White Woman of the Genesee
Sadly, part of Early American life has included settlers being killed or abducted by Native American tribes. While some were rescued and returned to their families, some declined to leave what they felt was their adopted families, and continued to live among them. This is the story of Mary Jemison, who in 1755 was kidnapped and later became part of the Seneca community, where she lived for the rest of her life. She also had her experiences published in a popular book at the time.
Mary was actually born at sea in 1743 when her family was en route to the American colonies from Ireland. After landing in Philadelphia, the Jemison’s traveled west to settle into the area near (what is now) Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and eventually there were six children besides Mary. Then by 1755 the conflict known as the French and Indian War—with the British—was raging throughout the American Colonies and the people on the frontier were particularly affected.
In the spring of 1758, a force of French soldiers accompanied by their Native Shawnee allies, swooped down on the Jemison family settlement and captured them. They headed west with their captives toward Ft. Duquesne (now Pittsburgh) and when pursued by the militia the raiders decided they had too many prisoners. They separated Mary and an unrelated boy from the others, and then the raiders slaughtered and scalped, the others in the Jemison family.
According to Mary’s later account, her mother had had a feeling of the upcoming danger and told her daughter, “My dear little Mary, I fear that the time has arrived when we must be parted for ever…Oh! How can I think of your being continued in captivity, without a hope of your being rescued?…If you leave us remember my child, your own name and…be careful and not forget your English tongue…Don’t forget, my little daughter the prayers that I have learned you [sic] say them often: be a good child and God will bless you!”
At Ft. Duquesne Mary was acquired by a group of Seneca who traveled downriver on the Ohio to a Seneca settlement where she entered her new world. She was given the name of Dehgewanus or “Two Falling Voices.”
A few years later Mary married a Delaware man named Sheninjee and then in 1762 had a son she named Thomas after her father. Then as Mary and her husband traveled to set out for his homeland along the Genesee River in what is now Upper New York State. On the way he became ill and died, leaving Mary alone with her child, in a strange land. However, Shenijee’s family helped her find a home, in the area that was the center of Seneca settlement. Then later Mary married a Seneca man named Hiokatoo and had six more children. Life was pleasant for her and peaceful. For a while.
However, as the Revolutionary War began the Seneca and other tribes joined the British and thus became targets for American attacks. In 1779 General George Washington sent troops to attack the Seneca, who were forced to flee, and Mary and her children sought refuge in a nearby town. She lived there for some sixty years, as over the years as Mary and her husband raised their family. However, there were new problems as they entered the Genesee River valley, a new enemy. Not military but new settlers and financial speculators.
Finally in 1797 at a major council meeting, and after long and hard negotiations there was written a treaty, that paid the Seneca and established reservations as they gave up a large portion of their land. Mary and her family ended up with a home on a large reservation where they grew corn, beans and squash. Yet eventually the new influx of American settlers meant pressure and tension in the area and some tried to take Mary’s land from her. However, Mary or Dehegewanus was well loved by her community and was known as the “Old White Woman of the Genesse.”
Then in 1823 through neighborly influence, Mary met with an American writer and the result of their conversations there was published in 1824 a book titled The Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison. It was frequently reprinted, the last time in 1967. Though there was early speculation that the author had inserted some of his own ideas later scholars later believed it was a fairly accurate account of Mary’s experiences. As one source put it, “By staying with the Seneca, she showed that she preferred life with the Seneca to what she had seen of the lives of colonial British women.”
Mary died among her adopted people in 1833 at age 90.
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.