This Day in History: The Legend of Nancy Hart, Revolutionary War Heroine

On this day in 1779, an unsung Revolutionary War heroine fights gallantly in the Battle of Kettle Creek! Or . . . maybe she didn’t. Nancy Hart’s story is “too good not to tell,” as one historian notes, but it also “seem[s] to hang in a mythical realm somewhere between fiction and history.”

Where is the boundary between the real and the mythical Nancy? It’s hard to know, but historians can confirm that she was a real person who really existed. From all accounts, she was feisty and tough. Local Indian tribes knew her as “Wahatche” or “war woman.” She may have been related to the fiery Revolutionary War General Daniel Morgan.

With a background like that, perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear that the stories told about this determined woman are numerous—and inspiring!

Nancy is said to have been a spy who, on at least one occasion, dressed herself like a man then wandered into a British camp. She pretended to be simpleminded—or perhaps simply crazy. As such, she seemed harmless, and no one thought anything of speaking freely in front of her. That left Nancy free to roam around, listening and gathering information. She passed her intelligence on to militia Colonel Elijah Clarke.

One story has Nancy defending a fort with a single cannon while the men were off getting supplies. On another occasion, she is said to have singlehandedly seized a gun from a Tory. She’d pulled him into conversation, distracted him, then grabbed the gun. Another time, she was reportedly boiling soap in her cabin when she noticed a Tory spying on her. He was peeking at her through a crevice in the chimney! Nancy threw scalding soap through the crevice, straight into the eye of her eavesdropper.

As if all that weren’t enough, Nancy went outside and tied him up, too.

Perhaps the best known of Nancy’s exploits occurred when she was confronted by a group of Tories in her own home. They shot one of her turkeys, thinking they’d force her to cook them dinner. Well, you can imagine that Nancy wouldn’t take such abuse lying down. She pretended to go along with the plan, even as she secretly sent her daughter to signal for help. In the meantime, the Tories had made themselves a little too comfortable. They’d left their muskets lying against a wall and they’d begun to drink wine. Nancy surreptitiously began passing the muskets outside, threading them through a chink in the cabin wall. When the Tories saw what she was doing, she whipped around and pulled one of the muskets on them, warning them not to move.

One moved anyway, which proved to be a fatal mistake. “[T]rue to her threat,” one early historian reports, “she fired and shot him dead!”

Nancy then held the rest of the men at gunpoint until her husband and other militia arrived. Shooting the Tories was too good for them, she thought. She convinced the men to hang the Tories instead.

In 1912, a shallow grave with six sets of bones was found near Nancy’s old homestead. Several of those skeletons had broken necks. Many people believe that the find proves the truth of this Nancy Hart legend, at least.

So what are we to do with stories such as Nancy’s, when the line between historical reality and legend is so hard to pinpoint?

Perhaps it’s simply worth knowing that indomitable women such as Nancy Hart existed, even if we can never know their full stories. And maybe it’s enough to know that women, as well as men, fought hard and put their lives on the line during our war for independence.

Even if they can’t be completely known, perhaps they shouldn’t be entirely forgotten, either.

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