Nancy Nanye’hi Ward — Cherokee Warrior for Peace

While meandering through the Museum of Appalachia’s treasure trove in Norris, Tennessee, I came across an exhibit encased in glass, and was intrigued by the words:

She has been called: The Cherokee Chieftainess. The Pocahontas of the West, One of the Great Women in American History.

In another section, I read the big, bold name of this incredible, yet somewhat controversial, woman: Nancy Ward.

Join me on her life’s journey. I have striven to provide accurate second-hand sources, names, and pronunciations, though I understand some information is uncertain. I will respectfully leave that for the reader to ponder. That being said, let’s dive into history. And please – please overlook my poor attempts at photography. I offer my sincerest apologies.

Nancy Ward’s Cherokee name was Nanye’hi (pronounced nahn-YEH-hee), meaning “one who goes about.” She was born in Chota,1)Chota was considered the “mother town” and capital of the Cherokee Nation. The place was also a city of refuge for Cherokee who were in trouble or distress. Tennessee, into the Wolf Clan in 1738. One thing to note: The Cherokee bloodline was matrilineal, meaning descendants and kinships were traced through the mother’s line. She was purportedly born to Tame Doe of the Wolf Clan, though no historical documents can verify the name.2)According to David Hampton in “The Association of the Descendants of Nancy Ward,” the name Tame Doe came from a fictional biography about Nancy titled The Wild Rose of the Cherokee, or, Nancy Ward, the Pocahontas of the West (1895) by E. Sterling King.  I say “purportedly,” because the identity of her parents has been debated. Many sources say Nanye’hi’s father was Fivekiller from the Delaware Lenni Lenapé Tribe.3)The Delaware tribe were dubbed the “Grandfather Indians” because they were believed to be the earliest settlers of the Atlantic Seaboard.4)A few sources say Nancy Ward was descended from Osconostota. Others, like James Mooney in Myths of the Cherokee (G.P.O. 1902), say she was half Cherokee with a white English father.

She married a Cherokee warrior named Kingfisher (Tsu-la), from the Deer Clan. The couple had two children: a daughter, Ka-ti (aka Catherine), and a son, Five Killer (Hi-s-ki-ti-hi).5)Five Killer’s name has also been spelled Hi-s-gi-di-hi, Hiskyteehee, and registered as “Hisketehe” in the War of 1812 muster rolls. In 1775, Kingfisher and a reported five-hundred Cherokee warriors went to war against the Muscogee (Creek) Tribe at the Battle of Taliwa in Georgia. Nanye’hi fought alongside her husband, hiding behind a log. She chewed bullets so they would be “more pointed and deadly.”6)womenhistoryblog.com. n.d. “Native American Women: Nancy Ward.” History of American Women: Colonial Women 18th-19th Century Women. Accessed Mar 2022. Kingfisher was killed before her very eyes. She took up his musket, marched with purpose, mobilized the Cherokee warriors, and helped lead them to victory. And she fought valiantly. The defeated Muscogee left that territory, as far as I could deduce, for good.

Nanye’hi was bestowed with honors for her bravery.7)Some sources say after the Battle of Taliwa against the Muscogee, Nancy Ward was awarded a black woman who was captured from the Muscogee. Other sources report this information as false. If true, Nancy Ward would’ve been the first Cherokee to own a slave. By unanimous consent, she was named Ghighau (pronounced Gee gah oo),8)I found the name other spellings: Agi-ga-u-e,  Ghi-ga-u, Ghi-gu-u, and Ghighau or, Beloved Woman. The lifetime title was enormously powerful. The Cherokee believed the “Great Spirit spoke through the Beloved woman.”9)womenhistoryblog.com. n.d. “Native American Women: Nancy Ward.” History of American Women: Colonial Women 18th-19th Century Women. Accessed Mar 2022. As Ghighau, she became head of the Women’s Council and could overrule men’s decisions. She sat on the Council of Chiefs and had the right to vote on issues. She had pardoning power and could initiate proceedings to remove an unfit Chief. She also prepared the sacred rite of the warrior’s “Black Drink,”10)Smith, David Ray. 2018. “Nancy Ward.” Tennessee Encyclopedia. March 1. a “life-protecting potion for the warriors as they purified themselves for war.”11)Tucker, Norma. 1969. “Nancy Ward, Ghighau of the Cherokees.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, June: 192-200.

Several years after Kingfisher’s death, she married English trader, Bryant Ward (aka Bryan), who lived with the Cherokee for a time. She subsequently changed her name to the English-speaking “Nancy.” She and Bryant had a daughter named Betsy. Many sources claim marriage wasn’t a lifelong contract for the Cherokee. Bryant left Nancy and, depending on the source, either moved to South Carolina as a single man, or was already married to a white woman there. Nancy and her daughter reportedly visited the Wards in South Carolina several times and were warmly welcomed.

