Unsung Women of the
By Jagger Waters
Since it’s almost the 4th of July, we wanted to celebrate some amazing women of the American Revolution! Unsurprisingly, detailed records of female participation are limited. I found two women with fascinating stories, who both willingly endangered their own lives to assist American colonists.
We can’t forget that thousands of women: Native American, black, white, some wealthy, many poor, and countless whose identities we will never know, directly contributed to the success of the American Revolution. It’s unlikely we will ever know these women’s names or the truth behind their stories. Even the records we do have of women who led American colonists to victory were written and kept by men.
“Nancy Ward”, or Nanye’hi in her native language, was a Cherokee diplomat and peacemaker remembered primarily for helping American colonists fight against the British, the French and other Native American tribes. Discussing her role as beneficial to the revolution is double-edged, as the American colonists’ debt to the Cherokee (and all native peoples in the continental United States) would never be repaid. During her life, she navigated relations between her people and white settlers, at a time when the Cherokee were divided on whether to support British forces or American colonists. She negotiated with high ranking military officials, saved hostages from execution, and is even remembered for introducing dairy into Cherokee trade.
To understand her role, here’s a quick history lesson: Cherokees formed an alliance with American colonists during the French and Indian War that continued into the American Revolution. Nanye’hi would warn colonists about planned or oncoming attacks from tribes, and strategically manage a peaceful, ongoing coexistence between Cherokees and colonists. Although it benefitted the Cherokee at the time, this alliance is an example of how a temporary and exploitative relationship with native peoples can lead to large-scale military success and eventual foriegn takeover (in this case, the American colonists).
After taking her husband’s place when he died in battle, Nanye’hi was awarded the honor and title of “Ghigau,” translated as, “Beloved Woman,” making her the only female voting member of the Cherokee General Council and leader of the Women’s Council. Possessing this status meant Nanye’hi effectively served as the highest-ranking ambassador for her people.
The first time she met with American colonists, she vocalized her surprise at the lack of female representatives present. John Sevier, a white man who would later become the Governor of Tennessee, told Nanye’hi women shouldn’t handle political matters, which allegedly inspired her to give a memorable speech about the power and necessity of female voices in politics.
Not much evidence supports where or when she died, but there are records of a very old woman with high status visiting a mission school in Georgia and telling a story very similar to Nancy Ward's, circa 1807. It’s believed that Nanye’hi had a vision of her people marching on foot in an endless line, foreshadowing the Trail of Tears.
Deborah Sampson was a white American colonist, and although she was not wealthy, her friendship with Paul Revere and well-documented testimonies requesting the credit of military pension as a veteran undoubtedly contributed to the visibility of her story. She is remembered for disguising herself as a man in order to serve in the Revolutionary War.
Naturally, Deborah is celebrated as a “female soldier.” She was challenged with the added pressure of having to conceal her true identity on top of surviving in war. Her presence was proof that women were not only capable of but enthusiastic to serve in the military. She disguised herself as a man for over two years, 17 months of which was active military service. Eventually she fell ill, and despite asking fellow soldiers to let her die, she was discovered upon hospitalization.
Deborah wasn’t born into economic privilege, in fact, she was an indentured servant until she was 18. She self-educated and, upon gaining her freedom, became a teacher. In 1782,, she used her dead brother’s name to enlist in the army.
Shortly after she was honorably discharged, author Herman Mann wrote about her in a book titled, “The Female Review: or, Memoirs of an American Young Lady”. Unfortunately, Mann’s account of Deborah’s life was wildly embellished, and in 1802, she toured several states to tell her own story first-hand (in full military uniform!) I imagine this makes her the first one-woman show to tour on American soil.
In 1792, she asked for back pay as a continental army soldier, military pension from the state of Massachusetts. After several failed attempts, Paul Revere wrote to Massachusetts representatives to grant her pension. She was eventually granted enough money to live comfortably.