The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Ballad of Nancy Til

By J. Carlton Smith © 1992

Issue: February, 1992

In honor of Valentine's Day, enjoy this romantic legend handed down for generations.

Squire Winston was a prominent person in his community. He was a large landowner and had many servants. His title of Squire came about because he was a magistrate. Part of his duty as a magistrate was to perform marriages and to help decide local legal affairs. He and his wife, Miss Chattie were very active in the early Methodist Church. They had met at a camp meeting near Mt. Airy.

One of the duties that came his way was to decide the fate of a small girl whose parents had died of fever. He was a kind man and had deep convictions of right or wrong. The little girl looked so sad and forlorn that he couldn't bear to put her under the care of someone who might not be good to her.

As he looked at her he thought she must be about two years older than his daughter, Amy. Then an idea came to him. He would give her a home and she could be a companion to Amy. Amy always seemed left out. She was younger than her older sister and older than her younger sister and neither seemed to want to play with her. He hoped that this child would be a good influence for Amy, as she more or less ran wild.

"Child, what is your name?" asked Squire Winston. "Nancy," replied the child. "Don't you have a middle name?" asked Squire Winston. "No, just Nancy," said the child. I think I will call you Nancy Matilda. I had a sister named Matilda who died without leaving any children," he said. So, the little orphan was called Nancy Matilda. As this was such a mouthful, the name was soon shortened to Nancy Til.

Miss Chattie was delighted to have a companion for Amy. She had often been troubled by Amy seeming to be always alone and acting so wild. She had meant to take Amy in hand and teach her to be more lady-like. There never seemed to be time as she had to oversee the household and to see that the servants did their work. Then there always seemed to be another baby on the way.

Ladies of Miss Chattie's position did not nurse a baby for more than a few weeks. It seemed that the cook, Caroline would have another baby about the time Miss Chattie did. After getting the baby off to a good start, she would turn the baby over to Caroline to nurse and care for. Caroline was a large buxom woman and had enough milk for two babies. It is no wonder that the small children would run to Caroline when they were hurt or needed something.

Miss Chattie was so glad that her husband had brought Nancy home with him to be a companion for Amy. Amy was delighted to have a playmate, but she was very bossy with Nancy as she considered her to be her very own. Nancy Til's duties were to help Amy bathe, dress and to comb her hair. She had lessons with Amy in the schoolroom. Nancy Til was a fast learner and benefitted from the lessons more than Amy.

Squire Winston had a music teacher to come and teach his daughters to play the reed organ. He insisted that Nancy Til have lessons with his children. His children were indifferent to learning to play the organ. Nancy Til, who had a lot of natural ability, was soon playing the organ beautifully.

The other children became disinterested in music, but Nancy Til loved it and practiced a lot. Soon she was able to play for the others to sing at Squire Winston's home church services. People commented on her ability and praised Squire Winston for giving her a home and treating her as his daughter. Not only could Nancy Til play the organ, but she learned to weave on the loom. Soon she was the best and fastest weaver in the house.

Amy had little interest in all this, as she loved to ramble through the fields and woods. Perhaps she had been left too much on her own when she was younger. She dearly loved to ride horses bareback. Miss Chattie forbid bareback riding. She said it wasn't lady-like and no daughter of hers was to do it.

Well, Amy wasn't to be out done. She was about fourteen and very strong willed. Most of the horses were kept at the lower pasture down the river. This was quite a distance from the house. She would tell her mother that she and Nancy Til were going wildflower hunting. This was considered to be a very lady-like hobby. She would have the cook to fix a lunch and she and Nancy Til would go down to the lower pasture and ride the horses bareback. They always picked some wildflowers to carry home so Miss Chattie would be happy.

Nancy Til at sixteen was becoming a beauty. People said that she was prettier and smarter than Squire Winston's children. She was a dutiful person and did not like being part of Amy's deception. She was afraid of Amy's temper and kept going with her to the lower pasture to ride the horses bareback.

One day while they were riding the horses, a young man in a dugout canoe glided across the river and joined them. He was tall, dark, handsome and mostly of Indian descent. His people lived across the river and retained much of their Indian way of life. They hunted, fished, and gathered what they could from the wild. They supplemented this with some small patch farming.

The young man was called John Toby. He had been watching the girls for some time and had become quite taken with Nancy Til. He joined them and showed how well he could ride. They were very impressed with him. Each time they went to ride, he would join them. Amy and Nancy Til knew this would have been forbidden if Squire Winston and Miss Chattie knew. They were so fascinated by him they couldn't tell him not to come.

Sometimes when they went down he would be sitting by the river playing a wooden flute-like instrument. Everything he did seemed to fascinate them. Soon he and Nancy Til fell very deeply in love. They knew this was trouble but couldn't help themselves.

There was an old mill by the river near Squire Winston's. Sometimes at night, Nancy Til, hearing the flute playing near the old mill, would slip out to meet John Toby. He would hum or sing a song, "Down by the river, down by the mill, there lived a pretty girl, her name was Nancy Til. Come Nancy Til. Come and go with me. We will follow the river until it flows into the sea." They often talked about running away as they knew their love was forbidden.

