Hart, Nancy Morgan

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Nancy Morgan Hart

Born c. 1744
North Carolina or Pennsylvania
Died c. 1841
Henderson County, Kentucky

Farmer, spy

Legend has it that Nancy Morgan Hart captured British soldiers during the American Revolution, then sang the words to "Yankee Doodle" as she watched them die by hanging.

It is difficult to separate the facts from the myths about Nancy Morgan Hart, a patriot from the American South who captured and killed Tories (colonists who were loyal to England) during the Revolutionary War (1775–83). Although some people question whether Hart ever existed, there are memorials throughout Georgia honoring her, the South's most famous Revolutionary War heroine.

Nancy Morgan was born in the 1740s, probably in North Carolina or Pennsylvania. The identity of her parents has never been confirmed. Named Ann at birth, she was always known as Nancy. Nancy Morgan married Benjamin Hart (who was related to Thomas Hart Benton [1782–1858], a famous American senator, and to the wife of Henry Clay [1777–1852], who was an American secretary of state) and the couple settled in the Broad River area of Georgia around 1771. They were living there in 1775 when the Revolutionary War broke out as America fought to gain its independence from England. After the war, they moved to Brunswick, in Glynn County, Georgia.

"War woman"

Ben and Nancy Hart were hardworking farmers who had at least eight children. They owned more than four hundred acres of land on the banks of the Wahatchee Creek, where Nancy first gained fame for her exploits. The Indian word Wahatchee means "war woman." The creek was given its name by local Indians in honor of Hart, whom they both feared and respected.

Nancy Hart has been described as a cross-eyed, redheaded woman who stood over six feet tall and smoked a pipe. She contracted smallpox as a child, and her face was pitted with scars from the illness. Writer Edith Patterson Meyer says that Hart was once described as "a two-gun woman who drank and swore [and was] admittedly ignorant of all refinements."

Captured and killed Tories

When fighting broke out in Georgia's back country during the American Revolution, Hart worked at becoming an excellent shooter. Both she and her husband were present for a battle at a place called Kettle Creek. Fighting between the patriots and the Tories, as the Loyalists were also known, was so fierce at Kettle Creek that it has been called the "War of Extermination."

During this period, outlaws and Tories wandered the Georgia countryside, stealing from and killing patriots. Men who were loyal to the cause of American independence were often forced to go into hiding. Women and children were generally spared, but they had to take care of their homes and crops in the absence of the men. While her husband was hiding from the Tories, Hart ran the family farm.

Hart was fiercely patriotic. She has been credited with capturing and killing many Tories she met on roads, in cabins, and in the forests near where she lived. According to one story, she once met some young Tories when she was on horseback, taking a sack of corn to the mill. For amusement they startled her horse, and she was thrown off. She did not respond to their act with vile language as they had expected, but soon afterward the young man who had startled her horse got a bullet in his shoulder along with a warning never to play such a trick again.

Another famous tale describes an incident that took place one afternoon when Hart and her children were making soap in her kitchen. The process involved boiling the soap mixture in a big pot. While Hart was stirring the soap mixture, one of her children noticed an eye pressed against a crack in the wall of their log cabin and discreetly alerted Hart. Hart went quietly along with her work then, suddenly, she turned and threw a ladle full of boiling soap at the crack, and a man cried out in pain. When Hart and her children rushed outside, they found a Tory neighbor who had been spying. Hart doctored his wounds and turned him over to local patriotic officials.

Spy stories

Hart was good at using herbs from her garden to cure all sorts of common ailments. She had also become a terrific shooter, and it is said the walls of her log cabin were covered with the antlers of deer she had killed. Her family dined frequently on the wild game she hunted.

There are many stories of Hart serving the Continental army by spying on Tories. One story recounts how she pretended to be a mentally deranged seller of eggs and household items when in fact, she was collecting information for the patriots. According to another tale, Georgia patriots badly needed information about what was happening on the Carolina side of the Savannah River. Hart was said to have tied a few logs together with grapevines, crossed the river, and obtained the needed information.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, southerners did not agree about Hart's exploits and questioned her existence. Some historians dismissed accounts of her life as fiction. Her descendants said otherwise.

Famous Nancy Hart tales

In 1901 Loula Kendall Rogers wrote in the Atlanta Evening Journal about another popular Hart story: "Many Tories lived on the other side of the river, opposite [Nancy's] cabin…There was a large oaken stump near her home in which she cut a notch for her gun. Concealing herself in the undergrowth around, she watched for Tories as they crossed the river, and without [any guilt or regret] shot them down, and [made a

loud noise by blowing] the conch (pronounced KONK; a sea animal) shell for her husband to deliver their bodies over to the proper authorities."

The most famous story about Hart recounts when she was doing farm chores at home with her thirteen-year-old daughter, Sukey. A group of five Tory soldiers arrived at her cabin on horseback from Augusta, Georgia, and demanded that she serve them a meal. She explained she had only one tough old turkey because Tory groups had taken the others earlier. The soldiers shot the turkey and told her to cook it. She was pleasant to them, cooked dinner, and entertained them with stories. All the while she made sure they were drinking plenty of alcohol. When she felt the soldiers were relaxed enough, she sent her daughter to the well for water.

As Sukey left on her mission, Hart told her to blow in the big conch shell that was kept by the well. The sound it trumpeted out would let the neighbors know she needed help.

