My new historical fiction novel, Catharine, Queen of the Tumbling Waters, was published by Bedazzled Ink Publishing in April 2023. Bedazzled Ink is dedicated to general and literary fiction, nonfiction, and children’s books that celebrate the unique and under-represented voices of women and books about women that appeal to all readers.
My novel is a work of imagination, inspired by the life of Catharine Montour, also known as Queen Catharine, born in Pennsylvania possibly around 1729 and lived in what is known today as Montour Falls, New York. She was a metis, which means mixed in French, and was French and Iroquois. It was said of her that she was handsome, possessed more than ordinary intellectual powers, and meted out justice to all. She was regarded by Europeans as a superior woman.
Queen Catharine Montour’s name is perpetuated everywhere in Montour Falls, New York and the surrounds. There is a memorial, a street, a park, a creek, a trail, and many businesses named after her. History describes Queen Catharine as the leader and matriarch of a Seneca tribe and village, She-O-Qua-Gah (there are different spellings), a Seneca (Iroquois) word meaning tumbling waters. The village was later called Catharine’s Town, Catharine’s Landing, Havana, and eventually Montour Falls to honor Catharine Montour. In my novel, Catharine names the area Eagle Cliff Falls, which is the name of one of the waterfalls in Montour Falls.
In 1779, nearing the end of the American Revolution, General George Washington initiated a campaign to be led by Major General John Sullivan and the Continental Army (also known as the Clinton-Sullivan Campaign) to destroy all Iroquois villages, whether they were enemies, allies, or neutral to the Revolution. Congress approved Washington’s plan, “directing him to take all measures necessary to protect the settlers and to punish the Indians.” Washington wrote to Sullivan, “The immediate objects are total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every sex and age as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops in the ground and prevent their planting more.”
Queen Catharine Montour heroically gathered her tribe in She-O-Qua-Ga and led them away from Major John Sullivan’s approaching Continental Army to Fort Niagara to be sheltered by the British.
The campaign ended and forty Indian settlements were burned to the ground, thousands of bushels of corn, fruits, vegetables and livestock were destroyed, but most egregious were the thousands of Iroquois who sought refuge under the British at Fort Niagara. The winter thereafter was brutal and severe and many Iroquois died from cold and starvation. It is not known whether Queen Catharine returned to She-O-Qua-Ga, but I believe she did. After the American Revolution, the great Iroquois Nation and Confederacy scattered and has never been the same, but their spirit has always remained and today, there are many Iroquois museums, writers, artists, and organizations celebrating this indigenous history and their place in America.
I’ve often said my writing career includes working with the dead and although this sounds morbid, it is not. We all carry the blood and stories of our ancestors and there’s a thin line between here and there if we attune our hearts to listen. I wanted to be a writer at a young age, but it took years to learn to listen. And when I did, I encountered many unusual experiences and synchronicities. This is not the place to talk about my other novels and their strange incidents, but before you put your curious and discerning nose into this novel, I want to tell you about some of my Catharine visitations. No, I didn’t just channel Catharine’s story, but through grueling, ardent, frustrating, and thrilling research, and with her spirit and various encounters, I have written a Queen Catharine Montour story!
I grew up in the Montour Falls, New York vicinity and was intrigued by Queen Catharine, but there was little known information. Historians have puzzled over Queen Catharine Montour and the Montour family for years. The Montours were elusive, famous, but obscure, and have been difficult to track down. Historians have disagreed over the life of Catharine Montour and her various family members for years. Her grandmother, Isabel Montour (Madame Montour), was born in New France in the 17th century. She was complex, a go-between, interpreter, and told a couple of different stories about her life. It was Simone Vincens, author of the wonderful biography, Madame Montour and the Fur Trade, who instructed me to learn about Isabel Montour and her son, Andrew Montour, if I wanted to know Catharine Montour. After uncanny and astounding Catharine nudges and reading local history articles, I delved into Simone Vincens’ book and it became the skeleton that eventually led me into fleshing out Catharine’s life.