The American Revolution stirred into a frenzy. The Cherokee Tribe was split about who to support during the war. Most Cherokee sided with the British. Nancy Ward sided with the Colonists. She believed peace and co-existence with the settlers was the best way to go. Her cousin Dragging Canoe (Tsiyu Gansini), however, was passionately against peace with the white settlers, saying,

Whole Indian Nations have melted away like snowballs in the sun before the white man’s advance . . .12)Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Cherokee, North Carolina

Other factors may have determined support for the Colonists. Harold Felton, in his book Nancy Ward, Cherokee says the Tribe desperately needed weapons to drive back the Chickasaw. They met and voted on whether to relinquish more of their land to white settlers in exchange for weapons. Though Dragging Canoe agreed they needed weapons, he opposed giving away more Cherokee land. The transfer occurred, however, and, in 1776, an understandably resentful and angry Dragging Canoe organized warriors to attack white settlers.

Nancy performed the Black Drink rite for Dragging Canoe and the warriors. After the ceremony, she sent clandestine messages to the settlers warning them about an imminent attack. The tip-off gave them time to fend off the assault. Dragging Canoe was injured and thirteen Cherokee warriors were killed. His fury was further stoked and a “full-scale war with the newly formed United States”13)Klibanoff, Caroline and Allyson Schettino. 2020. “Nanyehi ‘Nancy’ Ward Helped Lead the Cherokee Nation as a Teenager.” teenvogue. Nov 30. began. In October 1776, Continental troops fought against the Cherokee, and wiped out most of their villages. In every battle, Ward’s village was spared, likely because of her Colonist support. The Cherokee paid a high price for Dragging Canoe’s actions. In 1777, they signed a peace treaty that gave the United States 5,000,264 acres of their land.14)Tucker, Norma. 1969. “Nancy Ward, Ghighau of the Cherokees.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, June: 192-200.

Ward’s pardoning powers are well recorded during this time. The Cherokee captured a woman named Lydia Bean. She and her husband were the first permanent settlers in Tennessee. She was sentenced to burn at the stake. The kindling was lit. Nancy Ward “reportedly strode to the mound where Mrs. Bean was tied, kicked out the fires at her feet, and cut the ropes that bound her.”15)Suzak, Cheryl, Shari M. Huhndorf, Jeanne Perreault, and Jean Barman, . 2010. Indigenous Women and Feminism: Politics, Activism, Culture. Vancouver: UBC Press. Ward allegedly said:

It revolts my soul that Cherokee warriors would stoop so low as to torture a squaw. No woman shall be tortured . . . while I am ‘Ghi-ga-u.’16)Minor, Angela. 2018. “Nanyehi – Nancy Ward: Warrior. Peacemaker. Beloved Woman of the Cherokee.” Smoky Mountain Living Magazine, Aug 1.

Nancy harbored Lydia Bean for several months. Bean taught her weaving and dairying, before she was escorted home by Ward’s brother, Longfellow (Tuskeegeeteetee), and son, Five Killer. Nancy was also known to free “Patriot prisoners.”17)New York Historical Society Museum & Library. 2017. “Life Story: Nancy Ward (Nanyehi) 1738-1822.” Women and the American Story. New York Historical Society Museum & Library.

Ward’s motives for supporting the United States have been highly debated. Debra Michals’ article “Nanyehi (Nancy) Ward18) I should point out a discrepancy here. Nancy’s date of death on every source I came across says she died in 1822. The Michals source says she died in 1824. writes the following:

. . . some say she supported the colonists’ cause against the British; others believe she was trying to retain friendships with powerful Euro American leaders; and others argue she was pragmatic, recognizing that the outnumbered Cherokee were best served by avoiding further conflicts.

Nancy herself said, “The white men are our brothers. The same house shelters us and the same sky covers us all.”19)Hampton, David. n.d. “Biography of Nancy Ward.” The Association of the Descendants of Nancy Ward. Accessed Mar 2022. Harold Felton wrote that she likely took a gamble: Helping the Revolutionaries would hopefully guarantee the Cherokee “independence and freedom.”

Nancy is considered a hero in American history. She may have even “helped change the course of the Revolutionary War.”20)Minor, Angela. 2018. “Nanyehi – Nancy Ward: Warrior. Peacemaker. Beloved Woman of the Cherokee.” Smoky Mountain Living Magazine, Aug 1. Angela Minor’s Smoky Mountain Living Magazine article, about Nancy indicates that “Ward and George Washington may have saved each other’s lives.” Ward’s letter to Washington was found in Thomas Jefferson’s documents.

