Women of the Tri-Counties - Queen Esther Montour
Tioga Point on misty high water day
issue of The Towanda Review. Permission to
reprint granted by Jim Towner, Publisher.
Thanks to Dick McCracken for typing and
submitting this to the site.
by Guy Abell, Guest Columnist
To understand the story of Queen Esther, we have to go back to the period of time surrounding the American Revolutionary War.
Historical records of that time are as scarce as settlers in Bradford County were in those days, and prejudicial feelings fed the common genocide policies of that time. All of this was further stirred and mixed up by the conflict of Old World and New World politics. Whether Queen Esther was a significant historical figure, or a mere curiosity, depends on who or what you choose to believe.
The woman in question is Esther Montour (Queen Esther), who was certainly influential in the Iroquois Nation. In fact, she seems to have been related, directly or by marriage, to several of the Five Great Indian Nations. She was the descendant of several "mixed" marriages between white settlers and Indians. Perhaps because of this, she and her relatives were frequently used by colonial governments as translators and interpreters in negotiations.
Esther was born about 1720, and married a Munsee Delaware chief named Eghobund. They lived at Sheshequin (Ulster), near Cash's Creek. Sources describe her as a Christian with "proper beliefs", whatever that means, who was loyal, both to Indians, and to the English (her grandmother Madame Montour's people). In fact, the English are the ones who gave her the title "queen."
When Eghobund died in 1772, Queen Esther inherited the sole leadership of the Munsees (which is a remarkable and enviable example of equality for sexes). Apparently at this time she settled below Tioga Point (having moved from Painted Post), to what was known as Queen Esther's Town. This town on the river flats supposedly had 70 log and plank houses, including Esther's castle (a strong building of hewn planks, with a thatched roof with a covered porch). The settlement was surrounded by pastures, orchards and five miles of corn fields (enough to amaze even ambitious Master Gardeners).
There are several references to Queen Esther's friendship with, defense of and regular visits with her non-Indian neighbors. Thus, how she became the major antagonist in the vicious Wyoming Massacre in July of 1778, has raised many questions, and caused great controversy.
Conflicts between native Americans and the settlers had long occurred, and with the American push for independence, the British were often able to persuade the Indians to join their cause. A group estimated to be about 400 Tories (British) and 700 Indians assembled near the stockade at Wyoming, within the present city limits of Wilkes-Barre, in early July of 1778. It is said most of the able bodied men were away, already serving in the Continental Army, leaving boys and old men to garrison the local forts. The defenders were unable to hold back the superior numbers of Tories and Indians.
At this point the infamous Queen Esther enters the picture. The defenders were routed, and Queen Esther, angered by the recent death of her son, lined 16 American colonists around a huge stone, since known as Bloody Rock, and personally smashed their skulls with her tomahawk. A handful of captives somehow escaped, but the total casualties were indeed high, with two-thirds of the defenders killed, resulting in many widows and orphans. Supposedly, 227 scalps were taken by the Indians, and turned in to the British for $10 per scalp. If true, this was the worst massacre in Pennsylvania history.
Several accounts of the massacre exist that claim that Esther was indeed the villain. As a consequence, Esther is referred to by early historical accounts, supposedly based on eyewitness accounts, in the most negative terms. For example she is described as "the fiend of the Susquehanna," "the most infamous of all monsters" and "the most infuriated demon in the carnival of blood," some of the terms used to describe Queen Esther's cruelty. Along the same lines, Indians were usually described negatively, in early accounts as joyfully consuming the flesh of dogs before battle and wearing horrible war paint, and of course, they were always pictured as savage and inhumane.
Several accounts quote Esther as saying, "I was never so tired as yesterday from killing so many damn Yankees." She was also described as "seen riding astride a stolen horse on a stolen side saddle, place hind end forward, with 7 bonnets, one upon another upon her head, with all the clothing she could continue to get on, and overall wearing a scarlet riding cloak, carrying in her hand a string of scalps from the slaughtered friends of those who were witness of her savage brutality."
Inflammatory language like this is perhaps understandable if the "facts" are true, and the terrible deeds did occur. There is somehow, some doubt, and hindsight clearly shows a lot of exaggeration of claims in many of the early accounts.
For example, descriptions of Esther at the Wyoming Massacre do not completely match each other, or match other descriptions of Esther's appearance. Some accounts describe her as a large, heavy-built woman, while others claim she was tall and slim. There is also disagreement on how well she spoke English, some saying she was multilingual and spoke English excellently, while others claim she could barely speak the language. There is certainly doubt that she ever spoke the words about being to tired from killing so many.
There is also a question of whether she could have been at the Wyoming Massacre. The theory is that rage over the death of her son Andrew spurred her awful actions. He was killed at Exeter in the afternoon of July 2, 1778. Queen Esther was supposed to have been at Queen Esther's Town (Sheshequin) on that date. Could she have made it to the Wyoming Valley using the primitive transportation of the time and carried out the slaughter? Some claim that, going by canoe, and giving her every benefit of the doubt, it would have taken at least 36 hours to get there, and yet, she was supposedly bashing out the brains of her victims a mere 27 hours later. If this is true, she could not have been at Bloody Rock in time.
She has also been described as being meticulously neat by nature, and that throws doubt on the description of her appearance of wearing multiple hats and layers of clothes. It is also claimed the woman demanded and consumed a vast amount of whiskey at Forty Fort, and all other early accounts maintain that Esther did not drink or tolerate those who did.
However, there is no doubt a woman described as a squaw was there, and did commit atrocities. Perhaps the cause was revenge for the death of a beloved son, or rage over the policy of ethnic cleansing and Indian genocide that was common at the time, or even excessive alcoholism. There is no way to know for sure. Using today's standards, reasonable doubt seems like a fair verdict!
However, justice in the 1780s didn't want reasonable doubt to prevail. A military force, under the command of Co. Thomas Hartley was created, and started up the Susquehanna River to Tioga Point. With much hardship and difficulty, the 200-man force faced heavy rain, flooded streams, and occasional Indians. They killed several Indians near Canton (Sept. 26), almost caught another group at Leroy, and then rescued 15 prisoners in Sheshequin.
Part of the force went to Tioga to Queen Esther's Flats and burned and totally destroyed the village on Sept. 27 or 28, 1778.
The Executive Council of Pennsylvania passed a resolution thanking Hartley's troops for their successful mission. Queen Esther is believed to have escaped, possibly to Esther's Glen near Wilawana. It is said she later married a Tuscarora chief named Steel Trap and moved north with him to Cayuga Lake. There are some reports, largely discounted, that she was killed by colonial troops.
The attitude of the time was that the Wyoming Massacre and the violence that followed closed any further attempts at peaceful arbitration with the Native Americans. General Sullivan's March the following year pretty much removed any further Indian threats to Northeastern Pennsylvania. General Washington directed General Sullivan and others to "carry the war into the heart of the country of the Six Nations, to cut off their settlements, destroy next year's crop, and do them every other mischief which time and circumstance permit." That was indeed done, but that is another story.
Guy Abell is a guest columnist for The Review. He can be reached by calling *570) 265-1635. He was assisted in research by librarian Claire Bortis.
Source: The Sunday Review; Towanda, PA; August 20, 2000, page 4A.
©Copyright, August 2000; Towanda Printing Co.; Jim Towner, Publisher
Transcribed by Dick McCracken; Towanda, PA