Nancy Vanderipe Cunliff first arrived in the Manatee River area in 1843. She came with her first husband, John Vanderipe, and their five children from Kentucky and settled on the north side of the river.
Several years after they arrived, John Vanderipe left on a schooner for New Orleans. Some reports tell us that he was bound for Kentucky on business, but other reports say that he was “dissatisfied.” Regardless of his reason for leaving, John Vanderipe simply disappeared. It is thought that he might have contracted Yellow Fever upon his arrival in New Orleans, but there is no proof of what became of him.
A short time later, Nancy married James Cunliff, who was a blacksmith and sea captain, and the couple decided to move their family to Key West.
However, Nancy’s oldest daughter Mary, who was around 13 years old at the time, refused to go. Instead, she ran away and married Lambert Hayes, a merchant who had homesteaded in the Manatee area. They built a log cabin along the banks of the Braden River and had five children.
With each birth, Mary would travel to Key West to be near her mother and doctors. It was an unfortunate accident involving Mary’s husband Lambert that brought Nancy back to Manatee.
In 1857, Mary was working in her kitchen and through the window saw Lambert boarding his raft to travel across the river. Sadly, the next time she looked, her husband was gone and the raft was floating empty in the river. His body was never recovered and it is believed that he either suffered a medical emergency and fell overboard or was the victim of an alligator attack.
The combination of Lambert’s death and several devastating hurricanes in Key West brought Nancy and James back to Manatee. They settled south of Mary’s homestead and quickly became known as one of the most hospitable couples in the area.
Their home was located near a convenient crossing point on the Braden River, known as “Hollering Point,” and Nancy operated a free ferry there. She was well known for offering hot meals to those who were traveling through, often on their way to or from Pine Level.
Food was never scarce at the Cunliff home where they were known for having a large garden, groves (they were the first to introduce guava to the area from Key West), and a healthy supply of livestock.
To further extend her hospitality to weary travelers, Nancy also offered a spare bedroom in her home for overnight guests for a small fee. She called the room the “Profit Chamber,” and the money collected was donated to the circuit preacher. Their kind and welcoming nature even helped protect their home from Seminole raids. When other homes were burned, the Cunliff house was spared because they were friendly with the local Seminoles.
Nancy Cunliff, as a widow, was able to prove her homestead of over 80 acres in 1876. Nancy is buried In the 1850 Old Manatee Burying Grounds, located across the street from Manatee Village Historical Park, 1404 Manatee Ave. E Bradenton. To visit the cemetery, keys can be checked out from the Manatee Village Historical Park Offices.
Melissa Porter is education and volunteer coordinator at Manatee Village Historical Park. She enjoys sharing the past with visitors through exhibits and personal anecdotes from Manatee County’s history. Email: Melissa.firstname.lastname@example.org