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Courtship, Marriage, and Gender Roles
Digital History ID 635

Author:   John Heckewelder
Date:1819

Annotation: A Moravian missionary discusses the division of labor within Indian families in colonial Pennsylvania.


Document: There are many persons who believe, from the labor that they see the Indian women perform, that they are in a manner treated as slaves. These labors, indeed are hard, compared with the tasks that are imposed upon females in civilized society; but they are no more than their fair share...of the hardships attendant on savage life. Therefore they are not only voluntarily, but cheerfully submitted to; and as women are not obliged to live with their husbands any longer than suits their pleasure or convenience, it cannot be supposed that they would submit to be loaded with unjust or unequal burdens.

Marriages among the Indians are not, as with us, contracted for life; it is understood on both sides that the parties are not to live together any longer than they shall be pleased with each other. The husband may put away his wife whenever he pleases, and the woman may in like manner abandon her husband....

When a marriage takes place, the duties and labors incumbent on each party are well known to both. It is understood that the husband is to build a house for them to dwell in, to find the necessary implements of husbandry, as axes, hoes, and to provide a canoe, and also dishes, bowls, and other necessary vessels for house-keeping. The woman generally has a kettle or two, and some other articles of kitchen furniture, which she brings with her....

When a couple is newly married, the husband...takes considerable pains to please his wife, and by repeated proofs of his skill and abilities in the art of hunting, to make her sensible that she can be happy with him, and that she will never want while they live together....

[The wife's] principal occupations are to cut and fetch the fire wood, till the ground, sow and reap the grain, and pound the corn in mortars for their pottage, and to make bread which they bake in the ashes....

The tilling of the ground at home, getting of the fire wood, and pounding of corn in mortars, is frequently done by female parties, much in the manner of those husking, quilting and other frolics (as they are called), which are so common in some parts of the United States....

When the harvest is in, which generally happens by the end of September, the women have little else to do than to prepare the daily victuals, and get fire wood, until the latter end of February or beginning of March...when they go to their sugar camps, where they extract sugar from the maple tree. The men having built or repaired their temporary cabin, and made all the troughs of various sizes, the women commence making sugar, while the men are looking out for meat, at this time generally fat bears, which are still in their winter quarters. When at home, they will occasionally assist their wives in gathering the sap, and watch the kettles in their absence, that the syrup may not boil over....

The husband generally leaves the skins and peltry, which he has procured by hunting to the care of his wife, who sells or barters them away to the best advantage for such necessities as are wanted in the family; not forgetting to supply her husband with what he stands in need of....

Source: John Heckewelder, Account of the History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Natives who once inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighboring States in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society (1819), 142-52.

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