When Native American Women First Met Europeans

by Margaret Zierdt

The roles women have played in history have often been overlooked.  We know little of the impact women had in the early days of contact between native people in the "new world" and European colonists.  Here are a few individuals to help us remember and honor the native women in our collective past.

First Americans provided generous assistance and sharing with the colonists.  Without this help, the early colonies probably would have failed.  Indian women taught the European adventurers how to cook corn cakes, lobsters, and baked beans, and how to remove the woody hull from shelled corn by soaking it in wood ashes.  These hospitable natives also showed the colonists how to tap maple trees and make maple syrup.  (Beard. On Understanding Women. p. 43-44)

Emissaries and Friends
First American women were influential in other ways, too.  The perils faced by Virginia gentlemen were eased when 12-year-old Pocahontas saved John Smith from the justified wrath of her father, chief Powhatan, late in December 1607.  The next year, as emissary of her father, she secured the release of several Indians held as prisoners of the English.  Further contacts with the settlers included her kidnapping by Captain Samuel Argall, instruction in English customs and religion, and baptism as "Rebecca."

In 1614, Pocahontas married John Rolfe, a widower 10 years her senior.  With their son Thomas and about a dozen other natives, they sailed to England in 1616 where she was received by King James I and Queen Anne.  Unfortunately, Pocahontas died just before the ship was due to sail home to America, and she is buried in Gravesend.  Thomas survived to produce many descendants on both sides of the Atlantic. (NAW vol. III, p. 78-80)  John Rolfe, however, failed to include Thomas in his will. (Bullough. The Subordinate Sex. p. 295)

The marriage of Pocahontas and her appearance at court did not establish a precedent for future alliances.  Before they left England, the colonists were warned by the Virginia Company officials that marriage with the “heathen” would jeopardize the success of the venture.  However, there is much evidence that sexual unions were quite common.  As wives, Indian women were not as equipped as European women were to spin, weave, churn, make cheese, and brew ale.  However on the frontier, the conditions were very different and the assistance of Indian wives was invaluable. (Bullough. The Subordinate Sex. p. 296)

Pocahontas was not the first Indian woman entertained by London society leaders.  That honor may be held by an Abenaki known to us only as “Mrs. Penobscot.”  She sailed from Maine with Captain Weymouth and four other members of her tribe in 1605.  Mrs. Penobscot learned English and was received at court.  Her full-length portrait in Elizabethan dress is part of the National Trust in England.  The Abenaki representatives made favorable impressions on their hosts.  Sir Ferdinando Gorges “observed in . . . all their carriages manifest shows of great civility far from the rudeness of our common people."  During their three year stay, the Abenaki briefed the English on the “goodly rivers, stately islands and safe harbors those parts abounded with,” as well as identifying important Indian leaders and describing how to maintain friendship and assistance with the tribes. (A.L. Rowse, “New England in the Earliest Days,” pp. 23-26)

Women tribe leaders met the settlers in negotiations for peace and also fought them in wars.  The widow of the leader of the Indian Confederation met with the Massachusetts colony leader in 1620.  In 1643, she and four other chiefs signed a covenant with the British.

King Philip of Spain had some support from women leaders of other tribes in his war against the English.  In 1671, Awashonks ruled the region now called Rhode Island. Although she had promised to stop fighting the British, she joined Philip in 1675 for a year but then withdrew.  The same year, Wetamoo, the sachem widow of Pocasset, joined Philip with her 300 well-provisioned warriors.  They attacked 52 of the 90 existing towns.  Treachery in the Indian ranks led to her defeat by the colonists.  In 1676, she and her last 26 warriors were captured.  Wetamoo escaped but drowned in the attempt.  When her body was recovered, her head was put on a pole by the victorious settlers in sight of the 26 warriors.

Respect for Women
Earlier in 1676, Mary Rowlandson, wife of a clergyman, was captured by the Narraganset tribe in February and held until ransomed for £20 in May.  During the raid on the frontier village of Lancaster, Massachusetts, 12 settlers were killed and 24 captured.  Rowlandson and her 6-year-old daughter sustained bullet wounds.  Her daughter died but Mary’s wounds responded to native treatment with oak leaves.  She was attached to the household of Wetamoo where her skill at sewing and knitting probably saved her life and gained respect and affection from her captors.  In 1682, she wrote about her captivity in a best-seller which had 30 editions. (NAW)

Of her treatment, Rowlandson wrote:

I have been in the midst of these roaring lions, and savage bears, that feared neither God, nor man, nor the devil, by day and by night, alone, and in company; sleeping, all sorts together, and not one of them ever offered the least abuse or unchasity to me in word or in action.

This behavior, perhaps quite surprising to Europeans, was also noted by General Clinton a century later.  He wrote that the Iroquois “never violated the chastity of any woman, their prisoners.” (Terrell, p. 102)  Both statements demonstrate the esteem in which women were held.

Not long after these martial events in Massachusetts, Pamunkey, widow of Totopotomio, helped subdue the rebellion in Virginia led by Nathaniel Bacon.  She was called Queen Anne by the Virginia colonists and her achievement was rewarded by Charles II who sent a silver crown engraved “Queen of Pamunkey.”