In 2006 while visiting family in Montour Falls, I walked the Catharine Creek Trail as I usually do. Off the trail is a memorial to Queen Catharine with the Seneca and English words, “Every One of You Always Remember This.” I quizzically pondered this memorial because I didn’t remember much of anything about her. Suddenly, an emphatic voice within said, “Write my story!” I stomped my foot and said aloud, “No, I’m still writing Norah’s story!” That evening, I pulled out my mother’s couch bed and found a book on the Iroquois on her bookshelf. I read about the Three Sisters (corn, beans, and squash) and fell asleep. In the morning, there was a kernel of corn in my bed! It was May, not autumn, and there were no dried corn arrangements in the apartment. Two big nudges, but I ignored them.
I took the Iroquois book home to New Hampshire and read it while continuing my work on a novel in The Irish Dresser series. The next visit to New York was in autumn and one morning I walked the trail and stopped at Catharine’s memorial. No voices, but as I continued my walk on a gorgeous day, I hummed and then incoherent words tumbled out in song. When my husband called, I jokingly said, “I’m singing in the Seneca language!” Later, my mother and I went to the Wind Mill Farm & Craft Market in Penn Yan, New York. Mom sat with a coffee and I went off to browse. Suddenly, I heard music that reminded me of my earlier crazy singing. With goosebumps and excitement, I followed the music to a Native American store where Seneca music was playing. I shared my experience with the owner and he gifted me with an owl necklace and I bought the Seneca CD. He strongly encouraged me to write Catharine’s story.
Thereafter, for years while working on The Irish Dresser Series and writing a screenplay series, I researched and wrote Catharine’s story. I found many books, rare books, journals, and ordered out of print books that cost me a pretty penny. Some of the print in the reprinted books published in the late 1800s or early 1900s was so small, I wore reading glasses over contact lenses and used a magnifying glass! I would find Catharine peeking out here and there in three volume history tomes and gradually, although painstakingly slow, her life was pieced together. In the empty spaces in this hide and seek research, I took creative license and used my imagination. However, I must say that even then, it seemed Catharine was telling me what to write. For instance, George Croghan, the Irish-born fur trader and a key early figure in colonial times, kept popping up in my research. And when I learned he became a good friend of Catharine’s uncle, Andrew Montour, it seemed natural for Catharine and George to have a dalliance. Well, if they did…. You will have to read the book to find out. But George Croghan matters a lot in the novel although I kept saying no, no, no…he’s Irish and I don’t need to bring this Irish fellow into this story.
I felt at times I was in over my head and on many occasions decided to quit. Well, I had said this with my Irish novels, too, but this was different. It was difficult writing about a real person of history and a Native American, at that. The voice of doubt, at times, was stronger than the voice of Catharine and the characters’ voices in her story. But each time I was going to quit, peculiar things happened.
Once, after stating it was over with Catharine and I felt briefly unshackled, I was at an Irish festival in Boston to sell my books. The authors were gathered together in a tent and we introduced ourselves to one another. One of the authors had written a book about General John Sullivan and I asked him if he knew of Catharine Montour and he responded, “how do you know Queen Catharine?” Another time, my husband and I were driving through Newmarket, New Hampshire when we came upon The John Sullivan House! I hadn’t known this general who led the campaign against my protagonist and her people was from New Hampshire. I had only known him through New York history and hadn’t known he had been attorney general, federal judge, and a governor of New Hampshire. Was I getting the message to keep writing?
I continued to work on the novel, but at times, reluctantly. A few years later, at the beginning of the pandemic, I was walking on a remote deer path in the woods. I looked down and there was a kernel of dried corn, bigger than life. I put it in my pocket and decided there would be no more quitting. I finally finished the novel in 2021, but then my mother went into hospice and I traveled from New Hampshire to New York to help care for her. She was my biggest fan and encouragement and repeatedly said she didn’t want to die until she held Catharine’s story in her hands. Fortunately, I was able to read her an edit before she passed in May 2022. During these difficult times, my publisher for my last two novels indicated publication for 2023 would be non-fiction and they would not be publishing Catharine’s story. At this point, with my mother in hospice and knowing my best friend was soon going to leave, I quietly decided not to pursue publication and laid aside this story. Around this time, while back in New Hampshire on a reprieve, my husband and I went to dinner at Ambrose Restaurant located in the Inn at the Bandstand in Exeter, New Hampshire. While dining and talking to one of the owners, we learned that the inn was originally the Sullivan-Sleeper home, built in 1809 for George Sullivan, the son of Major John Sullivan, who was a lawyer and statesmen in New Hampshire. Of course I would have to continue to pursue publication for this story!
