A daughter of Thomas and Jane Jemison, Mary drew her first breath on board the sailing ship William and Mary in the fall of 1743. Her parents, of Scotch-Irish heritage were Protestant settlers in Adams County, near Carlisle, Pennsylvania. On April 5, 1758, Indians and Frenchmen descended on the frontier neighborhood, killing many and dragging off captives. Mary, her parents, and several neighbors along with their children were among those captured and forced to march many miles through woods and swamps. Their fate was almost certain death, but the second night on the march, Mary was given a pair of moccasins to replace her shoes. A young boy was also given a pair of moccasins that same night. Mary's mother believed her daughter would be spared because of this gesture, which proved to be right. Mary had to endure the sight of her parents' scalps hung to dry after that night.
|An elderly Mary Jemison|
from Letchworth Park History
A few years later, Mary married Hiakatoo, a well known Seneca chief. He was much older than Mary--over 60 years old and she was 24. Six children were born to them, four daughters and two sons. Hiakatoo was powerful and a fierce chief. Over six feet tall, he provided protection and security for his tiny wife. They were married for over 40 years. Her children, although her greatest joy, were also a source of great sadness. Her son, John killed two of his brothers, and John was eventually killed in a drunken brawl.
Mary never went back to the white culture, although she was given opportunities over the years. Her adopted people, the Senecas were her family. However, she never referred to herself as Indian and all of her children were given English names. She became a highly respected woman among both the Indians and whites. In 1797 a council of whites and Indians was convened on the banks of the Genesee River, near present day Geneseo, NY. Land had been promised to Dehgewanus (Mary) and now that the Seneca Nation was in negotiations to relinquish over a half million acres of land to a land speculator, Robert Morris, it was time for Mary to select her land. A huge tract of land was eventually given to her - 17, 297 acres, an area six miles wide, 4 3/4 miles long on both sides of the Genesee. Red Jacket one of the Seneca chiefs, fought against Mary with great eloquence. However, once Red Jacket had been enjoying firewater in excess, Dehgewanus' claim was approved. Cabins were built for her children and herself on the Gardeau Flats. Her good friend and adviser, Thomas Clute helped her manage the tract of land and leases for many years.
In 1823, James Seaver interviewed Mary at the home of Mrs. Jennet Whaley in the Town of Castile. Seaver recorded that even at 80, Mary walked without assistance and she still had a peaches and cream complexion. Seaver's book, A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison is a classic in Western New York history. I highly recommend reading his book if you want to learn more about this fascinating woman. Seaver's formal style of writing may be a challenge, but his in depth interview with The White Woman of the Genesee is riveting. Arch Merrill, a well-known WNY journalist in the 1940s and 1950s wrote several books about the history of the Genesee Valley and his easy to read style may suit you better. The White Woman and Her Valley is another book I recommend for further reading.
|Mary Jemison Statue|
Letchworth State Park
Her life will always be one for the books. As Arch Merrill said in The White Woman and Her Valley, "No frontier girl was ever forced to lead a stranger life. Mary Jemison's years were full of toil and woe. Yet she never lost her sunny smile, her fortitude or her abiding generosity."
Helpful Links: http://www.letchworthparkhistory.com/jem.html