Letter from Thomas Avent to Col. Henry Harrison, 1728

As Sheriff and Justice of the Peace of Surry/Sussex County, VA, Thomas Avent would have been the chief law enforcement officer for the area. As such, he was called in by the Council of Gov. William Gooch (Governor of VA 1727-1749) to investigate some troubles involving the local Indian tribes, the Sapony, the Nottoway, and the Catawba (Thomas calls them the 'Cotobers' in his letter).

 

The original of the letter is in the archives of the Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, VA. (They can provide you with an excellent printed copy of it, for a moderate fee.) A scan of an original copy of it, in Thomas' handwriting, can be viewed here, but here's the text of it (punctuation added by webmaster):


Sir:

 

The 27th of September John Carter brought Negro Cofey to my house, as he says, by your orders, for me to examine concerning what the Saponys have told him about the white people, which I have done, and he tells me:

 

that Great George told him that John Sauano and a fellow called Ben Harrison was gone to the Cotobers to fetch one hundred of them to come and see why their Indians was put in prison,

 

and if Capt. Tom was hanged they would carry their wives and children over the Roanoke River and then they would drive the white people and negros as far as James River,

 

and he says that Tony Mack told him that if Pyah was hanged he and the Cotobers would come and take revenge of the English,

 

and he says that Sapony Tom told him if his son Harry Erwin was hanged they would kill you and three or four more Gentlemen and then go off,

 

and he says that Dick told him that we had no business to come to the fort armed to concern ourselves about their killing one another, but we were like a sow that had lost her pigs would rally for a little time and then have done *, but when they began a war with the English they never would have done *.

 

This from your humble servant to command,

 

Thomas Avent

 

(* the British, then and now, have always used the phrase "have done " to mean "finish".)


Here is the story behind the letter:

 

"The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography", Vol. 4, Executive Journals, Council of Colonial Virginia, p. 185 has the following:

 

"August the 15th 1728

Present
The Honorable William Gooch, Esqr, Governor, James Blair, John Robinson,William Byrd, John Carter,Mann Page, Richard Fitzwilliam, Cole Digges John Grymes, Peter Beverley, William Dandridge & John Custis, Esq.

 

The great men of the Nottoway & Saponie Indians together with the Tottero King this day attending the Governor in Council, the said Tottero King complain'd that the Nottoway Indians some time since attack'd and killed his son near to his own house, and charges an Indian of that nation named Hickory particularly as one of the party which was also confirm'd by a Letter from Cap't Thomas Avent, an Inhabitant of that neighborhood, that the Tottero King's son on his death bed told him he knew the said Nottoway Indian named Hickory was one of the Indians that fired at him, and afterwards came up & knock'd him down with a Tommahawk; and thereupon the Nottoway Indians being heard denied that any of their Indians were at that time abroad, and declared that that Indian named Hickory had been so sick from the month of March last that he had scarce been able to walk, until after the time the aforesaid murder was committed. The Board taking into consideration the matter of the said complaint thought fit to order that the King of the Nottoways and one other of the great men of that nation be committed to the publick Goal until they produce the aforenamed Hickory; and that the further consideration hereof be referred to Thursday the 22nd instant.

And upon consideration of the Complaint of the Nottoway Indians charging the Saponies with the murder of two of their people last month at a Cabbin near Nottoway Town the said Saponie Indians denying the same, and alledging that one John Ray and one John Humphreys Inhabitants of Brunswick County had inform'd them that a Tuscaruro Indian had owned that he with other Tuscaruro's were the persons that killed the two aforesaid Nottoways ; It is ordered that Tom & Mahenip two of the Chiefs of the Saponie Indians, be committed to the public Goal until the said Ray and Humphreys be examined touching the said Report, and that they together with Cap't Thomas Avent do attend this Board on Thursday next, till which time the further examination of this matter is referred."

 

Accordingly, 6 days later, on August 22, 1728, the Governor and his council reconvened at the Colonial capital in Williamsburg, with Thomas Avent present to give his testimony.

 

"The great men of the Nottoway & Saponie Indians according to former order attended the Governor in Council and being severally heard upon the subject matter of their complaints against each other, and Cap't Thomas Avent having also upon his oath testified that the Tottero King's son some days before his death, & while he was in his perfect senses declared to him that he very well remembered Hickory, a Nottoway Indian with whom he was acquainted at the College, was one of the persons that fired at and wounded him and afterwards came up to him with a Tommahawk and knocked him down. The Board taking the same into consideration think fit to order as it is hereby ordered that the said Nottoway Indian named Hickory be forthwith committed to the publick Gaol in order to his tryal for the said offence at the General Court in case his Majesty's Attorney General shall find such further proof against him as may be sufficient to convict him thereof.

And forasmuch as it appears upon the examination of John Ray and John Humphreys that what was alledged by the Saponie Indians at the last Council is entirely groundless, and there appears great reason to suspect that some of the Saponie Nation are guilty of the murder charged on them by the Nottoways, it being made to appear by the testimony of Cap't Thomas Avent that the said Saponie Indians had declared to him they would not be satisfied till they had killed four of the Nottoways in revenge for the death of the Tottero King's son; it is ordered that Tom & Harry Irwin, two of the said Saponies, be committed to the publick Gaol there to remain until further order be given concerning them at the next General Court unless the said Saponies do in the mean time deliver up such of their nation as were concerned in the murder of the said Nottoway Indians: And whereas Pyor another of the Saponie Indians hath threatened the life of Coll Henry Harrison, it is also ordered that the said Pyor be committed to the public Goal until further order."

 

So, of the Indians that Col. (then Captain) Thomas Avent mentioned in his letter, we know that Sapony Tom, his son Harry Irwin  and Pyah were jailed for their threat against the life of Col. Henry Harrison ("...and he says that Sapony Tom told him if his son Harry Erwin was hanged they would kill you and three or four more Gentlemen and then go off..."). This reference also shows us that the recipient of Thomas' letter was Col. Henry Harrison, since in his letter he states that "...they would kill you..." and the minutes of the Governor's Council meeting specifies that "...the Saponie Indians ... threatened the life of Coll Henry Harrison...".


The fort mentioned in the the letter was likely Fort Christanna, which was constructed in Brunswick County, VA, in 1714 at the direction of Gov. Alexander Spottswood. There is lots of interesting information regarding the fort at this website. The site of Fort Christanna can easily be found today, and is a state historical site. From the town of Lawrenceville, VA, take State Rt. 46 a few miles south. When you cross the Meherrin River, take the first right onto Fort Hill Rd. and look for the historical marker a mile or so down the road.


What do we know about the Sapony Indians? According to the interesting website saponitown.com they were part of the Sioux nation:

"These are Siouan people, commonly referred to generically as the Saponi or Tutelo. These tribes of the NC/VA Piedmont spoke Siouan languages, of them only a small portion of the Tutelo language was recorded.  Many families connected to these bloodlines have carried the identification of "Blackfoot." "Blackfoot" is an identification found among descendants also aware of their Saponi origins, and is a mysterious designation reported among many native-descended people with ties to southeastern states."

Regarding some of the names mentioned in Col. Thomas' letter, there was the following posting on the saponitown.com website referenced above:

 

"The following Saponies are recorded at or near the Fort Christanna Reservation circa 1728, Saponi surnames / names are: Captain Tom, Sauano, Great George, Pyah, Pryor, Ned Bearskin, Dick, Ben Harrison, Sapony Tom, Harry Irwin, Tom Erwin and Chief Mahenip and Chief Tom."