Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

A vision hangs over the Wyoming Valley of Northeastern Pennsylvania and over the long course of the Susquehanna River beyond the New York border. This vision is that of a gray-haired figure with a face of light tan, lined from age and the cares of a hard life. The eyes are wide and darkly cruel, and the mouth is agape in a terrifying scream. The slim but commanding body, slightly bent, is clothed in a jacket of animal skins, fringed at the hem and adorned with small brooches of silver and necklaces of pure white cowrey shells and bone beads. A blue cloth skirt covers leather pantalettes with small bells sewn to them. Stockings and moccasins complete the dress. The hands are raised high in tight fists and the feet are set, one behind and aside the other, in menacing defiance.

The figure is a partly real, partly fictional portrait of an Indian woman named Esther Montour. Also known as “Queen Esther: Fiend of Wyoming,” she lived during the latter two-thirds of the eighteenth century. In the light of the current reinterpretation of the historical role of women and of the American Indian, the life of this Indian woman needs to be reviewed.

Not only does Esther deserve historical reevaluation, but the environment from which she arose and the events with which she is associated make an exciting story. The Montours are traced back to the Canada of the French. Her great grandfather, Louis Montour (“my castle”), son of a French fur trapper and an Algonquin woman, married a Huron woman. Their daughter, who called herself Madame Montour, and her son Andrew, by her Oneida Chieftain husband, moved into English America. They became inter­preters and emissaries among the British and the many Indian tribes of Northeastern America. Montour County and Montoursville on the West branch of the Susquehanna River, where they resided, are named in memory of their services to the white settlers. Madame’s daughter, known as French Margaret, married a Mohawk chieftain, Peter Quebec, and had several children, among them Catherine and Esther. The genealogy might be slightly different in the sense that the children of one’s sisters were considered one’s own by the Indians of this area. Thus within Esther flowed the blood of a French white man and several distinct Indian tribes.

The role of Madame Montour as diplomat added yet another cultural strain, the English, and placed her grand­daughter at the center of those European imperial forces contending for the rich, fertile lands of America. Esther would grow to maturity during the period when the British would triumph over the French and then the tribes would witness the events that led to the War for Independence by the colonists. Like the Indians themselves who fought bitterly for territorial possession, the colonists were split between Pennsylvania and Connecticut citizens over rights to the northern half of what is now the state of Pennsyl­vania. Esther, who could sense, along with her comrades, the encroachment of the settlers on their lands, remained loyal to the small band of Munsee Delawares she inherited from her chieftain husband, Egohowin, then to the English of her grandmother.

Esther was in some ways different from other Indian women. She was of mixed blood and had the title “Queen.” This name was given to her by the English who recognized her tribal leadership by using a term derived from their own experience. She was unlike the royalty of Europe in that her position as spokesman depended more on the consent of the governed than theirs. Further, the realm over which she held sway constantly changed and while it was rich in natural resources, it afforded few luxuries, since existence itself was achieved only through hard labor. Her sister, Catherine, who married a Seneca chief, was also called Queen as a result of her husband’s position.

Another distinction of Esther was that she retained the name of her male ancestor, Montour. It was common Indian practice to give the child the name of the mother’s clan, because of the certainty of maternity as opposed to paternity. Despite these apparent prerogatives the life of all Indian women was harsh. Although the male carried the mother’s name, it was the warrior who determined after marriage the destiny of his family.

Although life was difficult for the Indian female, living in the forest in all kinds of weather without the con­veniences of modern society, trying to get enough food to eat, was a demanding task for everyone in the tribe. The woman had to do her share or starvation or freezing would be the result. Thus, she seldom complained, going about her work without question. Mothers taught daughters to do their chores as they had been told.

When marriage was to occur, two methods were used. Either the groom’s mother would bring to the bride’s family venison hunted by the groom, or if there was no one to ask for him, he would step forward on his own. Without ceremony, the couple would agree to live together until one or the other decided to leave. Most often it was the hus­band who exercised this choice, but he would stay as long as she behaved well and especially if they had children.

