For Wright, Research Is a Treasure Hunt

  • Chad Wright '11

Chad Wright '11 sat in his apartment last summer, navigating the ebbs and flows of his Hackman research project. On many days, he would struggle to find solid evidence about the life of his subject, Madame Montour, an interpreter and diplomat in New France during the 18th century.

On other days, however, Wright struck gold.

"It was a boom and bust summer," Wright says. "One day, as I was in my apartment looking through some historical records, I hit the gold mine. I serendipitously found a small note about Louis Montour (Madame Montour's brother) in the margin of a document. It was about how they planned to kill him."

The note was written by Sieur de Cadillac, a French explorer and commander in New France, an area of North America stretching from Eastern Canada to Louisiana. For Wright, it was the sort of find that makes the research process so exciting. Under the direction of Mary Ann Levine, associate professor of anthropology, he titled his project "Madame Montour in Le Pays d'en Haut: The Evolution of an Interpreter—The Michigan Years (1695-1709)."

"I love researching," says Wright, who presented his work at the autumn research fair. "It's fun to go through the library and dig through the archives. It's a treasure hunt for me, sifting through things to find that gem."

Wright had plenty of treasures to hunt in researching Madame Montour, whose life is still somewhat of a mystery. A minor folk hero in Canada, Montour was adept at blending in with her surroundings. Born to a French trader and a Native American mother, she spoke up to nine languages and entered the illegal fur trade after her brother was killed by the French colonial government.

"What's fascinating is her ability to move between cultures," Wright says. "She could be different people, depending upon who she was with. Wherever she moved, she became politically active and savvy. She was always working in the background, and never vocal enough to make enemies."

Wright wanted to find out how Montour bridged multiple worlds. "What made her this person?" Wright asks. "She seems to be at the right place at the right time. When Detroit booms with the fur trade, she's there. She sees the bust coming, and she grabs the fur and leaves."

Wright, who is fluent in French, spent the first three weeks of his Hackman determining which records seemed plausible. He researched Montour's time period, its people and their stories, attempting to draw conclusions about what Montour might have been doing at that time. Although she was born with the name "Isabelle Couc," Wright discovered that she adopted "Montour" to legitimize her continuation of her brother's fur trade.

The seeds of Wright's project were planted when he visited Otstonwakin, Montour's village in North Central Pennsylvania (now called Montoursville) during the summer of 2008. He traveled there with Levine and John Picard '11, who also worked with Levine on a Hackman project.

Wright took another trip that fall—a bit farther from campus—when he studied as a member of the F&M in Paris program directed by Kerry Whiteside, the Clair R. McCollough Professor of Government.

"Evidently, there is a large collection of records on the life of Madame Montour still in Paris," Wright says. "It might be a reason to go back."

And continue hunting for treasures.

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