Madame Montour

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Madame Montour
Born 1667 or c. 1685
Canada, New France
Died c. 1753
Occupation Interpreter, diplomat, local leader
Spouse(s) Carondawana, an Oneida chief, possibly others
Children Andrew Montour, possibly others
Relatives "French Margaret", Nicholas Montour, "Queen Catharine" Montour, "Queen Esther", John Montour

Madame Montour (1667 or c. 1685 – c. 1753) was an influential interpreter, diplomat, and local leader of French Canadian and probably Native American ancestry. Although she was well known, her exact identity is unclear because her contemporaries usually referred to her only as "Madame" or "Mrs." Montour. She may have been Isabelle (or Elizabeth) Couc, a Métis born in 1667, or perhaps Isabelle Couc's niece, who was born around 1685 and whose given name is uncertain.

In 1711, Madame Montour began working as an interpreter and diplomatic consultant for the province of New York. Around 1727, she and her husband Carondawana, an Oneida, moved to the province of Pennsylvania. Her village, known as Ostonwakin, was near the modern borough of Montoursville, which was named for her.

Montour's son Andrew Montour also became an important interpreter, as did his son John Montour. Some of Madame Montour's female relatives were also prominent local leaders, and have often been confused with her.

Identity debate[edit]

Much is uncertain about Madame Montour's early life. In 1744, Witham Marshe met the "celebrated Mrs. Montour" at an important treaty conference held in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.[1] When asked about her background, Montour told Marshe that she had been born in Canada to a French gentleman. She claimed that she had been captured by the Iroquois about fifty years earlier (i.e. around 1694), when she was about ten years old, and that she did not remember much about her parents. She had been adopted and raised by the Iroquois, she said, and had eventually married an Iroquois war captain, with whom she had several children before his death in battle.[2]

The vague details of Madame Montour's life resulted in much speculation, mythmaking, and confusion. She has often been confounded with her female relatives, particularly Catharine Montour. Historians have long attempted to separate fact from fiction and piece together her life.

In 1974, historian William A. Hunter tentatively identified Madame Montour as Elizabeth Couc, a Métis born in 1667 near Trois-Rivières, New France, in what is now Quebec, Canada. Elizabeth Couc was a daughter of Pierre Couc dit Lafleur (1627–1690), a French-born fur trader and interpreter, and Marie Miteoamegoukoué (1631–1699), a Christian Algonquin woman.[3] Hunter conceded that some of the evidence connecting Madame Montour with Elizabeth Couc was "vague and contradictory".[4] He accepted that Madame Montour had been captured by an Iroquois war party around 1695, but if she was Elizabeth Couc, she was much older than ten at the time.

Subsequent historians explained the discrepancies by suggesting that Madame Montour was deliberately vague about her past, perhaps to conceal her humble birth or Indian ancestry, which allowed her to present herself as a genteel French woman, albeit one in Indian dress.[5] Elizabeth (or Élisabeth) Couc probably went by the name of Isabelle, the French form of Elizabeth; the two names were then interchangeable.[6] Historian Alison Duncan Hirsch uncovered a record from 1711 that lists payments to "Eysabelle Montour interpretress", the only known reference to Montour's first name in an English document.[7] Isabelle Couc presumably had an Algonquin name too, but it is unknown.[8]

Other historians have argued that Madame Montour was not Isabelle Couc, but rather her niece.[9] According to this interpretation, Montour was born in an Indian village near modern Sorel, Quebec, around 1685, a year consistent with the story that she told Marshe. Her parents were Louis Montour, who was the brother of Isabelle Couc, and a Sokoki (Western Abenaki) woman named Madeleine.[10] If Madame Montour was born in 1685, her birth apparently went unrecorded, and her first name is uncertain.[11] It has been given as been Catherine, Elisabeth/Isabelle, and Madeleine.[12]


If Madame Montour was Isabelle Couc, she led a colorful life before beginning her career as an interpreter for the British. In 1684, Couc married Joachim Germano, with whom she had at least one child.[13] By the 1690s she was living in Michilimakinac with two of her sisters and their husbands, who worked as interpreters. Isabelle may also have worked as an interpreter for Sieur de Cadillac, the local French commander. Cadillac would later claim that Isabelle led a "dissolute life", and had more than one hundred male lovers.[14] When Cadillac moved the French garrison to Fort Detroit in 1701, Isabelle evidently relocated there with her new husband, Pierre Tichenet. She became involved with Étienne de Veniard, Sieur de Bourgmont; when he deserted the fort in 1706, she fled with him.[14]

