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Early American Women

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Colonial America was a violent, complicated place, with ethnic and racial issues as people and nations met, fought, were enslaved, accommodated each other, and brought imperial ambitions to isolated parts of the world. Yet, little of this is recognized by the general public and that’s especially true for the lives of women. The historian Sarah Pearsall is here to help:

“Nir nir nir,” that is,“me me me,” cried the woman, when Anishinaabe (Algonquin) men attacked her Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) village in the early seventeenth century. Her voice was nearly lost in the dark chaos swirling around her. It was so hard to make herself heard above the din of whooping warriors, firing arquebuses, barking dogs, and crying babies. She was desperate. She was also determined. She knew that she possessed something that marked her out and could save her from capture, slavery, violence, even death. Although she was now a woman of the Haudenosaunee, she had been a girl of the Anishinaabeg.

“Nir” was the single word she could remember from an Anishinaabe childhood that had ended when Haudenosaunee warriors took her captive. She thus repeated that word, “with all her might,” to make her would-be captor aware that she was in fact one of them. “This word saved her life.” In pronouncing that single syllable, she literally asserted her selfhood: “me me me.” More importantly, she proclaimed the significant lines of family and community that tied her simultaneously to two peoples now at war. Such connections mattered. For her, they meant life and belonging. She ended up rejoining the Anishinaabeg. She married an Anishinaabe man and had several children with him. Yet she may have spoken her native language with an accent, and she may have brought Haudenosaunee customs, from ways of making pots to ways of raising children, with her.

I was amazed when I first read this story. I was perusing the many (73 to be exact) volumes of Jesuit Relations, the published reports of the French missionaries who came to the area around the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes in the seventeenth century. This woman was never named, but her story clearly struck one of the Jesuits, Father Buteux, who wrote it down.

It is so rare for the voices of women like this one to present themselves in sources accessible to historians. Yet here was one such woman, making her voice heard over the centuries, just as she had in that critical moment of war and crisis. Her tale also showed her to be a hardy survivor, a self-sacrificing mother both to her own children and to orphans, a healer, and a skilled farmer. Women in early America did so many things. She ended up losing her Anishinaabe husband and children to epidemics that ravaged Native communities in this era, but she then became a mother to “five little children that she ha[d] saved” from an epidemic. She cultivated “a fine, large field of Indian corn.” Yet before the harvest came, hunger plagued her household. One day, Father Buteux came to find her “quite despondent and in tears.” She told him that “I have for a long time been accustomed to pass whole days without eating, . . . working in my field and taking nothing,—but I cannot hear these children cry with hunger, without being touched.” “‘This,’ said she, ‘is the cause of my tears.’” Such a claim was a powerful (and successful) way to appeal to French sympathies (tears were likely to be more effective with French audiences than with stoical Anishinaabe ones) and to gain a redistribution of resources. The French provided her with food. This account also reveals the ways in which women were relentlessly familiar with the heavy responsibilities of working in fields and taking care of children, even those of other people. Her remarkable resilience etched itself even onto the reports from the Jesuits, though her name did not.

People tend to think that colonial American women were Pilgrims or witches. Most were neither. Even if they were wives and mothers and in charge of households, as this woman was, they were not untouched by the cold, wide world. The devastations and wars, as well as the slavery and migration, of colonialism affected their worlds and lives profoundly, forcing them to do more than just raise children and keep house. Women in early America played many roles. They were survivors, diplomats, killers, rulers, rebels, and slaves. Historians have been busily uncovering this variety for some decades now, but it remains too often obscure in the popular imagination.

Whole essay is outstanding.

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