Colonial Williamsburg® The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's Official History and Citizenship Website

CW Foundation navigation

Looking to Buy Tickets & Gifts or Book a Vacation? Click Here

Page content
Reset text sizeResize text larger

John Montour: Life of a Cultural Go-Between

In the stories of Indian-white relations in the colonial era, the Indian headmen and the colonial governors are given a prominent role. And they were key figures. They were the players who signed the treaties, and they were the people who had to persuade their communities to abide by the agreements reached.

But in the shadows behind these chiefs and governors were other individuals who were equally essential to the success of the relationship between these two very different peoples. In eighteenth-century documents, they are called interpreters because they literally translated the speeches of each into the language of the other. But they did much more. They guided colonists to Indian villages and escorted Indian delegations to colonial capitals such as Williamsburg. They carried news from place to place. They would advise both sides of the cultural divide on what would be acceptable to the other. In other words, they were cultural go-betweens, brokers, mediators, and negotiators.1

In the best of times, the cultural go-between was a true bridge between the Indian and colonial worlds. But tension between the two mounted during the 1750s, 1760s, and 1770s. As attitudes of distrust and contempt hardened, the role of the cultural go-between who hoped to keep a foot in both camps grew problematic and perhaps, in the end, even impossible. This is the story of one such go-between. His name was John Montour.

He was born in 1744. His father was Andrew Montour, a well-known métis who had Iroquois and French ancestors. His mother was a Delaware, the granddaughter of Sassoonam.2 Andrew Montour married twice and possibly three times. His was a large family. Late in the Revolutionary War, reports indicated that John was one of seven brothers or half-brothers.3 The English names of two are known: Debby, who was schooled in Philadelphia, and Thomas, who was killed during the Revolution. John Montour also had at least two sisters. Kayodaghscroony, or Madelina, was living with the Delaware in 1756, and Polly was cared for in Philadelphia in the late 1750s and early 1760s.4

The Brafferton School at the College of William and MaryJohn’s father , Andrew Montour, was one of the most important interpreters and negotiators in the Virginia and Pennsylvania backcountry in the 1750s and 1760s. Authorities in New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia employed his services. In the 1750s, Andrew Montour believed it was possible for go-betweens such as himself to truly live in both the Indian and white worlds, and he hoped that his children could too.5 To that end, Andrew Montour enrolled his ten-year-old son in the Brafferton School at the College of William and Mary in 1754 and 1755. John received further education in Philadelphia. As a result of this schooling, Montour could both read and write English and speak it correctly.6 Undoubtedly, he could speak his native tongue, Delaware, and, because of his close dealings with the Wyandot and the Mingo during the Revolutionary War, he probably spoke those languages as well. Most important, after his many years living with Anglo-Americans, John Montour knew their ways very well.

Montour had left Philadelphia by 1762 when his father announced he and John intended to open a trading store at Shamokin on the Susquehanna River. He traveled to western Pennsylvania with his father in 1770.7 By the mid-1770s, John was living on an island, named Montour’s Island, about five miles below the forks of the Ohio. John claimed the island by virtue of his father’s claim to it.8

When the war came to the upper Ohio country in 1774, the demands on cultural go-betweens grew in intensity. John Montour’s life as a go-between during the war certainly demonstrates the complexities these individuals faced. Furthermore, his wartime career seemed full of contradictions. It started simply enough during Dunmore’s War. After gathering his troops at Pittsburgh, Lord Dunmore set off down the Ohio in September 1774. The Shawnee had led Dunmore to believe they would meet him at the mouth of the Hochoching River. But when he arrived there, only White Eyes, a Delaware chief, and John Montour were waiting for him. They accompanied Dunmore during the resulting assault on the Shawnee.9 John Montour next appeared at the Pittsburgh Treaty negotiations in the fall of 1775. On September 15, the negotiators learned that two men wearing hunting shirts had shot at White Mingo, one of the important chiefs in attendance. Because this was a serious and dangerous incident, Captain James Wood, John Walker, and two other American delegates were sent out to investigate. Simon Girty and John Montour accompanied them as interpreters.10