Perhaps around 1708,[15] Madame Montour married an Oneida war captain named Carondawana. (If Madame Montour was Isabelle Couc's niece, Carondawana was probably her only husband.) The couple had a son named Andrew Montour, who would become a well-known interpreter. Because Iroquois kinship terms were not exactly equivalent to European ones—a woman's niece might be described as her daughter, for example—there is some confusion about Madame Montour's other children.[16] Another boy, Lewis Montour, was possibly her son, or perhaps her nephew.[17] "French Margaret" Montour, a woman often described as Madame Montour's daughter, may have been her niece.[18]

In the simplified family tree chart shown below, the names in green are the two women who have been identified as Madame Montour. Andrew Montour is connected on the chart to both of his potential mothers. Similarly, because it is uncertain if French Margaret was Madame Montour's daughter or niece, the chart illustrates both possibilities.

Pierre Couc dit Lafleur
Marie Miteoamegoukoué
Madeleine Louis Montour
(c. 1659–1709)
Isabelle Couc
(b. 1667)
Marguerite Couc
(b. 1664)
Jean Baptiste Couc
(b. 1673)
(b. c. 1685)
Andrew Montour "French Margaret" "Queen Esther" Michael Montour
John Montour Nicholas Montour "Queen Catharine"

Career in New York[edit]

The first Montour to come to prominence was Louis Montour, who was Madame Montour's brother or father. Born Louis Couc, he adopted "Montour" as his surname in the 1680s.[19] During King William's War (1689–1697), Montour and other Indians in Canada fought against British-allied Iroquois from the province of New York. It was at this time that an Iroquois raiding party may have captured his daughter, the woman who, according to some interpretations, became "Madame Montour".[20]

Louis Montour relocated to Michilimakinac in the 1690s, where he worked as a fur trader.[20] After King William's War ended, he began to facilitate trade between western Algonquians and merchants in Albany, New York. This lucrative enterprise diverted profits from New France to New York, and promoted diplomatic ties between the Iroquois and the western nations.[21] Officials in New France saw this as a threat, and in 1709, during Queen Anne's War, Governor Vaudreuil had Montour assassinated.[22]

After Louis Montour's murder, Madame Montour emerged as his successor. Although she evidently could not read or write, she was valuable as an interpreter, able to speak French, English, and several languages in both the Algonquian and Iroquoian families.[23] She was also an ideal cultural intermediary, with family connections throughout the region. According to historian Jon Parmenter, Madame Montour's role as a "behind the scenes" consultant was even more important than her work as an interpreter.[24] When Robert Hunter became governor of New York in 1710, Madame Montour became his personal interpreter and one of his most trusted advisers. Her husband Carondawana even took the name "Robert Hunter" to honor the governor.[25]

Although Madame Montour served as an interpreter through the 1710s, there are few records of her activities at this time.[26] In 1719, she petitioned New York for back pay, although with Governor Hunter's departure in 1720, she may not have received it. According to historian Alison Duncan Hirsch, the wording of an official recommendation about Montour's salary "has been misread to mean that she was asking to be paid the same as a man".[27]

Life in Pennsylvania[edit]

Otstuagy - Madame Montour's Pennsylvania Village
Map showing the location of Otstuagy - Madame Montour's Pennsylvania Village
Otstuagy - Madame Montour's Pennsylvania Village
Map of the U.S. state of Pennsylvania showing the location of Madame Montour's village of Otstuagy
Location Montoursville, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Nearest city Williamsport, Pennsylvania

At some point, Madame Montour and her family migrated to the province of Pennsylvania. Exactly when and why she moved is unclear. She may have been traveling between New York and Pennsylvania as early as 1714, when her husband Carondawana was appointed as the Iroquois spokesman for the Shawnees living in Pennsylvania.[18] By 1727, she and Carondawana were living at Ostonwakin, a village also known as Otstuagy or French Town.[28] The site of previous Native American villages, Ostonwakin was located along the Great Shamokin Path, at the important confluence of Loyalsock Creek with the West Branch Susquehanna River, near the modern borough of Montoursville.[29]

