Mary Jemison

Colonial Captive to Seneca Woman

 

"Mary Being Arrayed in Indian Costume" by James Seaver; from the 1856 printing of The Life of Mary Jemison.

“Mary Being Arrayed in Indian Costume” by James Seaver; from the 1856 printing of
The Life of Mary Jemison.

In the early 1750s French traders began to move into the Ohio River Valley, precipitating a war between France and Great Britain to determine the final destiny of colonial North America. The resulting French and Indian War of 1756-1763 made western Pennsylvania into a war zone, and many settlers removed to the towns of Carlisle and York. Yet in Marsh Creek, Pennsylvania, Thomas Jemison decided to remain on his farm with his wife and three children. Thomas and his wife Jane had come to America from Ireland just a dozen years before in 1743. They had two sons, Thomas and John, each born in Ireland, and a daughter Mary, who was born while crossing the Atlantic on the ship bringing the Jemisons to America. Thomas senior decided to “occupy his land another season; expecting . . . that as soon as the troops could commence their operations” the Indian threat would be conquered. This assumption would cost him his life. On one fateful morning in the Spring of 1758, even before breakfast was ready, the Jemisons were alarmed by the discharge of a number of guns, that seemed to be near. Thomas senior, Jane and Mary were all taken captive by a party that “consisted of six Indians and four Frenchmen.” Thus began the remarkable captivity of Mary Jemison.

Fearing that the Indians would soon kill her, Jane Jemison told her daughter that “If you shall have an opportunity to get away from the Indians, don’t try to escape; for if you do they will find and destroy you.” Mary Jemison heeded her mother’s final request of her, although she knew “early the next morning” that her “suspicions as to the fate of my parents proved too true; for soon after I left them they were killed and scalped . . . and mangled in the most shocking manner.” Mary was taken to a Seneca village near Fort Duquesne, where she was adopted by two Indian women and given the name Dickewamis, which means “pretty girl.” They taught her the traditional duties and manners of a Seneca woman, and when Mary had reached the age of seventeen, her “sisters” told her “that I must go and live with” a Delaware man named Sheninjee. Originally the prospect did not appeal to Mary, but “not daring to cross them, or disobey their commands, with great reluctance I went . . . and [he and] I were married according to Indian custom.” However, Mary came to love Sheninjee, whom she later describes as “a noble man, large in stature, elegant in his appearance, generous in his conduct, courageous in war, a friend to peace and a great lover of justice.”

At the conclusion of the French and Indian War, Mary and her newborn son Thomas moved to New York to a settlement on the Genesee River. Sheninjee died that winter, and Mary soon remarried a Seneca man named Hiokatoo. The next decade proved quiet, happy, and full of children. Mary and Hiokatoo had four daughters (Jane, Nancy, Betsey, and Polly) and two sons (John and Jesse). Between the end of the “French war” and the Revolution, Mary comments that “our tribe had nothing to trouble it.” Her tribe avoided war “with the neighboring whites, though there were none at that time very near,” and “our Indians lived quietly and peaceably at home.” She learned to accept her life, and found that “no people can live more happy than the Indians did in times of peace.”

The conflict between the American colonies and King George III ended this peaceful existence. As the conflict approached, American envoys called for a council of the Six Nations at German Flats “in order that the people of the states might ascertain, in good season, who they should esteem and treat as enemies, and who as friends, in the great war which was upon the point of breaking out between them and the King of England.” At this council the “Six Nations solemnly agreed that if war should eventually break out, they would observe a strict neutrality.” Satisfied with this treaty, the Americans departed. However within a year, the British Commissioners for Indian Affairs called their own council with the Six Nations, and demanded the Senecas support the king. Mary claims that “the Chiefs then arose, and informed the Commissioners of the nature and extent of the treaty which they had entered into with the people of the states, the year before.” After threatening the Indians, the Commissioners “addressed their avarice, by telling our people that . . if they would assist in the war, and persevere in their friendship to the King, till it was closed, should never want for money or goods.” This turned the council’s opinion and the earlier treaty with the Americans was tossed aside.

"The Indians delivering up the English captives to Colonel Bouquet" by Benjamin West, published 1766.

“The Indians delivering up the English captives to Colonel Bouquet” by Benjamin West, published 1766.

