Selected Indians of New York State Part IV


Mary Jemison

De-gi-wa-nahs,* or Mary Jemison, more commonly known as the White Woman, was born of Irish parents, about the year 1743, on the ocean voyage to this country. Her father, Thomas Jemison, a man of godly character, settled in a wilderness portion of
Pennsylvania. The French and Indian wars compelled him to seek a less exposed spot, and he removed to Marsh creek. One fine day, in the spring of 1755, Mary was sent to a neighbor' s for a horse. On her way thither she appears to have had a presentiment. A white sheet seemed to descend and catch her up and save her from a danger that impended over others. Returning early the next morning, she found her father shaving an axe-helve near the door. Her two elder brothers were at the barn, and her mother and three children and a soldier' s wife, who was on a visit with her three children, were in the house preparing breakfast. On Mary's arrival, the soldier took the horse to bring a bag of grain, but in a short time the discharge of guns alarmed the household, and, the man and horse were presently seen lying dead near the door. A band of six Shawnee Indians and four Frenchmen soon entered the house, made captives of all, and hastened the breakfastless group with blows, into the woods. The father lost heart at the outset, but the mother preserved a cheerful spirit and spoke words of hope to the forlorn family. Mary' s shoes, and those of the soldier's son, were soon removed and replaced with moccasins. From this the mother concluded that the others would be put to death, and addressed words of advice, never to be forgotten, to her poor child. In an hour's time Mary was torn from her mother and carried into the bushes with the boy, who begged her to attempt escape with him, but she refused, as she knew the effort would be fruitless. Mary never more saw aught of them save the bloody scalps of her parents. The band went down the Ohio, where Mary was adopted by two sisters who had lost a brother in the war.

 The ceremony so frightened the little captive that, for a time, she was deprived of speech. Her clothing, torn rags in the journey, was thrown into the river and replaced with Indian raiment. Light work was assigned her and she was treated with great kindness. She sought to repeat, in secret, the prayers taught by her mother, but, by degrees, these, with her English tongue, faded from her memory. Many years passed happily away, when a young Delaware, of goodly person and approved courage, named She-nin-jee, came to the village and her foster sisters told her she must marry him. A child was born to her "at the time that the kernels of corn first appear on the cob," but it lived only two days. Its loss occasioned the keenest grief to the youthful mother. Sickness, which proved well-nigh fatal to the young captive, followed, but "by the time the corn was ripe," she recovered. Two years later, she became the mother of a son, whom, in honor of her father, she named Thomas Jemison. Her Indian mother lived on the Genesee, and hither, with her foster sisters, she now repaired. Her husband was to pass the winter down the river in fur hunting, and join her in the spring. Various mishaps attended the journey hitherward, but, late in the fall, they arrived at Beardstown, where a friendly welcome awaited the white girl from her Indian mother, whose friendship never relaxed. But her husband did not return, and at length the news was brought that She-nin-jee had sickened and died. About this period the British authorities offered a bounty for the surrender of prisoners taken during the French war. A Dutchman, who often visited the Indian villages, proposed to Mary to carry her to Niagara, but she had now become attached to the Indians, and she knew nothing of the whereabouts of her relatives, if, indeed, any survived. So she determined not to go. The Dutchman, with the bounty in view, sought to take her by force. While in her corn-patch one day, she saw him running toward her. Dropping her hoe, she made for the village at full speed, and escaped him. Some months later, the principal Chief of the village, resolved to carry Mary to Niagara. Her Indian brother determined that she should not go against her will, and high words ensued. He told the Chief that she should die by his hand sooner than be surrendered. Mary' s sisters, in great consternation, hid her and her child in some high weeds that grew near by, agreeing that if the decision should be unfavorable, the fact should be indicated by placing a small cake on the door-step of her hut, A few hours after, Mary crept to the place, and, to her great distress, found the cake. Creeping-back, she placed her three year old boy on her back and ran for a certain spring, as agreed, which she reached, greatly exhausted.