Because of her knowledge of Native American affairs, Montour's advice was sought by Pennsylvania officials and private traders. She first appears in the Pennsylvania historical record in July 1727 as an interpreter at a council in Philadelphia between Governor Patrick Gordon and an Iroquois group.[30]

Madame Montour and Carondawana had a close relationship with Shikellamy, a noted Oneida diplomat who benefited from the couple's cultural and linguistic expertise.[31] In 1729, Carondawana was killed fighting against the Catawbas, traditional foes of the Iroquois.[32] After her husband's death, Madame Montour was gradually excluded from Pennsylvania diplomacy by Shikellamy and his associate Conrad Weiser, who wanted to keep tight control of the province's relationship with the Iroquois. After 1734, she no longer appeared at councils in an official capacity.[33] She retired to her village, where she concentrated on raising her son Andrew Montour to be an interpreter and diplomat.[34]

Madame Montour met several Moravian missionaries who were spreading the gospel throughout Pennsylvania during the 1740s. Count Nicolaus Ludwig Zinzendorf, bishop of the Moravian Church, visited Ostonwakin in 1742 on his journey to Onondaga, the Iroquois capital.[35] He delivered a sermon in French, during which Madame Montour reportedly wept.[34] Montour asked Zinzendorf to baptise two Indian children, but he declined, explaining that the Moravians did not perform baptisms in a village without first establishing a mission there. "She left me displeased", wrote Zinzendorf.[35]

In 1744, Montour attended the treaty of Lancaster, where she told her story to Witham Marshe, as described above. Marshe, like others, got the impression that Montour was a white French woman captured by and raised among the Indians. Historian Alison Duncan Hirsch argued that the captivity story Montour told to Marshe was a fiction she created to reinvent herself.[36]

By 1745, Madame Montour had left Ostonwakin and was living with Andrew on an island in the Susquehanna River near the Native village of Shamokin.[37] In March 1746, Andrew took her west, across the Appalachian Mountains to Logstown on the Ohio River. She was reportedly going blind by that time. This was her last appearance in the historical record, aside from a brief statement made by trader John Harris in January 1753: "Madame Montour is dead."[38] Exactly when and where she died is unknown.


Madame Mountour's village was located here at the mouth of Loyalsock Creek on the West Branch Susquehanna River

Madame Montour has numerous descendants, and many Iroquois people still carry the Montour name.[39] Montoursville, Pennsylvania, which was founded near the site of Ostonwakin, was named for her.[40] Montour County, Pennsylvania, and Montour Falls, New York, are just two of the places named for her descendants and relatives.

Montour's role as interpreter and cultural go-between was continued by her son, Andrew Montour, who shared his mother's gift for languages. He worked as an interpreter for Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Sir William Johnson's Indian Department. Andrew Montour was appointed as a captain in George Washington's regiment at Fort Necessity during the French and Indian War. He was granted 880 acres (3.6 km2) of land by Pennsylvania in the Montoursville area. He left Montoursville at some point and moved to what now is Juniata County before finally settling on Montour's Island in the Ohio River near Pittsburgh.[41]

Madame Montour may have had another son, Lewis (or Louis) Montour, whose Indian name was apparently Tau-weson[42] or Tan Weson.[43] He may have been her nephew rather than her son.[17] Little is known about him. He served as a messenger, and was reportedly killed in the French and Indian War.

Madame Montour's daughter or niece, Margaret, sometimes known as "French Margaret", became the leader of French Margaret's Town, an Indian settlement at the mouth of Lycoming Creek just a few miles up the West Branch Susquehanna River from Madame Montour's village. Margaret Montour's daughter Catharine Montour also became a noted local leader, and many 19th century historians confused her with Madame Montour.


