Thursday, November 19, 2015

Nancy Morgan Hart

Somewhere in South Carolina in 1735, a girl was born to the Morgan family, frontiersmen and future patriots in the American Revolution. The girl's cousin would grow up to be the talented American general Daniel Morgan. The girl herself would grow up to fight the British and Tories (British loyalists) with unremitting fury. Her name was Nancy Morgan Hart, and there's no doubt she was a Badass Chick of History.

Even as a child, folks noticed her short fuse. She had a temper, made worse by a simmering spirit of revenge against anyone who wronged her or her family. Alas, she was no great beauty, said to be close to six feet in height, with long limbs, wiry, unruly red hair, and a face scarred by smallpox. She was also cross-eyed. Perhaps because of this, she did not marry until she was 36 years old, when she wed Benjamin Hart (whose descendants would include Thomas Hart Benton and Henry Clay). Together, the two eventually settled on fertile farmland in the Broad River valley in Georgia, building a modest cabin that would later become famous.

Nancy may not have been a glamorous woman, but she was capable! Despite being cross-eyed, she was known as an excellent shot with a rifle. She often did the hunting for the family, and even the local Native Americans, with whom she was friendly, praised her tracking and survival skills. Later, they even came up with a nickname for her: "War Woman." She certainly earned it.

Turns out, it was Nancy, not Benjamin, who "wore the pants" at home. Said to be domineering, she took complete charge of the management of the family farm and finances. Benjamin, a quiet, unassuming man, was content to let his wife manage their large family (which eventually grew to eight children!). Nancy was ably assisted by her oldest daughter Sukey. This was especially true when Benjamin was called up to join the Georgia Militia to fight the British and American Tories. By now, the Revolutionary War was in full swing and the British had moved up from St. Augustine, Florida, to capture Savannah, Georgia.

Nancy's first entanglement in the war came when, in the absence of Benjamin, she was on the family horse, taking a heavy bag of grain to the local mill. A group of Tories accosted her, knocked her from her horse, and stole it. Witnesses say she said nothing, but picked up the heavy bag and carried it all the way to the mill herself. Grimly, she filed this insult away for future retribution.

As British and Tory scouts advanced into the Georgia interior, they searched for places where a large force could ford the Broad River. They returned to base, complaining of "incessant sniper fire." According to Nancy's children, it was Nancy who pulled the trigger. She stationed herself in a tree on "her side" of the river and took pot-shots at the scouts every time they tried to cross.

Her temper was well-known, and a Tory agent went to spy on her and find proof. Sneaking up to the cabin, he peaked in through one of the many cracks in the walls. He didn't see anything too suspicious - just Nancy boiling lye to make soap. But young Sukey looked up and saw the eyes staring through the cracks. Rather than screaming or fainting, Sukey quietly pointed them out to Nancy. Without missing a beat, Nancy took a ladle-full of boiling lye and dashed it at the cracks in the wall. The spy was completely blinded. Nancy captured him and brought him to the Georgia Militia.

Probably in collaboration with militia Colonel Elijah Clarke, who learned guerrilla tactics fighting the Creek and Cherokee tribes, she went on several espionage missions herself. Thanks to her height and non-traditional looks, Nancy was able to disguise herself as a man. To avoid uncomfortable conversations, she took on the role of a mentally retarded laborer. In this guise, she was able to penetrate Tory-friendly taverns and eavesdrop, dutifully reporting to her husband or Clarke any worthwhile plans she overheard.

According to her grand-niece, Nancy was actually with the militia visiting her husband when the force was mobilized to defend the mouth of the Broad River against a British advance. Legend has it the militia had eight swivel-guns and only seven swivel-gunners. Nancy volunteered to man one herself during what became known as the Battle of Kettle Creek. Stunning British losses here helped convince the loyalists that while they could capture towns and coastal centers, it would be a tall order to penetrate the dense interiors of North America.

