Nancy Ward, whose Cherokee name Nanye'hi means "one who goes about," was born about 1738 at Chota, the Cherokee capital in today's Monroe County, Tennessee. Her mother, a member of the Wolf Clan, was sister to the famed Attakullakulla, or Little Carpenter. She married Kingfisher and they had two children. In 1766 she accompanied her husband on a raid against the Creek Indians. When Kingfisher was killed, she took his rifle and rallied the warriors to victory. Her bravery earned her the title of Ghighau or Beloved Woman. In this role she headed the Council of Women, held a voting seat in the Council of Chiefs, and was given the responsibility of deciding the fate of prisoners. As Agi-ga-u-e or War Woman, she also prepared the warriors' "black drink" made of yaupon holly leaves before battle.
In the late 1750s Nancy married a white trader named Bryant Ward. They had a daughter before he returned to South Carolina, effectively ending their marriage by 1760. Their daughter, Elizabeth Ward, married Joseph Martin, brigadier general and commissioner to the Cherokee.
In 1772 a visitor described Ward's home at Chota as furnished in native splendor and her manner as "queenly and commanding."
During the Revolution, Ward used her best efforts to promote peace between her people and the Americans, whom she sometimes warned about upcoming Indian raids. During the great invasion of the Watauga and Holston settlements in 1776, the Cherokees captured Lydia Bean, the wife of settler William Bean. Mrs. Bean had been condemned and bound to the stake when Ward intervened to save her life.
While staying at Ward's home, Lydia Bean taught her a technique of weaving on a loom that Cherokee women rapidly adopted. Mrs. Bean also gave her two cows, teaching her how to care for them and make cheese and butter, leading to an improved Cherokee diet. As the Cherokee women adopted those practices, they spent less time working in the fields, which then became men's work.
During another Cherokee outbreak in 1780, Nancy Ward helped a number of traders escape. The next year the chiefs sent her to make peace with John Sevier and William Campbell who were advancing against the Cherokee towns. Campbell described her in his report as "the famous Indian woman, Nancy Ward."
In 1781 the Cherokee met with a delegation led by John Sevier to discuss settlements along the Little Pigeon River. When Ward expressed surprise that the Americans had no women negotiators, Sevier was equally appalled that a Cherokee woman was negotiating with him. Ward reminded him that "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." Hers was an early voice for women in American politics.
Following American expansion after the Hiwassee Purchase of 1819, Ward left Chota and settled on the Ocoee River south of Benton, where she operated an inn at Womankiller Ford on the Federal Road until her death in 1822. She, her son, Fivekiller, who cared for her in her last days, and her brother, Longfellow, are buried on a hilltop not far from the inn. In 1923 the Nancy Ward Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Chattanooga erected a monument at the gravesite. In 1973 the site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. New markers and two benches were installed there in March of 2018.
The town of Vonore, Tennessee, remembers Ward in its Cherokee Heritage Days celebration each September. Farther afield, the name of Nancy Ward is included in the Brooklyn Museum of Art's exhibit honoring American women of distinction in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.
No contemporary portrait of Nancy Ward is known to exist, but in 1906 James Abraham Walker carved a five foot tall gray granite statue of Ward. It represents her holding a lamb in her right arm and in her left hand a plaque reading "Nancy Ward, Watauga, 1776," a reference to her warning of an attack by Dragging Canoe to the settlers. Sold in 1912, the statue stood in a cemetery in Grainger County, Tennessee, for 70 years until it was stolen in the early 1980s. The statue has been located. The East Tennessee Historical Society is seeking its return to the state of Tennessee.
Kay Baker Gaston is a regional historian and a former Chattanoogan. For more, visit chattahistoricalassn.org.