  1. ^ Parmenter, 141.
  2. ^ Parmenter, 141–42; Sivertsen, 94. See Witham Marshe's Journal, Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society (Boston, 1801), 1st series, 7:189–91.
  3. ^ Hirsch, 84; Sivertsen, 96.
  4. ^ William A. Hunter. "COUC, ELIZABETH? (La Chenette, Techenet; Montour)". Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Retrieved 2007-03-09. 
  5. ^ Hirsch, 96; Sivertsen, 95–96.
  6. ^ Hirsch, 85n11.
  7. ^ Hirsch, 93.
  8. ^ Hirsch, 84.
  9. ^ Charles A. Hanna, The Wilderness Trail (New York, 1911), 1:200, was perhaps the first to argue that Madame Montour was the daughter of Louis Couc, and thus Isabelle Couc's niece. Hagedorn (p. 44) and Parmenter (p. 143) support that view.
  10. ^ Parmenter, 143–45; Hagedorn, 308n1.
  11. ^ Parmenter, 147. Although Parmenter's article is entitled "Isabel Montour", in the text he says that her given name in unclear, and only refers to her as "Madame Montour".
  12. ^ Hirsch, 83.
  13. ^ Hirsch, 87–88.
  14. ^ a b Hirsch, 90.
  15. ^ Hirsch, 93n43
  16. ^ Wallace, 569.
  17. ^ a b Parmenter, 147.
  18. ^ a b Hirsch, 97.
  19. ^ Hirsch, 87.
  20. ^ a b Parmenter, 143.
  21. ^ Parmenter, 144.
  22. ^ Parmenter, 144–45. See also Daniel K. Richter, The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization (University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 224–25, where the man assassinated in 1709 is identified as "Alexander Montour, the son of a French officer and a Mohawk woman".
  23. ^ Hirsch, 82n2, 92.
  24. ^ Parmenter, 146-49.
  25. ^ Hirsch, 94; Parmenter, 147.
  26. ^ Parmenter, 150; Hirsch, 94–95.
  27. ^ Hirsch, 96.
  28. ^ Not to be confused with the nearby French Margaret's Town; see John Franklin Meginness, Otzinachson: A History of the West Branch Valley of the Susquehanna (rev. ed., Williamsport, PA, 1889), 1:94. Ostonwakin is also spelled Otstonwakin.
  29. ^ Hirsch, 97–98.
  30. ^ Hirsch, 98.
  31. ^ Parmenter, 152–53.
  32. ^ Parmenter, 153.
  33. ^ Parmenter, 153–55.
  34. ^ a b Parmenter, 155.
  35. ^ a b Hirsch, 105.
  36. ^ Hirsch, 96, 106–07.
  37. ^ Hirsch, 107.
  38. ^ Hirsch, 109–110.
  39. ^ Parmenter, 156.
  40. ^ Donehoo, Dr. George P. (1999) [1928]. A History of the Indian Villages and Place Names in Pennsylvania (PDF) (Second Reprint Edition ed.). Lewisburg, Pennsylvania: Wennawoods Publishing. p. 290. ISBN 1-889037-11-7. Retrieved 2007-03-07. ISBN refers to a 1999 reprint edition, URL is for the Susquehanna River Basin Commission's web page of Native American Place names, quoting and citing the book 
  41. ^ Meginness, John Franklin (1892). |chapterurl= missing title (help). History of Lycoming County, Pennsylvania... (1st Edition ed.). Chicago, IL: Brown, Runk & Co. ISBN 0-7884-0428-8. Retrieved 2007-03-07. (Note: ISBN refers to Heritage Books July 1996 reprint. URL is to a scan of the 1892 version with some OCR typos). 
  42. ^ Hirsch, 109n80.
  43. ^ Sivertsen, 110.
  • Hagedorn, Nancy L."'Faithful, Knowing, and Prudent': Andrew Montour As Interpreter and Cultural Broker, 1740–1772". In Margaret Connell Szasz, ed., Between Indian and White Worlds: The Cultural Broker, 44–60. University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.
  • Hirsch, Alison Duncan. "'The Celebrated Madame Montour': Interpretess across Early American Frontiers." Explorations in Early American Culture 4 (2000): 81–112.
  • Merrell, James. "'The Cast of His Countenance': Reading Andrew Montour." In Ronald Hoffman, et al., eds., Through a Glass Darkly: Reflections on Personal Identity in Early America, 13–39. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
  • Parmenter, Jon. "Isabel Montour: Cultural Broker on the Eighteenth-Century Frontiers of New York and Pennsylvania." In Ian K. Steele and Nancy Rhoden, eds., The Human Tradition in Colonial America, 141–59. Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly Resources Press, 1999.
  • Sivertsen, Barbara J. Turtles, Wolves, and Bears: A Mohawk Family History. Westminster, Maryland: Heritage Books, 1996. ISBN 978-0-7884-0484-9.
  • Wallace, Paul A. W. "Madame Montour". In Edward T. James, ed., Notable American Woman, 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary, 2:568–69. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 1971.