Madam Montour, a Great Woman of History

Madame Montour
Madame Montour

In 1772, Northumberland County comprised what we now know as Northumberland, Columbia and Montour Counties. As the Susquehanna Valley grew with new settlers a demand arose for the erection of additional counties. Columbia and Montour Counties were taken from Northumberland County and organized as Columbia County on March 15, 1813. The county seat was in Danville. The citizens of Bloomsburg and surrounding areas felt driving to Danville was to far to do County business and on February 24, 1845 an act was passed to move the county seat of Columbia Co. to Bloomsburg. County citizens in the lower part of the county were now unhappy; it was too far to travel when they needed to do business at the county seat.  In 1848, Valentine Best, publisher and editor of the Danville Intelligencer newspaper was elected State Senator comprising of Columbia and Luzerne counties. Through political maneuvering allowed the bill to create Montour County to pass by one vote and on May 3, 1850 Gov. Johnston signed the bill erecting the County of Montour and making Danville the county seat.

How was Montour County named? Most history books say the county was named after Madame Montour but in a few others I have read it was named after her son, Andrew. Personally I feel that it was Madame Montour, but who was she? There are many stories and myths and what I write here is probably only partially correct. Elizabeth Isabelle Catherine Marie Couc, was born at Three Rivers, Canada in 1667. Her father, Pierre Couc was a Frenchman and her mother Marie, was from the Algonquin Nation. Elizabeth had one brother and two sisters.  According to one story Elizabeth was only a child of ten when she was seized by anti-French raiders. One source states Elizabeth was seized in 1694, another source states it was about 1677. If the date 1694 is true, her birth date had to be closer to 1685 and at that time it is said she was already married and living among the English. Ransomed by her brother in law, Maurice Menard, Elizabeth accompanied him to Forts Mackinac and Detroit where he was an interpreter. In late 1706, when the acting commander of Detroit deserted his post to live in the woods, she went with him and it was said she had “for a long time led a scandalous life with said commander”.

At the same time her brother Louis also left Detroit and went to New York where he conducted the trade business with the western Indians in Albany for the French Governor of Canada. Here Elizabeth joined her brother in the English colony until in 1709 when Louis was killed by order of the Governor for alienating the Indians beyond Montreal. About this time she married Roland Montour. Roland and Elizabeth had four children, Andrew (also called Henry), Robert, Lewis and Margaret. After the death of her first husband Elizabeth married the Oneida Chief, Carondowanen or ‘Big Tree’. Since the Oneidas only used one name she continued to use her own name and called herself Madame Montour. Another source mentions Elizabeth also used the name Madeleine and this is why she decided on Madame. This is not true; Madeleine was the wife of Marurice Menard.  On a war expedition to South Carolina in 1729, Big Tree was captured by the Catawaba and put to death. Madame Montour bitterly opposed the French and various attempts were made by the French Governor to have her removed to Canada. This move never happened and Madame remained loyal to the English, to their great advantage.

Historic records show that Madame Montour served as an interpreter and intermediary in 1711 at Albany between the Royal Governor of New York and the leaders of the Five Nations. In 1727 she preformed a similar service in Philadelphia between the settlers and Indian leaders of the Conestogas and the Susquehannocks, both tribes from south eastern Pennsylvania.  Again, in 1744 she acted as an interpreter at a meeting held in Lancaster which resulted in a treaty with the Susquehannocks of that area.  The Iroquois Chieftain, Shikellamy and Conrad Weiser, a German settler had become good friends were also interpreters and aided the settlers in the area. Madame Montour was in frequent contact with the men due to their business with the English. In his diary on 1727, Weiser described Madame as “a French Woman by birth, of a good family but now in mode of life a complete Indian”.

Available records indicate that each of Madame Montour’s sons were given a grant of land by the Penn Proprietaries of that day. These grants were located in the area of Montoursville. It is believed the grants were bestowed in recognition of the friendliness and valuable assistance given to the colonists by Madame Montour and her sons, especially Andrew.

Sources differ regarding the later years and death of Madame Montour. One source states that she died in 1745 at the home of her niece Margaret in Shamokin, the present Sunbury. Margaret also may have been her daughter. Another source lists her place of residence at the mouth of the Loyalsock Creek, near present Montoursville in a village, called Otstuagy where she lived with Margaret. The village was an important stopping point for the Moravian missionaries, who were spreading the gospel throughout the wilderness of Pennsylvania during the 1740s. The date of her death is given as 1752.

Where ever she lived, when ever she died, she was a woman of great character, a woman before her time. She has been honored for her service to the ‘English’ by having towns, counties and mountains named for her.

My sources for this story came from the “History of Montour County 1769-1969’ by Fred W. Diehl and ‘Forgotten Facts of Montour County’, a W.P.A. project in 1936. An additional source is from a woman I met through researching one of my great, great grandfathers. When she learned I was from Montour County she told me she is an ancestor of Madame Montour’s brother in law, Maurice Menard. She kindly sent me her research on Madame Montour which I used heavily writing this article. As has been said before, it truly is a small world.