The Mystery of Madame Montour


No, fellows, it’s not that sort of “Madam.” But Madame Montour played an important role in the early 1700s as a leader of the Iroquois Indians in Pennsylvania and as a translator and diplomatic advisor for British, French, and Indian negotiators. But to learn more, we first have to travel to Ostonwakin (now known as Montoursville, PA).

My trip began just north of Harrisburg and followed the eastern bank of the Susquehanna River northward. Early on, there was plenty of mist in the mountains and floating just above the river itself.

While investigating something “on the wrong side of the tracks,” I heard a whistle in the distance. I had just enough time to scoot back across the tracks before being trapped by a slow-moving train that was easily 2 miles long!

I stopped here for a quick oil change, but I guess they weren’t open on a Sunday morning…

Ever wonder what’s inside an abandoned building like this one? Well, let’s see: rusty chains, a wooden barrel, vegetation coming in through the roof and windows, and various Implements o’ Destruction. And watch your step; a number of floorboards have migrated to the basement.

Some things never change.

This pretty hillside cemetery in Dalmatia, PA was bordered by old and new farm buildings. As it happened, by 9:00 in the morning, the shadows were still long, but the ghosts had all gone.

This monument struck me as the saddest in the graveyard, telling of Anna Wald, who passed away in 1910 at age 34 years, 4 months, and 27 days.

Speaking of monuments, I guess trains no longer carry cabooses, but these two still stand as reminders of the glory days of American railroading.

Just outside of the tiny town of Herndon, I found a matching pair of gigantic stone fireplaces, facing each other at a distance of about 100 feet. Each one stood roughly 20 feet high. Are they all that’s left of a huge hotel? A mammoth barn? An early Colonial laundromat?? I have no idea.

North of, well, Northumberland, sat this sad project coupe, waiting for someone to start restoration. Somehow, the combination of beige and pink paint, together with spreading rust, presented an attractive appearance. At least for long-time automotive aficionados such as Yr Fthfl Srvnt. How about it, guys—can you identify it? I have no idea, except that its grill seemed distinctly non-Ford.

There are many towns along the eastern shore of the Susquehanna that merit exploration. One of them is Milton, PA, complete with its mural of town history…

…stately stone mansions…

…and sky-scraping stone churches.

The mountain ridge in the distance suggests that there has been no shortage of stone in this area to use in building all these homes and churches. There was even a pretty decent hint of Fall Colors, although I think the best is yet to come.

The mighty Z4, as always, was great fun to drive on these winding back roads. With an early morning temperature of only 43 degrees, however, it was definitely on the chilly side. Fortunately, by late afternoon it was up to 76.

It’s always nice to see aging barns that are still in active use for farming.

Although I waited patiently, this little wren stubbornly refused to look at me. (I get that a lot.)

In this photo from a Pennsylvania tourism site, Loyal Sock Creek empties into the West Branch of the Susquehanna. The name “Loyal Sock” comes from the original Indian name for the creek, “Lawisahquick,” and Madame Montour’s village of Ostonwakin was situated here at the mouth of the stream.

In the photo above (from 2007), it looks easy to get to this area, but it’s not. The river bank is heavily overgrown with trees and bushes. The best I could do was to start a half mile upstream and try to clamber along the bank to the mouth. This is as far as I got. (But I had fun slipping and sliding on wet rocks and looking for arrowheads.)

Although there is a solid historical record of Madame Montour in her 50s and 60s, experts disagree on exactly who she was in the beginning. Some fairly strong evidence suggests that she was born Elisabeth/Isabelle Couc at Trois Rivières, Canada in 1667, daughter of Pierre Couc (a “French gentleman,” as she later characterized him) and his wife Marie Miteouagamegoukoue (a widowed Algonquin Indian). She is believed to have been captured by the Iroquois at about age 10 and to have been raised by them. She married a warrior named Joachim Germano in 1684 and began work as an interpreter in the 1690s, speaking French, English, and several Native American languages. Although there are no known pictures of Madame Montour, this painting by John Buxton has been used as an illustration of how she and her son Andrew may have appeared.

