Iroquois village once inhabited by Madame Montour unearthed
Digging in a farmer’s field near the West Branch of the Susquehanna River has yielded proof of a long-lost Indian village once home to “Madame” Catherine Montour, according to amateur and professional archaeologists.
Montour – celebrated traveling emissary who brought peace to American Indians and fur-trading settlers in the 18th century – has been recorded as living in Otstonwakin, a site in Loyalsock Township unearthed by a college professor and her students.
Mary Ann Levine, associate professor of anthropology at Franklin and Marshall College, has been researching indigenous peoples and Montour’s role in history.
Her work began about 2006, according to Thomas “Tank” Baird, president of the Northcentral Chapter 8, Society for Pennsylvania Archeology.
Levine will present her conclusions at 2 p.m. March 16 at the Thomas T. Taber Museum, 854 W. Fourth St., he said.
“It’s a hotbed of archeology,” Baird said of the site near Riverfront Park.
According to American Archaeology magazine, Levine has done research to “uncover and challenge unexamined assumptions about indigenous peoples, particularly hunter-gatherers, in the Northeast.”
Baird said he heard her discoveries when she spoke at the State Museum in Harrisburg in November.
Born in Quebec, as was Montour, Levine could read French archival material about Montour and reconstructed the village to get a better understanding of Montour’s role prior to the French and Indian War.
“She’s especially interested in the role women such as Montour, who was half-Algonquin and half-French, played in mediating those interactions,” Baird said.
Working with the owner of the land who plows and harvests products, her students mark grid lines and coordinate the location of each artifact and others sift soil samples from dug test pits and use metal detectors, he said.
Montour’s exploits are legendary, and her image is painted on the side of the Church Street Transportation Center, which can be seen from the Market Street side.
According to the book – History of Lycoming County by John F. Meginness, Montour was instrumental in maintaining a fragile “Long Peace,” an extended period of civility, first established by William Penn at the colony’s founding in 1681.
“Montour negotiated compromises, hosted colonial emissaries, translated for colonial governments and helped maintain peace between Native peoples and Europeans by building diplomatic bridges between cultures,” Baird said. “She could speak several languages and was brilliant and paid for her work by governors from Pennsylvania and New York,” he said.
The child of a French father and an Algonquin mother, Montour was born Isabel Couc in Quebec, around 1667. Couc grew up speaking both languages and picked up English, and Iroquoin and Algonquin dialects.
During the early 1700s, her family spent most of their time at forts Mackinac and Detroit involved in American Indian trade and in 1709, while accompanying her brother Louis to Albany, N.Y., for trade purposes, he was killed. Alone in New York, Montour found employment as an interpreter for N.Y. Gov. Robert Hunter.
Through her work, she became acquainted with an Oneida chief named Carondawna, who became her husband. Levine believes the couple may have founded the village near Montoursville, according to the magazine article.
An Indian chief in New York traveled to Shamokin, bringing Carandowana and Montour and their children with him. Sadly, Montour’s husband was killed in an Indian raid in 1729 and the widow spent her time traveling back and forth between Shamokin and present-day Montoursville, where her son, Andrew, and her niece, French Margaret, lived.
The village became vital during the settlement of what is now Lycoming County.
It was a stopping point for the Moravian missionaries, according to Meginness.
In time, Montour became an intermediary between delegates of the Five Nations Iroquois for New York Gov. Gov. Patrick Gordon and Iroquois chiefs negotiating land treaties.
Tribes thrived in the region until about 1750, when encroachment by whites drove them away, according to Meginness. Montour died in 1753.
Between wars and epidemics, such as small pox, natives fell to European diseases to which they had little resistance, Baird said.
Baird, who is working at archaeological digs to the east of Otstonwakin, realizes what Levine has discovered is historically significant.
“This is an 11th-hour news alert for archaeology,” he said.