White woman of the Genesee

Few people in the 18th and 19th centuries had a life as long and remarkable as Mary Jemison.

In 1823, Jemison related her life story to a minister, James Seaver. It was published in 1824 as a classical “captivity narrative.” While many captive stories were “thinly disguised propaganda” against Indigenous people and their French allies, most scholars consider Jemison’s narrative a reasonably accurate account of her life and times.

Mary Jemison was born in 1743 to Thomas and Jane Erwin Jemison aboard the ship William and Mary as her Scotch-Irish parents were en route to the American colonies from Northern Ireland. Upon arriving in Philadelphia, Mary’s parents and her siblings John, Thomas and Betsey headed west to the frontier — central Pennsylvania — where Mary’s mother gave birth to Matthew and Robert.

In 1758 during the French and Indian War, a raiding party of six Shawnee Indigenous people and four French men captured Mary, her parents and three of her siblings. Brothers John and Thomas hid in a barn and later escaped.

On the way to Fort Duquesne (near present day Pittsburgh) shortly after being captured, Mary’s mother told her, “My dear little Mary, I fear the time has arrived when we must part forever. Your life, my child, I think will be spared, but we will probably be tomahawked here in this lonesome place by the Indians.” She was correct: Mary’s parents, sister, two brothers and another woman and her two children “were killed and scalped … and mangled in the most shocking manner.”

Mary was taken to a Seneca village where “all the Squaws in the town came to see me. I was surrounded by them and they immediately set up a most dismal howling, crying bitterly and wringing their hands in all the agonies of grief for a deceased relative.”

Two of the women had lost a relative in the French and Indian War, and on the day Mary arrived they were to receive a prisoner, or an enemy’s scalp, in compensation. If they received a prisoner, it was their choice to either satisfy their vengeance by taking her/his life in the most cruel manner imaginable, or adopt the prisoner, receiving that individual into their family in place of the one lost. Jemison was given the name Deh-he-wa-nis, which she learned meant “a pretty girl, a handsome girl or good thing.” Yet another interpretation of her Seneca name is “Two Falling Voices.”

Mary was fortunate to be selected for adoption by the two Seneca women “and treated by them as a real sister, the same as though I had been born to their mother.” She was soon fully integrated into Seneca life, caring for children, “doing light work,” and on occasion sent out with hunters to help carry game back to the village. She notes that while her “situation was easy,” she could not overcome the death of her family that destroyed “my happiness and left me constantly solitary, lonesome and gloomy.”

Her new sisters would not allow Mary to speak English in their presence, “but remembering the charge that my dear mother gave me at the time I left her, whenever I chanced to be alone I made a business of repeating my prayer, catechism, or something that I had learned in order that I might not forget my own language.”

When she was 17, Jemison married Sheninjee, a Lenni Lenape (Delaware) man who was “large in stature, elegant in his appearance; generous in his conduct; courageous in war … The idea of spending my life with him, at first seemed perfectly irreconcilable to my feelings but his good nature, generosity, tenderness and friendship toward me, soon gained my affection; and, strange as it might seem, I loved him!”

Her second year with the Senecas, Jemison had a child that lived only two days. “It was a grief for me to lose” a daughter, she said. Shortly after the child was born, Jemison became seriously ill, and near death thought “my troubles will soon be finished.” However, she recovered and regained health. In her fourth year of captivity, she had a son and named the child after her father — Thomas Jemison.

Also in her fourth year of captivity Mary notes that “my anxiety to get away, to be set at liberty, had almost subsided.” Speaking of the Senecas, she stated “with them was my home; my family was there, and there I had many friends to whom I was warmly attached in consideration of the favors, affection and friendship with which they had uniformly treated me from the time of my adoption.” She lamented the only thing now marring her happiness “was the recollection that I once had tender parents, and a home that I loved.”

Mary’s husband Sheningee died unexpectedly while on a hunting trip in 1761. “This was a heavy and unexpected blow. I was now in my youthful days and left a widow, with one son and entirely dependent on myself for his and my support. My mother and her family gave me all the consolation in their power, and in a few months my grief wore off and I became contented.” When her son “was three of four years old” Jemison married a Seneca chief, Hiakatoo (also spelled Hiokatoo and Hiadagoo), with whom she had four daughters and two sons.

During the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) the Senecas were allies of the British, hoping an English victory would stop colonists from encroaching on their land. Along with other Senecas, Jemison worked hard to support and supply warriors from the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) Confederacy who were fighting Patriot forces.

Biographer James Seaver stated Jemison was “intelligent, sociable and communicative, but grave and serious after the manner of the Indians with whom her life from childhood had been spent …”

Known as the “White Woman of the Genesee,” Jemison was physically active until well into her 80s and died at 90 years of age in September 1833 near present day Buffalo, New York.

In 1874, Mary Jemison’s remains were reinterred near her former home on the Genesee River, what later became Letchworth State Park. A bronze statue marks Jemison’s grave.

— — —

George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale and is retired after 24 years of teaching sociology at the University of San Diego.


“Mary Jemison or Dehgewanus – The White Woman of the Genesee” (accessed 2023) Letchworth Park History, www.letchworthparkhistory.com

“Mary Jemison” (accessed) New World Encyclopedia, www.newworldencyclopedia.com

Seaver, J. (1975, first published in 1824) “A Narrative of the Life of Mary Jemison,” Corinth Books: New York


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