At the time of marriage, the man had to build a house, bring the axes and hoes, make a canoe and provide the bowls and dishes. The woman brought the kettle and kitchen furniture to her new home.

The Indian wife tried hard to please her mate because he was the provider of the meat for his family with his skill and his ability and because he was their protector with his strength and courage. The Indian husband did try to please his wife as well. Often he would go out before breakfast to hunt for meat for her to prove that he could be a good provider. It was not unknown that when she was sick or going to have a baby, he would travel for miles to find a delicacy that would please her.

While the Indian man spent most of the year hunting or warring, the woman had a variety of jobs. About six months of the year during the spring, summer, and fall, she tilled the soil, planted the corn, tended the fields, har­vested the grain, and pounded it into meal. All year long she brought the firewood and tended the fire, made the bread and sewed the clothes. Her work was made somewhat easier by frolics where all the women of the village would tend each other’s fields in turn, being fed by the family being served, and singing and exchanging gossip. During the winter, the women had little to do except to keep the fire going, to cook, and to take care of the children, usually four or five in number on the average. The women did not scrub their homes or often wash their clothing.

The warrior could always ask his mate to go on the hunt with him. He would tell her when they were going, how long they would be away, and where they were going. She would pack their goods. It they were walking, she would carry the pack on her back from a headband. She carried the load so that he could keep his strength up for the hunt. In her pack she had blankets, deerskin for moccasins, kettles, bowls, spoons, some bread, corn, and salt. When on the hunt, her job was to take care of their goods, dry the meat, put up tallow, dry the animal skins after scraping them, gather wild hemp and collect bark for dyeing. When they came back from the hunt, she cared for the skins and often was responsible for bartering them for goods her family needed, and items to please her mate. He would observe her at some distance while she traded to ascertain she did a good job.

In the spring, the women would collect the sap from the maple for sugar. Whatever cornmeal or maple sugar she made belonged to her husband and he could give it away if he wanted to, to widows or orphans or to his friends. If he did so, she could not complain.

Indian husbands and wives minded their own business. He would come home from the hunt alone and say, “I’m back.” and she would say, “I’m glad.” She would never ask what happened on the hunt. She had to wait until he had told all of his male friends and then she could listen. She talked mostly about his children, for it pleased him to hear how well they had behaved while he was gone. He liked to see his wife well-dressed because that indicated to the tribe that he was a good provider and hunter. At the frolics, however, the wife had her opportunity to gossip about her husband, often talking graphically about his abilities as a husband as well as provider.

Husband and wife never quarreled. If she made him unhappy, he would leave and not tell her where he was going. It would be embarrassing to her to be asked by the other women where he was and she would not know. If the separation were to be permanent, he would take his be­longings.

Women of the Iroquois Confederacy often participated in the selection of delegates to the tribal council and could influence the vote, even though they were at the fringes of the meetings. The matrons of the chief’s family, who with certain tribes exercised complete power over the affairs of the communal Longhouse, had a significant role in choosing his successor. It is important to note that the political and social role of the women did vary according to tribal custom and to area.

Two other actions with which the Indian woman was associated were very unpleasant and led to the legend of Esther. The women mourned for those who had died, especially for those killed in battle. Their wailing served to arouse in the warriors the spirit of revenge. The women also took care of the captives in wartime, sometimes making them slaves to help with their chores. If the captives were to run the gauntlet, it was the women who raised their clubs and sticks.

After the death of her husband in 1772, Esther estab­lished her people on the North branch of the Susquehanna near Tioga Point, at present day Athens, Pennsylvania, in Bradford County. Her town on the river flats consisted of 70 log and plank houses surrounded by five miles of pas­tures, orchards, and cornfields. The peace of her existence in harmony with the few white settlers in the area and with nature was shattered in 1778 by the march south of the British Maj. John Butler and his Indian allies. He intended to capture or destroy the exposed Yankee settlements in the Wyoming Valley that sent troops and supplies to Wash­ington’s army.