The most famous story about Nancy is her single-handed capture of six Tory soldiers. They were chasing a prominent rebel leader when they came across the Hart cabin. The group's officer questioned Nancy: had she seen the rebel captain? Had he taken refuge there? Truth is, he had, but Nancy wasn't telling. She said she didn't know what they were talking about. The officer clearly believed she was lying, and decided to extort a fine meal from her. She had a prize turkey that the family only used for breeding. The officer ordered the animal shot, and forced Nancy to prepare it. Inside the house, the Tories leaned their loaded rifles in a corner and set to the feast. While they were guzzling copious amounts of wine, Nancy sent Sukey out to get water from a local spring - supposedly. Sukey's real instructions were to blow a conch shell hidden in a stump, which the locals used to warn one another of outsiders. Nancy hoped her husband and neighbors would hear the call.

Meanwhile, as the Tories' attention was on the turkey and wine, Nancy secretly moved to where the rifles were stacked and, one by one, slid them out of a crack in the cabin wall. When the soldiers finally realized what she was doing, there were three rifles left. Nancy brandished one and told the intruders not to move. The officer ignored her and she shot him dead. Another soldier made a move for the rifles, but she snatched up another one and fired, killing him, too. She took the remaining rifle and held the rest at gunpoint until Benjamin and a posse of neighbors arrived. Benjamin wanted to shoot the Tories, but Nancy said hanging would serve them better. She tied all the nooses herself and watched with satisfaction as they swung from the tree just outside the cabin.

The cabin was actually swept away by floods during her lifetime, though it has since been reconstructed by the Daughters of the American Revolution. In 1912, railroad workers were clearing space to lay a track through the territory and found six skeletons buried in a line, four of which clearly had broken necks - a rare confirmation of what many considered a folk tale.

After the war, Nancy became deeply religious. Ironically, it was her temper that led her to the church. When she heard a new Methodist congregation had started nearby, she went to check them out. She found them deep in a prayer meeting, and, as was the custom in those days, the church doors were tied with a leather thong to discourage latecomers from disrupting worship. Irritated, she produced a hunting knife and hacked through the thong. She kicked the doors open and stalked into the church. Somehow during this meeting, she was saved, and spent the rest of her life "fighting the devil as hard as she ever fought the British," according to her grand-niece.

Nancy's supportive spouse Benjamin died in the early 1780s, and she went to live with her son. They moved around quite a bit, but eventually settled in Henderson County, Kentucky. That's where Nancy spent the rest of her days in peace and relative prosperity as the proud, commanding matriarch of a frontier family. She lived to the ripe old age of 95.

Now if that's not a Badass Chick of History, I don't know what is.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Catalina de Erauso, The Nun-Lieutenant

In 1592, a young girl was born to a prominent Basque family in Spain. Destined for the nunnery, she escaped a cloistered life, decided to become a man, and spent the next 20 years rampaging across the New World. And in the end, rather than be condemned for this behavior, she was praised for it. Meet Catalina de Erauso, a Badass Chick of History.

The hidalgo of St. Sebastian was her father, a well-known military man. All of her brothers joined the Spanish Army. When Catalina was four years old, her father sent her to a Dominican nunnery to be raised to enter the church as a nun. She stayed until she was 15, but for all those years she hated it and planned to escape. One day, when Catalina's mother came to attend church services at the convent, she didn't even recognize her own daughter - and that gave Catalina the germ of her idea.

A few days before she said her final vows and took up a life "behind the veil," Catalina escaped from the convent. Hiding in a grove of chestnut trees for several days, she cut her hair short and altered her clothes as much as possible to appear to be a boy. Once she was satisfied, she began her great adventures.

Living as a man, she took various jobs as a servant, a page, and a clerk, all with a view toward getting a berth on a ship bound for the New World, where she hoped to make her fortune. As luck would have it, she actually got onto the crew of a Spanish galleon commanded by her own uncle - who didn't recognize her.

Arriving in South America, she began calling herself Alonzo Dias, and joined the army. She led men to victory in several skirmishes against natives, and eventually her military opinion was often solicited by the Spanish generals. However, Catalina/Alonzo developed a terrible reputation for drinking, gambling, fighting, and general trouble-making. Said one contemporary: "(She) chose for (her) associates the most desperate and reprobate characters, and seemed to take a fiendish delight in outdoing them." 

