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Aboriginal Women of America


We find among all the accounts of the aboriginal women of North America that the status of these women was much better before the advent of the white settlers. The Indians were divided into what was known as jens, organized bodies of consanguineal kindred, and these into tribes. Different customs prevailed in the different tribes. The early settlers divided them into what was called the Five Nations, and in many of these the line of descent was through the mother. The father was so little considered that the children would not provide for him if he became disabled or too old to make proper provision for his family. The life of a woman was rated at a higher value than that of a man and we have Father Raguneau's statement that among the Hurons thirty-five gifts were considered compensation for the death of a man and forty for the death of a woman. Women frequently took part in the councils of their nation, and, we are told, frequently led the warriors to battle. There is even an account of a woman having been made chief of her tribe, "Queen of Pamunkey," who was the widow of Totapotamoi, a great Indian chief in the Virginias. She had been summoned to the council to give a promise of assistance, and is described as a woman of commanding appearance and of intellectual powers, remarkable in her race.

 We also read of "Queen Esther," who was a noted Indian woman and took a prominent part in the massacre of Wyoming, in 1788. She was a half-breed woman. Her mother, Catherine Montour, had been captured by the Senecas, and it is told that she was sent to the council of the Indian commissioners and delegates from the Sixth Nation, held at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1744, and was made much of by the ladies of Philadelphia. During the Wyoming massacre the name of Mrs. Mary Gould, wife of James Gould, is mentioned for conspicuous heroism.

Pocahontas ~ 18th Century depiction

A noted character, and the one with which we are the most familiar, is Pocahontas, the daughter of Powhatan. Everyone has read of her saving the life of John Smith. It remains a debatable question even to this day whether it was her love for him, or because she desired to adopt him as her brother, which was permitted in those days by the Indians to those captured, which made her exert herself so conspicuously in his behalf. Suspicion by many historians has been cast upon the wily chief Powhatan, who might through Smith's adoption have opened an avenue for the establishment of more friendly relations with the whites. Some years later Pocahontas was herself captured by one Captain Argall, who bought her from some Potomac Indians, and it is stated the price paid was a copper kettle. Soon after her capture she married John Rolfe, and was taken by him to England. Here she again met Captain Smith, who showed scant appreciation of her sacrifices for him. After she was presented at the Court of King James, she was given the name of Lady Rebecca. She died in England, in 1617, leaving one child, by Rolfe, and it is said that through this child her blood flows in the veins of some of the best families in Virginia.

In the Seminole War, Osceola, the great chieftain, was the son of an Indian woman by a white man by the name of Powell. Little is known of his mother except that she was a very remark-able character, and it is believed it was through her influence that her son was selected as chief.

Before the dawn of the last century the influence and power of these aboriginal women among their tribes was fast disappearing and the position of woman retrograding. To the lowering of the standard of morality was largely due her changed position. We find among the Pueblo Indians, however, that the matter of divorce was in the discretion of the woman. At the time of the occupation of North America by the English and French, there was a very remarkable Indian among the Ottawas, Pontiac, who was not only the chief of his own tribe, but had made other tribes acknowledge him as their leader. After the defeat of the French on the plains of Abraham, the English took possession of Detroit and the Indians were so harshly treated that great trouble arose and the Indians threatened to drive out their new rulers. The Indians proposed to capture Detroit, which was then a fort and not a city. The plans for the attack were fully agreed upon and Pontiac was to call a council with Major Gladwin who was in command of the fort at Detroit, and here by a signal from Pontiac all the officers were to be murdered and the entire garrison meet a like fate, or that of captivity. Among one of the tribes was a girl named Catherine, with whom Major Gladwin was in love. She, having heard of the plans of Pontiac and his followers, went to her lover, told him of the plot on the part of the Indians, and the entire garrison was saved, the Indians being taken instead. Through this girl's loyalty to her white friends, the English supremacy in North America was saved.

Sacajawea ~ Bird Woman

We have a story of another Indian whose services to the white settlers were invaluable, that of Sacajawea, known as the "bird woman." She was made a captive by the Black Feet when a child and sold into slavery by them to a Frenchman, one Chabonneau. When Lewis and Clark reached the Mandan villages, they found this Indian woman, who acted as their guide and interpreter along the Upper Missouri across the divide into the mountains, until she finally again found her own people, the Shoshones, who through her gave their services to the explorers further on toward the Pacific. One of the most valuable services rendered by this woman was that of saving the valuable records and instruments of these explorers. The story which has lived in song and poetry of Hiawatha is sup-posed to have had its foundation in fact.

Women of America

Source: The Part Taken by Women in American History, By Mrs. John A. Logan, Published by The Perry-Nalle Publishing Company, Wilmington, Delaware, 1912.

Images: Wikipedia


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