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Heritage Moments: Mary Jemison of the Seneca Nation, the ‘White Woman of the Genesee’

Statue by Henry Kirke Bush-Brown, Letchworth State Park, 1910; photo by Steven Tryon, pearwood
The grave of Mary Jemison in the Wyoming County town of Castile. She lived most of her life under her Seneca name, Dehgewanus.

In 1823 along the Genesee River there lived an old woman who was quite famous in the region. She was Seneca, yet her features were European and her complexion was fair, and she spoke both the Seneca language and English fluently. Her children, grandchildren and other Senecas called her Dehgewanus. The settlers called her Mary Jemison, the White Woman of the Genesee.

On Nov. 29, 1823, the old woman walked into Whaley’s Tavern, where she met a physician, minister and author named James E. Seaver. “I’ve come to tell the story of my 80 years,” she said. “My life has been checked, almost every hour, with troubles of a deeper dye than are commonly experienced.” She spoke for hours. He wrote it all down.

She was born, she said, in 1742 or ’43 in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, aboard a ship sailing from Ireland to Philadelphia. She was still an infant when she and her family, Scots-Irish farmers, settled on territory controlled by the Iroquois Confederacy, in what is now south-central Pennsylvania. There they cleared land for their homestead.

Credit Engraving from “The Life of Mary Jemison, Deh-He-Wa-Mis”, 1856 edition.
Young Mary, adopted by her Seneca family

When Mary Jemison was about 12 and the French and Indian War was raging, a raiding party of Shawnees and Frenchmen, out to harry British lands, attacked the Jemison homestead. Mary and most of her family were captured and marched off into the woods. On the second night, her mother told her: “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 in this lonesome place.” A few minutes later, Mary was led away while her mother, father, sister and two brothers remained behind under guard. Some six decades later, Mary remembered her mother’s last words: “Don’t cry, Mary! – don’t cry, my child! God will bless you! Farewell – farewell!”

The next day, their captors pulled from their bags a set of wet scalps and proceeded to dry them by the campfire. Mary recognized the color of the hair – the scalps came from her family.

Mary was marched all the way to Fort Duquesne, a French outpost at what is today Pittsburgh, a 175-mile journey. There two Seneca women took her down the Ohio River to somewhere in current-day West Virginia or Ohio. She was adopted by a Seneca family, given the name Dehgewanus (meaning pretty girl or a pleasant, good thing), and quickly adapted to her new life.

She married a Delaware man named Sheninjee, lost a daughter soon after childbirth and then had a son, whom she named Thomas after her late father. Her husband decided to move his small family more than 500 miles, by foot, to the banks of the Genesee. (The statue at her cabin and grave in Letchworth State Park depicts her arriving with little Tom perched in a sling on her back.) There were more travails: Sheninjee died while hunting, leaving Dehgewanus a widow. She narrowly escaped capture by a Dutchman who received a bounty for every white captive he returned to settler society.

But Dehgewanus also found love and security, marrying an older Seneca man named Hiokatoo. “During the term of nearly 50 years that I lived with him,” she remembered, “I received, according to Indian customs, all the kindness and attention that was my due as his wife … he uniformly treated me with tenderness, and never offered an insult….” They settled in Little Beard’s Town, a large, prosperous Seneca village in today’s Livingston County. She had two more sons and four daughters.

Credit Engraving from “The Life of Mary Jemison, Deh-He-Wa-Mis”, 1856 edition.
The scene at Whaley’s Tavern.

The Senecas entered the Revolutionary War on the British side, and Dehgewanus several times hosted the British officers Joseph Brant and John Butler, whose raiding parties terrorized American settlers in Western Pennsylvania. In retaliation for the raids, George Washington dispatched the Sullivan Expedition, which lay waste to Little Beard’s Town and chased the Seneca from their homeland. Dehgewanus and her children fled to the woods near present-day Varysburg, and later sheltered with two runaway slaves in a cabin near present-day Castile. Mary and her family are settled there when the Senecas and Americans make peace. Years pass. Hiokatoo dies of consumption. A son kills his two brothers in separate fights. The surviving son dies in another brawl. More years pass. The Senecas sell their land around Castile, and Dehgewanus and her family are among the last Senecas left. One day she walks over to Whaley’s Tavern and tells her life story to James Seaver. It is 1823. She is 80 years old.

The following year “A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison” is published, and her fame grows. In 1831 she sells what remains of her land and moves to Buffalo Creek, to a homestead granted her many years earlier by the great chief Farmer’s Brother. Finally in 1833, she dies.

Several updated versions of Mary Jemison’s life story came out over the ensuing years, edited by different authors. One includes a moving deathbed scene in which Mary, with the help of a minister’s wife, haltingly recites a half-remembered Lord’s Prayer, in accordance with her mother’s last wishes. It may have actually happened – or it may have been a fabrication meant to promote the idea of Christian morals triumphing over savage paganism.

By 1874 the old Seneca burial ground at Buffalo Creek (located in what is now South Buffalo) had deteriorated, so Jemison’s grandchildren arranged for her remains to be moved to Castile and the grounds of what would become Letchworth State Park.

There Mary Jemison – Dehgawanus – still rests today, in the land she loved, a Seneca to the end.

Cast (in order of appearance):
Narrator: Susan Banks
James Seaver: Mark Bogumil
Mary Jemison: Christina Rausa

Sound recording: Omar Fetouh
Sound editing: Micheal Peters
Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)
Performed by Aaron Dai
Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project
Written by Jeff Z. Klein
Associate producer: Karl-Eric Reif

Special thanks to:
Omar Fetouh, WBFO assistant news director
Brian Meyer, former WBFO news director
Dave Debo, WBFO news director
Armin St. George, Crosswater Digital Media

Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)