These activities were not unusual for go-betweens, and they point to Montour’s early willingness to assist the colonists. But the situation was very different in July 1776. In the opening year of the war for independence, the Americans were very concerned that the Indians of the Ohio country remain neutral. To that end, William Wilson, an agent for Congress’s Indian Commissioners, was dispatched in July to invite the Wyandot to the second Pittsburgh Treaty negotiations scheduled for the fall of 1776. White Eyes agreed to escort Wilson to the Wyandot village near Detroit. As they passed through Wingenund’s town, John Montour joined them. They all continued on to Detroit, where British Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton confronted the travelers. He tore up the letter from Congress that Wilson was carrying and cut up the wampum belt Wilson was to give the Wyandot. Hamilton then insulted White Eyes and ordered him and Wilson to leave Detroit without delay. Montour was given no such order. He may have come to Detroit with White Eyes and Wilson, but he did not share their mission. As Hamilton reported, Montour “brought me a great Belt of friendship addressed to his Majesty by the Delaware Nation.”11

The reason Montour delivered this belt is unclear. At the very least, he signaled his current acute resentment of the Americans. In early spring 1776, while Montour was away from home, Colonel William Crawford surveyed Montour’s Island for John Marvie, Charles Syms, and Captain John Neville. This action alarmed the Delaware chiefs because they believed it was in clear violation of the 1768 Fort Stanwix treaty. Richard Butler, the American Indian agent at Fort Pitt, feared that when Montour found out what had happened, he would “paint it [the survey] to our disadvantage.”12 Delivering a belt to Hamilton certainly put Montour at odds with White Eyes. White Eyes, who favored neutrality, was the war chief of the Turtle clan and a powerful figure in the Delaware council at Coshocton. One did not want to earn his displeasure foolishly. However, that Montour presented “a great Belt” indicated that he spoke for more than just himself. Wingenund, who later openly backed the British, may have sent Montour to inform Hamilton that he and many other Delaware, such as Captain Pipe, war chief of the Wolf clan, were not part of the pro-American faction.13

In any case, Montour remained in the northern Ohio area along the Sandusky River for the next year-and-a-half openly supporting the British.14 Two events during that time make this clear. In the spring of 1777, a Daniel Sullivan, in the pay of Virginia, traveled to the Ohio country on an intelligence-gathering mission. By the end of April 1777, Sullivan had arrived at Detroit. While there he was recognized by a Mingo Indian who suspected he was an American spy. The Mingo reported his discovery to Lieutenant Governor Hamilton. At this point, Montour stepped forward and confirmed Sullivan’s identity. Sullivan was immediately imprisoned and was soon sent to Quebec. Again, Montour’s motive for backing the Mingo’s charge is unclear. But it is worth noting that in 1763, young Sullivan had been captured by the Delaware, who adopted him and raised him for nine years. Moreover, Sullivan’s cover story during his travels in the Ohio country was that he had moved back to his Delaware relatives at the start of the war. Montour’s action against Sullivan may have stemmed from incidents in their common Delaware past.15

The second key event occurred in November 1777. In April of that year, Hamilton had received permission to openly urge the Ohio country Indians to attack the American frontier. The Mingoes, who had been raiding western settlements for more than a year, stepped up their attacks. Other groups, such as the Wyandot nation, were not yet willing to declare war. However, encouraged by Hamilton, individuals and small groups of Wyandot began to raid along the frontier on their own initiative. When the Moravian missionaries among the Delaware heard of such planned attacks, they readily passed that information on to the American military at Fort Pitt. On November 16, 1777, the Reverend David Zeisberger wrote General Edward Hand that on the eighth of that month, fourteen Wyandots and two white men passed through Coshocton on their way to raid Wheeling. Zeisberger also felt compelled to note that John Montour was “in their company.”16 Montour seemed solidly in the British camp.

But suddenly he was not. In late April 1778, Lieutenant Governor Hamilton informed Sir Guy Carleton that in late January of that year, John Montour helped three Virginia prisoners escape from Detroit. They were pursued and recaptured. Had they not been surprised, Montour and the prisoners might have succeeded. They were armed and prepared to defend themselves. The Virginians, “having made so bad a use of the indulgence shown them,” were again placed in irons and were to be sent to Quebec. Montour was also confined. Hamilton released him after several weeks only because of the “earnest” solicitation of the Wyandot and Mingo chiefs that he do so.17

Why would Montour take such a risk? Even if he had succeeded and had not suffered imprisonment, he would have lost what trust Hamilton placed in him. Perhaps part of the answer can be found in the identity of one of the prisoners. The evidence strongly suggests that John Dodge, an American trader in the Sandusky villages, was one of the escapees. In his narrative of his capture and treatment, Dodge states he was captured on January 15, 1776. After several months of close confinement, he was allowed the liberty of the prison. He further states that on January 25, 1778, he and two other gentlemen had traveled out to visit some Sandusky-bound merchants and camped about two leagues (five to ten miles) from Detroit. Although Dodge claims he was on his way back to Detroit, he and the two gentlemen were surrounded by thirty to forty soldiers, seized, and returned to the jail in Detroit. On May 1, 1778, he was shipped off to Quebec.18

