Nancy Ward Statue
The travels of the Nancy Ward statue, shown here when it stood in the Arnwine Cemetery in Grainger County, Tenn., are nearly as full of history and intrigue as the subject’s own life.
Revered first for her ferociousness in battle and later for her peacemaking skills, the Cherokee woman is commemorated along U.S. 411 near Benton,Tenn.
Although the teenaged Pocohontas gets most of the press, not to mention her very own Disney movie, there was a Native American woman who lived a century later, who ranked as a chief among her people, leading a long and distinguished life as warrior, diplomat and finally peacemaker between two rival cultures. She was a Cherokee woman named Nanye-hi, known to the white settlers as Nancy Ward, and she deserves much more recognition than she has ever received.
Born in the Cherokee capital of Chota (now in Monroe County, Tenn.) around 1738, Nancy Ward was said to be the niece of Attakullakulla or “Little Carpenter,” the supreme chief of the Cherokee. As a young girl, she married Kingfisher, with whom she had two children, Five-Killer and Catherine. Nancy Ward was 17 in 1755 when she accompanied her young husband and the other Cherokee warriors going off to do battle against the Creeks. The warring tribes met in battle at Taliwa, near the present town of Ball Ground, Ga., in Cherokee County. (The Georgia state historical marker commemorating the battle is located on Ga. state road 372 at the downtown railroad crossing in Ball Ground.)
Kingfisher was killed at Taliwa, and his wife, who had been fighting at his side – chewing the bullets, it is said, to make them more lethal – was so enraged at his death that she took up his weapon and, heedless of her own safety, charged at the Creek warriors. The other Cherokee, startled to see a young girl attacking the enemy, followed her lead, and thus she turned the tide of battle.
The bravery of young Nanye-hi, and the resulting victory at Taliwa, prompted her people to confer upon her an honor usually reserved for elderly women. Still in her teens, Nancy Ward was given the title of Ghigau, “the beloved woman,” and with it the white swan’s wing, as the symbol of her authority.
Because Cherokee society was matrilineal, in which divorce was permitted and women were treated as equals, a white settler characterized Cherokee society as a “petticoat government.” As the highest ranking woman, the Ghigau had a voice and vote in General Council; she assumed leadership of the Woman’s Council and she undertook the duty of ambassador and peace-negotiator. One right held by the Ghigau was the power to save the life of a condemned prisoner.
Nancy Ward exercised this power of clemency on behalf of a frontier woman, Lydia Bean, who had been taken prisoner in the wars between the Cherokee and the settlers. When the tribal council sentenced Mrs. Bean to death, the Ghigau spoke up and asked whether the prisoner knew how to make butter. When the terrified woman stammered that she did, Nancy Ward announced that the prisoner would be spared on the condition that she teach her skills of butter-making and weaving to the women of the tribe. Nancy Ward took Lydia Bean into her own home, and participated in the lessons. Later, she bought two milk cows of her own so that the tribe could profit from these newly learned skills.
The saving of Lydia Bean in exchange for her domestic teaching is an example of Nancy Ward’s realization that the traditional world of the Cherokee was changing forever, and that her people’s survival depended upon their learning the new ways and finding a way to co-exist with the new arrivals on the frontier.
The name by which she is known – ”Nancy Ward” – comes from her marriage to an Irish trader, Briant Ward, by whom she had her third child, a daughter named Elizabeth. Ward was an earnest student of the new culture, always looking for a peaceful solution to the problem of the encroaching settlers.
When in 1777 her cousin Dragging Canoe declared war on the forts along the Holston River, Nancy Ward took it upon herself to warn the settlers of the impending attack, probably because she realized that open warfare between her people and the better-armed whites who outnumbered them would result in disaster for the Cherokee. She was sharply criticized by some of her own people for her actions, but her decision seems not a betrayal of the Cherokee, but an earnest desire to prevent them from being slaughtered. In 1780 she took part in peace talks between the Cherokee and the white settlers, urging both sides to work for peace, but her efforts were unsuccessful.
Toward the end of her life, “Granny” Ward, as she became known, tended to children. She had become quite prosperous, keeping an inn in Woman Killer Ford on the Ocoee River, near the present-day town of Benton, Tenn., approximately 45 miles north of Chattanooga. However, after the Hiwassee Purchase of 1819, she became increasingly concerned about the troubled relationship between her people and the white settlers, whose numbers were growing with each passing year. She cautioned the Cherokee leaders against selling any more tribal land to the whites, and she saw her own birthplace, the town of Chota, ceded to the settlers.
Nancy Ward died in the spring of 1824, some 15 years before the government claimed Cherokee land in the east and forced the Cherokee on the Trail of Tears to new territory in Oklahoma. She is buried next to the grave of her son Five Killer, on a hill overlooking the Ocoee River, near Benton, Tenn., where U.S. 411 crosses near the ancient ford of the Warrior’s Path and the old Federal Road.
In 1923 the Nancy Ward Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution erected a permanent grave marker on the site. A cairn of quartz stones, roughly in the shape of a pyramid, forms a mound about four feet high. Affixed to the front of the cairn is a bronze plaque, giving her name and a brief history of her accomplishments, calling her “a friend of the American pioneer.” The site is now a small roadside park, marked for visitors, and maintained by the state of Tennessee.