Once, at a theater, a gentleman blocked her view. This precipitated some harsh words. Eventually Catalina stabbed him, sparking a chase that led across several towns before the authorities settled the matter. To get her out of trouble she was posted to the job of assistant to a Spanish commander. This commander turned out to be her own brother. But, despite working alongside Catalina on a daily basis, he never recognized her.

It's worth stopping to note an eyewitness description of Catalina from this time, from a fellow writing after he discovered she was a woman. "She was tall and strong, very fond of conversation. She applied an Italian medicine to her breasts to shrink them. She was masculine but appeared more like a eunuch."

Today, we'd probably say Catalina was transgendered. She was certainly gay. In fact, part of her bad reputation was based on the fact that she often "put peasant girls into compromising positions, then fled before the marriage date." 

Catalina admired her brother. She also admired her brother's mistress and attempted to seduce her. This led to a fist-fight, and Catalina was sent away to Chile to fight the Mapuche Indians in the Arauco War - one of the most savage and bloody conflicts in the history of the Spanish conquest of South America. Here, Catalina distinguished herself. A native chief captured the Spanish flag during a battle. He and several warriors fled with it. Catalina personally chased them down and re-captured the flag. She (as Alonzo, of course) was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant and given her own company to command.

But it didn't take long for her violent nature to cause a fall from grace. In the town of Concepcion, in a house of ill-repute, she got into an argument with an important man-about-town and stabbed him. His relatives came after her, so she fled. After another murder she was captured and sentenced to hang. Seemingly unfazed, she called the hangman a drunk, and, as he bungled tying the noose, she quipped "put it on right or don't put it on at all!" However, a Basque friend of hers arranged for the Spanish military to come in with what turned out to be a literal last-minute reprieve.

For a time she wandered across South America, serving as a mercenary, a sailor, even a lawyer. Eventually, she rejoined the Spanish military, where she had a second, fateful encounter with her brother. A friend asked her to be his second in a duel. Late at night, he went to meet his opponent. It was so dark, Catalina later remembered, she couldn't see her hand in front of her face. Her friend got the worst of the fight, and flouting duelist convention, Catalina jumped in to help. Her friend's second then also jumped into the fight, and Catalina stabbed him in the dark. When she realized it was her brother, she was horrified. She spent eight months in prison on charges of rebellion, but she escaped with the help of her friend, the famous explorer Juan Ponce de Leon.

Fleeing to Peru, her bad temper got her into another fight that ended up with some poor bastard dead on the end of Catalina's sword. The authorities chased her and she took refuge in a church. There, the bishop took pity on what he saw as a young male criminal. He urged "Alonzo" to repent. Moved by his pity, Catalina fell to her knees, sobbing, and told the bishop she was a woman.

He took her under his wing and arranged for her to live in a convent. She stayed there for two years. Meanwhile, the story got out. It was a sensational tale for its time. She became known as "The Nun-Lieutenant." When the story drifted back to Spain, a verse play was produced about her. So when she  got permission to return to Spain in 1624, she found a crowd waiting for her in Cadiz. Her fame (or infamy) preceded her. Wherever she went, crowds would turn out to see her. The Spanish king gave her a lifetime military pension for her service, and Pope Urban VIII (the jackass who persecuted Galileo) was so impressed with her he gave her a papal dispensation to live as a man, take a man's name, and wear men's clothing for the rest of her life.

But Catalina (now officially re-named Antonio) could not rest in Europe. She went back to the New World and became a merchant, bringing riches out of the interior to the coasts in massive, well-defended mule trains. She died there of natural causes at the age of 58.

So yeah, she had a violent streak a mile long. And she probably wouldn't even appreciate being included in a list of women. Catalina/Antonio wanted to be a man all along, and, shockingly, the King of Spain and the Pope actually let her do it. That's a rarity for its time, no doubt about it. There's also no doubt that even though she'd rather not have been a chick, that Catalina de Erauso is certainly a Badass Chick of History.