Although Hamilton did not name the prisoners he claimed Montour helped, the timing of their escape (visit?), the number arrested, and their fate corresponds with what Dodge related. The connection is important because John Montour and John Dodge were friends. When, in January 1779, Montour learned that Dodge had finally escaped from the British, he reportedly jumped for joy, and declared, “My friend, Dodge is alive yet!”19 When Dodge and Montour had become friends is not known, but they had known each other long enough to have developed mutual acquaintances in Detroit.20 For Montour, the obligations of friendship apparently outweighed the wrath of Lieutenant Governor Hamilton.

John Montour’s imprisonment certainly soured him toward the British. In June 1778, Zeisberger wrote Colonel George Morgan, the American Indian agent at Pittsburgh, that John Montour had returned to the Delaware villages on the Muskingum River where he was doing much good. He now spoke in favor of the United States. He especially spoke against Hamilton “everywhere.”21 Montour did not, however, stay near Coshocton. He returned to the Sandusky River Valley to live with the Wyandot.

The simplest explanation for his return to the Wyandot villages was that he hoped to keep open a line of communication between the Indians and the Americans. For example, General Lachlan McIntosh, General Hand’s replacement, wanted to march against the British at Detroit in the fall of 1778. To do that, McIntosh would need Wyandot permission to cross their territory. In the spring of 1779, Montour was instrumental in getting the Wyandot to abandon the British for a while. Meanwhile, the Wyandot were very much at war with America. They assaulted Fort Donnally in western Virginia in May 1778 and later laid siege to Fort Laurens on the Tuscarawas River in the winter of 1779.22 Montour was again living with the enemy.

There may have been other reasons why he was living with them. For example, if his wife were a Wyandot, it would have been natural for him to seek alliance with her relatives.23 He may also have been fearful that his past support for the British made it too dangerous for him to live near Pittsburgh. His friend John Dodge wrote Montour in early January 1779 that his fears were groundless; if he returned to Pittsburgh the Americans would treat him “as a friend now.” John Killbuck (Galalemend), the principal chief of the Delaware, told Montour the same thing. Montour may have believed there were other Delaware at Coshocton who wished he were somewhere else. White Eyes would have remembered his action at Detroit in 1776. In fact, it may have been that conduct that the Delaware chiefs deemed “foolish” and for which they said he was made an outcast from the Coshocton villages.24

There is a third possible reason for Montour to live with Wyandot on the Sandusky River: He may have been fulfilling a family or a clan obligation. If so, it began in February 1778. In that month, American General Hand set off on an expedition to destroy some British supplies stored at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River, but an early thaw prevented him from reaching his goal. As the army was returning to Fort Pitt, it fell upon a Delaware village, Kuskusky, on Beaver Creek, where an old man, four women, and a young boy were killed. Relatives of Captain Pipe were among the dead. Although Captain Pipe refused to take revenge then, another Delaware did.

The Delaware chiefs told George Morgan that Ché Chéas, who was driven away from Kuskusky by General Hand, was a “foolish Fellow & for revenge went & joined the Wiandot.” Furthermore they identified him as John Montour’s brother. At a council held in Detroit in June 1778, a Captain James took up the war ax against Americans from Lieutenant Governor Hamilton for himself and for the sixty Delaware living in his village. George Morgan just assumed that John Montour had persuaded Ché Chéas and Pey,mau,coo,sect, Montour’s half brother to join him, but it probably had been the other way round.25

Go to page 2

1 James H. Merrell, Into the American Woods: Negotiators on the Pennsylvania Frontier (New York, 1999), 19-41.

2 Colonial Records of Pennsylvania ( Harrisburg, Pa., 1851-53), 7:95 (Hereafter, Pa. Col. Recs.).

3 Colin G. Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities ( Cambridge, 1995), 280.

4 Pennsylvania Archives, 8 th ser. (Phildelphia, 1852-), 7:58, 53 (Hereafter, PA); Earl P. Olmstead, Blackcoats among the Delaware: David Zeisberger on the Ohio Frontier (Kent, Ohio, 1991), 228; Pa. Col. Recs., 7:95; PA, 8 th ser., 5:48, 59-60, 7:58, 53.

