This story originally appeared in the Summer 2021 print edition of the Tennessee State Museum Quarterly Newsletter.
by Annabeth Hayes and Amanda McCrary Smith
In June, the Museum opened a new self-guided tour and online exhibition, Tennessee at 225: Highlights from the Collection, to commemorate Tennessee’s 225 years of statehood. While each of the 100 objects we chose for the tour tells a story, looking closely at one, Nancy Reece’s sampler (TN225 artifact No. 18), illustrates how deep those stories can go.
Reece was a Cherokee woman who lived in present-day Chattanooga. She was born in 1815 to a multi-racial Cherokee family. As a child, she and her brothers attended school at the Brainerd Mission. Established in 1816 along the Chickamauga Creek, Brainerd was part of a larger national trend of established institutions designed to assimilate Indigenous people to the ways of white, Christian, settler society. More than 300 Cherokee people of southeast Tennessee were enrolled in the student body of Brainerd Mission to learn English, convert to Christianity, and to accept the traditional roles, crafts, and chores that men and women of colonial societies considered appropriate. Young women like Reece learned crafts such as spinning fiber into yarn for knitting and sewing.
Cherokee Sampler made by Nancy Reece, 1823 (Tennessee State Museum collection, 2016.260)
Reece made this sampler at Brainerd in 1823, when she was about 8 years old. Samplers, such as this one, often served as educational tools that assisted young women in learning the alphabet and numbers, and many featured biblical verses or poems. For Reece, an Indigenous woman, samplers were also a way to learn the imposed English language instruction of Brainerd’s missionary curriculum. While Brainerd was the largest school of its type among the Eastern Cherokee, it was often in need of funding. Reece and other students often wrote to potential benefactors describing the Western education they received and how Christianity influenced their lifestyles.
As a young woman, Reece continued to live in the Chattanooga area until the Cherokee and other Southeastern Indian nations were removed from the Southeast and forcibly relocated to the Indian Territory in Oklahoma. Shortly before removal, Reece married a Cherokee man named Joseph Starr. The year after they married, the young couple were among the first group of Cherokee to make the difficult journey from Chattanooga to Oklahoma, along what is known as the Trail of Tears.
Installation view of the Museum's Forging a Nation Gallery
The Trail of Tears consisted of multiple routes across the Southeast. Some groups were forced to walk on foot or travel by wagon. Some had to travel by boat. White men called conductors often led these groups, known as detachments. Some conductors kept daily journals to monitor weather and travel conditions, which could be later shared with other detachments that followed. B.B. Cannon was a conductor who kept a journal which mentions Reece and Starr. The conductor led Reece, her husband, and 363 other Cherokee people on the Northern Route of the Trail of Tears. They had to cross the Mississippi River into Missouri, and travel over fifteen counties before ultimately passing through Arkansas. This was considered one of the safer routes on the Trail of Tears. Two other detachments later followed the same route. On December 15, 1837, Cannon noted in his journal, “Joseph Starrs [sic] wife had a child last night.” After traveling over fifteen miles in one day, Nancy Reece had her first child on the Trail of Tears. The next day, Cannon noted the group traveled another almost eleven miles.
"Map Showing the Lands Assigned to Emigrant Indians West of Arkansas & Missouri," 1836 (Tennessee State Museum Collection, 1997.147)
While some people in their detachment died on the journey, Reece, Starr, and their son, Jug, completed the journey to Oklahoma. In 1852, they were documented as living in the Skin Bayou District. Reece and Starr had two more children in Oklahoma. It is unknown if she ever returned to her home in Tennessee before she died in 1875. Through her sampler, we are able to piece together part of her story. By connecting her life to the story of Cherokee education and forced removal, it is an example of the transformation of Tennessee’s physical and cultural landscape.
Annabeth Hayes is the Tennessee State Museum curator of decorative arts
Amanda McCray Smith is the Tennessee State Museum curator of textiles and fashion