Mary Jemison

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Mary Jemison
Mary Jemison 1856 pub.jpg
"Mary being arrayed in Indian costume"
Mary Jemison

DiedSeptember 19, 1833(1833-09-19) (aged 89–90)
Other namesDehgewänis
Known foradopted Seneca

Mary Jemison (Deh-he-wä-nis) (1743 – September 19, 1833) was an American frontierswoman who was kidnapped in her teens by the Seneca. When she was in her teens, she was captured in what is now Adams County, Pennsylvania, from her home along Marsh Creek. She became fully assimilated into her captors' culture and later chose to remain a Seneca rather than return to British colonial culture.[1] Her statue stands today in Letchworth State Park.


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. They landed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and joined other Protestant Scots-Irish immigrants in heading west to settle on cheaper available lands in what was then the western frontier (now central Pennsylvania). They "squatted" on territory that was under the authority of the Iroquois Confederacy, which was based in central and western New York.

The Jemisons had cleared land to make their farm, and the couple had several children. By 1755, conflicts had started in the French and Indian War, the North American front of the Seven Years' War between France and Britain. Both sides made use of Native American allies. They were especially used in the many frontier areas. One morning in 1755, a raiding party consisting of six Shawnee Indians and four Frenchmen captured Mary, her family (except two older brothers) and a young boy from another family. En route to Fort Duquesne (present-day Pittsburgh), then controlled by the French, the Shawnee killed Mary's mother, father, and siblings and ritually scalped them.

Two Seneca women had lost a brother in Washington's war a year before her capture and the raiders were sent to the fort to receive a prisoner or an enemy's scalp to supply their loss. It was custom, when one of their own was killed or taken prisoner in battle to give to the nearest relative of the dead or absent a prisoner or the scalp of an enemy. The 12-year-old Mary and the young boy were spared, likely because they were considered of suitable age for adoption. Once the party reached the fort, Mary was given to the two Seneca women, who took Mary downriver to their settlement. After a short ceremony, a Seneca family adopted Mary, renaming her as Deh-he-wä-nis (other romanization variants include: Dehgewanus, Dehgewanus and Degiwanus, Dickewamis), which she learned meant "a pretty girl, a handsome girl, or a pleasant, good thing."[2]

When she came of age, she married a Delaware man named Sheninjee, who was living with the band. 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 Western New York state. Although Jemison and their son reached this destination, her husband did not. Leaving his wife one day to hunt, he was taken ill and died.

As a widow, Mary and her child were taken in by Sheninjee's clan relatives; she made her home at Little Beard's Town (present-day Cuylerville, New York). She later married a Seneca named Hiakatoo; together they had six children: Nancy, Polly, Betsey, Jane, John, and Jesse. John murdered his half-brother Thomas in 1811 and later murdered his brother Jesse. In 1817, John was murdered by two men from the Squawky Hill Reservation.[3]

During the American Revolutionary War, the Seneca allied themselves with the British, hoping that a British victory would enable them to expel the encroaching colonists. Jemison's account of her life includes observations of this time. She and others in the Seneca town helped supply Joseph Brant (Mohawk) and his Iroquois warriors from various nations who fought the rebel colonists.

Statue of Jemison in upstate New York. 1910 photo

After the war, the Seneca, as allies of the defeated British, were forced to give up their lands to the victorious United States. In 1797 the Seneca sold much of their land at Little Beard's Town to European-American settlers. 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 surrendering 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). Although some early readers thought that Seaver must have imposed his own beliefs, today many history scholars think the memoir is a reasonably accurate account of Jemison's life story and attitude.[4]

In 1823, the Seneca sold most of their remaining land in that area, except for a 2-acre (8,100 m2) tract of land reserved for Jemison's use. Known by local residents as the "White Woman of the Genesee", Jemison 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.

