7. Siouan Cultures

This is the sort of story that gets lodged in my throat; it exemplifies the withering tragedy of all Indigenous people. But I found this one particularly difficult to study, haunting my sleep, and permeating my thoughts during the day. I repeatedly tried to envision what it must have been like while being left clueless to even what their names actually were. First I tried to picture being driven southeast out of my homeland by a more powerful tribe. I reach my relatives hundreds of miles away and join them. Together we are driven farther south where we join with other relatives before all of us are driven north again by not only other tribes but their English allies. It doesn’t stop there because we are driven farther north into the territory of others before finally being taken in by the enemy tribe that started the whole thing. As it turns out our enemy was on the wrong side of the American Revolution so whoever remains is driven into Canada where most disappear. I don’t know how any of us sleeps at night. I started this story in West Virginia.

There is virtually nothing known about the Moneton people of the Kanawha Valley, West Virginia. The only things found of their life are 9000 pottery shards, 37% of which bear corncob impressions similar to those of the Siouan Virginians between 1400 and 1600 CE. This is the only evidence that suggests that the Moneton spoke a Siouan language. Their fate is entirely unknown. Even less is understood about the Honniasont people known only by a vague reference on a 17th century French map that referred to them as the Nahyssan and Monasuccapanough. It has been surmised from that that the Honniasont were relatives of the Tupelo who spoke a Siouan language. At the time of their disappearance the Iroquois were expanding into that region in search of more furs for Europeans. The Shawnee and Delaware were doing their best to get a piece of the same action, expanding into new territory and pushing smaller tribes out of their homelands. If any members of either of these West Virginian tribes managed to survive I suspect they merged with the Virginian Siouan groups.

The Virginia piedmont tribes are believed to have evolved from the earlier Woodland cultures. Algonquian peoples held the lowlands and tidewater areas. As best as I could ascertain the Saponi of Virginia called themselves Monasuccapanough but I am not entirely sure of that so I will continue to use Saponi. First contact was made by John Lederer in 1670. In 1676 the Saponi were attacked and nearly wiped out by the colonists who had been raided by an unrelated tribe, the Doeg.  The Saponi joined their relatives; the Occaneechi, the Tutelo, and the Nahyssan. Not too many years went by and in 1701 the Saponi and allied tribes collectively referred to as the Saponi or Tutelo moved to North Carolina to distance themselves from the colonial frontier. In 1714 the same collective resettled around Fort Christianna in Virginia for protection against hostile tribes, namely the Seneca Iroquois. The fort closed in 1718 and the collective remained in the area for a while. By 1740 the majority of the Saponi and Tutelo moved to Shamokin, Pennsylvania and finally surrendered to the Iroquois of New York. The Cayuga Nation, a part of the Iroquois, formally adopted them in 1753. The Iroquois were British allies during the American Revolution. Because the Saponi and Tutelo joined the Iroquois they were forced into exile in Canada with them and disappeared from the record. In 1778 small bands were noted still living in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Reputedly small bands of Saponi still live in North Carolina, Ohio, Missouri, Georgia and Texas. It should be mentioned as well that the Saponi became a tri-racial tribe very early. Indentured white servants and both freed and runaway slaves fled colonial settlements by taking ancient migratory routes into the wilderness and were absorbed into the Saponi and numerous other tribes.

Tutelo is an Algonquian name given to the Yesan/Yesah/Yesang, and connected to the Nahyssan, Monahassanough, and the Honniasont. I will use Tutelo. Their historic homeland was the Big Sandy River that runs along the border between West Virginia and Kentucky. The Tutelo were driven out of the Ohio Valley by the Iroquois and first noted in Virginia in 1671.  A few years later the Tutelo/Nahyssan joined the Saponi, or vice versa, and as noted, moved first to North Carolina and on to Fort Christianna in Virginia, becoming the collective referred to as Saponi-Tutelo. Their fate follows the same story of having left Virginia from Fort Christianna to Pennsylvania, surrendering to and adopted by the Iroquois, driven into Canada, and finally disappearing, thought through inter marriage. The last Tutelo speaker died in 1870.

