Women’s History Month: Nanye-hi

I came to the realization recently that all of my historical profiles have been of white women, so for the month of March, in honor of Women’s History Month, I’ll be profiling women of diverse backgrounds. Obviously, I can’t touch on every possible nationality or marginalization in the time I have, but I will be working in the future to add more profiles of Arab, disabled, Indian, African, and LGBTQIA+ women throughout history.

Nanye-hi was born around 1738 near the southeastern border of what is now Tennessee. Her father was a Lenape (Delaware) man who migrated to Tennessee and married a Cherokee woman of the Wolf Clan.

By the time she was 17, she was married with two children. Her husband went to war with the Creek, who were a longstanding rival of the Cherokee. She followed him into battle, chewing on his lead bullets to make them more jagged and damaging. When he was killed in battle, she picked up his rifle and kept shooting. It’s unclear exactly what she did, but she’s credited with rallying the Cherokee and leading the final charge that led to their victory. Upon returning home she was given the moniker “Beloved Woman” and elevated in the society. While she’d been respected before, now she was not only a member of the women’s council, but the only female voting member of the Cherokee General Council. This meant she could act as an ambassador for her people in a time of turmoil.

European settlement was moving further and further west, pushing people like her father away from their ancestral lands on the eastern seaboard. The Cherokee people overall were divided in how to deal with the Europeans, and if they should be considered friends or a threat. Nanye-hi was the niece of one of the chiefs of her tribe, and he may have encouraged several women to marry European settlers in order to preserve the peace.

In the 1850s Nanye-hi married one of those settlers, Bryant Ward (some sources say he was English, others Irish). The two lived happily together for a few years and Nanye-hi had her third child, a daughter, named Elizabeth. During this time she learned English and went by the anglicization of her name, Nancy Ward. She learned as much as she could about the culture of the strange foreigners, and became convinced it was important to preserve the peace between the native population and the colonists.

In a surprising twist, Ward decided in the 1760s to go back to his wife. Yes, wife. He was apparently already married to a European woman. There’s no record of how the previous Mrs. Ward felt about his second wife (I couldn’t even find her name) but apparently Nancy was an honored guest and regularly brought their daughter for visits.

This separation may have been triggered by the start of the French and Indian War. The British struck a treaty with the Cherokee, offering protection from the Creek and Chocktaw in exchange for assistance and allowing them to build forts on their land. Unfortunately, the treaty didn’t last long. The British murdered a group of Cherokee traveling back from West Virginia (possibly in error…possibly not) triggering violent reprisals from the Cherokee.

Nanye-hi, as a member of the general council, had sway over the fates of prisoners. She saved an injured white prisoner named Lydia Russell Bean, taking her into her own home and treating her wounds. The two grew to be friends and Bean taught Nanye-hi and other women in the village to raise and milk cows, and to process dairy products, as well as a new weaving technique. The introduction of livestock to the Cherokee way of life changed them from a hunting-dependent society to a more agrarian culture that more closely mimicked the colonial villages nearby. This change also introduced some negative aspects–further south, some Cherokee took to owning black slaves, and Nanye-hi herself is credited as being one of the first to take up the practice.

The shift to a more settled way of life may not have been the best option; after a brief truce, the white soldiers attacked the Cherokee villages, burning most of them to the ground. The Cherokee were forced to give up large portions of land.

After years of strife between colonists and natives, most native tribes sided with the British when war broke out, hoping to expel the colonists from their lands once and for all. In an effort to prevent retaliatory attacks by colonists, Nanye-hi warned them of attacks by her people, and even provided their militias with food. Unfortunately, the thanks for her help was violent raids, the burning of crops, and the loss of more land. By 1781, the exhausted Cherokee conceded, and Nanye-hi was able to negotiate a peace treaty between the colonists and her tribe. The settlers removed their occupying forces and focused their efforts on the British, instead.

She continued advocating for peace between the two groups, even after the end of the war, but was largely ignored even as she helped negotiate the Treaty of Hopewell in 1785 and additional agreements in 1808 and 1817. During the general council meeting of 1817, she was too ill to attend but send a pleading letter from her sickbed begging the council not to cede more land. But the eastern portion of the nation was given up in 1819 despite her efforts, and she was forced to join the group moving further south.

Nanye-hi continued to advocate for her people and for peace until her death sometime between 1822-24. In her later years she grew to fear the total loss of their ancestral lands, and had visions of women marching sadly away while holding their children. In 1830 her vision finally came to pass when Andrew Jackson signed Indian removal into law, and the Trail of Tears saw the forced march of tens of thousands of Cherokee and other native people west. 4,000 would die on the 800 mile march.

Like what you see? Check out The Baroness of Flight.