Mary Jemison was born in 1743 on board a ship as her parents emigrated from what is now Northern Ireland to America. When she was twelve, she and family members were captured from their Pennsylvania farm by Indians. The rest of her family was killed, but she was adopted by the Seneca. She married a member of the Lenape Indians, and after he died, she married a Seneca man. She had a half dozen children with the two men. When she was eighty, she published her life story, or at least the story as it was written down by an American minister, James Everett Seaver.
This book falls into the once-popular genre of captivity narrative. (Much of what I know about captivity narratives comes from Leonard Slatkin’s Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600- 1860). The numbers are not precise, but over athousand European descendants from New England villages were captured by and lived with Native Americans between 1677 and 1750. A study of 750 of these whose fates were known found that about 300 were ransomed and returned to New England after captivities ranging from six months to twenty years. Fewer than a hundred were killed, and others disappeared into Canada or elsewhere, and sixty became Indians. Some who returned to European settlements wrote about their experiences. Mary Rowlandson’s A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson was the first and perhaps the most popular. A hundred years after its first publication in 1682, the memoir was still being printed.
Rowlandson’s book was the archetype for many captivity narratives to follow. In her first-person account, as Slotkin puts it, “[T]he Indians become the instruments of God for the chastisement of his guilty people. . . . The experience of captivity . . . leads her to the perception of her own fallen debased, even beastlike condition, her absolute dependence on God, her weakness in the face of sin, and the precarious nature of all human conditions.” The return to the New England community did not fully resolve this pain and anxiety. “Yet the captive, like the regenerate convert, has experienced a thing that his fellows has not. . . . He has perceived that life is lived on the brink of an abyss, and this perception stays with him as an acute and continuing anxiety for the state of his soul and the wrath of God’s judgment on sinful people.”
Jemison’s story, written a century and a half after Rolandson’s, was not one of survival and Christian salvation, but it, too, was popular, selling in the 1820s as much as the best-selling novelists, Sir Walter Scott and James Fennimore Cooper. While Jemison may also have represented American values in an alien world, her resolution of this dichotomy was not with a return to the white world but by finding her place in Native American society.
The Seneca certainly valued Mary Jemison. In 1797, the Seneca Nation signed the Treaty of Big Tree with the United States. The Seneca negotiators included Mary Jemison. Not surprisingly, no woman was part of the negotiating team for the Americans. I have no idea when a woman first helped the United States negotiate a treaty, but I am willing to bet it was long after Jemison acted for the Seneca. And perhaps those facts might help us understand why some abducted colonial women chose to stay with the Native Americans.
Although the Seneca surrendered much land in the treaty in exchange for money, they also retained essential hunting and fishing rights and some relatively small parcels of land. Jemison was praised for how well she negotiated, and after the treaty the Seneca made her a land grant making her one of the largest landowners in western New York, the title to which was confirmed by the state in 1817.
Perhaps to the surprise of many readers, she spoke movingly about her first Indian husband, “Sheninjee was a noble man. . . . Yet, Sheninjee was an Indian. The idea of spending my days with him, at first completely irreconcilable to my feelings; but his good nature, generosity, tenderness, and friendship towards me soon gained my affection; and strange as it may seem, I loved him!”
After Sheninjee died, however, she married a much different man. Slotkin describes Hiokatoo as “no such quasi Christian as Sheninjee but a war-loving, torturing red devil, renowned for his cruelty to the whites.” Even so, Jemison came to admire him as “a kind of Indian Daniel Boone,” who had more strength and power than those around him. “Mrs. Jemison and her second husband—the pure white and the pure Indian—emerge as admirable characters in her narrative. She states that she has refused an opportunity to return to her white family, preferring her family ties to the bloody Hiokatoo.”
The land that she was granted now is part of Letchworth State Park. She sold the land late in her life when she felt that too many whites were moving nearby. She moved to the Buffalo Creek Reservation, where she died in 1833. Four decades later, she was reinterred near her old home on the Genesee River on what is now Letchworth State Park land.
In chasing waterfalls, we learned about two women who had much to do with Letchworth State Park—Caroline Bishop, who was not widely known, and Mary Jemison, who had much fame. We also learned that one of the most famous women in American history, Eleanor Roosevelt, helped create a unique attraction near the waterfalls.