After saying goodbye to my dear mother and less than two months after she passed, I had an offer for publication from Bedazzled Ink Publishing, a publisher who represents authors who shine a light on under-represented women. And that is what I have sought to do in this novel – to shine a light on an under-represented Native American woman. But did I really have a choice not to?
https://nhpbs.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/f08d5e21-9ed4-46d7-bb74-b60df3383811/queen-catharine-montour - A brief PBS documentary about Queen Catharine Montour.
I never intended to write a novel about Catharine Montour, aka Queen Catharine, a Native American and French woman who was born in Pennsylvania around 1729 and lived through the French and Indian War and American Revolution. Her name (and spirit) is perpetuated everywhere in Montour Falls, NY and surrounds. She’s revered and a sort of talisman for the locals. Everyone claims to know her, especially the historians, but she is mysterious and obscure and many historical accounts are inaccurate and contradictory. The Montour family was one of the most famous, or perhaps infamous, and elusive families of early Pennsylvania and New York frontiers. In 1779, Queen Catharine, the matriarch of her village (Catharine’s Town/Montour Falls), led her people to Fort Niagara during the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign to destroy all Iroquois villages of the American Revolution.
I grew up hearing this part of the story, but little else. I felt her in some sort of affectionate way every time I saw her memorial or paid attention to her namesake on motels, roads, and places. I was interested in her, but how to know her? I left home and for a long time forgot about her, until fifteen years ago when I visited her memorial on a walk and heard a voice within me, “Write my story!” I laughed aloud and said, “No, I’m writing Norah’s story.” I was finishing my third novel, Norah, and knew I’d be writing another one about Norah McCabe. I was immersed in The Irish Dresser Series! And it was enough craziness researching Irish-American history for these novels and I couldn’t imagine tackling this mysterious woman of local history. Thereafter, a number of experiences ensued that were clearly spiritual and transcendent…paranormal perhaps (and I was somewhat familiar with this with my Irish novels). I couldn’t say no to this queen and so I started on a rigorous, difficult, and mind blowing journey with Queen Catharine. And each time I decided to chuck the idea of a novel, I encountered her through mysterious ways and sometimes they were so palpable that I cried out to her to leave me alone. They inspired me to keep going, but it was at times exhausting and even too strange. One of my first encounters, was waking up to a dried kernel of corn in my bed after reading about the three sisters of the Iroquois (corn, bean, and squash). And that was a tame encounter. There have been quite a few and I’ll reveal them as I speak about my novel.
I write here of the first and second encounter (voice and kernel of corn) and I’ll end with this latest encounter whereby I recently sat in a restaurant in an old inn in Exeter, NH. An inn I just learned was built by General John Sullivan who led the campaign against the Iroquois (and attacked Queen Catharine’s village). Hmmm, a perfect place it will be for a book launch in New Hampshire…poetic justice…Queen Catharine speaks 243 years later in the home of her oppressor! ‘Catharine, Queen of the Tumbling Waters,’ my novel, is finished, but her story and her people’s stories are only beginning.