Eager to benefit from the material wealth promised by the British, “a party of our Indians . . . shot a man that was looking after his horse, for the sole purpose, as I was informed by my Indian brother, who was present, of commencing hostilities.” Minor skirmishes continued over the next couple of years, occasionally taking the life of a member of Mary’s tribe. However, the major slaughter resulted at the Battle of Fort Stanwix. As part of a grand strategy to split the colonies, British General “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne had devised a three flank movement against Albany for 1777. One of these flanks was under the command of Brigadier General Barry St. Leger, and was charged with marching on Albany from the west. St. Leger met resistance however, and was forced to lay siege to Fort Stanwix. The arrival of 1,000 Continental soldiers under Major General Benedict Arnold turned the tide. Convinced that the Americans numbered 3,500, St. Leger’s Indian allies fled after taking severe casualties. Mary’s village lost “thirty-six killed, and a great number wounded.” The returning warriors recounted their misfortunes, and the town’s “mourning was excessive, and was expressed by the most doleful yells, shrieks, and howlings.”

For the next two years, Mary’s village remained largely isolated from the war. Mary entertained British Colonels Brandt and Butler when they passed through on their way to Fort Niagara. Mary thus spent most of the Revolution catering to officers. She “pounded samp for them from sun-set till sun-rise, and furnished them with necessary provision and clean clothing for their journey.” This pattern of isolation from the Revolutionary conflict changed drastically in 1779, when the American General Sullivan invaded western New York on a mission to burn every Indian farm and cornfield he could find. When the Americans burned Mary’s village, she fled with three small children “who went with me on foot, one who rode on horse back, and one whom I carried on my back.” She arrived at the Gardow flats, where she resided with two runaway slaves who hired her to husk corn. Mary remained at the Gardow flats for the rest of the war.
After “the close of the revolutionary war,” Mary’s “Indian brother, Kau-jises-tau-ge-au (Black Coals), offered me my liberty.” Mary’s son Thomas “was anxious that I should go; and offered to go with me and assist me on the journey.” However, “the Chiefs of our tribe, suspecting from his appearance, actions, and a few warlike exploits, that Thomas would be a great warrior, or a good counsellor, refused to let him eave them on any account whatever.” Thus, unable to bear the loss of her child, Mary decided to remain with the Senecas.
Life did not improve much for the Senecas in the years immediately after the Revolution. Her daughter Jane died when she was just fifteen years old. Hiokatoo contracted tuberculosis in 1807, and suffered four years before finally succumbing in 1811. Mary did receive land at the treaty of Big Tree of 1797, and built a house in Gardow Flats. Yet western New York was still a war zone, and American settlement into the backcountry proceeded rapidly. The influx of so many whites brought increased trade and higher rates of whiskey consumption among the Senecas. In the same year she lost her husband, her son John murdered his half-brother Thomas, and a year later, John also murdered Jesse. Mary attributed these senseless tragedies to John’s alcoholism. When she reached her eighties, Mary reflected that her life had been “a tragical medley” that she hoped would “never be repeated.” She died as a Seneca woman in 1833, at the age of ninety-one.


Witness Documents: Mary Jamison

The following passages are taken from Mary Jemison, James E. Seaver, A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison, (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992; first published 1824).

On being taken captive:

. . . Breakfast was not yet ready, when we were alarmed by the discharge of a number of guns, that seemed to be near . . . the party that took us consisted of six Indians and four Frenchmen, who immediately commenced plundering . . . Having taken as much provision as they could carry, they set out with their prisoners in great haste . . . Whenever the little children cried for water, the Indians would make them drink urine or go thirsty. At night they encamped in the woods without fire and without shelter, where we were watched with the greatest vigilance . . . Towards evening we arrived at the border of a dark and dismal swamp . . . Here we had some bread and meat for supper; but the dreariness of our situation, together with the uncertainty under which we all labored, as to our future destiny, almost deprived us of the sense of hunger . . . As soon as I had finished my supper, an Indian took off my shoes and stockings and put a pair of moccasins on my feet, which my mother observed; and believing that they would spare my life, even if they should destroy the other captives, addressed me as near as I can remember in the following words:–
“My dear little Mary, I fear that the time has arrived when we must be parted forever. Your life, my child, I think will be spared; but we shall probably be tomahawked here . . . If you shall have an opportunity to get away from the Indians, don’t try to escape; for if you do they will find and destroy you . . .”
. . . The Indian led us some distance into the bushes, or woods, and there lay down with us to spend the night. The recollection of parting with my tender mother kept me awake, while the tears constantly flowed from my eyes . . . Early the next morning the indians and Frenchmen that we had left the night before, came to us . . . My suspicions as to the fate of my parents proved too true; for soon after I left them they were killed and scalped . . . and mangled in the most shocking manner. . .

On meeting with the Americans on the eve of Revolution:

. . . at peace amongst themselves, and with the neighboring whites, though there were none at that time very near, our Indians lived quietly and peaceably at home, till a little before the breaking out of the revolutionary war, when they were sent for, together with the Chiefs and members of the Six Nations generally, by the people of the States, to go to the German Flats, and there hold a general council, in order that the people of the states might ascertain, in good season, who they should esteem and treat as enemies, and who as friends, in the great war which was upon the point of breaking out between them and the King of England. Our Indians obeyed the call, and the council was holden, at which the pipe of peace was smoked, and a treaty made, in which the Six Nations solemnly agreed that if war should eventually break out, they would observe a strict neutrality. With that the people of the states were satisfied, as they had not asked their assistance, nor did not wish it . . .