Early Diplomats
The ban against inter-racial marriages in Virginia and neighboring colonies apparently did not extend north into Canada or south into Georgia.  Remarkable women from such unions include Madame Montour and Mary Musgrove.

Madame Montour  (c. 1684-c. 1752) was the daughter of a French settler and an Algonquin woman.  Her first name sometimes appears as Madeleine or Catherine, however these names more likely apply to mother and daughter, respectively.  Her first husband was a Senecan and her second was an Oneida chief.  With him and other chiefs, she met with Governor Hunter of New York and, as interpreter, she persuaded the Five Nations not to join forces against the British.  For this service, each of “the four independent companies” in New York agreed to pay her a man’s wages thereafter.
Madame Montour performed another valuable service for the British as interpreter in Philadelphia between the Iroquois and Governor Gordon in 1727-28.  Her skill as interpreter again was needed in 1734 and 1744.  Widowed once more in 1729, Madame Montour settled on the Susquehanna River near the town now called Montourville.  This town, Montour County, and Montour Mountain honor her work and that of her son Andrew who commanded a company of Indians on the English side of the French and Indian War. (NAW)

Mary Musgrove (c. 1700-c. 1763) met James Oglethorpe when he arrived in 1733 to found a colony in Georgia.  At that time she and her husband ran a prosperous trading post.  Her mother was the sister of a Creek chief and her father an English trader (name unknown) from South Carolina.  When she was about 7 years old, her father took her to South Carolina where she was educated and changed her name from Coosaponakeesa to Mary.  She returned to her Indian family in 1716 and there met and married the English agent John Musgrove.  She aided Oglethorpe as interpreter and emissary and was able to establish friendly relationships between Indians and the English.  Mary Musgrove was able to thwart the efforts of both French and Spanish to gain favor with the Indians.  She recruited Indians and paid them herself to fight the Spanish and she spied on the Spanish at the Florida border. (Wertheimer. p. 20)  When Oglethorpe left Georgia in 1743, he gave her £200 and a diamond ring.

After the death of John Musgrove in 1739, Mary married Jacob Matthews and later Thomas Bosomworth.  The Creeks granted her three islands and land near Savannah.  However the English proved resistant to her requests for payment for services and land.  She and Thomas went to England to press her claims in 1754, and in 1759 she was paid £2,100 and St. Catherines Island. (NAW)

After the Revolution

A Cherokee woman, Nanye’hi (c. 1738-1822), head of the Woman’s Council and member of the Council of Chiefs, sought to establish a “chain of friendship” between her people and the colonists in the southeast.  Unfortunately, the views of the women were not implemented.  After the death of her Cherokee husband, Nanye’hi married Bryant Ward and it is as Nancy Ward that she aided the settlers during the American Revolution.  She saved the life of William Bean's wife, who had been captured by the pro-British Cherokees in 1776. 

From her friendship with the settlers, Nancy Ward learned how to make butter and cheese, and she introduced cattle and intensive farming to the Cherokees to strengthen their economy.  As late as 1817 she urged the Cherokee Council not to give up any more land to the Americans.  New Indian leaders did, however, sign treaties and sold their land, and in 1835 the Cherokees were transported to the Southwest.

After the Revolution, visitors to Indian tribes tried to introduce spinning and weaving of thread to Indian women as a means of imposing “proper” roles where men would then assume their “proper” role of cultivating crops.  The women would become the creators of clothing and would be dependent upon the men for food. (Norton. p. 18)

One of these visitors, the agent Benjamin Hawkins, was considered an eligible mate for a widowed Creek woman in 1797.  When he announced to the tribe that, when married, he would make all the decisions concerning his wife and her children and they would obey him in his demands in order to “make a happy family,” negotiations collapsed because no Creek woman’s husband was going to direct his wife and children. (Norton. p. 94-5)

Another colonial woman, observing Iroquois society in 1789, couldn't help but express amazement upon learning that the greatest compliment that could be paid to a young Iroquois brave was that “he is as wise as an old woman.” (Norton. p. 118)

Many First American women continued to aid their people in the four centuries since first contact with Europeans.  They have sometimes been able to keep alive parts of their own culture as they embrace some ways of their oppressors.  They have become guides, doctors, artists, potters, weavers, educators, and public officials.  The unique traits of equality and respect that were integral to tribal customs of many tribes were not, however, incorporated in the laws and Constitution of the new republic.

Notes & Bibliography
Beard, Mary. On Understanding Women. New York: Longmans, Green and Co. 1931
Bullough, Vern L. The Subordinate Sex. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 1973
Diner, Helen. Mothers and Amazons. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books. 1973
Niethammer, Carolyn. Daughters of the Earth. New York: Macmillan Publ. Co. 1977
Norton, Mary Beth. Liberty’s Daughters. Boston: Little, Brown and Co. 1980
Notable American Women, 1607-1950. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard Univ. Press. 1971
Rowse, A.L. “New England in the Earliest Days,” in American Heritage. August, 1959
Terrell, John U. and Donna M. Terrell. Indian Women of the Western Morning. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books. 1976
Wertheimer, Barbara. We Were There. New York: Pantheon Books. 1977