Born in 1738 in Chota, capital of the Cherokee Lands in modern Tenessee, Nanyehi Ward was niece to Cherokee leader Attakullakulla. As a teen, she married Tsu-la, or Kingfisher, with whom she had children.
At only 17, Nanyehi followed her husband into the Battle of Taliwa in 1755. Kingfisher was killed and Nanyehi murdered the killer with his own gun, before rallying Cherokee troops and leading them to victory against the Muskogee tribe.
As a reward, Nanyehi was named Ghighau, or Beloved Woman, a position said to speak for the Great Spirit. It is rumoured that Naneyi was also given a slave from the Muskogee, introducing the forced enslavement of African people to the Cherokees.
In her administration of power, Nanyehi promoted peace even with invading colonisers. Not all the Cherokee people agreed and her cousin, Dragging Canoe, led a group of rebels who fought with settlers.
Nevertheless, Nanyehi was greatly respected and served on the Cherokee General Council and as the leader of the Women’s Council. A primary responsibility was making decisions about justice and vengeance, and she had the power to free captured prisoners.
Nanyehi used this to free a settler during a border conflict in 1776, Lydia Bean. Lydia taught Nanyehi to raise cattle and dairy production was introduced to the Cherokee. Nanyehi also warned settlers of invasion from rebels during this conflict, allowing defeat of the rebels.
Before this, Nanyehi married Irish trader Bryant Ward, and from then on was also known as Nancy. After having children, Bryant left for a wife and children he already had in Virginia. Nanyehi’s descendants mostly married powerful settlers, who were often already married.
As conflicts calmed and as she grew older, Nanyehi managed an inn at Womankiller Ford. Before her death in 1822 Nanyehi envisioned the Cherokee people leaving their homes, predicting the ‘Trail of Tears’ in which Cherokee people were forcibly removed from their lands by settlers.
Anne F. Rogers and Barbara R. Duncan, eds., Culture, Crisis, and Conflict: Cherokee British Relations 1756-1765 (Cherokee, NC: Museum of the Cherokee Indian Press, 2009)
Ben Harris McClary, “Nancy Ward: the Last Beloved Woman of the Cherokees,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 21.4 (1962): 352-364
Norma Tucker, “Nancy Ward, Ghingau of the Cherokees,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 53.2 (1969): 192-200
Pat Alderman, Nancy Ward, Cherokee Chieftainess, and Dragging Canoe, Cherokee- Chickamauga War Chief, second edition (Johnson City, TN: The Overmountain Press, 1990)
Stanley Rice, “Nanyehi: War and Peace in Cherokee History,” Southeastern Oklahoma State University, conference paper, 91-96.