Nancy Ward—Beloved Woman of the Cherokee
Polk County, Tennessee
I once lived and worked in Southeastern Tennessee and sometimes I would travel to the small county of Polk, on Tennessee's eastern border, for my job. It's a lovely part of Tennessee, with few people and flowing streams, home to the white water events of the 1996 Summer Olympics, and the Cherokee National Forrest. I always made every excuse I could to visit this location.
All of the towns in Polk County are small. They have names like Turtletown, Ducktown, and Copperhill. The largest town in the whole county is Benton, population about 1300. That's the county seat. Driving into Benton on my trips to Polk County, I always passed a small monument with a marker with these words: "Nancy Ward. High priestess of the Cherokee and always loyal friend of white settlers, is buried on the ridge to the west. She repeatedly prevented massacres of white settlers and several times rescued captives from death at the hands of her people."
I was always intrigued by Nancy Ward's story, the "Beloved Woman of the Cherokee."
Becoming a Ghigau, Beloved Woman of the Cherokee
Nancy Ward was born in 1738 in Chota ( Cherokee City of Refuge) in Eastern Tennessee, in what is today Monroe County, just north of Polk County. She was named Nan'yehi, meaning "one who goes about". Her mother was a member of the Wolf Clan of the Cherokee. Less is known about her father, perhaps because Cherokee society was matriarchal. Her mother's brother, Attakullakulla, would have been much more important in her life than her father. Some reports say her father was a British officer named Ward and others report he was a member of the Delaware tribe.
In 1751 Nan'yehi married Kingfisher, another Cherokee. She fought with him in several battles. During one battle with the Creeks, Nan'yehi joined Kingfisher, laying behind a log to chew his bullets to make the edges jagged and more deadly. When Kingfisher was killed in this battle, she picked up his rifle and continued the fight, leading her people to victory.
Because of her bravery during this battle, Nan'yehi was given the title of Ghigau, which means Beloved Woman of the Cherokee. In addition to the honor this title represented, it also meant she was allowed to sit in the councils of the Cherokee and help make decisions.
Becoming Nancy Ward
As white settlers moved into Cherokee lands, Nan'yehi became convinced that the Cherokee should peacefully coexist with them. As a Ghigau, she became an ambassador and negotiator with the settlers.
When the European colonists built a fort in the Cherokee area, the settlers and Cherokee traded and became friends. It wasn't uncommon for the Cherokee women to marry these white settlers. A few years after the death of her first husband, Kingfisher, Nan'yehi married Bryant Ward, an English trader. Ward already had a European wife living back in South Carolina, but he also took Nan'yehi as his wife and lived with her for several years. They had a daughter, Betsy, and Nan'yehi became Nancy Ward.
Bryant Ward later returned to live with his family in South Carolina, but he continued to visit Nancy from time to time through the years.
Living with Bryant Ward and becoming familiar with the ways of the white settlers, Nancy became convinced that the best path for the Cherokee people was to learn to coexist with them. Other Cherokee leaders, however, did not agree with this approach. One of those vehemently opposed to assimilation was her cousin Dragging Canoe, son of her maternal uncle, Attakullakulla, chief of the tribe and the most important male in Nan'yehi's life.
The struggles of the Cherokee people at that time were embodied in these two cousins taking opposite approaches: One advocating for peaceful coexistence, the other for violent opposition to the encroachment of the European settlers who kept taking away their land. In the end, neither won.
In 1776, Dragging Canoe, urged on and supported by the British, made plans to attack white settlers in Cherokee country. When Nancy Ward became aware of these plans she sent word to the white settlers to warn them, thwarting his plans. Her motives for betraying her people are unclear, but she is reported to have said, "The white men are our brothers. The same house shelters us and the same sky covers us all".
Nancy's warnings did not stop the warring activities of Dragging Canoe and his fellow warriors however. When the warring parties captured two of the white settlers and brought them back to the village, she stepped in to try to save their lives. The first of the settlers, a man, was burned at the stake in spite of her protests. The second settler, a woman named Lydia Bean, was then tied to the stake and preparations made to light the fire when Nancy stepped in, pleaded for her life, and stopped the execution.
After saving her life, Nancy brought Lydia Bean to her home and cared for her for some time. While living with Nancy, Lydia Bean taught her and her family how to make butter and cheese. Nancy then bought her own cattle and introduced dairy farming to the Cherokee economy.
War and Peace
Nancy Ward's effort at peacemaking continued, but so did the warfare between the Cherokee and the settlers. At times, even though she did not stop the fighting, Nancy's family would be spared when the settlers attacked the Cherokee villages. Once when her whole village was captured, she and her family were saved.
In 1781, the settlers ordered the Cherokee to conduct a peace treaty and selected Nancy Ward to lead these negotiations. She spoke passionately in her efforts to bring about peace between the two factions, and as a result the settlers became less demanding in the negotiations and allowed the Cherokee to keep some of their land.
All of these peace negotiation ended in 1788, however, when a Cherokee chief was killed. Conflicts continued but some of the Cherokee people continued their attempts to assimilate into the new culture even though they were losing their lands at the hands of these settlers.
The Trail of Tears
End of Ghigaus
One of the results of this assimilation with the white settlers was that the Cherokee society became more patriarchal and Nancy Ward's pleas for peace were less credible. No one was interested in listening now to an aging woman. The Beloved Woman's words didn't hold as much weight. She was the last Beloved Woman of the Cherokees.
As an elderly woman, Ward cared for orphans in her homeland and was called "Granny Ward" until the lands where she grew up were sold and she was forced to move. The last three years of her life she ran an inn for travelers in her homeland.
Nancy Ward died in 1822. She had fought bravely as a Cherokee, married a white settler, become a peacemaker between the whites and Native Americans, and befriended many white settlers.
Less than ten years after her death, The Indian Removal Act was signed into law by President Andrew Jackson. In 1838, as the deadline for removal approached, thousands of volunteers entered the territory and forcibly relocated the Cherokees. They hunted, imprisoned, raped, and murdered the Cherokees. Those surviving these horrors were forced on a 1,000-mile march to the established Indian Territory with few provisions. Approximately 4,000 Cherokees died on this “Trail of Tears.”
I've often wondered what would have happened to Nancy Ward, High Priestess of the Cherokee and always loyal friend of white settlers, during this time. Would she have remained in her ancestral home or would she have had to walk the long, tearful trail? Would the monument honoring her, placed there by the Nancy Ward Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1923, be standing in Polk County today?
Most Recent Polk County Demographics According to United States Census Bureau
Race and Hispanic Origin for Polk County
Totat Population estimate, July 1, 2015
White alone households
Black or African American alone households
American Indian and Alaska Native alone household
Asian alone households
Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islanders alone
Two or More Races
Can We Learn from Our History?
If Nancy Ward's attempts at peaceful coexistence had been more successful what would present day Polk County look like? It's now 96% white with a poverty rate of about 20%. Would this beautiful land be richer if these two cultures had learned to peacefully coexist? Would both be better off?
Are there lessons for us in present day America? Is diversity a good thing?