Conversely, her motives have been criticized and questioned by many in the Cherokee Nation. According to the New York Historical Society’s article, “Life Story: Nanyehi Nancy Ward (1738-1822),” Nancy

played a critical role in moving the Cherokee Nation away from their traditions and toward a more Westernized way of life . . . her attitude of acceptance toward white settlers gave them the ability to encroach on Cherokee territory. Today some Cherokees consider her a traitor, while Tsiyu Gansini is considered a hero for advocating armed resistance.

The Revolutionary War ended and Britain surrendered all lands “east of the Mississippi River” – including Cherokee territory – to the newly-formed United States. Of course, the Tribe was altogether left out of the deal. The white population exploded. The settlers disregarded any deals made between the Cherokee and the U.S. government, and the land grab was on. The appropriation and takeover ensured further clashes between the Cherokee and settlers.

After years of conflict, the settlers urged for peace. Discussions were held circa 1781. Ward represented the Cherokee, saying, in part:

. . . 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; let our sons be yours. Let your women hear our words.

Her speech was well-received; the Cherokee kept some of their lands; and a peace deal was signed. The treaty was broken less than ten years later, after a Cherokee Chief was allegedly murdered by white men.

Colonist takeovers were relentless. In 1817, several Cherokee Chiefs negotiated a treaty (Hiwassee Purchase of 1819), ceding land to the U.S. Federal government. Nancy Ward was almost eighty years old and could not travel to attend the negotiations. She sent a written appeal for the Cherokee Chiefs to leave the Tribe’s land alone. Her advice was rejected. The treaty went forward, opening the flood gates for white settlers. Nancy was forced to move near the Ocoee River, where she ran an inn. She also took care of orphans, earning the nickname “Granny Ward.”

By this time, the Cherokee Nation had become more patriarchal and Westernized, and the Beloved Woman no longer had a voice or power. The “Westernized grip” on women in Cherokee society had just begun. About seven years after the Hiwassee Purchase, rules for women were drastically changed. Cherokee women no longer had the right to vote and they were prohibited from participating in government. The changes were “officially recognized in the Cherokee Constitution.”21)Satz, Ronald N. 1979. Tennessee’s Indian Peoples from White Contact to Removal, 1540-1840. Knoxville: The Tennessee Historical Commission.

Nanye’hi “Nancy” Ward died in 1822, and sources claim “a light rose from her body, fluttered around the room like a bird, left through an open door and disappeared toward Chota.”22)Hampton, David. n.d. “Biography of Nancy Ward.” The Association of the Descendants of Nancy Ward. Accessed Mar 2022. She is buried in the Nancy Ward Cemetery in Polk County, Tennessee, near her brother, Longfellow. She was described as “queenly and commanding in appearance and manner and . . . a winsome and resourceful woman.”23)Smith, David Ray. 2018. “Nancy Ward.” Tennessee Encyclopedia. March 1. Renowned botanist Thomas Nuttall compiled an oral description of her as: “tall, erect, and beautiful, with a prominent nose, regular features, clear complexion, long, silken black hair, large piercing black eyes, and an imperious air.”24)Felton, Harold W. 1975. Nancy Ward, Cherokee. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company. Her sixth great-granddaughter, Terri Randolph, said: “She was born with great character and maturity. But also possessed humility with others.”

A little bit of a mystery surrounds Nancy Ward, or, well, her likeness. James Abraham Walker sculpted a statue of her in around 1876, intending for it to be placed at her gravesite. For some odd reason, the figure was in a Grainger County, Tennessee, cemetery for more than seventy years. The statue disappeared from there in the 1980s, then reappeared in an antique show in New York City. The likeness is now in the possession of an antiques dealer in Maine.25)National Geographic. n.d. “Nancy Ward Gravesite.” Tennessee River Valley, National Geographic. Accessed Mar 2022 .

Nancy Ward, for good or bad, was arguably the most influential woman in the Cherokee Nation’s history. She not only introduced dairy farming to the tribe, she also helped transform the government “to a republic.”26)Smith, Ray. n.d. “Nancy Ward Page.” The Cherokee History and Culture SiteRing. Accessed Feb 2022. She was a peacemaker and go-between at a time when political and colonialist powder kegs were packed, shaken, and set ablaze. Expansion was shocking and especially brutal. Perhaps, she truly did see the writing on the wall. Thousands of white faces with a surplus of weaponry had settled in Cherokee territory, with more to come. Or, perhaps, the Great Spirit truly did speak through her. At the crux of Cherokee spirituality is a philosophy of balance and harmony. As Beloved Woman, she spent almost seventy years striving for peace and harmony – for the Cherokee Nation and for all peoples.

