I’m really enjoying the seminar I’m taking on Native American history. Last week we had a lively discussion about Nancy Ward, a prominent Cherokee woman of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries whose name has come up here on the blog before. One of my most pleasant surprises as a history buff was the day I was on a short road trip with my mom; our route unexpectedly took us right by Nancy Ward’s gravesite, so I got to step out and take a look at it.
She made a name for herself when she was still a teenager in the 1750s, taking up her mortally wounded husband’s gun during a battle with the Creeks. Shortly thereafter she married an English trader and became one of those cross-cultural mediators that popped up from time to time in the history of the American borderlands.
Nancy Ward’s grave, along with the graves of her son and brother, in Polk County, TN. Photo by Brian Stansberry via Wikimedia Commons
In the summer of 1776, as Cherokee warriors prepared to launch attacks on settlements along the southern frontier, word of the impending assault made its way to the whites. Nancy Ward was one of those responsible for sending the warning. When the attacks fell in July, the settlers were hunkered down behind the wooden palisades of their forts. Warriors did manage to capture Lydia Bean, wife of one of the first settlers in present-day Tennessee. As Beloved Woman, Ward had authority over the fate of prisoners and saved Bean from the stake, reportedly keeping the captive in her home to make butter and cheese until she could return home. It wasn’t the only occasion Ward would use her influence to prevent the shedding of white blood.
The reason our discussion in class got lively was because Nancy Ward is a controversial subject for many modern Cherokees. My professor noted that some members of the tribe still consider Ward a traitor because of her affinity for the settlers and her tendency to intervene on their behalf, and one of my classmates (who does preservation work for the Eastern Band) cringed when her name came up. And by modern standards, it’s hard to argue with the “traitor” label. What else would you call someone who sent word to the opposing side that her own people were about to launch an invasion?
But, as my professor pointed out, it’s not quite that simple. For one thing, Ward’s status as Beloved Woman gave her a certain amount of authority in matters of war and peace. In her excellent book Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835, Theda Perdue discusses how women sought to maintain their prerogatives when it came to the disposition of captives, treaty negotiations, and other important business during the tumultuous eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Maybe Ward’s actions had as much to do with the preservation of female power as it did with saving whites’ lives.
More importantly, judging Ward reduces our ability to see their activity for what it was, namely a form of agency. “Agency” is a term we’ve been discussing a lot in that class. When you’re dealing with marginalized and often voiceless historical groups—groups such as Indians, women, slaves, or the poor—it’s important to remember that their circumstances didn’t reduce them to passive blobs of matter. They remained human beings who confronted, resisted, and adapted to the forces around them. Historians spend a lot of time trying to recover the agency of marginalized people, and when they do, they usually identify agency with some form of resistance. Resistance can come in many forms besides open rebellion. Workers who protested harsh factory conditions, slaves who broke farming tools—these are the sorts of activities historians generally have in mind when people refer to “agency.” Just because oppressed people weren’t taking up pitchforks and raising hell doesn’t mean they weren’t holding on to their humanity. An act as simple as doing one’s work a little bit more slowly than expected could be a form of resistance.
But maybe agency doesn’t have to equal resistance at all. Any time some historical figure faced a choice and made a decision, they were exercising agency. Perhaps Nancy Ward’s decision to forewarn the settlers was an act of agency, too. In fact, it was a pretty striking one; she chose to act in a way that seems counter to the interests of many of her own people.
Why did she do it? Maybe she thought a war with the whites would just bring down even harsher retribution, which is what indeed happened, and she wanted to minimize its effects. Maybe, as I suggested above, she felt the councils had failed to take into account her opinion and that of other leading women in the discussions that led up to the decision to launch the assaults. Maybe her marriage to a white trader had given her a soft spot for the settlers. I don’t know. But whatever her motives, she decided to act as she did, even though she didn’t act the way we might expect a woman in her position “should” act.
As a Native American woman (albeit a very influential and prominent one), Nancy Ward was the kind of person whose decisions usually didn’t make it into the history books. But in her case, we get the opportunity to observe an Indian woman choosing to act, and doing so. Her choice might look odd to us, but it was still her choice. Nancy Ward made her choices and shaped her own circumstances, as surely as did the Indians who fought white encroachment to the last bullet and resisted acculturation to the last breath. As my professor put it, people want their historical Indians to behave like Geronimo, but not all of them did.
Sometimes historical figures acted in ways that seem nonsensical or even immoral to us. Our job is to figure out why they acted as they did, and what their choices can reveal about larger patterns of behavior and about the societies that produced them. We can’t choose for them; nor can we judge their choices. The choices were ultimately theirs.