Nanyehi (1738-1822), known by her English name Nancy Ward, was a Cherokee woman who lived during the eighteenth century. For her bravery and leadership, Nanyehi was given the title Ghigau, often translated to "Beloved Woman." At a time that the Cherokee nation was frequently at battle with American troops and white settlers who had occupied their traditional lands, Ward made repeated attempts to establish peace between the various parties while pushing to retain Cherokee land.
Nancy Ward is believed to have been born around 1738 in the Cherokee village of Chota, in what is today Monroe County, Tennessee. Chota, the Cherokee capital, was known as a "City of Refuge," meaning that it was a place where those in distress could seek asylum.
When Ward was growing up, Cherokee lands were bordered by the Ohio River in the north and the Tennessee River in the south. They extended to the headwaters of the Coosa, the Chattahoochee, the Savannah, the Saluda, and the Tugaloo Rivers. Today the traditional Cherokee lands correspond to the area where the states of Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina come together, at the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Her mother was a member of the Wolf clan and the sister of Attakullacull, a Cherokee chief.
Ward was born with the name Nanyehi, which means "One who is with the Spirit People." In her teens, she married a Cherokee warrior by the name of Tsu-La, or Kingfisher, a member of the Deer Clan. They had two children, a boy named Littlefellow Hiskyteehee Fivekiller and a girl named Catherine Ka-Ti Walker.
In an intertribal conflict known as the Battle of Taliwa, which took place in 1755, the Muscogee fought the Cherokees. Ward assisted her husband during the battle by "chewing his bullets" before loading, creating jagged edges to cause more damage. After her husband was mortally wounded, Nanyehi reportedly took up his rifle and joined the fight. In recognition of her valor, the Cherokee Nation gave her the position of Ghigau, meaning Beloved Woman or Mother. The title made Ward a member of the tribal council of chiefs and a voting member of the Cherokee Grand Council.
Still in her teens, the widowed mother of two children was also made the leader of the Women's Council of Clan Representatives. As a member of the tribal council of chiefs, she served as a peace negotiator and ambassador for the Cherokee people. Ward achieved a reputation as an un-flinching advocate of human rights and peace.
In the late 1750s, Nanyehi married Bryan Ward, an English trader. She took the name Nancy, an Anglicized form of her name, and the couple had a daughter named Elizabeth Ward. Bryan Ward eventually returned to his home in South Carolina and his first wife, whom he had been married to when he married Nanyehi.
In the early 1760s, the Cherokee nation was committed to helping the American colonists in the French and Indian War in exchange for protection for their families from hostile Creeks and Choctaws. But colonial assistance also brought interference with Cherokee affairs in the form of frontier posts and military garrisons. The frontier posts were soon accompanied by settlers hungry for Cherokee land.
An incident in West Virginia in which some Virginia frontiersmen robbed and killed a group of Cherokees on their way back from helping the British take Fort Duquesne resulted in the revenge killing of more than 20 settlers by the Native Americans. This was the beginning of a conflict that would last more than two years, in which the Cherokees defeated the British forces and captured Fort Loudon.
Following a truce, an army of Carolina Rangers, British light infantry, Royal Scots, and Native American troops ravaged Cherokee territory, burning crops and towns. War weary and hungry, the insurgent Cherokees agreed to give up large portions of their eastern lands.
During the Revolutionary War, the Cherokees were divided on the issues of helping the British and whether force should be used to expel American settlers on Cherokee land. Nancy's cousin, Dragging Canoe, the son of Attakullakulla, wanted to side with the British against the white settlers. Ward, however, spoke up in favor of supporting the American settlers.
In May 1775, a delegation of Shawnee, Delaware, and Mohawk emissaries traveled south to help the British win the support of the Cherokees and other tribes. That July, the Chickamauga Cherokee band of the Tennessee River Valley led by Dragging Canoe began attacking white settlements and forts in the Appalachians and in isolated areas of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. In retaliation, state militias destroyed Cherokee villages and crops. By 1777, the militias would force the Cherokee to give up some of their land.
In July 1776, Ward warned white settlers on the Holston River and on the Virginia border that the Cherokees were planning an attack. Later, she saved the life of a captured white woman who was about to be executed. The white woman's husband was William Bean, reportedly a friend of Daniel Boone and a captain in the colonial militia. Ward and Mrs. Bean developed a friendship during the time that Mrs. Bean remained with the Cherokees, and Ward learned about dairy farming from her. Apparently out of gratitude, Ward's village was spared from being razed when the frontier militia made its way through Cherokee lands.
Meanwhile, Dragging Canoe and his band continued to attack American settlements with arms supplied by the British. Finally, in 1778, Colonel Evan Shelby and 600 men invaded Dragging Canoe's territory. The result was that Cherokee resistance from that point forward was limited to minor conflict.