Then disaster fell! There was a girl of John Toby's own people who felt he should belong to her. She had her Aunt Martha, who was a fortune teller, to tell her fortune. Aunt Martha read the girl's fortune and told her John Toby would never be her husband. The last card she turned up was the black ace of spades. She gasped and said that someone would soon be digging John Toby's grave.

The girl, whose name was Mandy, said if she couldn't have him no one would. She sent word to Caroline, the cook, to tell Miss Chattie and Squire Winston about Nancy Til and John Toby. They were shocked and said it must be stopped at once. Yes, it must be stopped and they would watch to see it did.

Nancy Til was broken hearted and drooped like a flower that never fully bloomed. Then one warm summer night a note was thrown through the open window by John Toby. He said to meet him at the mill and they would run away. She sent word that she would meet him the night of the full moon.

The night of the full moon arrived and Nancy Til slipped out to meet John Toby. She reached the mill and was waiting when she saw him start to cross the river on his horse. He was guiding his horse with his knees and playing on the flute his song about Nancy Til. Just as he was about midway the river, his horse stumbled and threw John Toby against a rock. He was killed instantly. Nancy Til ran screaming for help. When they pulled John Toby from the river, his neck was broken and on his forehead was a black mark that looked like a spade.

Poor Nancy Til never recovered from the shock. She seemed to be in a trance. She begged Squire Winston to ask for John Toby's body so it could be buried near by and she could visit the grave. Squire Winston made the arrangements with John Toby's people. He was buried just beyond the yard on a knoll by a small stream near the river. Nancy Til would visit the grave daily. She would sit there and sing John Toby's song. "Down by the river, down by the mill, there lived a pretty girl named Nancy Til. Come Nancy Til. Come and go with me. We will follow the river until it flows into the sea."

Nancy Til would not eat and seemed to be fading before their eyes. They tried to cheer her up but to no avail. She would visit the grave daily and sit for hours. She had one of the servants plant a cedar tree on John Toby's grave. She watered it often and gave it much attention and care. This seemed to be all she was interested in.

A month had passed and the moon was full again. Nancy Til got out of bed and, in her white nightgown, started for the old mill. One of the servants saw her and alerted the others. They tried to catch her but were not fast enough. Nancy Til seemed to glide along, looking neither to the right or left, but continued straight ahead. She walked into the mill pond and disappeared from sight.

When they pulled the lifeless body from the water, the eyes seemed to be in a fixed trance-like stare. The servants claimed they had heard the flute playing and it was what called Nancy Til to her death so she could be with John Toby in the spirit world.

Squire Winston and Miss Chattie were broken hearted. They had truly loved Nancy Til as a daughter. They buried her by John Toby and Miss Chattie planted a white rambler rose on her grave. In time the cedar grew to be a large tree and the white climbing rose climbed all over it. The sweet fragrance of the rose perfumed the area. At night it gave a ghostly appearance and the servants did not want to go near the graves.

Even today, over 140 years, you might hear some of the older residents sing or hum a verse or two from "The Ballad of Nancy Til." Most of it has been lost from memory.

Nancy Til and John Toby's deaths were a tragedy that Squire Winston and Miss Chattie felt for the rest of their lives. They often discussed it and wondered if they had done the right thing.

The war (Civil) came and most of Squire Winston's wealth was lost. He managed to hold on to most of his land. He had a farm to leave to each of his many children at his death. The servants were gone like those in "Gone With The Wind," but many would come back in later years and said their happiest carefree days ever were spent on Squire Winston's plantation.

Squire Winston and Miss Chattie continued to be active in the Methodist Church movement and helped to organize several churches, their faith was a comfort to them in every trial and a code to live by. Both have been gone for over a hundred years. Their graves are located on a high hill overlooking the river valley. Creeping myrtle covers the graves like a blanket. On their tombstone is the inscription, "I have fought a good fight, I have kept the faith."

Author's Note... The Ballad of Nancy Til is an oral history folklore tale that has been handed down. There are several versions of this story. I have put together the bits that I liked. One version was that Nancy Matilda was a beautiful Mulatto who was a companion to Squire Winston's tomboy daughter Amy. She, Squire Winston, Miss Chattie (not real names) are factual. Squire Winston was a magistrate, large land and slave owner. His plantation was about a mile below the Virginia state line on the Mayo River. He and his wife were very active in the early Methodist movement and helped to organize several area Methodist churches. One story was that John Toby was one of a band of deserters and was shot. There was an old mill nearby. There are two unmarked graves just beyond Miss Chattie's rose garden. Who is buried in them is unknown. I can remember the tangle of running roses and Rose of Sharon that was what was left of the garden. It was cleared away and became part of a corn field. Nature has reclaimed all of this as there has been no farming done in years.

The home plantation farm remained in the family for several generations. My mother was born and grew to a teenager in Squire Winston's house. It burned when she was young. My grandfather rebuilt near the original site. This house was burned by vandals several years ago when no one was living in it.

When my mother and her sister and brothers were small, the graves were used as a bogie man to scare them. As no one knew who was buried in them, they were called Chisel and Gouge. Their parents would tell them that if they were not good Chisel and Gouge would get them. I think most of them were afraid to go about the graves except Mama. It was such a pretty spot she loved to go there. There was a small stream near on which beavers built a dam and created a pond. A flash flood washed the dam away and the beavers left. This was the last beavers in the area until recent years. They are trying to make a comeback.