Here she remained anxious and fearful, until the Chief started for Niagara, when her Indian brother sought her and brought her to the village where she was received with joy. Soon after this she married Hio-ka-too, who was a warrior of note. By him she had four daughters and two sons, all of whom she named after her relatives. The girls were called Jane, Nancy, Betsey and Polly, and the boys John and Jesse. Jane died just before the Big Tree treaty, aged 29 years. The other daughters married and had families. More than a dozen years of peace had come and gone after her second marriage, when quiet was rudely broken by the Indians taking up arms for the British in the war of the Revolution. Mary's hut became the stopping place of Butler and Brant whenever they chanced at Beardstown. She often pounded corn from sun-set to sun-rise for her warrior guests. When the Beardstown families retreated before Sullivan, Mary, with her children, accompanied them to Fort Niagara, and was among the first to return to the Genesee. But destitution prevailed at Beardstown. She, therefore, took her children, one afternoon, and, on foot, went to Gardow, where she engaged to two negroes, who alone occupied the place, to husk their corn on shares. After the war was over she was again offered her liberty. Thomas was anxious for her to accept it, but she had Indian children. Should she have the fortune to find her relatives, they might be received with coldness ; hence she resolved to spend her days among the Senecas. At the Big Tree treaty the Indians set apart a large tract of land at Gardow, for Mary. Red Jacket opposed the grant with great earnestness, and, even after it was made, he delayed moneys due her. Family troubles gathered around her. Thomas and John had long disagreed. The former charged the latter with practicing witchcraft He married two wives, and this greatly offended Thomas, who urged that bigamy was a violation of wholesome laws.

Early in July, 1811, Thomas, who had been drinking, came to his mother' s house in her absence, and there found John, whom he began to pound. The latter, in a moment of anger, seized Thomas, dragged him to the door and killed him by a blow of his tomahawk. Grief overwhelmed the mother. The chiefs met, heard the case, and acquitted the murderer. In November of the same year, Hio-ka-too died of consumption at the age of more than a hundred years, during fifty of which he had lived with Mary. He was a leading warrior, taking part in the expedition to Wyoming, and was noted for strength, and, in his younger days, for fleetness. In May following, John's hands were again imbrued in a brother's blood. This time Jesse, the youngest and favorite son, was the victim. The two,with a brother-in-law, had spent the day in sliding a quantity of boards into the river for a raft. Some difficulty arose between John and a workman. Both had been drinking. Jesse had started homeward.His brother's delay caused him to turn back, and he too became involved in the quarrel. John threw him, and, drawing his knife, plunged it several times into his heart. Either stab would have been fatal. The mother never recovered from the shock. A rude inquest was held, and John escaped punishment. He continued to reside at Gardow, devoting himself to the practice of medicine, in which he had skill. Five years after Jesse' s death, be was sent for to a distant Seneca village. During his absence, the great land slide occurred, near his house. On his return he became impressed with the belief that it was ominous of his end. He told his sisters he should live but a few days. A week or two later, in visiting Squakie Hill, he quarrelled with two Indians, who followed him a short distance, dragged him from his horse into the bushes, and dashed his brains out with a stone. He was essentially a man of violence. Turner mentions seeing him on his way to the Buffalo reservation, at the head of a small band of Senecas, to kill the blacksmith Reese, who had cut off Young King' s arm with a scythe in an altercation. Jemison was armed with a war club and tomahawk, his face covered with red paint ; and long bunches of horse hair dyed red, hung from his arms.

 Under the advice of friends, Mary procured the passage of an enabling act, and sold a portion of her great landed reserve ; and, in 1823, she parted with all save a tract two miles long and one mile wide, lying on the river. This she continued to occupy until her removal to the Buffalo reservation, where, after a life of vicissitudes, her death occurred in September, 1833. She was held in high esteem by the Indians, for during a large portion of her life she formed the principal medium of communication between the whites and the Senecas. According to Indian ideas she always conducted herself virtuously, and was discreet in the observance of native customs. The late Elder John Wiley, of Springwater, spent a day with her shortly before she left Gardow. He found her lively and intelligent. "I have seldom seen an old lady so smart and active, or one whose eyes were so bright," said he. She was small in person, her eyes were blue, and her hair was then quite gray. She never spoke the Indian language with entire fluency. The use of the English tongue was so far recovered by her, that she conversed, with much freedom with Yankees as she always styled the whites. She died on the Buffalo reservation near where Little Johnson then lived.* John A. Kennedy, f who visited the Seneca burial place on the Buffalo Reservation in 1840, and saw the grave of Mary Jemison, was there again in 1848, when every external vestige of it had disappeared. The grounds had been plowed over and the field was then planted to corn. "The grave-yard I saw in 1840," continues Mr. Kennedy, suggested to my mind that the Mound Builders kept burying their dead on the same spot, one tier above another. It was about half an acre in size, quadrangular, on a level plain, and was four and a half to five feet high, the four sides sloping outward at the bottom. Except where graves were raised it was perfectly level on top ; the grass grew on the sides as though they had been sodded. There were probably a dozen tomb-stones on it, one of which was the White Woman' s. The theory I formed was that it began to be used while on a level with the surrounding ground and when the area was filled lip, earth enough was brought to make another story of graves, and so on, one story above another, until the mound was completed, diminishing toward the top as the work of inhuming mortality proceeded.


Article Name: Selected Indians of New York State Part IV
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: A History of Livingston County, New York by Lockwood Lyon; Geneseo; Edward E. Doty 1876
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