Since it’s Women’s History Month, I thought I would write about an influential woman of the American West who undoubtedly changed the way of life for her fellow Native Americans and who was a pioneer of women of her time. No one in the Cherokee Nation was more of an advocate for women’s rights, peace, and a better quality of life for her people than the Cherokee woman Nanyehi, also known as Nancy Ward. Nanyehi was born in 1738 as a member of the Wolf Clan in Chota, a historic Cherokee site in Monroe County, Tennessee. Perhaps her desire for peace between the Cherokee and their European-Americans neighbors was passed down from her parents. Her mother was a Native American woman and her father a white man who had ingratiated himself into the Cherokee Nation and lived among her mother’s people. Nanyehi eventually married a Cherokee man named Kingfisher. By the time she was seventeen, they had two children, a girl – Catherine – and a boy – Littlefellow Fivekiller.
Like several Native American women, Nanyehi was a warrior who fought alongside the men of her tribe. During the Battle of Taliwa, she and Kingfisher fought together against the Creeks in 1755. Unfortunately, both he and her father were killed. To avenge their deaths, she famously took up her husband’s rifle and led her tribe to victory. This act brought her much respect from her fellow Cherokee. It was then that she became a Ghigau at the age of eighteen. For those who don’t know, Ghigau was a title meaning “Beloved Woman” in the Cherokee Nation. It gave Nanyehi the power to sit in councils and extend pardons to captives.
At this time, Nanyehi chose to become more widely known as Nancy Ward when she married for a second time to Bryant Ward of South Carolina. Bryant was a colonist and Indian trader with whom she had a daughter, her third child, named Elizabeth (who later became the wife of General Joseph Martin). Around this time, the Revolutionary War was in full swing. Nancy gained praise again, this time from the white colonists, by warning them of her Cherokee cousin’s plan to attack their settlement. The colonists rewarded her by naming her a Patriot for the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Society of the Sons of the American Revolution.
In 1776, Nancy chose to use her powers as a Ghigau to give a captive by the name of Lydia Bean pardon. Lydia became a captive of Nancy’s tribe after suffering injuries during the Cherokee attack on Fort Watauga. After taking Lydia into her home and treating her battle injuries, the two became close friends. It was under the influence of Lydia Bean that Nancy began to improve the everyday life of Cherokee woman. By first teaching Nancy a different loom-weaving technique, the garments the Cherokees wore saw improvement and no longer had to be bought from traders but made from their own homes. Not to mention, this new technique kept Cherokee women out of the fields. Before they began weaving, a woman’s job was traditionally to do the planting. In this way, both Lydia and Nancy revolutionized the role of Cherokee women. In addition, Lydia and Nancy began to shift the Cherokee way of life toward the better. Lydia gave to Nancy two dairy cows and taught her to raise cattle. By eating dairy products, the Cherokee could sustain themselves during a poor hunting season. Through these new ways of life both for Cherokee men and women, their society as a whole began to mirror that of the European-American settlements. This new way of life called for more labor, however, and many of them began to use chattel slaves. In fact, Nancy was one of the first Cherokee people to purchase slaves.
When the Cherokee territory began to shrink, Nancy decided to use her established position as a Ghigau and Patriot for the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Society of the Sons of the American Revolution to fight against the sale of her tribe’s lands. By doing so, she became known as a de facto ambassador for her people. She led the Women’s Council against the sale of Cherokee land in 1808 and 1817. Despite their best efforts, the land was lost to the whites’ growing demand for new settlements.
In 1781, she traveled with the Cherokee to use her position as an ambassador when they met an American delegation led by a man named John Sevier. While Sevier scorned the fact that the Cherokee had brought a woman along to act as an important diplomat, Nancy argued that the American delegation should have invited at least one woman to act as their negotiator, making a moving speech that impressed the delegation and lives on in history:
"You know that women are always looked upon as nothing; but we are your mothers; you are our sons. Our cry is all for peace; let it continue. This peace must last forever. Let your women's sons be ours; our sons be yours. Let your women hear our words."
Not until modern times was a Native American woman’s speech more noteworthy for its advocacy of women’s rights. Nancy’s is most touching because it shows that she believed in the rights of women of both races.
As Nancy Ward grew older, she settled down in southeastern Tennessee. On what was then called the Ocowee River, she opened an inn, which she ran alongside her son until she passed away in 1822 or 1824. It’s probably a good thing she did not live to see the Trail of Tears, which removed the Cherokee people from the lands she fought so hard to preserve for them. Her son, Fivekiller, was later buried with her on a hilltop site just south of what is now known as Benton, Tennessee. A statue of Nancy stood for seventy years in a Grainger County cemetery until it was stolen in the 1980’s. In 1923, the Daughter of the American Revolution posthumously awarded Nancy Ward with her own chapter based in Chattanooga. The chapter decided to place a memorial marker at Nancy’s gravesite and is now raising money for a Nancy Ward Museum. Until the time that the museum is built, the Polk County Historical and Genealogical Society will maintain a Nancy Ward Room in their genealogy library. Nancy Ward was also the last woman to be bestowed with the title of Beloved Woman of the Cherokee Nation until the 1980’s. The city of Vonore, Tennessee celebrates her life achievements each year with Nancy Ward Cherokee Heritage Days.