In 1650 the Occaneechi lived on the Trading Path that connected Virginia with the interior of North America, in the piedmont region of North Carolina and Virginia. The location made them something of a trading middleman but they were eventually undermined by the Cherokee, a displaced Iroquoian tribe. In 1676 they were attacked by the English and further decimated by European diseases. The Occaneechi joined with the Siouan collective which had in itself been reduced to a population of 600. 1740 brought the last mention of the Occaneechi during their effort to move north and become adopted by the Cayuga Iroquois like the other tribes. Confusing records suggest that a few small bands stayed in the North Carolina/Virginia region with the Saponi and Tutelo that also stayed behind, joining with the Catawba. The Occaneechi became a tri-racial tribe quite early.

The Monacan people, related to the Tutelo, the Saponi, and the Occaneechi, have about 2000 tribal members alive today. That is remarkable in that the Monacan had been reduced to a hundred people when met by John Lederer in 1670. According to an account given to Lederer in 1670 they had been driven into Virginia about 400 years earlier. At that time the area had been inhabited by the Doeg and the Monacan displaced them. By 1702 the Monacan had merged with the Nahyssan and others into the collective known as the Saponi-Tutelo, following the same fate in the north. The Monacan people were also a tri-racial tribe early on.

It is thought that the Manahoac people began with about 1000 tribal members. It is possible that they were a confederacy of seven tribes: Hassinunga, Ontponca, Shackaeonia, Stegaraki, Tegninateo, Whonkentia, and Manahoac proper. In actuality their language is unknown and therefore the idea that they spoke a Siouan language is somewhat speculative. The Manahoac disappeared from the historic record in 1728 and it seems likely to most scholars that they united with the Monacan, Occaneechi, Saponi and Tutelo. If that is true the designation of a Siouan language makes sense; or maybe it is simply convenient. I don’t know.  Nevertheless, by 1669 the Manahoac had been reduced to only 50 bowmen due to raids by the Iroquois and European diseases. It is thought that they joined the Monacan after which the Seneca Iroquois assumed control of their traditional homeland. The Manahoac confederacy is believed to have joined with the Saponi-Tutelo and the rest of the story you know, ending with adoption by the Cayuga and exiled to Canada.

The Catawba (Issa or Esaw) of the Carolinas are thought to have had a population of 4600 people. Catawba is a Choctaw word that means “divided, separated, a division”.  They supplemented their hunter gatherer life style with some subsistence agriculture, and were well known for their pottery and baskets. The Catawba were in constant warfare with the Ohio Valley tribes, namely the Iroquoian Seneca and Cherokee, as well as the Algonquian Shawnee and Delaware. The battles were especially fierce in the Potomac Basin regions of West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland. In 1721 the Colonial Government met in Albany, NY with the Iroquois Six Nations and the Catawba to negotiate peace between the tribes. The Iroquois agreed to remain north of the Potomac River. All parties also agreed that colonists could safely travel the Indian Road that led through Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia into the Shenandoah Valley south. In 1738 the Catawba were decimated by smallpox and again in 1759, killing nearly half the tribe. The Iroquois finally secured the Ohio Valley for themselves. The Catawba, or what was left of them, were harassed unmercifully by tribes to their west and they were left with only 110 members. By 1881 the population stood at 85.  Although their population now stands at about 2600 members it needs to be remembered that the Catawba were once the dominant tribe who absorbed as many as twenty other tribes that were in trouble. Having remained allies to the colonists during the Revolution pressure from the English and its allies the Iroquois must have been simply horrendous.

The original name of the Cheraw is unknown. Cheraw is derived from the Catawba who called them Sara, meaning place of tall weeds. They were first encountered by Hernando De Soto in 1540 with an estimated population of about 1200 people. Warfare with the Iroquois and the 1738 smallpox epidemic decimated the Cheraw and Catawba combined. It was last noted in 1768 by the Catawba that the Cheraw stood at 50-60 members. They disappeared from the historic record after that.

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Responses to “7. Siouan Cultures”

  1. “the Iroquois agreed to remain north of the Potomac River…”
    Interesting – Catawba is a name used in this area.
    There are other names that I’ve read in previous essays that we also see used today – Like Mingo. It’s the name of one of WV’s counties.
    Thank you

    • You are probably seeing why I had to include such a wide area. All of these tribes moved throughout the entire area. None was an “island”. It becomes an even greater challenge as the Algonquian chapters continue.

  2. The Sara also Saura Indians area also names our people have been called. Saura in middle English could mean either Sour or Sorrow depending upon the interpreter. As you mention, it could also have been an attempt by the Spanish to mimic the sound of a name they had heard.