After Germano’s death, Madame Montour married Carondawana, a chief of the Oneidas. She may have served as a diplomatic advisor to French commander Sieur de Cadillac (who later claimed that she had had hundreds of lovers during her life). It is known that she became an advisor to Governor Robert Hunter of New York in 1710. She subsequently moved to Pennsylvania and became the “queen” or leader of the village of Ostonwakin, while also interpeting and advising for Pennsylvania Governor Patrick Gordon. Early writers have characterized her as having been “a lady in manner, style, and education,” who “mingled in the best society of Philadelphia and possessed great attractions of mind and person.” After Carondawana was killed in a battle with Catawba Indians in 1729, she focused on leading the village and raising her children, including Andrew who became a well-known interpeter and diplomat in his own right. Her daughter, “French Margaret,” became the leader of “French Margaret’s Town” on Lycoming Creek (which became Williamsport). Madame Montour is known to have died by 1753, although the exact year is not known. Montoursville is named after her, and Montour Falls, NY, Montour County, PA, and a number of other places are named for her or her descendants.

While there is much uncertainty about Madame Montour’s history, it is quite clear that she was an exceptional woman, who excelled in numerous ways and played an important role in the first half of the 18th century in New York and Pennsylvania. And, just to clear up one rumor that may have been troubling you, she was emphatically not the Catharine Montour or “Queen Esther” who helped foment, lead, and execute the “Massacre of Wyoming Valley” in 1778. The massacre, which occurred long after Madame Montour’s death, led to “The Great Runaway,” during which hundreds of men, women, and children were tortured, scalped, burned, or otherwise killed during the Indian uprising. Almost all the other settlers in this part of Pennsylvania left their homesteads for the safety of the early forts in the area. This is quite a story in its own right (see The Big Runaway, for example). We’ll settle for a picture of brave Rachel Silverthorne, who risked her own life to leave Fort Muncy and ride to neighboring farms and villages to warn of the impending disaster.

And, in the spirit of complete reporting, it is only fair to note that General John Sullivan later led an expedition that destroyed dozens of Indian villages in response. It was a tumultuous time, with numerous offenses on all sides. History shows, however, that Madame Montour led a peaceful life, devoted to improving relations between the Native Americans and European settlers.

Further along the West Branch of the Susquehanna, I came to Williamsport. Back in my car racing days, I’d driven right by Williamsport many times on my way to Watkins Glen, NY, but I’d never actually been to the city itself. I was especially interested in finding “Millionaires’ Row,” named for the dozens of mansions built in the 1800s by wealthy owners, most of whom were in the lumber business. In the 1880s, Williamsport allegedly had more millionaires per capita than any other place in the world. The start of Millionaires’ Row offers a good view of the city hall.

As promised, there was no shortage of beautiful mansions, with these being two of my favorites:

West Fourth Street (the official name for Millionaires’ Row) also offered a number of quite impressive stone churches. This one—just for my colleagues Cathy and Kim—is the First Baptist Church, established in 1854.

Most of the homes were in excellent shape and showed signs of regular maintenance and repair. This one, however, appeared to have suffered a fire or other traumatic event—but the brick walls survived, and it’s being rebuilt.

Ironically, many of the stately homes on Millionaires’ Row have been converted to student housing for the nearby Pennsylvania College of Technology. These students were very enthusiastic about the neighborhood and the opportunity to live there.

Leaving Williamsport, I next went in search of the original English settlement in what is now Little Pine State Park. Archaeological evidence indicates that Native Americans lived here as far back as 10,000 BC. The Second Treaty of Fort Stanwix led to the purchase of this area by the U.S., and by the late 1700s, John and James English had founded sawmills here. They were joined by a number of English settlers who, in 1816, founded the village of English Mills. They quickly discovered that (i) clearing the land was very difficult, (ii) farming the rocky soil was even harder, and (iii) the winters were downright brutal. After some years, they all moved to more promising areas, leaving only a small cemetery—all that’s left of English Mills. Along Little Pine Creek, I saw occasional signs of prior civilization.

With fairly little effort, I found a cemetery at the northern end of Little Pine State Park and got a few pictures before driving further north to the town of English Center. But I was puzzled by the number of graves marked “Carson” and also by the significant number of graves dating into the 1900s.

Approaching English Center, I was looking for the 1891 steel suspension bridge that crosses English Run and leads into the village. I knew it looked something like this:

Sure enough, it still looks more-or-less identical to the old photo:

Several cars drove over the bridge while I was taking pictures. Interestingly, if not reassuringly, the bridge’s various squeaks, groans, and vibrations continued for several moments after the vehicle had left the bridge itself. A nearby sign helpfully suggested that only one truck should cross the bridge at a time.