Folio 1 – We take it all so personal – the leaf that delicately dances from the tallest tree and lands on your lap. Perfectly an oak leaf with the russet brown shiny skin. You happened to crane your neck way up to the sky that late autumn afternoon when its turquoise canvas could not blind you. The sun had withdrawn its embrace and sat companionably with the earth as you looked dispassionately into the heavens. Only for perspective and levity, but not for revelation. One leaf, alone, doing a slow, graceful pirouette that lasted a minute, two? It was a performance and your neck hurt by the time this leaf fairy landed on your lap. You think of the country song by Engelbert Humperdinck, Please release me, let me go…You’d be a fool to cling to me…So release me and let me love again…Falling leaves, some in their prime ripe with color, a few innocent and green, and some old, brittle and brown. They all lay down for love of earth. Timing is everything. Limbs tired, no juice left, the wind knocked out of you. We take it all so personal.
Folio 2 – I walk, or rather limp, through the woods that I’ve walked in for twenty-six years. Tree skins, these leaves, are now every hue of brown, lying thickly on the path, ready for decomposing. Different shapes and sizes, they fell silently and alone. A few balding trees shimmer and shake with golden yellow leaves, the last to go. And there are small bushes with bright peachy red leaves. It’s a cloudy day, the rain finished, and the few colorful leaves cast a spell on me. I stop and admire, photograph, and gently rub a leaf between my fingers. But I can’t ignore the deep piles of perishing leaves I walk through, their scent an autumn intoxication I inhale each year. This death fragrance lingers in my senses as much as the ripening apple orchards this time of year. They will nourish the roots of trees as much as the apples will nourish my body. These woods are home, familiar, and I visit them more than I do family. Somehow I believe they know me well, too, their limbs lifting in the wind to greet me. Sometimes a tree will drop a leaf in my hair that I don’t find until I lie down in bed and feel the crunch on my pillow. I love trees, their circling, not around, but up and down, their sighing, their colors, even if death must come. I trust them even when their roots, buried in dying leaves and New Hampshire thin soil, cause me to stumble. This autumn, I’m preoccupied with my upcoming hip surgery and so I stop often, but not only because of a sore hip. I’m telling them I might not see them for awhile, probably not until they’re sleeping beneath the snow. I must walk right after, the doctor says, but not in the woods where there are roots, rocks, and uneven paths. I must walk on even, straight paths. I’ll miss the wild, natural orderly chaos of the woods for a time, the way they welcome me into a good therapy session each time I visit. I read tree leaves like a fortune teller reading tea leaves and a dendrochronologist reading tree rings and usually walk out of the woods with awareness and a story or two. And never do I leave without saying thank you, especially as a writer of books whose pages come from pines, spruces, hemlocks, firs, birch, hickory, and more. I’ll be back, I tell them, and meanwhile, their leaves, colorful or pungent, are enfolded within my heart.
Folio 3 – My protagonist, Catharine, in my upcoming novel, Catharine, Queen of the Tumbling Waters, to be released in the spring of 2023, is also a tree lover and tree leaf reader (read my prior blog to know more about this real life character). A series of autumns in her life bring much change and she, too, ponders the resonance of autumn leaves upon the pages of her heart. This is an excerpt from Chapter Twenty-Eight:
I’m sitting on the river bank after my last invigorating dip into the icy water. I’ve wrapped myself in a blanket before I return to my clothes and complex life with captives and George Croghan and his friend, Edward Pollard. I watch the river as the wind carries maple, birch, and oak leaves gently on its surface. They float like tiny colorful boats down the river away from their mother trees. I, too, have fallen from my source that rooted me as a Montour and native custom. What this next life is I don’t know and hope I can surrender as freely as the trees and leaves. I look up into the nearby trees and note soon they’ll be as naked as I am right now. These trees are at ease in releasing and I honor them with a quiet prayer. I feel a chill and quickly dress to return to my home full of people who are of every color.
Oh, mournful season that delights the eyes, Your farewell beauty captivates my spirit. I love the pomp of Nature’s fading dyes, The forests garmented in gold and purple, The rush of noisy wind, and the pale skies Half-hidden by the clouds in darkling bellows, And the rare sun-ray and the early frost, And threats of grizzled Winter, heard and lost” ~Pushkin
Tell all the truth but tell it slant --
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind --
- Emily Dickinson
Cynthia's earlier blog blog posts are still alive and well at Tell It Slant