Mary's account of her capture[edit]

"The party that took us consisted of six Indians and four Frenchmen, who immediately commenced plundering, as I just observed, and took what they considered most valuable; consisting principally of bread, meal, and meat. Having taken as much provision as they could carry, they set out with their prisoners in great haste, for fear of detection, and soon entered the woods.

On our march that day, an Indian went behind us with a whip, with which he frequently lashed the children, to make them keep up. In this manner we traveled till dark, without a mouthful of food or a drop of water, although we had not eaten since the night before. Whenever the little children cried for water, the Indians would make them drink urine, or go thirsty. At night they encamped in the woods, without fire and without shelter, where we were watched with the greatest vigilance. Extremely fatigued, and very hungry, we were compelled to lie upon the ground, without supper or a drop of water to satisfy the cravings of our appetites. As in the daytime, so the little ones were made to drink urine in the night, if they cried for water. Fatigue alone brought us a little sleep for the refreshment of our weary limbs; and at the dawn of day we were again started on our march, in the same order that we had proceeded the day before.

About sunrise we were halted, and the Indians gave us a full breakfast of provision that they had brought from my father's house. Each of us, being very hungry, partook of this bounty of the Indians, except father, who was so much overcome with his situation, so much exhausted by anxiety and grief, that silent despair seemed fastened upon his countenance, and he could not be prevailed upon to refresh his sinking nature by the use of a morsel of food. Our repast being finished, we again resumed our march; and before noon passed a small fort, that I heard my father say was called Fort Canagojigge.

That was the only time that I heard him speak from the time we were taken till we were finally separated the following night.

Toward evening, we arrived at the border of a dark and dismal swamp, which was covered with small hemlocks or some other evergreen, and various kinds of bushes, into which we were conducted; and having gone a short distance, we stopped to encamp for the night.

Here we had some bread and meat for supper; but the dreariness of our situation, together with the uncertainty under which we all labored, as to our future destiny, almost deprived us of the sense of hunger, and destroyed our relish for food.

As soon as I had finished my supper, an Indian took off my shoes and stockings, and put a pair of moccasins on my feet, which my mother observed; and believing that they would spare my life, even if they should destroy the other captives, addressed me, as near as I can remember, in the following words:

'My dear little Mary, I fear that the time has arrived when we must be parted for ever. Your life, my child, I think will be spared; but we shall probably be tomahawked here in this lonesome place by the Indians. Oh! how can I part with you, my darling? What will become of my sweet little Mary? Oh! how can I think of your being continued in captivity, without a hope of your being rescued? Oh! that death had snatched you from my embraces in your infancy: the pain of parting then would have been pleasing to what It now is; and I should have seen the end of your troubles! Alas, my dear! my heart bleeds at the thought of what awaits you; but, if you leave us, remember, my child, your own name, and the names of your father and mother. Be careful and not forget your English tongue. If you shall have an opportunity to get away from the Indians don't try to escape; for if you do they will find and destroy you. Don't forget, my little daughter, the prayers that I have learned you - say them often: be a good child, and God will bless you! May God bless you, my child, and make you comfortable and happy.'

During this time, the Indians stripped the shoes and stockings from the little boy that belonged to the woman who was taken with us, and put moccasins on his feet, as they had done before on mine. I was crying. An Indian took the little boy and myself by the hand, to lead us off from the company, when my mother exclaimed, 'Don't cry, Mary! - don't cry, my child! God will bless you! Farewell - farewell!'

The Indian led us some distance into the bushes or woods, and there lay down with us to spend the night. The recollection of parting with my tender mother kept me awake, while the tears constantly flowed from my eyes. A number of times in the night, the little boy begged of me earnestly to run away with him, and get clear of the Indians; but remembering the advice I had so lately received, and knowing the dangers to which we should be exposed, in traveling without a path and without a guide, through a wilderness unknown to us, I told him that I would not go, and persuaded him to lie still till morning.

