9/28/2013

The White Woman of the Genesee

If you've visited Letchworth State Park or are from Wyoming County, NY you're familiar with Mary Jemison a/k/a The White Woman of the Genesee. Hers is a fascinating story spanning years before the Revolutionary War to the early 1800s. Mary's life is a Western New York legend, a rich part of the early history of the white man coming to the "beautiful valley."

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
Mary was adopted by two Seneca sisters who taught her the language and customs of their tribe. Jane Jemison's parting words to her daughter were to never forget the prayers she'd been taught and her own language. She never did forget, but Mary was wise enough to understand that her life was changed forever and quickly immersed herself in the ways of the Seneca. She married a Delaware warrior and bore two children. Her firstborn, a girl lived only a couple of days and then a son was born, whom she named Thomas after her father. Mary moved with the Seneca sisters and eventually took up residence in Little Beard's Town or present day Cuylerville, NY.  Sheninjee, her husband went off to fight and never returned.  Many months later she learned he had died from illness. 

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
Mary Jemison died at age 90 and was buried on the Buffalo Creek Reservation in Buffalo, NY. William Pryor Letchworth who owned what is now Letchworth State Park, and which was part of Jemison's land created a memorial to her in the park. In 1870, he had the Seneca Council House located in Caneadea, NY moved to his property and in 1874 received permission to move Jemison's remains to be re-interred near the Council House.  A bronze statute of a young Mary was also erected in September, 1910 to honor the memory of this courageous woman.  

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
http://www.swarthmore.edu/SocSci/bdorsey1/41docs/47-jem.html

2 comments:

Neal said...

I am doing a project in the Broad Street Aqueduct in Rochesterand I would like to bring her and other Seneca eople who added their histories to our area. I am creating a naturally flowing water feature into a fountain dedicated to the female personality who most exemplfies the spirit of the Genesee... Google, Broad Street Underground...Neal Rudin zagozana@yahoo.com

Laurinda Wallace said...

Neal - Sounds like a great project. I wish you all the best. Mary is certainly a woman who deserves to be remembered.

Positively encouraging

9/28/2013

The White Woman of the Genesee

If you've visited Letchworth State Park or are from Wyoming County, NY you're familiar with Mary Jemison a/k/a The White Woman of the Genesee. Hers is a fascinating story spanning years before the Revolutionary War to the early 1800s. Mary's life is a Western New York legend, a rich part of the early history of the white man coming to the "beautiful valley."

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
Mary was adopted by two Seneca sisters who taught her the language and customs of their tribe. Jane Jemison's parting words to her daughter were to never forget the prayers she'd been taught and her own language. She never did forget, but Mary was wise enough to understand that her life was changed forever and quickly immersed herself in the ways of the Seneca. She married a Delaware warrior and bore two children. Her firstborn, a girl lived only a couple of days and then a son was born, whom she named Thomas after her father. Mary moved with the Seneca sisters and eventually took up residence in Little Beard's Town or present day Cuylerville, NY.  Sheninjee, her husband went off to fight and never returned.  Many months later she learned he had died from illness. 

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
Mary Jemison died at age 90 and was buried on the Buffalo Creek Reservation in Buffalo, NY. William Pryor Letchworth who owned what is now Letchworth State Park, and which was part of Jemison's land created a memorial to her in the park. In 1870, he had the Seneca Council House located in Caneadea, NY moved to his property and in 1874 received permission to move Jemison's remains to be re-interred near the Council House.  A bronze statute of a young Mary was also erected in September, 1910 to honor the memory of this courageous woman.  

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
http://www.swarthmore.edu/SocSci/bdorsey1/41docs/47-jem.html

2 comments:

Neal said...

I am doing a project in the Broad Street Aqueduct in Rochesterand I would like to bring her and other Seneca eople who added their histories to our area. I am creating a naturally flowing water feature into a fountain dedicated to the female personality who most exemplfies the spirit of the Genesee... Google, Broad Street Underground...Neal Rudin zagozana@yahoo.com

Laurinda Wallace said...

Neal - Sounds like a great project. I wish you all the best. Mary is certainly a woman who deserves to be remembered.