By Terry Pettee
Few know of American patriot Nanye’hi, a woman of the Cherokee Nation. Those few who do know of her may remember her best as Nancy Ward.
Nanye’hi was born around 1738 in what is now Monroe County, in southeast Tennessee bordering on North Carolina.
The Cherokee Nation once occupied major portions of the mid-Atlantic States as far north and south as Virginia to Alabama and as far west and east as Missouri to Georgia. In between these borders, the Cherokee Nation occupied large portions of North and South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Arkansas.
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The history of the Cherokee Nation and the story of Nanye’hi are loaded with irony.
When encountered by Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto in 1540, the Cherokee lived in towns comprised of log and plaster homes and a public meeting house resting in a town square. They had social programs to provide for orphans and the destitute. Primarily an agricultural society, the Cherokee economy flourished by the trading of goods and produce. And of course, the Cherokee were skilled hunters and fishers.
The leaders of the Cherokee Nation were democratically elected and rule of law was by public consensus. It was a matriarchal society where bloodline was traced through women and where women actively participated in the rule of law and government. In practice, the Cherokee society was centuries ahead of the earliest explorers and colonial settlers to the New World.
The tribe awarded Nanye’hi the title Ghigan (Beloved Woman) and a position on her clan council and the Cherokee Nation General Council because of her acts of bravery against the enemy in the Creek Indian War. At the age of 17 Nanye’hi’s husband was killed during a skirmish with the Creek Indians. Nanye’hi, armed with her fallen husband’s musket, led Cherokee Warriors to victory against the Creek earning her the distinction of Ghigan.
In 1756 Nanye’hi married Irishman Bryant Ward, giving rise to her Anglican name Nancy Ward. Little is known about Bryant Ward. Before the war, he traded goods with the Cherokee people. During the war, he fought for the British. Their marriage was brief. Ward at some point abandoned Nanye’hi and their child Betsy and her three children from her first marriage.
The impact of Nanye’hi’s marriage to a European is a matter of speculation. Perhaps Bryant Ward had some part in awakening Nanye’hi’s appreciation of European agriculture and technology. Whatever the case, Nanye’hi realized some European knowledge could improve the quality of life among the Cherokee and she seized upon it. Among the adaptations credited to Nanye’hi were the raising of dairy cattle and their subsequent milk products. She is also credited with introducing European weaving technology to provide more substantial fabrics.
Not all contact with the white race was beneficial to the Cherokee however.
In the French and Indian War of the 1760s, the Cherokee allied themselves with the British primarily because their traditional enemies the Creek and Choctaw were allied with the French. That alliance went badly when British troops, apparently mistaking their allies for enemies, fired upon and killed a group of Cherokees returning from the battle for Fort Duquesne in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. In retaliation, the Cherokee killed more than 20 English settlers prompting a series of retaliatory battles instigated by both sides. Nanye’hi as a council member was instrumental in attempts to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
During the War of Independence Nanye’hi served as an ambassador of the Cherokee Nation to the Colonial Americans. Nanye’hi was surprised no women were part of the America delegation while John Sevier, leader of the American delegation, was appalled that such important work should be given to a woman.
George Washington did not share John Sevier’s opinion of Nanye’hi. Nanye’hi was strategic in the 1780 Treaty of Hopewell establishing an alliance between the Cherokee and the Americans. As a result of those talks, Washington’s starving troops received food and military support from the Cherokee.
The far-flung Cherokee people were not unanimous in lending their support to either side. European settlers who invaded historic Cherokee territories caused tension between the two cultures. At one-point Nanye’hi and her cousin Dragging Canoe argued opposing views before the General Council. Whether in peace or war, relations with the white Europeans had always proven tenuous.
In representing her people Nanye’hi chose the path that brought the greatest benefit to the Cherokee. Understandably she was profoundly more Native American than Immigrant American in her position on the issues. Nevertheless, Nanye’hi and the Cherokee reflected a system of government and a sense of humanity that most resembled what the American republic would eventually become rather than the monarchy it left behind. In their sacrificial support of the founding fathers and establishment of our nation, Nanye’hi and the Cherokee Nation are an example of the American patriotic spirit that entitles them to the accolade of American Heroine and Heroes.
Terry Pettee is a graduate of Eastern Michigan University where his undergraduate study prepared him for a career in secondary education. Prior to attending EMU, he was Editor-In-Chief of the Erie Square Gazette while a student at the St. Clair County Community College. Between his community college and university years he was Marysville Editor of the St. Clair County Independent Press where he was a newspaper reporter and columnist. After a brief teaching stint his life’s journey led him into human resource and industrial relations management; a career spanning four decades. Now retired, Terry writes both Christian value based fiction and non-fiction for his own amusement, which is babble-speak for saying he has only a single published book to his credit.
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