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Nancy Ward—Beloved Woman of the Cherokee

Updated on January 5, 2017
Little Tallassee River, Tennessee
Little Tallassee River, Tennessee | Source

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."

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A markerbenton, tn -
Benton, TN 37307, USA
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B markerducktown, tn -
Ducktown, TN, USA
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C markerturtletown, tn -
Turtletown, TN, USA
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D markercopperhill, tn -
Copperhill, TN 37317, USA
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E markerocoee river, polk county, tn -
Ocoee River, Tennessee, USA
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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.

Depiction of Nancy Ward
Depiction of Nancy Ward | Source

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.

Peacemaker

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
16,773
 
White alone households
96.8%
 
Black or African American alone households
.8%
 
American Indian and Alaska Native alone household
.6%
 
Asian alone households
.3%
 
Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islanders alone
.1%
 
Two or More Races
1.5%
 

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?


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    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 7 months ago from Olympia, WA

      If we fail to learn the lessons of history, we are doomed to failure. Wonderful story and reflection.

      blessings always

    • VirginiaLynne profile image

      Virginia Kearney 7 months ago from United States

      Thanks for this wonderful biography. My maternal grandfather was a descendant of Lydia Bean's brother. Lydia (Russell) Bean and her brother George Russell married siblings, William Bean and Elizabeth Bean (another sibling married the sister of the Revolutionary hero, Patrick Henry). These two couples moved together to be some of the first settlers in the Cherokee areas. George and William were friends with Daniel Boone and often went hunting with him.

      Lydia's capture and rescue by Nancy Ward is a part of the history we've uncovered, but I did not know all of the rest of Nancy's story. I can add to your account the fact that Lydia eventually did return home. Her husband and sons were crack shots who fought along with George Russell at the important Revolutionary battle of King's Mountain (which prevented the British from putting a pincer grasp on Washington's army). George Russell was eventually killed by Indians while on a hunting trip with Daniel Boone.

    • jo miller profile image
      Author

      jo miller 7 months ago from Tennessee

      Bill, Thanks for reading and commenting. This was a fun article to do. I was always intrigued by Nancy Ward's story.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 7 months ago from Oklahoma

      Wonderful historical overview.

    • jo miller profile image
      Author

      jo miller 7 months ago from Tennessee

      Virginia Lynne. How interesting. I wonder if George Bean was killed by some of Dragging Canoes raiders.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 7 months ago from USA

      What a wonderful history lesson of an impressive woman who lived her values and had much to teach us even today. I especially found interesting your commentary on diversity and where the people of the area could be had they been more open and inclusive. So important right now as well as then.

    • jo miller profile image
      Author

      jo miller 7 months ago from Tennessee

      Hi, Larry. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    • jwmurph profile image

      jwmurph 7 months ago from Tennessee

      The 'Original Sin' of this country is the genocide of the Native Americans by our European ancestors. The idea that seriously religious people felt that they had the blessing of the creator of the universe to move and kill Native Americans is unbelievable, but l hear it from time to time in religious contexts.

      Nancy was a most admirable person in her actions. I am thankful that you have made her known to me. Thank you.

    • jo miller profile image
      Author

      jo miller 7 months ago from Tennessee

      FlourishAnyway, Thank you for stopping by and commenting. I have always found Nancy Ward's story intriguing. Glad that you enjoyed it.

    • jo miller profile image
      Author

      jo miller 7 months ago from Tennessee

      jwmurph, Thank you for stopping by and commenting. Our country seems to continue making some terrible decisions from time to time. God help us.

    • Nathanville profile image

      Arthur Russ 2 months ago from England

      In your closing statement, I am a firm believer that diversity enriches a culture so strongly believe that if the two cultures could have learned to peacefully coexist both would be better off.

      Bristol for example (where I live) is a thriving and cohesive city with a population of 428,100, of which:-

      • 84% are white.

      • 6% black.

      • 5.5% Asian.

      • 3.6% mixed race.

      • 0.6% Other, and

      • 0.3% Arab

      Religion in Bristol being:-

      • 46.8% Christian

      • 45.5% Not Religious

      • 5.1% Islam

      • 0.6% Buddhism

      • 0.6% Hinduism

      • 0.5% Sikhism

      • 0.2% Judaism

      • 0.7% Other religions

      Reading your article reminded me of Pocahontas (Native American Indian woman) who unfortunately died of an unidentified illness in England in 1617 at the age of 21. She was buried at Saint George’s church, Gravesend, Kent, England, where a statue now stands in her honour.

    • jwmurph profile image

      jwmurph 2 months ago from Tennessee

      What we Europeans did to the Native Americans is our Original Sin in this country, the second being slavery, both damning to our national reputation. I was told at a Visitor Center along the Oregon Train that we had been responsible for the death of about 95% of the Native Americans who where here when our ancestors arrived. This is genocide, pure and simple, and a sin for which we should repent.

      Jo Miller's fact-filled and interesting Hub on Nancy Ward is a wonderful tribute to her.

    • Nathanville profile image

      Arthur Russ 2 months ago from England

      I fully agree with you jwmutph; we Europeans have a lot to answer for. Shamefully, Britain was a co-conspirator by its pivotal role in the slave trade from the mid-17th century until it abolished the slave trade in 1807; albeit we (Britain’s) didn’t finally abolish slavery itself until 1833.

    • jo miller profile image
      Author

      jo miller 2 months ago from Tennessee

      Thank you, John, and so happy you stopped by to read. Glad to see you active on HubPages again.

    • jo miller profile image
      Author

      jo miller 2 months ago from Tennessee

      Arthur, I agree that your country was a co-conspirator in some of our sins. We learned a lot from your country--some of it good.

    • Shyron E Shenko profile image

      Shyron E Shenko 5 weeks ago from Texas

      jo, I love this story. I do not know if we would be better off if Nancy Ward had been more successful. I am torn between because of my ancestry, my ggg grandmother was in the Trail of Tears this was on my mother's side. My father's side my gg grandmother was full blood Cherokee and gg grandfather was 1/2 Cherokee. Most of this information I did not know until my grandmother passed, and I began to research my family and got in touch with a cousin whose mother was the family historian and she sent me her mother's note books.

      Thank you for this informative article.

      Blessings and hugs

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