There are numerous ways Theresa and I discover and decide which Nasty Women to highlight on our site. This week’s woman was brought to our attention in a unique way!
Reminiscing with our father last year, we ended up talking about the people’s driveways he used to snow plow when we were young children. Dad had a handful of driveways he’d plow after each snowstorm and I told him I remembered going with him when he plowed Uncle Herbie’s parents’ driveway on Elm St in Keene, New Hampshire. Yes, he replied, he did plow their driveway, as well as their neighbor, the Sadoques’. Theresa and I questioned in unison: Whose? We had never heard the name before and in this rather small town, especially sharing stories from the past, that was unusual.
Our father then told us about an Abenaki family that lived in town, the Sadoques (locally pronounced ‘Sad-o-key’) whose daughter was one of the first Native American registered nurses in the country. My mother chimed in that she remembers Nurse Sadoques attending to her in the hospital as a child, either for her tonsillectomy or eye surgery.
This led us to look into this woman, Elizabeth Sadoques Mason, but we soon discovered there is not a lot available. This may be due to what Marge Bruchac, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania explains:
“Very few memories of Abenaki people during the 19th century have been preserved in New Hampshire’s town histories, leading many people to imagine that the Indians mostly disappeared…Historians have only recently begun exposing the degree to which white town historians adopted stereotypical, racialized narratives of “vanishing Indians” that distorted the historical record.”
This information also helps explain the somewhat common remark that the Sadoques were “hiding in plain sight.”
Here’s some of what we do know:
Around 1878, Israel and Mary (Watso) Sadoques left the Odanak Reserve in Quebec, Canada with hopes for a better life and more opportunity for their children in the United States. According to Claudia Chicklas, one of their granddaughters, in her book Woven Through the Sweetgrass: Memories of a New England Abenaki Family:
“Their journey took them down the Quanicticook [Connecticut River] to southern Connecticut State, but they found no permanent home there, and started back up the river, reaching Brattleboro, Vermont in 1880. A chance meeting with a man peddling soft soap on the riverbank where they were camped brought them to Keene, New Hampshire”(8).
Eventually, Israel and Mary were able to purchase a house, barn and land at 454 Elm Street in Keene, and from the start, Israel set about creative ways to support his growing family. He sold baskets, from the reserve and ones his family made, learned to farm the land and grow fruit-bearing trees, continued tanning hides, and even “furnished ash splints for the Keene Chair Company”(Bruchac).
It’s important to note that the Abenakis were here long before the settlers and many, not all, fled the area due to hostility and disease. Claudia Chicklas says:
“Grandfather Israel’s life in New Hampshire completed a cycle begun when his people were driven to Canada from New England more than two centuries before. He returned in peace”(22).
They returned searching for a new home on the land of their ancestors and they found it in Keene. It is recorded that “Israel and Mary had 12 children in all, 8 of whom survived into adulthood”(Chicklas 22).
Elizabeth Sadoques Mason was the youngest of the dozen, born in 1897.
It seems two of the Sadoques daughters, Maude and Elizabeth earned registered nurse certificates. It is presumed Maude earned her nursing degree around 1914 and it is known that Elizabeth was awarded hers in 1919 since the certificate still exists.
Where Elizabeth committed to a career as a nurse, Maude followed a different path and “is believed to have been the first Native American to become a nun in the Episcopal Church”(Chicklas vi).
In stories passed along by Claudia (Mason) Chicklas, Elizabeth’s older daughter, she describes her mother’s foray into nursing:
“The salaries of the three young women now supported the household. However, Margaret became the family head in function and she decided her youngest sister should have the opportunity for a better education than the older sisters. The three sisters agreed to pool their resources and send their young sister Elizabeth, my mother, to nursing school in New York, all the while supporting their parents and maintaining the household”(43).
One wonders, did Elizabeth want to be a nurse? Were her older sisters, especially Maude, the driving force behind her career path? Did Elizabeth have other more compelling interests? At that time, did she even have other options? I’m sure there are those out there who can respond to these musings, but I didn’t discover any clues in my reading.
After earning her nursing certificate in New York, Elizabeth returned home and in 1925 married Claude Mason. They had two children, Claudia and Mali. Claude struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder following his service in WWI, and Elizabeth, according to daughter Claudia, looked after him for years as his depression ebbed and flowed. (Claude was quite an accomplished artist. Many of his sketches are included in the book his daughter and granddaughters compiled.)
Elizabeth worked as a nurse at Keene’s Elliot Community Hospital for about 40 years, until the late 1950s, and is said to have worked as a private nurse as well, notably for prominent American artist Abbott Handerson Thayer. (She must have cared for Thayer soon after earning her degree and before marrying Claude, since he passed in 1921.)
Elizabeth was clearly an industrious woman who made time to care for her ailing husband, two daughters, and other elderly family members, all while working full time as a nurse. Her daughter Claudia relays some stories about Elizabeth as an older woman, but none that provide a picture of the younger Elizabeth, especially as a practicing nurse. But it seems many in the area, such as my mother, do indeed remember Nurse Sadoques.