**Featured image of 1939 “Cherokee girl” – Tennessee Dept. of Conservation – from Tennessee State Library Archives. The garb was described as “traditional,” but it may be something staged for the photo. – Altered for effect

 

The following sources, including the footnotes, were used in this writing:
Books
  • Military and Genealogical Records of the Famous Indian Women: Nancy Ward (1960(s). Washington: A.W. Burns) by Annie Walker Burns.
  • The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities. (1995. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) by Colin G. Calloway.
  • Nancy Ward, Cherokee. (1975. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company) by Harold W. Felton.
  • The Wild Rose of Cherokee, or, Nancy Ward, The Pocahontas of the West. (1895. Nashville: University Press) by Sterling E. King.
  • Myths of the Cherokee. (1902. Washington: G.P.O.) by James Mooney.
  • Tennessee’s Indian Peoples from White Contact to Removal, 1540-1840. (1979. Knoxville: The Tennessee Historical Commission) by Ronald N. Satz.
  • History of the Cherokee Indians and Their Legends and Folk Lore. (1922. Oklahoma City: The Warden Company) by Emmet Starr.
  • Indigenous Women and Feminism: Politics, Activism, Culture. (2010. Vancouver: UBC Press.) by Cheryl Suzak, Shari M. Huhndorf, Jeanne Perreault, and Jean Barman.
Web
Museums

 

References

References
1 Chota was considered the “mother town” and capital of the Cherokee Nation. The place was also a city of refuge for Cherokee who were in trouble or distress.
2 According to David Hampton in “The Association of the Descendants of Nancy Ward,” the name Tame Doe came from a fictional biography about Nancy titled The Wild Rose of the Cherokee, or, Nancy Ward, the Pocahontas of the West (1895) by E. Sterling King.
3 The Delaware tribe were dubbed the “Grandfather Indians” because they were believed to be the earliest settlers of the Atlantic Seaboard.
4 A few sources say Nancy Ward was descended from Osconostota. Others, like James Mooney in Myths of the Cherokee (G.P.O. 1902), say she was half Cherokee with a white English father.
5 Five Killer’s name has also been spelled Hi-s-gi-di-hi, Hiskyteehee, and registered as “Hisketehe” in the War of 1812 muster rolls.
6, 9 womenhistoryblog.com. n.d. “Native American Women: Nancy Ward.” History of American Women: Colonial Women 18th-19th Century Women. Accessed Mar 2022.
7 Some sources say after the Battle of Taliwa against the Muscogee, Nancy Ward was awarded a black woman who was captured from the Muscogee. Other sources report this information as false. If true, Nancy Ward would’ve been the first Cherokee to own a slave.
8 I found the name other spellings: Agi-ga-u-e,  Ghi-ga-u, Ghi-gu-u, and Ghighau
10, 23 Smith, David Ray. 2018. “Nancy Ward.” Tennessee Encyclopedia. March 1.
11, 14 Tucker, Norma. 1969. “Nancy Ward, Ghighau of the Cherokees.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, June: 192-200.
12 Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Cherokee, North Carolina
13 Klibanoff, Caroline and Allyson Schettino. 2020. “Nanyehi ‘Nancy’ Ward Helped Lead the Cherokee Nation as a Teenager.” teenvogue. Nov 30.
15 Suzak, Cheryl, Shari M. Huhndorf, Jeanne Perreault, and Jean Barman, . 2010. Indigenous Women and Feminism: Politics, Activism, Culture. Vancouver: UBC Press.
16, 20 Minor, Angela. 2018. “Nanyehi – Nancy Ward: Warrior. Peacemaker. Beloved Woman of the Cherokee.” Smoky Mountain Living Magazine, Aug 1.
17 New York Historical Society Museum & Library. 2017. “Life Story: Nancy Ward (Nanyehi) 1738-1822.” Women and the American Story. New York Historical Society Museum & Library.
18 I should point out a discrepancy here. Nancy’s date of death on every source I came across says she died in 1822. The Michals source says she died in 1824.
19, 22 Hampton, David. n.d. “Biography of Nancy Ward.” The Association of the Descendants of Nancy Ward. Accessed Mar 2022.
21 Satz, Ronald N. 1979. Tennessee’s Indian Peoples from White Contact to Removal, 1540-1840. Knoxville: The Tennessee Historical Commission.
24 Felton, Harold W. 1975. Nancy Ward, Cherokee. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company.
25 National Geographic. n.d. “Nancy Ward Gravesite.” Tennessee River Valley, National Geographic. Accessed Mar 2022 .
26 Smith, Ray. n.d. “Nancy Ward Page.” The Cherokee History and Culture SiteRing. Accessed Feb 2022.

2 Comments

  1. I have been attending a Wichita State (Kansas) class on “The Women in U.S. History.” There are so many women who deserve to be recognized in our history, whose names and stories are unknown to most Americans. Thanks for giving Nancy Nanye’hi Ward her deserved recognition.

    1. Author

      The history class sounds so interesting, Peg. I agree about the number of women who should be recognized. Had I not seen the exhibit at the museum, I may never have known about Nancy Nanye’hi Ward. It was a great honor to read about her and a pleasure to share what I found.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.