Caroline Ga-ha-no Parker Mountpleasant was born into the Seneca Wolf Clan around the year 1826. Her mother, Elizabeth, was a Clan Mother and related to an important chief. Seneca society is matrilineal, so Caroline inherited her place in the Wolf Clan from her mother. The Wolf Clan had a long history of leadership within the larger Seneca Nation, so her family and community may have expected Caroline to assume a leadership role as she grew older. Caroline’s father, William, was a respected warrior who rose to fame during the War of 1812. William and Elizabeth had seven children. Caroline was the only girl.
Caroline grew up in a community called Tonawanda, located in what today is known as Western New York. Caroline’s parents made sure that all of their children were taught about Seneca history and culture. But they also recognized that the survival of their tribe depended on their ability to negotiate with the white settlers and government that were trying to take their lands. To help their children prepare for their future as leaders in their community, they sent Caroline and her brothers to a local school run by Baptists. Caroline learned to read and write English. She was also taught the traditions of the Baptist faith. For the rest of her life, Caroline would celebrate both Seneca and Baptist religious ceremonies.
In 1844, Caroline’s brother Eli brought home a white friend named Lewis Henry Morgan. Lewis was an ethnographer who studied the history and culture of Indigenous people. He was very impressed with Caroline’s intelligence. He raised money so she could continue her education. With his help, Caroline attended a boarding school for white children in Auburn. Lewis then ensured that Caroline was accepted to a college in Albany. While she studied, Caroline also learned about white American society and culture. Caroline graduated college with a degree in teaching. Her level of education was unusual for a woman of any race in the mid-1800s. It was particularly unusual for an Indigenous woman, because Indigenous women were typically prevented from pursuing higher education by the racist attitudes of the time. After graduation, Caroline returned to Tonawanda to assume her responsibilities to her clan and community.
While Caroline was pursuing her education, Lewis was pursuing his own research with the assistance of her family. In 1845, the New York State Cabinet of Natural History gave Lewis $465 to assemble a collection of objects made by the Indigenous people who lived in New York State. The Parker family helped Lewis gather about 500 items for his collection. Caroline was his main assistant. Caroline also made traditional Seneca clothing and samples of beadwork specifically for the collection. Lewis later said that Caroline was the finest Indigenous artist he had ever met. She made the entire ceremonial costume that she wore for the portrait that appeared in an 1851 book Lewis published about his research (see accompanying photograph). The costume blended traditional Seneca clothing with white fashions, a deliberate representation of Caroline’s own life and education. The costume started a new trend in Seneca women’s clothing, and her influence is still seen in Seneca clothing today.
Caroline and her family did not just help Lewis with his work because he was their friend. Their assistance was part of a larger drive to raise awareness of Seneca society and culture in the minds of white Americans. When the Indian Removal Act was passed in 1830, the U.S. government began an intense campaign to force Indigenous communities off of any lands that white settlers wanted. In 1842, Seneca leaders were forced to sign a treaty that took away the lands where Tonawanda was located. But Caroline’s community refused to move. Instead, they sued the government to get their land back.
In order to win their case, the Seneca needed a wide base of support among white Americans. By helping Lewis create his collection, Caroline and her family were asserting the humanity and dignity of the Seneca people. They were also teaching the wider world about Seneca culture. Seneca leaders realized that Caroline’s education made her someone white audiences could identify and sympathize with. They made her the centerpiece of their publicity, circulating her portrait and list of academic accomplishments.
The chiefs gave Caroline the ceremonial name Jigonsahseh after one of the women who founded the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.
White audiences believed that Caroline demonstrated the possibilities of assimilation. They proclaimed her the “ideal Indian woman,” because she could navigate both Seneca and American society with ease. Her example made white people comfortable with the possibility of Indigenous survival. Caroline understood that this interpretation of her life would help her people, and she played along. In recognition of her importance to their community’s fight for survival, the chiefs of the Tonawanda community bestowed on Caroline the ceremonial name Jigonsahseh, after one of the women who founded the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.
