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Monday, July 5, 2010

Life Among the Iroquois

There is not much that I can find about the lives of those taken captive by the Iroquois at the end of the 17th century, so I have to make some assumptions about what was happening with Marie Madeleine, her brother, Pierre, and her two sisters, Marie-Francoise and Marguerite, during the time they lived among the tribes. There are also few clues about the family and what was known of their situation by the other inhabitants of Lachine. Much of this part of the story is a mystery, so if you have information that can help infill some of the holes, please comment!

The first unknown is whether Marie Madeleine was pregnant at the time of her capture. She had been married to Pierre Jamme dit Carriere for slightly over five months, and although he was a soldier and most likely gone for periods of time, they would have had sexual relations, if on a sporadic basis. By looking at the parish records and my own family tree from that era, most women gave birth to their first child within the first 18 months of marriage, and often within the first year. So, if she was pregnant, what happened to her baby? Did she miscarriage from the trauma of the massacre and seeing her parents killed? Or did she give birth to a baby who was adopted into the tribe?

Another question also remains: during her years as captive, did she give birth to any children with an Iroquois man? At the time of her capture, she was 16 years old. Would she have taken an Iroquois husband in order to survive, or did the tribe respect her status as a married woman and not expect her to fully assimilate? If she did give birth to children during the time of her captivity, there are no records that I could find about them.

I also am not clear about the status of older captive children. The younger children – Marie-Francoise and Marguerite – would have been adopted by tribal families who had recently suffered a loss of a child, as was the tribal custom. If they had survived, they would have been assimilated into the tribe. There are a few clues that this probably did happen, and I will include these in a later blog.

But what about Marie-Madeleine and 12-year old Pierre? Were they both welcomed as members of the tribe, or would they have been treated as outsiders?

These mysteries aside, I can give you a glimpse of what their lives must have been like among the Iroquois by describing a bit about the native culture. The tribes were matrilineal, so the women owned all property and determined kinship, which was based on clans. They also chose the tribal leaders, which gave them power over political direction. After marriage, a man moved into his wife's longhouse, where other members of her clan also lived. Their children then became members of her clan. The women owned the fields and tended to the crops, while being supervised by the “clan mother.” As mentioned earlier in this blog, the main crops were corn, beans and squash – they were so vital to the tribes that they were called “deohako” or “life supporters.”

The main occupation of the men was waging war and hunting. They hunted in the fall, leaving the village until midwinter. In the spring, they fished. They also cleared new fields for crops and built longhouses. But their tribal status was achieved through their skill at warfare. While the women wore their hair long, the men wore their hair in a “Mohawk” and removed all their facial and body hair. Both sexes decorated their flesh with tattoos.

It was the political structure of the Iroquois that gave them their strength and stability, and made them formidable enemies. The Iroquois League, an alliance of related tribes formed prior to European contact, developed a sophisticated system of checks, balances, and supreme law that was shared by all tribes. Founded to maintain peace and resolve disputes between its members, its primary law stated that Iroquois should not kill each other.

For Marie-Madeleine, life among the Iroquois most likely entailed tending the crops and helping with the cooking for other members of the longhouse where she lived. Whether that longhouse included other captives, or whether the captives were distributed among the many Iroquois villages and longhouses in the area, I don’t know. But as she was a woman living in a matrilineal society, she may have enjoyed some protection, respect and independence even though she was a captive.

Pierre most likely helped with the hunting and building, although as a captive, he may not have had the freedom to venture out of the village on his own. He may not have been able to engage in warfare, in which case it would have been difficult for him to obtain much status as a male in the tribe.

While Marie-Madeleine and her siblings adjusted to their new lives, the wars continued around them, with the Iroquois and other tribes creating alliances with the French or the British. Eventually, other white captives were brought into the Iroquois villages and assimilated into the tribes or eventually released. For Marie-Madeleine and Pierre, it would be 12 years before they were finally taken home.

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