Essay, Research Paper
Mary Jemison: White Woman of the Genesee
The story of Mary Jemison is both inspiring and intriguing. She was captured at a young
age by Indians, and forced to live with them. She endured many hardships while under captivity,
but she grew within the tribe, and chose to stay with them for the rest of her life.
Mary Jemison was born either 1742 or 1743 in a ship en route to America. Her parents
Thomas and Jane Erwin Jemison were Irish-Scottish. They had left their home country in order
to escape civil wars and religious rules that prevented them from worshipping as they wanted
(Zeinert 7). They soon arrived in Philadelphia and they and their four children; John, Thomas,
Betsy, and Mary settled in the frontier settlements of Pennsylvania. More specifically, the area
near Marsh Creek (Seaver 36). Mary s childhood was happy enough. She played and helped her
mother with the chores for the family farm. Mary attended a small amount of school, and learned
t0o read passages in the Bible (Zeinert 8). Her family was very devout in their religion, and Mary
learned the catchechism, and prayed every night (Seaver 36). The Jemison family lived happily
and peacefully in this area for about eight years.
In 1754, the colonial government raised an army to help protect settlers homes on the
frontiers of America. Even after this army was formed, the Indians attacks on settlers grew
continually worse (Seaver 37). One day in the spring of 1758, Mary was sent to a neighbor s
house down the road to run an errand. She was walking down the road when she saw what
appeared to be a, white sheet rushing towards her with great force. Mary got caught up in a
sudden., large gust of wind that made her faint (Zeinert 11). She took this as a sign of the
impending doom that was to forever change the course of her life.
The next day, Mary returned home to find that a man had been shot in front of her home.
The family rushed outside the homestead to see what had happened only to be completely
surrounded with Indians. The Indians bound the men, and made prisoners of the women and
children (Seaver 43). There were six Indians and four Frenchmen in the group that captured
Mary and her family. The prisoners were led through the forest for many days without food,
water, or shelter. Finally, after about three or four days, the party stopped, and were finally fed.
Mary and another small boy that was held captive were taken aside, and a pair of moccasins were
placed on their feet (Zeinert 16). It was then that Mary knew the rest of her family was to be
shot. Her mother took her aside and gave her this advice, If you are taken from us, my child,
always remember your own name and the name of your father and mother. Do not forget your
English tongue. If you have an opportunity to get away from the Indians, don t try to escape, for
if you do, they will find you and destroy you. Don t forget the prayers I have taught you. Say
them often. Be a good child, and God will bless you, my darling , and make you comfortable and
happy (Zeinert 16).
For the nest three days, the Indians, Mary, and the other little boy hiked through the
woods. She was scared and didn t know where she was going, or what would happen. The
Indians that had kidnapped Mary and her family were Shawnee, and she was taken to a small
Seneca village called Mingo Town, which was located somewhere in Ohio (Seaver 55). Mary
was cleaned and dressed in Indian clothing and taken into a wigwam. Soon all the squaws in the
village came into the wigwam and began a mournful dance ritual that was to mourn the members
of the tribe that had died while fighting the whites, and also to welcome Mary into the tribe as
one of their own, as part of their family (Zeinert 25). Mary s Indian name was now
Deh-he-wa-mis, or pretty, handsome girl (Seaver 59).
Mary was now a part of the Seneca tribe. her life was relatively easy. She helped care for
the children, helped with chores, and occasionally helped to carry game back after hunts (Zeinert
27). She was not allowed to speak her native English, or continue any of the customs from her
childhood. IN 1760, Mary was told that she had to go live with a member of the Delaware tribe
named Sheninjee (Seaver 67). At first, she was offended and hurt that she had to be married to
this man, but after meeting him and spending time with him, she changed her mind. In 1761,
Mary gave birth to her first child, a girl. Mary was very sick after childbirth, and so was the child.
The child died shortly after it was born (Zeinert 33). Later on, in 1762, her second child was
born. He was a son, and Mary named him after her father, Thomas (Seaver 68).
When Thomas was about four moons old, Mary and her family decided to move to
Genishau, where her Seneca family had moved to. Along the way, Sheninjee and Mary were
separated. Sheninjee grew sick and died (Zeinert 46). The years passed, and life was fair for
Mary. At one point, the King of England offered a reward to anyone who would turn in a white
prisoner taken during the French and Indian war. Mary was one of these prisoners. The old king
of the tribe wanted to turn Mary in to the English. Mary s Indian brother Black Coals found out
the old king s plan and told him that he would rather kill Mary himself than have her taken back to
the English. Black Coals knew that Mary wanted to stay with the Indians, and not the English.