The Seneca’s publicity campaign was partially successful. In 1857, a court granted the Seneca the right to buy back their land from the white people who had laid claim to it. This was unfair, because it was making the Seneca pay for land that already belonged to them. But the community went along with the verdict because it offered them a chance to stay. That same year, the Tonawanda community separated from the larger Seneca Nation. The larger nation was starting to change their government to match white government systems more closely. The Tonawanda Seneca wanted to preserve their traditional government practices, including giving women a voice in the government of the tribe. Today, members of the Tonawanda Seneca Nation still live on lands they bought back in 1875. They have been central to the survival of Seneca traditions and culture for generations.
Caroline and her family continued to play an essential role in the survival of the Seneca for the rest of their lives. Caroline founded a school for children in Tonawanda so that other children would have the same access to education she had been given. She also acted as a translator and political representative for the Tonawanda community in their dealings with the New York and U.S. governments. Her brother Eli rose to national prominence as the secretary to General Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War and was later named the Commissioner of Indian Affairs when Ulysses became president. He and Caroline communicated regularly, and Caroline frequently offered him advice.
Caroline married Tuscarora Chief John Mount Pleasant in 1864. She moved to the Tuscarora reservation to live with him. By becoming his wife, Caroline assumed a leadership role in a second Indigenous community. She worked with John to advocate for Indigenous rights. One of her tactics was to invite influential white Americans to her home, where she introduced them to the art, philosophy, and culture of her people. These gatherings helped to disprove the negative stereotypes that many white people still held about Indigenous people.
Unfortunately, Caroline struggled with financial hardship in the final years of her life. When her husband died in 1887, his children from his first marriage sued to get control of his home and land. Caroline was left with her personal belongings, but nowhere to live. In 1890, she made the controversial decision to assist the U.S. government with the 1890 Indian Census. The Tuscarora community condemned her for taking part in something that was going to be used to further rob Indigenous people of their lands and rights, but Caroline may have just needed the paycheck to support herself. She passed away from a stroke in 1892.
- Baptist: A Christian religion.
- Civil War: U.S. war from 1861 to 1865 in which the Northern and Southern states fought over the question of whether the practice of slavery should continue in the U.S.
- Clan Mother: Title of a Seneca woman with a leadership role in her community.
- Commissioner of Indian Affairs: The head of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, who oversees the implantation of all U.S. laws and policies that relate to Indigenous people.
- Haudenosaunee Confederacy: A confederation of six Indigenous tribes that have lived in the area known today as Upstate New York since before European contact. Haudenosaunee literally means “people who build a house” and refers to the fact that all six tribes built longhouses that housed extended families. The Haudenosaunee were previously widely known as the Iroquois Confederacy, but today they prefer this name. The Oneida, Tuscarora, Mohawk, Seneca, Onondaga, and Cayuga are the tribes that make up the confederacy.
- Indian Census of 1890: The first national census that counted all Indigenous people who inhabited lands claimed by the U.S. Many Indigenous communities resisted being counted because they did not see themselves as under the jurisdiction of the U.S. government.
- matrilineal: When kinship is inherited through the mother.
- Seneca: An Indigenous tribe that originally inhabited the lands that are now called Western New York. The Seneca are one of the six tribes of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Today, most Seneca settlements are still in New York, but there are also some in Oklahoma and Canada.
- Tuscarora: An Indigenous tribe that originally inhabited lands on the eastern end of the Great Lakes. The Tuscarora joined the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in 1722. Today, many Tuscarora live in Western New York and Ontario, Canada.
- What circumstances set Caroline Ga-ha-no Parker Mountpleasant apart from other Seneca women?
- How did Caroline Ga-ha-no Parker Mountpleasant promote Seneca land claims and survival?
- What does Caroline Ga-ha-no Parker Mountpleasant’s story reveal about the experiences of Indigenous communities in the mid-1800s?