5 Merrell, Into the American Woods, 75-77. In 1756, the reason given for sending Montour’s children to Philadelphia was that they could “be independent of the mother.” In Delaware society it was the mother’s family who was responsible for raising the children. Removing the children from the mother clearly implies that Andrew Montour did not want his wife’s Delaware brothers instructing his children. See Pa. Col. Recs., 7:95.

6 Karen A. Stuart, “’So Good a Work’: The Brafferton School, 1691-1777” (M.A. thesis, College of William and Mary, 1984), 85; James H. Merrell, “’The Cast of His Countenance’: Reading Andrew Montour,” in Ronald Hoffman, Mechal Sobel, and Frederika J. Teute, eds., Through a Glass Darkly: Reflections on Personal Identity in Early America (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1997), 38. On speaking, see “Monforton to Lernonet, 7 May 1779,” Illinois State Historical Library Collections ( Springfield, Ill., n.d.), 1:435 (Hereafter, Ill. Hist. Colls.); “John Montour to John Dodge, 28 May 1779” in Louise P. Kellogg, ed. Frontier Advance on the Upper Ohio, 1778-1779 (Madison, Wis., 1916), 346.

7 Merrell, “’The Cast of His Countenance,’” 38.

8 “Richard Butler to Col. James Wilson, April 9, 1776,” in Peter Force, comp., American Archives, 4 th ser. (Washington, D.C., 1837-53), 5:817-818.

9 Reuben Gold Thwaites and Louise Phelps Kellogg, eds., A Documentary History of Dunmore’s War, 1774 ( Madison, Wis., 1905), 302.

10 Reuben Gold Thwaites and Louise Phelps Kellogg, eds., The Revolution on the Upper Ohio, 1775-1777 ( Madison, Wis., 1908), 28.

11 Randolph C. Downes, Council Fires on the Upper Ohio: A Narrative of Indian Affairs in the Upper Ohio Valley until 1795 ( Pittsburgh, Pa., 1940), 192-193; Thwaites and Kellogg, eds., Revolution on the Upper Ohio, 202; “ Hamilton to the Earl of Dartmouth, Sept. 2, 1776,” Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collections 10:269-270 (Hereafter, MPHC).

12 “ Butler to Wilson, April 9, 1776,” in Force, comp., American Archives, 4 th ser. 5:817-818.

13 For information about factionalism among the Delaware during the war, see Gregory E. Dowd, A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745-1815 ( Baltimore, 1992), 68-83; C.A. Weslager, The Delaware Indians: A History (New Brunswick, N.J., 1972), 282-328.

14 “David Zeisberger to Col. George Morgan, July 7, 1777” in Reuben Gold Thwaites and Louise Phelps Kellogg, eds., Frontier Defense on the Upper Ohio, 1777-1778 ( Madison, Wis., 1912), 19.

15 “Sullivan’s Deposition, Fort Pitt, March 21, 1778,” Thwaites and Kellogg, eds., Frontier Defense, 230-233.

16 Thwaites and Kellogg, eds., Frontier Defense, 164.

17 Ibid., 280-281; Kellogg, ed., Frontier Advance, 82.

18 “A Narrative of the capture and treatment of JOHN DODGE, by the English, at Detroit,” [J. Almon], The Remembrancer; or Impartial Repository of Public Events For the Year 1779 ([ London], 1779), 74, 79-80.

19 “Narrative,” Rembrancer, …1779, 81; “John Heckewelder to Col. John Gibson,” Kellogg, ed., Frontier Advance, 222.

20 “John Montour to John Dodge, Cooshackung, May 28, 1779,” in Kellogg, ed., Frontier Advance, 346.

21 Ibid., 82.

22 Louise P. Kellogg, “Historical Introduction,” in Kellogg, ed., Frontier Advance, 16-17; “David Zeisberger to Col. George Morgan, June 9, 1778,” ibid., 82; “Col. George Morgan to John Jay, May 28, 1779,” ibid., 343.

23 For mention of his wife, see “William Irvine to Maj. Gen. Lincoln, April 30, 1782,” in C.W. Butterfield, ed., Washington-Irvine Correspondence ( Madison, Wis., 1882), 168-169.

24 Ill. Hist. Colls., 1:380; “Galalemend to John Montour, January 18, 1779,” ibid., 379; “Col. George Morgan to John Jay, May 28, 1779,” in Kellogg, ed., Frontier Advance, 343.

25 Dowd, Spirited Resistance, 77; Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indias, Empries, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 ( Cambridge, Eng., 1991), 385; “Morgan to Jay, May 28, 1779,” in Kellogg, ed., Frontier Advance, 343; MPHC, 9:442-452.