The Narrative of Nancy, a Cherokee Woman

Article excerpt

On November 24,1801, Nancy, "by appearance an Indian woman," gave testimony at Fort Southwest Point, a garrison in eastern Tennessee established in 1792 to defend white settlements against Indian attack. (1) In a statement recorded under the title "The Narrative of Nancy, A Cherokee Woman," Nancy claimed that she had been wrongfully held as a slave in Virginia since the year 1778. At the time of her testimony, Nancy was approximately thirty-one years old and living with a white man named, incredibly, Captain John Smith. Smith had purchased Nancy from John Fulton, who had bought her from William Kennedy. Nancy described the crime of her capture in graphic detail in the narrative, testifying that

  [S]he was taken when a child from her mother, that the white people
  afterwards boasted that they held their guns over her mother's head
  to frighten her when they took her away: that sometime afterwards she
  was carried a great way on horseback to a place where there were a
  number of houses ... that she had two masters before Mr. Fulton
  bought her, that she had brothers and sisters when she was taken away
  from her mother, that she never saw any waters larger than the
  Tennessee and Clinch Rivers. (2)

Thus begins Nancy's story, which is compiled in part as a gathered set of documents in the Records of the Cherokee Agency in Tennessee, 1801-1835. Though revealing in content and unique in subject matter, these documents are limited in number. What begins as a rich retelling of Nancy's experience dissipates into a cursory property dispute over a forty-year span of records between 1778 and 1818. By the end of the documentary account, Nancy's story trails off with no clearly rendered resolution, and the lifelines of her descendants can be traced only at a distance through scattered mentions in Cherokee records and in the John Howard Payne Papers of the Newberry Library. Given the finite confines of the source base, in this essay I first reconstruct and then analyze Nancy's story as a case study about Cherokees, race, and slavery.


Nancy's narrative documents the onset of bondage, sexual vulnerability, and forced labor for a Cherokee girl. At the same time, it preserves the courageous act of a Cherokee woman who somehow transported herself some 140 miles from Abingdon, Virginia, to Southwest Point, Tennessee, for the purpose of telling her story. The surviving records do not reveal how Nancy traveled, if she stole away alone or crossed state lines in the company of her master. We do know, however, that she came in pursuit of liberty. And in that pursuit Nancy did not seek out a southern court, like black slaves with Native ancestry are documented to have done in the nineteenth century. (3) Instead, as a person who identified as a citizen of an Indian nation, she sought an equivalent institutional structure within a Native-US diplomatic framework. She took her case to federal officials engaged in "Indian affairs," launching a freedom suit from slavery in a Native historical context. I follow the lead of Laura Edwards, who begins her article "Status without Rights" with the fundamental question of why emancipated slaves in the South would pursue legal means for securing rights and protections during the Civil War and Reconstruction. We might ask first of Nancy's case: why did Nancy pursue this particular course of action? Why did she come to this place, at this time? And what made her think that her testimony might have purchase here? (4)

At first glance, Fort Southwest Point might be the last location a Native woman wronged by whites would turn to for help. The historical marker at the site attests that this was "a military post established in the territory of the United States by General John Sevier ... to protect the travelers and settlers from the Indians." (5) Indeed, when the fort was founded in 1792. Indian attacks in retaliation for white intrusions were at a crisis point. …