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Madame Montour: A woman beyond her time

Courtesy of ExplorePahistory.com /via GOOGLE Better Life, by John Buxton; a portrayal of Madame Montour, left, and her son, Andrew.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Today the Sun-Gazette debuts a weekly history series that tells the stories of those who came before us. Watch for it on Mondays starting Jan. 16.)

Madame Montour lived between two worlds, one of European settlers and the other of Native Americans who inhabited the region during the colonial period.

She could speak multiple European and Native American languages and became an interpreter and diplomat to assist settlers and natives in creating treaties.

“No doubt about it, she was a woman beyond her time,” said Thomas “Tank” Baird, a local historian.

Though she had a knack for language, she was illiterate and signed treaties with an “X” rather than her name, according to Alison Duncan Hirsch, an American studies and history professor at Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg. Her findings are on display at the Thomas T. Taber Museum.

Since Madame Montour could not read or write, she left no personal journal entries documenting her experiences. Everything historians have learned about her came from accounts from people she met on her journeys across New York and Pennsylvania.

Her family name lives on in the borough of Montoursville, which was named after her and her son, Andrew Montour, in 1820, according to Ray Harmon, vice president of the Gen. John Burrows Historical Society in Montoursville.

Madame Montour, also known as Isabelle Couc, was born in 1667 in Trois Rivieres in Canada, according to Hirsch. Her father, Pierre Couc was French and her mother was an Algonquian Indian.

Before she arrived in present day Montoursville, she traveled from her home in Canada to places such as Detroit, Michigan; Albany, New York; and Philadelphia.

She and her brother, Louis Montour, were on a trip leading a group from Detroit to Albany when Louis was murdered, according to Hirsch. She led the rest of the trip.

In honor of her brother’s death, she took his last name as her own.

Madame Montour was married multiple times. Her first husband was Joachim Germano, a fur trader, and the second was Pierre Tichinet, a guide in Detroit. Her life as an interpreter did not truly blossom until she met her third husband, Carondowanna, an Oneida chief.

They met in 1710 in an Oneida village near Albany, according to the book “Madame Montour and the Fur Trade” by Simone Vincens.

That same year, she was hired by New York Gov. Robert Hunter as an interpreter to help him and the Iroquois tribe discuss territory and commerce. That was her first experience as an interpreter and it turned out to be a success, according to Vincens.

Being half-French and half-Algonquian, she “fit into both worlds comfortably,” Baird said. She learned many languages, incuding French, German, English and the language of the Iroquois and other dialects.

By understanding the languages and customs of the settlers and the natives, she made it easier for the two groups to come to agreements on treaties, Baird said. She was able to interpret so there were no mistakes.

In that era, the Europeans wanted to speak with men when it came to treaties and they thought women should take a backseat, he said.

“To have her interpreting and acting as a diplomat and that she was sought after by Europeans tells you about her character,” Baird said. “She must have been very intelligent.”

“Her status was an unusual one even for that time,” he said.

Eventually, the role of a female interpreter would fade and the Europeans chose to speak with the male chiefs of tribes, he said.

In 1727, Madame Montour and Carondowanna moved to Otstonwakin, a Native American village near where the Loyalsock Creek meets the Susquehanna River.

Two years later, in 1729, her husband was killed in battle against the Catawba tribe. Afterward, she looked out for the village, Baird said.

Madame Montour died in 1753.

In addition to creating a name for herself, her son Andrew Montour became a well-respected interpreter, diplomat and warrior, Baird said.

In 1768, William Penn gave Andrew Montour 880 acres of land, which encompassed present-day Montoursville. He sold 570 acres of the land to Gen. John Burrows in 1812.

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