On meeting with the British on the eve of the Revolution:

About a year passed off, and we, as usual, were enjoying ourselves in the employments of peaceable times, when a messenger arrived from the British Commissioners, requesting all the Indians of our tribe to attend a general council which was soon to be held at Oswego. The council convened, and being opened, the British Commissioners informed the Chiefs that the object of calling a council of the Six Nations, was, to engage their assistance in subduing the rebels . . . The Chiefs then arose, and informed the Commissioners of the nature and extent of the treaty which they had entered into with the people of the states, the year before . . . The Commissioners continued their entreaties without success, till they addressed their avarice, by telling our people that . . . the King was rich and powerful, both in money and subjects: That his rum was as plenty as the water in lake Ontario: that his men were as numerous as the sands upon the lake shore: — and that the Indians, if they would assist in the war, and persevere in their friendship to the King, till it was closed, [they] should never want for money or goods. Upon this the Chiefs concluded a treaty with the British Commissioners, in which they agreed to take up arms against the rebels.

Opening hostilities in the Revolution:

Hired to commit depredations on the whites, who had given them no offence, they waited impatiently to commence their labor, till sometime in the spring of 1776, when a convenient opportunity offered for them to make an attack. At that time, a party of our Indians were at Cau-te-ga, who shot a man that was looking after his horse, for the sole purpose, as I was informed by my Indian brother, who was present, of commencing hostilities.
In May following, our Indians were in their first battle with the Americans; but at what place I am unable to determine. While they were absent at this time, my daughter Nancy was born.
The same year at Cherry Valley, our Indians took a woman and her three daughters prisoners, and brought them on, leaving one at Canandaigua, one at Honeoy, one at Cattaraugus, and one (the woman) at Little Beard’s Town, where I resided. . .

On Fort Stanwix and the use of Mary’s house:

Previous to the battles at Fort Stanwix, the British sent for the Indians to come and see them whip the rebels . . . Our Indians went, to a man; but contrary to their expectation, instead of smoking and looking on, they were obliged to fight for their lives, and in the end of the battle were completely beaten, with a great loss in killed and wounded. Our Indians alone had thirty-six killed, and a great number wounded. Our town exhibited a scene of real sorrow and distress, when our warriors returned and recounted their misfortunes, and stated the real loss they had sustained in the engagement. The mourning was excessive, and was expressed by the most doleful yells, shrieks, and howlings . . .
. . . During the revolution, my house was the home of Col’s Butler and Brandt, whenever they chanced to come into our neighborhood as they passed to and from Fort Niagara, which was the seat of their military operations. Many and many a night I have pounded samp for them from sun-set till sun-rise, and furnished them with necessary provision and clean clothing for their journey.

On General Sullivan’s attack:

For four or five years we sustained no loss in the war, except in the few who had been killed in distant battles; and our tribe, because of the remoteness of its situation from the enemy, felt secure from an attack. At length, in the fall of 1779, intelligence was received that a large and powerful army of rebels, under the command of General Sullivan, was making rapid progress towards our settlement, burning and destroying the huts and corn-fields . . . In one or two days after the skirmish at Connissius lake, Sullivan and his army arrived at Genesee river, where they destroyed every article of the food kind that they could lay their hands on. A part of our corn they burnt, and threw the remainder into the river. They burnt our houses, killed what few cattle and horses they could find, destroyed our fruit trees, and left nothing but the bare soil and timber. But the Indians had eloped and were not to be found.

On Mary’s decision to remain with the Seneca:

Soon after the close of the revolutionary war, my Indian brother, Kau-jises-tau-ge-au (which being interpreted signifies Black Coals), offered me my liberty, and told me that if it was my choice I might go to my friends.
My son, Thomas, was anxious that I should go; and offered to go with me and assist me on the journey . . . But the Chiefs of our tribe, suspecting from his appearance, actions, and a few warlike exploits, that Thomas would be a great warrior, or a good counsellor, refused to let him leave them on any account whatever . . . To go myself, and leave him, was more than I felt able to do.


For Further Reading:

Governor Blacksnake, Chainbreaker : the Revolutionary War memoirs of Governor
Blacksnake (1989).
Joseph Fischer, A Well-Executed Failure : The Sullivan Campaign Against the Iroquois, July –
September 1779 (1997).
Max Mintz, Seeds of Empire: The American Revolutionary Conquest of the Iroquois (1999).
Fred Anderson, Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British
North America, 1754-1766 (2000).