In 1780, Ward provided American soldiers with advanced warning of a another Cherokee attack, and tried to prevent retribution against the Cherokees by the whites. According to Felton, Ward even arranged to have a herd of her own cattle sent to the hungry militia. Nevertheless, the North Carolina militia would again invade Cherokee territory, destroying villages and demanding further land cessions. In the ensuing battle, which Ward had tried in vain to stop, she and her family were captured by the Americans; she was eventually released and allowed to return to her home in Chota.
In July 1781, Ward helped negotiate a peace treaty between the Cherokees and the Americans. The signing of the treaty freed the Americans to move a detachment of troops to fight with George Washington's army against the British General Cornwallis in the final battle of the American Revolution.
During the negotiation of the Treaty of Hopewell (1785), Ward attempted to promote mutual friendship between the whites and the Cherokees. She argued for the adoption of farming and dairy production by the Cherokees and became the first Cherokee dairy farmer. Much later, she urged her tribe not to sell tribal land to the whites, but she failed to exert influence on this score. When the Cherokee council met in 1817 to discuss the idea of moving west, Ward, too ill to attend, sent a letter in which she wrote, "[D]on't part with any more of our lands but continue on it and enlarge your farms and cultivate and raise corn and cotton and we, your mothers and sisters, will make clothing for you… . It was our desire to forewarn you all not to part with our lands," according to Felton. The tribal lands north of the Hiwassee River were sold in 1819, however, obliging Ward to relocate.
As indicated by documentation on the RootsWeb web-site, Ward is said to have once written to the President of the United States, saying: "Our people would have more hoes, plows, seed, cotton carding and looms for weaving. They would learn your way of cultivation. If you would send these things, we will put them to good use." The president reportedly agreed to help and sent government agents to help the Cherokees.
Ward later opened an inn in southeastern Tennessee on the Ocoee River, at a place called Womankiller Ford, near present-day Benton. She died in that place in 1822 (some sources say 1824). Over the years that followed, she became the subject of many tales and legends. She is reportedly mentioned in Teddy Roosevelt's Book on The West, The Virginia State Papers, The South Carolina State Papers, Mooney's Book, and The Draper Collection. A chapter of The American Daughters Of the Revolution in Tennessee has been named after her. There is also a Descendants of Nancy Ward Association in Oklahoma.
Near the end of her life, Nancy Ward reportedly had a vision in which she saw a "great line of our people marching on foot. Mothers with babies in their arms. Fathers with small children on their back. Grandmothers and Grandfathers with large bundles on their backs. They were marching West and the 'Unaka' (White Soldiers) were behind them. They left a trail of corpses the weak, the sick who could not survive the journey." The vision was to prove prophetic.
In the years following Ward's death, the state of Georgia, with the support of President Andrew Jackson, began taking Cherokee lands for extremely low compensation and promises of land in the west. Cherokee property was also taken by greedy settlers. Using the Cherokees' resistance as an excuse, the Georgia militia moved in to Chota and destroyed the printing press used there in the publication of the tribe's newspaper.
Although a few Cherokees managed to escape the ensuing round-up of Native Americans by taking refuge in the mountains of North Carolina (where some of their descendants still live today), most of the members of the Cherokee nation were destined to enforced exile. Beginning in the spring of 1838, the dispossessed Native Americans were made to travel through rain and mud, and then snow and ice, to lands west of the Mississippi. About 4,000 Cherokees died during the 800-mile exodus that would eventually become known among them as the "Nunna-da-ult-sun-yi" (The Trail of Tears).
Felton, Harold W., Nancy Ward, Cherokee, Dodd, Mead &Company, 1975.
Waldman, Carl, Atlas of the North American Indian, Facts on File, 1985.
Bataille, Gretchen M., ed., Native American Women: A Biographical Dictionary, Garland Publishing, 1993, http://www.pinn.net/~sunshine/whm2002/ward.html (January 2003).
Life story: Nanyehi Nancy Ward. Women & the American Story. (2021, June 18). Retrieved May 19, 2022, from https://wams.nyhistory.org/settler-colonialism-and-revolution/the-american-revolution/nanyehi-nancy-ward/
“Nan-Ye-Hi (Cherokee) Ward.” WikiTree, 10 Apr. 2022, https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Cherokee-59.
Rice, Stanley. Nanyehi: War and Peace in Cherokee History. Southeastern Oklahoma State University, Sept. 2019, https://www.se.edu/native-american/wp-content/uploads/sites/49/2019/09/A-NAS-2013-Proceedings-Rice.pdf.
RootsWeb.com, http://www.rootsweb.com/~scsparta/spb_scot.htm. See also RootsWeb Archives, http://archiver.rootsweb.com/th/read/OK-RECORDS/2000-10/0971600639 (January 2003).