This is one scenario described by Claudia that illuminates her mother Elizabeth’s nurturing nature and gives us an idea of the Mason household:
“I follow Mama along the hallway leading to Daddy’s room. She carries a glass of warm milk and I carefully balance a small plate of cookies. We hope he will feel like eating, but after first taking, and then giving me one of the cookies back, he signals us to take the food away. I know Daddy is having a bad day”(62).
One of Elizabeth’s granddaughters, Joyce (Chicklas) Heywood has made inroads in shining a light on Elizabeth’s accomplishments. In 2002, when Heywood saw that Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail was inducted into the American Nursing Association’s Hall of Fame, and declared the first Native American registered nurse, she had to speak up. Heywood emailed those at “Vital Signs”, a newsletter associated with the Minority Nurse publication, letting them know that they were erroneous in naming Yellowtail the “first American Indian registered nurse in the United States.”
Heywood explained in her message:
“Susie Yellowtail was NOT the first Native American registered nurse. My grandmother, Elizabeth Sadoques Mason (1897-1985), and her sister, Maude Sadoques (who became an Episcopalian nun and took the name Sister Benedicta) were both full-blooded Abenaki Indians and both became registered nurses…
“I am not trying to take anything away from Susie Yellowtail’s amazing life and career. She deserves much credit and recognition and is definitely an inspiration to all. However, my grandmother worked as a nurse in New Hampshire right up until her retirement in the late 1950s or early 1960s and I believe that deserves recognition, too. She, Maude and three of their sisters were all fantastic role models, each in different ways, for any human beings, and especially for any Native Americans”(Minority Nurse).
Indeed, Elizabeth’s 1919 certificate predates Susie Yellowtail’s, awarded in 1927. Records have been corrected and now proclaim Susie Yellowtail the first of Crow descent to become a registered nurse(Wikipedia).
All 5 of Israel and Mary’s daughters were role models: strong and accomplished women despite the often dismissive and racist world they lived in. I imagine their strength came in part from the determination and example of their proud Abenaki parents, and their cohesiveness and support for one another, partially a result of “the sisters’ ethnic Native American heritage limit[ing] their social opportunities to some extent”(Chicklas 44).
As Joyce (Chicklas)Heywood describes:
“…the daughters of the Sadoques family helped their mother Mary’s basket making by braiding the sweetgrass which she then wove into her baskets. When we imagined this activity taking place, where mother and daughters gathered together, working craft together, we realized it made for a perfect setting where family stories, history, and culture would be passed down effortlessly to a new generation. As the baskets were woven together with sweetgrass, so this family was bonded and was “woven” together with love”(viii).
Recently, the Abenakis and Sadoques family in particular have attained increased visibility in Keene, New Hampshire with a commemorative Walldog Mural. In 2019, 16 locally-inspired murals were painted onto the walls of buildings in the downtown area. One mural honors the Abenaki legacy and contributions.
When the mural was completed, it was brought to the attention of those involved that the woman, Mali Mason Keating depicted on the right side of the mural, although she grew up in Keene, did not settle there later on. Mali, daughter of Elizabeth and sister to Claudia, lived her adult life in Vermont and others felt it would be important to depict more of the Sadoques who were longtime residents of the Keene community, especially Elizabeth. So, with the input of descendants, it was decided that Mali would hold a photograph of her mother, Elizabeth Sadoques Mason, with a young Mali and her older sister Claudia on her lap.
Joyce Chicklas Heywood describes the mural on the Walldogs in Keene Facebook page:
“An Abenaki elder woman holds a family picture of a mother and her 2 children and reflects on her own past. Her head faces the left showing that her reflection has moved from her own past to her connection to an even older time, to that of her people and their connection to the life-giving land and water (the mountains, water and canoe in the mural) and to the generations of Abenaki that have come before her, represented by the Native man traveling with his young daughter”(FB).
The result: a stunning mural reminding us of the enduring strength and existence of a people who were here first and on whose land we continue to live together.
I recommend Woven Through the Sweetgrass: Memories of a New England Abenaki Family as the best way to learn more about the Sadoques family and their lives in Keene, NH. The book includes many of Claude Mason’s sketches, as well as wonderful photographs of the family throughout the years.
Elizabeth Sadoques Mason and her sisters are notable Nasty Women.
© Maria Dintino 2022, 2023
Bruchac, Margaret. “Abenakis at Ashuelot: The Sadoques Family and Keene.” Historical Society of Cheshire County Newsletter, 22 (2), Sept 2006. (Department of Anthropology Papers, University of Pennsylvania)
Chicklas, Claudia. Eds Heywood, Joyce Chicklas & Perillo, Margaret Chicklas. Woven Through the Sweetgrass: Memories of a New England Abenaki Family. Independently published, 2021.
Minority Nurse. “Who Really Was the First American Indian RN?” 30 March 2013.
Walldogs in Keene Facebook Page, July 1, 2019. https://www.facebook.com/Walldogs-in-Keene-423488308049051/