the banks of the river. Turkeys provided both food and feathers for adornment for our ancestors. The name over time was shortened and corrupted to “Hyco” and today the river is known as the Hyco River and is located in northern Person County (borders Granville County to the West). Hyco Road which is an east-west road in northern Granville County is also named for this river.

Granville County map 1880 copy
Indigenous place names in Granville County. Names in red are Saponi/Eastern Siouan, names in green are Algonquian, and names in blue are Tuscarora/Iroquoian. Source: http://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/ncmaps/id/654/rec/14
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James Mooney’s discussion of Saponi place names provided by Nead Bearskin that are found in Granville County. Source: James Mooney, “The Siouan Tribes of the East”. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1894. Page 46.

I think you can see from these several place names in Granville County, an insight into Saponi culture and social values. The more place names that we are able to recover, the better we can understand the lives of our ancestors and the relationship they had with the land that they have called home since time immemorial.