Mary Jemison

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Mary Jemison
Mary Jemison 1856 pub.jpg
"Mary being arrayed in Indian costume"
Born Mary Jemison
Atlantic Ocean
Died September 19, 1833(1833-09-19)
Buffalo Creek Reservation
Other names Dehgewärnis
Known for adopted Seneca

Mary Jemison (Deh-he-wä-mis) (1743 – 9/19/1833) was an American frontierswoman and an adopted Seneca. When she was in her teens, she was captured in what is now Adams County, Pennsylvania, from her home along Marsh Creek, and later chose to remain a Seneca.


Mary Jemison was born to Thomas and Jane Jemison aboard the ship William and Mary in the fall of 1743 while en route from what is now Northern Ireland to America. Upon their arrival in America, the couple and their new child joined other Scots-Irish immigrants and headed west from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to what was then the western frontier (now central Pennsylvania). They "squatted" on territory that was under the authority of the Iroquois Confederacy.

During the time the Jemisons were establishing their home, the French and Indian War (Seven Years' War) was raging. One morning in 1755, a raiding party consisting of six Shawnee Indians and four Frenchmen captured Mary, her family (except two older brothers) and Davy Wheelock, a boy from another family. En route to Fort Duquesne (present-day Pittsburgh), Mary’s mother, father, and siblings were killed and scalped. Mary and the other young boy were spared. Once the party reached the Fort, Mary was given to two Seneca Indians, who took Mary downriver. The Seneca adopted Mary, renaming her Deh-he-wä-mis (other romanization variants include: Dehgewanus, Dehgewanus and Degiwanus), which she learned meant, "two voices falling."[1]

She married a Delaware named Sheninjee. They had a son whom she named Thomas after her father. Sheninjee took her on a 700-mile (1,100 km) journey to the Sehgahunda Valley along the Genesee River in present-day New York state. Although Jemison and their son reached this destination, her husband did not. Leaving his wife to hunt, he had taken ill and died.

Now a widow, Mary was taken in by Sheninjee's clan relatives and made her home at the Little Beard's Town (present-day Cuylerville, New York). She later married a Seneca named Hiakatoo and had six more children with him. During the American Revolutionary War, the Seneca were allies of the British. Jemison's account of her life includes some observations during this time, as she and others in the Seneca town helped Joseph Brant and Iroquois warriors who fought against the colonists.

After the war, the Seneca sold much of their land at Little Beard's Town to European-American settlers in 1797. At that time, during negotiations with the Holland Land Company held at Geneseo, New York, Mary Jemison proved to be an able negotiator for the Seneca tribe. She helped win more favorable terms for giving up their rights to the land at the Treaty of Big Tree (1797).

Late in life, she told her story to the minister James E. Seaver, who published it as a classic "captivity narrative", Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison (1824; latest ed. 1967). Many history scholars consider it to be a reasonably accurate narrative.[2]

In 1823, the tribe sold most of the remainder of the land, except for a 2-acre (8,100 m2) tract of land reserved for Jemison's use. Known locally as the "White Woman of the Genesee", she lived on the tract until she sold it in 1831 and moved to the Buffalo Creek Reservation. Jemison lived the rest of her life with the Seneca Nation. She died on September 19, 1833, aged 90. She was initially buried on the Buffalo Creek Reservation.

In 1874 her remains were reinterred at William Pryor Letchworth's Glen Iris Estate (now Letchworth State Park in present-day Castile, New York). A bronze statue of Mary Jemison, created in 1910 by Henry Kirke Bush-Brown, marks her grave. Dr. George F. Kunz helped with the 1910 memorial to Jemison, “The White Indian of the Genesee”, who is buried at “the ancient Indian Council House of the Senecas.” Dr. Kunz always was fascinated by Native Americans, and contributed much to their memorials in New York.[3]

In popular culture[edit]

  • Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison (1941) is a fictionalized version of Mary's story for young readers, written and illustrated by Lois Lenski. At the end of that novel she is renamed "little woman of great courage" by the Seneca.
  • Rayna M. Gangi's Mary Jemison: White Woman of the Seneca (1996) is a fictionalized version of Jemison's story.
  • Deborah Larsen's The White (2002) is a fictionalized version of Mary's story, containing well-researched information about the Native American culture in which she lived.


  1. ^
  2. ^ Explore Pennsylvania History, Mary Jemison, accessed October 20, 2008.
  3. ^ Seaver, James Everett. 1918. The Life of Mary Jemison: The White Woman of the Genesee. NY: American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society. Pages 238-239.

Further reading[edit]

  • Ayrault, Isabel (1929). "The True Story of Mary Jemison". In Edward R. Foreman. Rochester Historical Society Publication Fund Series (Rochester Historical Society) 8: 193–218. 
  • Larsen, Deborah (2002). The White. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, a Division of Random House.
  • Namias, June (1993). White Captives: Gender and Ethnicity on the American Frontier. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  • Seaver, James (1824). A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison. New York: American Scenic & Historical Preservation Society. 1942 edition.

External links[edit]