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 – September 19, 1833) was an American frontierswoman who was adopted 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.


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. 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. 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 two Seneca, who took Mary downriver to their settlement. A Seneca family adopted Mary, renaming her as Deh-he-wä-mis (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 had 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; they had six children together: Nancy, Polly, Betsey, Jane, John, and Jesse. In 1811 John murdered his half-brother Thomas. Some time later John murdered his brother Jesse, and in 1817 John was himself murdered by two men from the Squawky Hill Reservation.[3]

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

Statue of Jemison in upstate New York. 1910 photo

After the war, the Seneca were forced to give up their lands to the United States as allies of the defeated British. 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 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). 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 the remainder of the 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.

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.[5] 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.[5]
  • 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.[5] 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.[6]

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 9780806148915. 
  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, James 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. ^ a b c The Council Grounds, from the Letchworth Park History website
  6. ^ 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. 
  • 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]