Willis Bryant Was Cherokee

By Danny Conn

Willis Bryant was Cherokee. Raised in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1818, he served as a scout for General Andrew Jackson. Ironically, 12 years later, then President Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act to “relocate” tribes of the Southeast United States to Indian Territory, eventually Oklahoma.

Despite the fact that many of the Cherokee, Choctaw, and other tribes were assimilating into the agricultural, economic, and religious culture of the growing American population, being “Indian” was sufficient justification to remove these Native Americans from their farms, businesses, and homes.

This was racism, fueled by greed to own the property and resources possessed by another group of people.

Rather than relocate, Willis Bryant stayed in Tennessee. He married an English woman who used the Bible to teach him to read. As the result of her testimony and prayers, he came to know Christ. As he continued to read and study Scripture, Willis sensed a call to become a preacher of the gospel.

Before long, his preaching against slavery (and his being married to a white woman) sparked reaction from local vigilantes. While preparing to lynch him, however, they gave Willis an opportunity to say some last words. He pulled a Bible from his pocket and read Scripture to them. Apparently, he produced sufficient conviction for the men to release him.

This was racism, fueled by ignorance and the mistaken notion there were superior and inferior people groups.

Eventually, some of Bryant’s descendants received a land allotment in south-central Oklahoma. The Bryant community developed and included a school and a Free Will Baptist church on land donated by Amy Bryant Manning.

Amy Bryant Manning was my great aunt. Her sister, Mildred Bryant Hawkins, was my grandmother. Willis Bryant was their great-grandfather. Their ancestry included Cherokee, Choctaw, an Irish conscript, and an English stowaway. But they also had a heritage of Christian faith.

My Indian ancestors experienced severe mistreatment by those who viewed them as inferior because of the color of their skin. History documents all manner of abuse committed by Europeans who came to this land. However, people often seem unaware that Europeans were not the originators of racial conflict on this continent. Tribal conflict, war, enslavement, and all manner of evil have occurred throughout the history of humanity—on every continent.

While we can bemoan the tragedies that resulted from the arrival of Europeans in America, one key point needs to be emphasized. They also brought the gospel of Jesus Christ to this land. They were not perfect people. Often, their methods and motivations were flawed. But thankfully, today, my family heritage is not spiritism, animism, sun worship, or idolatry. My family has a heritage of faith in Jesus Christ.

Since the Tower of Babel, people groups have been divided, alienated, and suspicious of one another. We create invalid measurements to suppose superiority over those we see as different. But God created only one race of humans. We are all descendants of Adam and Eve. We all have the same fallen human nature. We all need the same redemption from sin offered by faith in Jesus Christ. Living out the example of Jesus through obedience to His Word is the only cure for racism…and all the other evils of this world.

About the Writer: Danny Conn is editorial director at Randall House. He and his wife Diane live in the country near Springfield, Tennesee, two miles from the Trail of Tears followed by the Cherokees to Indian Territory.