My suspicion as to the fate of my parents proved too true; for soon after I left them they were killed and scalped, together with Robert, Matthew, Betsey, and the woman and her two children, and mangled in the most shocking manner

After a hard day's march we encamped in a thicket, where the Indians made a shelter of boughs, and then built a good fire to warm and dry our benumbed limbs and clothing; for it had rained some through the day. Here we were again fed as before. When the Indians had finished their supper, they took from their baggage a number of scalps, and went about preparing them for the market, or to keep without spoiling, by straining them over small hoops which they prepared for that purpose, and then drying and scraping them by the fire.

Having put the scalps, yet wet and bloody, upon the hoops, and stretched them to their full extent, they held them to the fire till they were partly dried, and then, with their knives, commenced scraping off the flesh; and in that way they continued to work, alternately drying and scraping them, till they were dry and clean. That being done, they combed the hair in the neatest manner, and then painted it and the edges of the scalps, yet on the hoops, red. Those scalps I knew at the time must have been taken from our family, by the color of the hair. My mother's hair was red; and I could easily distinguish my father's and the children's from each other. That sight was most appalling; yet I was obliged to endure it without complaining. In the course of the night, they made me to understand that they should not have killed the family, if the whites had not pursued them."[5]

Legacy and honors[edit]

Statue of Jemison, near her home in Adams County, Pennsylvania, erected in 1921
  • In 1874, at the request of her descendants, Jemison's remains were transferred and reinterred near the 1765 Seneca Council House from the former Caneadea Reservation, which had been relocated to the estate of William Pryor Letchworth, He had purchased the former council house and had it restored by John Shanks, a Seneca grandson of Jemison.[6] This work was completed at his Glen Iris Estate in 1872. Letchworth invited Seneca and state officials for a rededication of the Council House that year. In 1881, Letchworth acquired a cabin formerly belonging to Mary's daughter, Nancy Jemison, and had it moved from Gardeau Flats to near the Council House and the site of Mary's grave. In 1906 he bequeathed his entire estate to New York. Near present-day Castile, today it is surrounded by Letchworth State Park.[6]
  • A bronze statue of Mary Jemison, created in 1910 by Henry Kirke Bush-Brown, marks her grave. Following restoration of the grounds to Letchworth's time, since 2006 the memorial has stood between the two cabins.[6] Dr. George Frederick Kunz helped pay for and commission the 1910 memorial to Jemison, who was known as "The White Indian of the Genesee." Dr. Kunz was fascinated by Native Americans, and contributed much to their memorials in New York.[7]

In popular culture[edit]

  • Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison (1941) is a fictionalized version of Jemison's story for young readers, written and illustrated by Lois Lenski. At the end of this novel, she is renamed by the Seneca as "little woman of great courage."
  • 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 Jemison's story, imagining her process of assimilation to the Native American culture in which she lived.


  1. ^ Seaver, James E. (2015-01-26). A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 978-0-8061-4891-5.
  2. ^ Seaver, James Everett. 1992. A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison, NY: American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society. Page 77.
  3. ^ Seaver, Jmes Everett. 1992. A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison, NY: American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society.
  4. ^ Mary Jemison, Explore Pennsylvania History, accessed October 20, 2008.
  5. ^ Seaver, James E., Life of Mary Jemison (1824, reprinted 1856)
  6. ^ a b c The Council Grounds, from the Letchworth Park History website
  7. ^ 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). Edward R. Foreman, ed. "The True Story of Mary Jemison". Rochester Historical Society Publication Fund Series. Rochester Historical Society. 8: 193–218.
  • James, Edward et al. (1971) "Notable American Women: 1607–1950", URL link
  • Larsen, Deborah (2002). The White. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, a Division of Random House.
  • Namias, June (2000) " Jemison, Mary" URL link
  • Namias, June (1993). White Captives: Gender and Ethnicity on the American Frontier. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-2079-2
  • Seaver, James (1824). A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison. New York: American Scenic & Historical Preservation Society. 1942 edition.
  • "Mary Jemison (1743?-1833)". American National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 22 March 2019.

External links[edit]