Retracing my steps southward, I further enjoyed the scenery offered by Little Pine Creek…

…while I thought some more about the English Mills cemetery. I decided (correctly, as it turned out) that I must have found the wrong one. After talking with a very helpful park ranger, I learned that I’d been to the Carsonville town cemetery. And with her directions, I found the English Mills cemetery, which is smack in the middle of the park’s camping area.

The state park itself was beautiful, and even featured a cleverly carved Jack o’ Lantern:

Little Pine Creek soon led back to Waterville and then on to Lock Haven, where I easily found the Piper Aviation Museum.

William Thomas Piper was born in 1881, served in the Spanish-American War and World War I (graduating from Harvard in-between), and didn’t get started in the airplane industry until he was almost 50. He quickly became known as the “Henry Ford of aviation” and produced more airplanes during his lifetime than anyone else in the world. He became a pilot at 50 and received his multi-engine rating in a twin-engine Piper Apache at 74. He was strong enough to single-handedly lift the tail of a Piper Cub airplane off the ground—a feat that he loved to demonstrate to amazed onlookers.

The museum was fascinating, and I could have spent several hours there. As it was, I managed to arrive only 20 minutes before closing time, so a return trip is definitely in order. The Piper J3 Cub is the “Official airplane of the State of Pennsylvania.” Bill Piper’s original factory burned shortly after he bought out Taylor Aircraft and began his own production. Insurance covered 5 percent of the plant’s value, but he built a new plant at Lock Haven from an abandoned silk mill and continued on.

The Continental and Lycoming flat-four engines that powered the Cub and many other Piper aircraft have more than a passing similarity to BMW motorcycle engines, being air/oil-cooled, horizontally opposed “boxer” motors.

Figuring that the more pilots there were, the greater the demand would be for his planes, Bill Piper offered flight instruction at the factory for $1.00 an hour, including the plane and instructor. Many men and women came to work at his factory from across the country primarily to learn to fly. How’s this for complicated aircraft controls and instrumentation? Piper claimed that he was a terrible pilot, but that even he could fly a Cub.

Roughly 5,000 Piper airplanes were used during World War II for reconnaissance, directing artillery bombardments, and other functions. General Dwight Eisenhower had his own personal “Grasshopper” and used it to inspect battles by air. In addition to numerous Piper aircraft and one or two other planes, the museum has a small collection of classic cars, including this Pontiac.

For former car racers like me, this box of leftover Aeroquip fittings was a real eye-catcher.

Bill Piper passed away in 1970. Two years later, the catastrophic flooding from Hurricane Agnes led to the demise of the Lock Haven factory. (Remember the picture of the Piper Museum? The water reached well into its second story.) Production continued in Florida, but Bill’s sons sold the company in 1977, and it’s been through a series of owners ever since. Piper continues today, having overcome many financial and other challenges over the years, including (knock on wood) the recent economic recession.

Ironically enough, before marrying my father, my mother earned her solo pilot’s license in the 1930s, in a Piper Cub. And my wife, as a high-school graduation present from her father, received an introductory flying lesson in a Cub. (At the end of the lesson, she enthusiastically proclaimed, “The heck with college—I want to learn to fly!) Long may the company prosper.

As I left the museum and motored through Lock Haven, I passed the Heisey Museum (too late to visit)…

…and reached the town hall before realizing that I’d been to Lock Haven before. The Intrepid Buzz (my college roommate) and I had motorcycled through here almost exactly 3 years earlier, but we hadn’t been to the museum side of town (see The Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania.) So it’s a small world after all.

As the sun began to set, and since I was still 150 miles from home, I motored off quickly. But of course I had to stop for this beautiful old farmhouse…

…and the train station at Lewistown Junction, lit by what was left of the evening sun.

Safely back home, I reflected on the more than 300 years of Pennsylvania history that I’d encountered during my 482-mile trip. It only scratches the surface of all that’s happened in the Mid-Atlantic area over this period—and it’s undoubtedly nothing compared to the unrecorded Native American history dating back to prehistoric times. Oh for that time machine… In the meantime, perhaps a Piper Cub would fit the bill!

Rick F.


Written by Rick

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