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Nancy Ashworth

Nancy Ann Ashworth—Fairview’s First Doctor 

Bruce Whitaker
Originally published in The Fairview Town Crier 


John and Nancy “Ann” Ashworth were two of Fairview’s first settlers. John Ashworth, Sr., was born on February 25, 1735, probably in Virginia. Around 1762 he married Nancy “Ann” Wood, daughter of James Wood(s) and his wife, Margaret, of Rowan County, NC. Nancy was born September 18, 1745,but throughout her life was preferred to be called Ann. 


John bought land in Tryon (now Rutherford) County, North Carolina, as early as April 18, 1772, purchasing 300 acres on McFadden’s Creek from John Turner for 100 pounds, “including the said improvements where Ashworth now lives.” They bought land in Fairview as early as 1792, according to Buncombe County records. In all probability they had settled there much earlier, but the deed was recorded in Rutherford County, of which Fairview was a part until 1791. John and Ann built their Fairview home at Hickory Nut Gap, high above the flatland swamps of the Cane River Valley. All of Fairview’s first settlers built on hills and on the sides of mountains in hopes of avoiding the unhealthy swampland that caused malaria, typhoid fever (Fairview’s primary cause of death in the 1800s), and other swamp-related diseases. 

John and Ann were hard working, industrious people, owning at least 2,250 acres of land in Fairview and three slaves by 1800. After John died on April 29, 1805, more than a few unscrupulous people thought that they would take advantage of his widow. They were soon disappointed. Ann was tougher and stronger-willed than her husband, who had been a moderating influence on his wife. After his death, she used her proven wealth and (real or imagined) power to do as she pleased. 

Ann was a self-trained doctor (some said witch who had studied plants and herbs from the time she was a little girl. Western North Carolina is blessed with more plants and herbs used in medicine than any other place in the United States. As early as the 1770s, botanists began visiting the mountains to gather medicinal plants. Ann Ashworth knew them all, and used them in her role as a healer. (Her great-great-great-granddaughter, Sadie Smathers Patton, author of The Story of Henderson County, inherited the mortar and pestle Ann used to powder the herbs she gathered. As late as the 1960s its sides were still covered with crude metal patches, having been worn thin from countless years of use.) 

Ann dug Ladyslipper roots and brewed them into a tea for treating heart trouble. She also used spells to treat disease, even writing down several of her formulas: 

1) “To Cure Cancer: Go to a Savannah bush and say what did you come here for, to cure a cancer and brake off a twigg, then say who it is on, brake another twigg then say where the cancer is, brake another twigg down and go away, this must be done before sunrise three mornings in succession before speaking to any person.” 

2) “The Cure for Heart Dropsy (heart failure): A cure for Dropsy, Take one gallon of hard cider and one hand full of mile cama and a quantity of nales (nails) or other iron and some Horse Radish Roots, put it into a pot and over it Close and boil it moderately down to one Quart, churin to top it. Close covered then take out the nales (nails), root and thin, add one quart of honey then boil down the whole of it to one quart.” 

3) “A Cure for the Scald Head”: “Take one pound of May Butter one pound of green Tobacco, beat the Tobacco well and stew them moderately together untill the strength is intirely out of the tobacco, then take it out, then add one quarter of a pound of Black pepper when cool and mix them propperly together, thin it fitt fur use, shave the Head with sope (soap) and water, then grease the head and keep the same cloth untill the cure is finally cured.” 

From the 1790s until her death in the 1830s, friends and foes came to Ann Ashworth with their health problems. Her herbs, cures, and spells were famous for their good results. The better educated and more religious neighbors disparaged her spells and incantations – but they seemed to work, and even the righteous swallowed their pride and visited her when they were ill. 

Not surprisingly, Ann Ashworth was considered a very worldly woman for her day. She drank, wore lace and frills on her petticoats, was a tough businesswoman, craved money and worldly possessions, owned slaves, cast spells, cursed people who crossed her, and did as she pleased with no regard to what anyone thought. This did not sit well with most Fairview residents, mostly Baptists and Methodists and almost all from Quaker backgrounds. More than once Ann was brought up on charges by Cane Creek (now Fairview) Baptist Church. Her invariable response was to threaten to curse those who charged her; since her curses nearly always seemed to work, her accusers tended to back down at the last minute. 

On October 11, 1827, Ann Ashworth wrote her will, leaving money or slaves to her various children and grandchildren. Those receiving cash included her grandson John Hill and her daughters Sarah McBrayer and Polly Williams ($100 each), and Polly’s son David ($500, with the request that he take care of his mother). Her daughter Nancy Bridges was to receive “my waiting clothes” and Ann’s slave Hannah; but after Nancy’s death, Hannah was to be set free and looked after by Nancy’s sister, Betsy Merrell. Of Ann’s other slaves, Dempsey was to go to her grandson Shadrack Ashworth, George to her grandson Johnson Ashworth, Caroll to her daughter Elizabeth Merrell, and her “negro wench, Nellisspy” to her daughter Susannah Withrow. 

In an era in which one acre of land sold for $5 or less, her will proved that she was extremely well off – and that she made no attempt to divide her estate evenly. Only a few of her many grandchildren inherited anything, and even they received unequal amounts. In death, as throughout her life, Ann Ashworth did as she pleased and did not care what anyone, including her other grandchildren, thought. 

Ann Wood Ashworth died on February 17, 1833 and was buried in the Ashworth Cemetery next to her husband. She left a gallon of whiskey for the men who dug her grave. Fortunately for historians, her medical skills did not die with her. Her granddaughter, Margaret Williams Casey (Keezey) carried them on after 1850 and shared them with her daughter, Rachel Casey Sumner (1817-1913), who, in turn, passed them to her daughter, Nancy Albertine Sumner Wright (1837-1917). 

An estate auction was held at the Ashworth home May 7 – 10, 1833. No land was sold, only personal possessions and a few slaves not already given away in her will. The sale brought in over $3,030, a huge amount of money for the time. Nearly all bids went down to the penny and many went down to one quarter of one cent. 

John Ashworth, Sr., and Nancy Ann Wood Ashworth had seven children: 

1) Alsa Ashworth (1763–1823) who married George Hill and moved to Pickens County, South Carolina. 
2) Nancy Ashworth (1769–1837) who married James Bridges and lived in Rutherford County, North Carolina. 
3) Mary “Polly” Ashworth (1773–1865) who married John Williams. Mary is buried in Cane Creek Cemetery in Fairview. Mary and John are the parents of most of the Fairview Williamses. 
4) John Ashworth, Jr. (1775–1827) who married Celia Nettles, the daughter of Soloman Nettles. John is buried in Ashworth Cemetery. 
5) Sarah Ashworth (born 1780) who married John McBrayer and moved to Paulding County, Georgia. 
6) Susannah Ashworth (1782–after 1850) who married John Withrow and moved to Gilmer County, Georgia. 
7) Elizabeth Ashworth (1785–1853) who married William Merrell and moved to Little River in Transylvania County.