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Nancy Morgan Hart (1735-1830)
Georgia frontierswoman Nancy Morgan Hart was a legendary hero of the American Revolution who made it her mission to rid the Georgia territory of British Loyalists (Tories). According to various accounts, she captured six, killed one, and oversaw the hanging of five others. She also served as a spy.
A good deal of folklore surrounds Hart’s story. Born Ann Morgan in either Pennsylvania or North Carolina around 1735 (little is known of her actual birth date); Hart was called “Nancy”, a nickname for Ann. She was said to be an imposing, red-headed woman who grew to be six feet tall and muscular. Hailed for her fearlessness, local Cherokees referred to her as “Wahatche” or “war woman.” Possibly a relative of frontiersman Daniel Boone, she was illiterate but knew much about frontier survival. She was a skilled herbalist, hunter and an excellent shot, despite being cross-eyed. She married Benjamin Hart at the late age of 36, and in the 1771 the couple settled along the Broad River in Wilkes County, Georgia. She had six sons and two daughters.
During the Revolution while her husband was away, Hart managed their farm, though she often snuck off to spy on the British. Dressed as a man, she would enter British camps pretending to be feeble-minded to gain information, which she handed off to the Patriots. Hart also engaged in the war and may have been present at the Battle of Kettle Creek on February 14, 1779.
The British frequently stopped at the Hart house, keeping an eye on the patriotic woman. In one instance, Hart’s daughter noticed a Tory spying through a hole in the wall. Hart was making soap and threw a boiling ladle-full through the crack, scalding the spy. She and her daughter then tied him up and turned him over to the Patriots.
Hart’s most famous act involved five or six British soldiers, who killed her last turkey and demanded that she cook it for them. She devised a plan to get the soldiers drunk on her corn liquor, take their guns and hold them captive. Hart sent her daughter Sukey to get some water and to use a hidden conch shell to alert neighbors of the British presence. While the soldiers ate and drank, Hart began sneaking their guns out through a hole in the wall. Caught holding the third gun, she drew it and threatened to shoot. When a soldier rushed at her, she killed him and wounded another; the rest surrendered.
When her husband returned, Hart was holding the British soldiers at gunpoint. They, along with neighbors, hung the soldiers from a nearby tree. In 1912, six bodies were found buried near the Hart home, believed to have been those of the British soldiers, giving credence to the Hart legend.
In the late 1790s, the Harts moved to Brunswick, Georgia, where Benjamin died around1800. Hart then returned to Broad River, but found her cabin had been washed away. She settled in Henderson County, Kentucky in 1803, near her son, until her death at roughly age ninety-three. In the 1930s. the Daughters of the American Revolution erected a replica of the cabin, using some of the original stones. A Georgia county, city, lake, and highway are all named for the state’s most famous female Revolutionary War hero.
–edited by Debra Michals, Ph.D.
Hart was well connected through family ties to other prominent figures in early American history. She was a cousin to Revolutionary War general Daniel Morgan, who commanded victorious American forces at the Battle of Cowpens in South Carolina on January 17, 1781.
According to contemporary accounts, “Aunt Nancy,” as she was often called, was a tall, gangly woman. She was rough-hewn and rawboned, with red hair and a face scarred by smallpox. One early account said that Hart had “no share of beauty—a fact she herself would have readily acknowledged, had she ever enjoyed an opportunity of looking into a mirror.”
Hart was said to have a feisty personal demeanor characterized by a hotheaded temper, a fearless spirit, and a penchant for exacting vengeance upon those who offended her or harmed her family and friends. Many remembered that she, rather than her husband, ran the Hart household. They had a total of six sons and two daughters. Although she was illiterate, Hart was amply blessed with the skills and knowledge necessary for frontier survival; she was an expert herbalist, a skilled hunter, and an excellent shot.
According to one account, during the Revolution, a group of five or six Tory soldiers came by the Hart house looking either for food or a Whig they were pursuing (accounts vary). The soldiers demanded that Hart cook them one of her turkeys, and she agreed to feed them. As they entered the cabin, they placed their guns by the door before sitting at her table to eat. As they were drinking and eating, she pushed their guns outside through a hole in the wall of the cabin. After the soldiers had been drinking a sufficient time, she grabbed one of the remaining guns and ordered the men to stay still. One ignored her threat, so she shot and killed him. Another made a move toward the weapons, and she killed him as well. She held the remaining Tories captive until her husband and neighbors arrived. According to legend, her husband wanted to shoot the soldiers outright, but she demanded that they be hanged, which was accomplished from a nearby tree.
The various versions of this story provide different details. But in 1912 construction crews working on the Elberton and Eastern Railroad in the area found evidence that seemed to validate the legend. While grading a railroad site less than a mile from the old Hart Cabin, the workers found five or six skeletons buried neatly in a row. A few of the skeletons’ necks were broken, which suggested they had been hanged. They were determined to have been buried for at least 100 years.
Mrs. Louisa H. Kendall was the niece of John Hart, the son whom Nancy lived with in later life. Kendall wrote a letter in 1872 recalling some of the stories her uncle had heard from his mother. According to this letter, once when Nancy was taking a bag of grain to the mill, a band of Tories forced her off her horse and threw the grain to the ground. Undaunted, Hart picked up the heavy bag and walked the rest of the way to the mill. Nancy Hart was said to have acted as a sniper, killing Tories as they came across the Broad River.
McIntosh quotes a Mr. Snead, who was also related to the Harts. He said that one time during the war, Nancy was cooking lye soap in her cabin when her daughter discovered a spy looking through a crack in the wall. Hart threw a ladle of the boiling soap into the spy’s eyes, went outside and tied him up, and turned him over to the local Patriot militia.
Two accounts say that Nancy dressed as a man in order to enter Tory camps, where she could overhear talk and observe the layouts and other elements of military value.
According to folklore, the local Native Americans referred to her as “Watcher,” which to them meant “War Woman”, and named a creek for her. But many scholars dispute this, as there were records of the Cherokee name for the creek prior to the war. In addition, the late 19th-century ethnographer James Mooney noted, “Several cases of women acting the part of warriors are on record among the Cherokee.”
George Rockingham Gilmer, twice governor of Georgia before 1850, knew Hart personally. In an account of early settlers which he published in 1855, he wrote that she became “religious” after the War:
“A Methodist society was formed in her neighborhood. She went to the house of worship in search of relief. She found the good people assembled in class meeting, and the door closed against intruders. She took out her knife, cut the fastening and stalked in. She heard how the wicked might work out their salvation; became a shouting Christian, fought the devil as manfully as she fought the Tories . . .”
During the late 1780s, the Harts moved to Brunswick, Georgia. (Some accounts suggest that they may have spent time in Alabama and South Carolina as well). Benjamin Hart died shortly thereafter. Nancy Hart returned to the settlement on the Broad River, but found that a flood had washed away their former cabin. Eventually she settled with her son John Hart and his family along the Oconee River in Clarke County near Athens. Around 1803 John Hart took his mother and family to Henderson County, Kentucky, where they settled again near relatives. Hart spent the remaining years of her life there. She was buried in the Hart family cemetery a few miles outside of Henderson.