According to the story, the Yankee militia marched forth from Forty Fort, badly outnumbered on July 3, 1778, and were routed by Butler’s rangers. The Wyoming “massacre” occurred when the captives were tortured mer­cilessly and slain. One episode in this tragedy, which be­came famous throughout the colonies and in Europe for its savagery, involved an Indian woman. On the night after the battle, she presided over the execution of about a dozen settlers by having their heads held to a circular rock while she crushed their skulls with a stone maul.

An argument has been carried on since that terrible day over the identity of the woman so brutal in her hatred as opposed to the often pictured gentle female. Many of the settlers who survived the attack named Esther as the villainess. They relate that Esther’s son had come to the area of the battle the day before in the wake of the passage of the British and Indian troops. He was killed by a scouting party of the Yankees, and to revenge the death of her and a chief’s son, Esther arrived to claim her toll at the rock. Defenders of Esther, including a family she had held as prisoners long before the battle, state that the Queen of the Munsees was a Christian, always wearing a cross around her neck. Her background and previous acts they believed, would have prevented her from being a murderer. Other supporters argue that Esther was too far away to have made the trip in time to participate in the slaughter after re­ceiving news of her son’s death. They suggest that Queen Catherine, her sister, was a much more likely candidate and could have been mistaken for Esther on that shocking day. Also, Catherine’s husband of the warlike Senecas was at the battle and she was known to have a taste for alcoholic spirits. Perhaps no one will ever be certain of the guilty party.

Although the Battle of Wyoming gave the British and Indians a temporary advantage, the war was indeed lost. As happened, so many times when the American Indian seized a victory, such as at Little Big Horn of later years, the reac­tion on the part of the white man, spurred in part by colo­nial propaganda, led to a hastening of the Indians’ ultimate defeat. General George Washington dispatched a large force under the command of Maj. Gen. John Sullivan. This army burned and ravaged the settlements of the Iroquois nation all the way to Fort Niagara. breaking the power of that ancient confederacy forever. Esther’s town was destroyed by an advance force of Sullivan’s army but the tribe had al­ready abandoned the settlement.

Queen Esther then vanished from the written records of the area. Some say she hid her people in the heavily­-wooded ravines of the Northeastern mountains. Others contend that she joined her sister in the lake region of New York, occasionally visiting her old haunts.

Although the final resting place of her physical body is unknown, perhaps to be discovered by the archaeological digs in the area, her vision still lingers in Northeastern Pennsylvania. It is a remarkable figure who embodies the ancient culture of our land, along with the historical record of the birth of the new American nation of white European settlers. This woman played a crucial role in that birth far beyond her act of personal, and tribal revenge.


Indian Artifacts can be seen at the Tioga Point Museum, Athens, Pennsylvania



Harvey, Oscar Jewell, A History of Wilkes-Barre, 3 vol. Wilkes-Barre, 1909.

Hunter, Mimi, “Queen Esther,” Unpublished paper written under the direction of Mr. Bugbee, Wyoming Seminary, Kingston, Pa., 1965.

Heckwelder, Rev. John, History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighboring States, Philadelphia: Arno Press Reprint, 1971.

Murray, Elsie, Esther Montour in Pennsylvania Folklore, Athens, Pa.: Tioga Point Associates, 1958. Reprinted from Northum­berland County Historical Society Proceedings, vol. xxii, 1958.

Murray, Louise Welles, A History of Old Tioga Point and Early Athens, Pennsylvania, Athens, Pa., 1908.

Wallace, Paul A., Indians of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1970.

Murray. Louise Welles, ed., Notes from Collections of Tioga Point Museum on Sullivan Expedition, 1779, and its Centennial Celebration, 1879, Athens, Pa., 1929.

Witthoft, John and W. Fred Kinsey, III, eds, Susquehannock Miscellany, Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Com­mission, 1969.

“The Wickedest Woman in American History and How Esther Montour, Half-Breed Queen of the Savage Delawares Inspired the Wyoming Valley Massacre.” Official Souvenir Sesqui-Cen­tennial of the Battle of Wyoming, 1778-1928. Wilkes-Barre: Wyoming Historical and Geological Society, 1929.


Dr. John W. Furlow has done extensive research and writing on women in Pennsylvania history.