Mary narrowly escaped the old king, and remained with the Senecas in Genishau (Seaver 106).
When Thomas was four years old in 1766, Mary married a Seneca named Hiokatoo, and her third
child, John was born (Zeinert 50). The next twelve years were peaceful for Mary and her Indian
family. Things went well, and the different seasons passed. Mary had her fourth child, Nancy in
1773. In 1776, the Revolutionary war occurred. The colonists wanted to enlist the help of the
Indians to combat the English. Instead, the Indians signed a treaty to stay neutral and peaceful
during the conflict. A year later, the English requested that all the warriors, in all the tribes were
to meet in Oswego. The English were very convincing, and the tribes soon aligned themselves
with the British.
The ensuing war decimated the ranks of the Senecas. The tribe lost thirty-six of their
finest warriors (Seaver 117). After the war was over, the tribe did their best to recover. For the
next five years, things were quiet for Mary and her family. In the fall of 1779, General John
Sullivan of the colonial army cut a path of destruction through the Indian lands of Western New
York. He destroyed Mary s village. (Zeinert 61). This destruction occurred late in the year, and
soon, it became winter. This winter was bitterly cold and harsh for both Mary and the tribe.
There was very little food or shelter to be had. But Mary survived, and within two years moved
on to the flats near her old village. When she first reached the flats, they were inhabited only by
two former slaves who had run away from their masters in the south. These two men took her in,
and allowed her to work for food and shelter during the coming winter (Seaver 125).
After about two or three years, the slaves moved on and Mary lived on the land
continuously over the next few years (Zeinert 65). The next summer, the Indians sought
retribution for the treatment they had received at the hands of the colonists. They moved up and
down the state, burning and pillaging as they went. A peace treaty was signed between the
Indians and the colonists in 1783 (Zeinert 68). At this same time, Mary was offered her freedom
by Black Coals. She refused, and decided to live with the Indians for the rest of her life. She and
her children, which now included Betsey, Polly, and Jesse, who were born in 1777, 1778, and
1784 respectively lived on the flats, and farmed the land (Seaver 133). In 1797, Mary attended
the Great Council of the Big Tree, and was deeded the land that she had lived on for years
(Zeinert 72). Sometime between 1809 and 1810, Mary invited a cousin to come live with her on
the flats. She provided much for him, and he in turn tried to swindle her out of half the land that
had been deeded to her by the Senecas (Zeinert 75).
For the rest of her life, Mary lived a quiet existence, surrounded by her children and
friends. She still did much of her own chores, and took care of herself. On July 1, 1811, Mary s
sons John and Thomas got into an argument after having drank too much. The argument
escalated, and it resulted in Thomas s death (Seaver 145). In November of 1811, Hiokatoo died
of old age. He was one hundred and three (Zeinert 81). In May of 1812, Jesse and John were
helping a neighbor build a raft, when they took a break, and soon were drunk. Yet another
argument ensued, and John killed Jesse (Seaver 154). Finally, in order to be able to be able to
legally retain the rights to her flats, Mary became a United States citizen, and no longer a member
of the Seneca tribe. IN 1817, John was killed by two other Indians after they got drunk and had a
fight (Zeinert 86).
Mary first told her story to James Seaver in 1823. The tales of her life were exciting to
the public. Her life sold books, and satisfied the public s interest in wild tales of Indian savagery.
Mary Jemison died in 1833, while living on an Indian reservation near Buffalo, New York
(Zeinert 95). Later in the 1870 s, William Pryor Letchworth bought up much of the land along
the Genessee River, including Mary s. He heard tales of the White Woman of the Genessee.
He was deeply interested, and had her grave excavated, and a memorial put up where he reburied
her in what is now Letchworth State Park., where future generations would be able to hear
Mary s tale of success, strength, and hope.
1. Seaver, James E. (James Everett), 1787-1827. A narrative of the life of Mrs. Mary Jemison /
James E. Seaver ; with an introduction by June Namias
1. Zeinert, Karen. (James Everett), 1787-1827. Captured by Indians : the life of Mary Jemison
by James E. Seaver ; edited by Karen Zeinert