The blare of the conch shell brought her husband as well as neighbors who were working nearby. Back at the cabin, while this was going on, Hart gathered up the soldiers' guns and hid them under her skirts. One by one she slid the rifles out the holes left in the walls for shooting at enemies, but her activities were detected before she could collect all the guns. She immediately picked up a rifle and held her "guests" at gunpoint. Legend has it that two soldiers went for their guns, but because of her crossed eyes the soldiers could not tell in what direction she was looking, and Hart shot them both before they could react.

The neighbors responded to the conch call and wanted to shoot the rest of the Tories at her table. Hart, who had learned that the soldiers had killed a local patriot, said that shooting them would be too good for them. Instead, the Tories were hanged from a tree behind her house. Hart is said to have sung choruses of the patriotic song "Yankee Doodle" as she watched them die.

Hart legend grows

Nancy Morgan Hart could neither read nor write, and the incident concerning the five Tories was never written down by any of the eyewitnesses. In addition, there were no newspapers published in the backwoods of Georgia to preserve tales of heroic acts. When Revolutionary War battles were fought in small communities, there were few amateur historians recording everyday events.

But historian Sallie Smith Booth pointed out: "After the war, citizens all along the Georgia frontier were relating tales concerning Nancy Hart and the stories were remarkably similar in detail… Although Nancy may not have actually performed the deeds attributed to her, many of [those who lived at the same time as Hart] firmly believed that she did."

During the 1820s, newspapers in Georgia began printing accounts of Nancy's brave deeds. During the American Civil War (1861–65), a group of women in LaGrange, Georgia, who did not have men to depend on for protection from Northern soldiers, organized themselves into a society to protect one another. They called themselves the "Nancy Harts." The state of Georgia erected a statue of Nancy Morgan Hart near the town of Hartwell and named a section of highway in her honor. Hart County in Georgia was also named after her.

The reputation of Hart's husband, Ben, seems to have suffered as his wife became famous. A story circulated that Ben Hart was a lazy man, totally dependent upon his wife for his well-being. In fact, Ben Hart took an active part in the Revolutionary War as an officer in the army. In the late 1790s, when the family moved to Brunswick, Georgia, Ben served as a judge there.

After her husband's death around 1800, Nancy Hart moved to Clarke County, Georgia, where she lived near her son, John. About 1802 she and John moved to Henderson County, Kentucky, where she remained until her death at about age ninety-three.

Remains provide evidence of Hart tale

Until 1912, the story about Hart shooting two Tories and watching as three others died by hanging was thought by many to be only a legend. But that year, when land was being leveled off for the Elberton & Eastern Railroad line, the remains of five bodies were found. This seemed to prove that the often-repeated story was true. When the skeletons were unearthed on December 22, 1912, the Atlanta Constitution reported that "the bones and teeth were in a splendid state of preservation."

In 1932 the site of the Harts' cabin and the burial site of the Tories in north Georgia were turned into a five-acre park called the Nancy Hart Historical Park. The family cabin was reconstructed on the site of the original cabin, using stones from the fireplace and the chimney of the Harts' early home. Funds for the project were supplied by the State of Georgia and the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, an organization for descendants of people who fought in the Revolutionary War. The park is now the site of an annual Pioneer Day, where the festivities include a re-creation of the events of Hart's life, a Nancy Hart look-alike contest, and demonstrations of pioneer life.

For More Information

Anticaglia, Elizabeth. Heroines of '76. New York: Walker and Company, 1975.

Booth, Sally Smith. The Women of '76. New York: Hastings House, 1973.

Garrison, Webb. A Treasury of Georgia Tales. Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 1987.

Kaufhold, Shirley, ed. The Harts of Georgia: A History of Hart County. Newnan, GA: W. H. Wolfe, 1992.

Meyer, Edith Patterson. Petticoat Patriots of the American Revolution. New York: The Vanguard Press, 1976.

"Nancy Hart and the Skeletons of Six Tories." Atlanta Constitution. December 22, 1912.

Rogers, Loula Kendall. "A True Story of Nancy Hart." Atlanta Evening Journal. October 14, 1901.

Brave Betty

In Petticoat Patriots of the American Revolution, writer Edith Patterson Meyer retells a popular tale about another brave frontierswoman named Betty Zane. Born around 1766 in West Virginia, Elizabeth "Betty" Zane was just a young girl when her parents died. After attending a girls' school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Zane moved with her four older brothers to West Virginia. There her brother Ebenezer founded the present-day city of Wheeling. She lived there with her brother in a sturdy cabin that contained a storage place for gunpowder.

During the Revolutionary War, Zane's brother Silas was in charge of Fort Henry, which was located near the family's cabin. One day when Zane was at home, Fort Henry was attacked by nearly five hundred Tories and their Indian allies. They came so swiftly that the settlers barely had time to reach the fort. When the fort's supply of gunpowder ran low, a decision had to be made as to who would venture out to the Zane cabin to get more.

Betty Zane, who could run as fast as most men, volunteered. She took off her long skirt and petticoat, sneaked out of the fort, and made her way toward the cabin. The attackers were so astounded to see a half-clothed woman approaching that Zane was able to reach the cabin before they recovered enough to fire a shot.

Inside the cabin, Ebenezer, who had returned after the rest of the settlers fled to the fort, filled a sack with gunpowder. As Betty Zane slipped out the door with the ammunition, the enemy opened fire. Four sharpshooters from the fort covered her, firing against the Tories and Indians while trying not to endanger Zane. Although she stumbled once, she was able to make it back to the fort with her precious package. The men and women inside cheered as she entered unharmed.

The powder held out for another night and day until the siege ended, and the inhabitants of the fort were safe. In comparing Zane's action with that of other Revolution-era heroines, one historian wrote that "none [was] equal to this."