Chasing Waterfalls (continued)

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.

(continued sporadically)

Chasing Waterfalls (continued from October 4)

We went chasing waterfalls to Letchworth State Park in western New York state.  The park is a seventeen-mile strip along the Genesee River as it flows north to Lake Ontario. (Yes, there are a lot of rivers that flow north.) We were chasing waterfalls, and the park has three large ones. They were all magnificent, but they made me feel old. The spouse and I wished we had visited the park decades ago (but we never heard of Letchworth until much later) because we would have done much more hiking on the well-maintained trails.

Our country has many wonderful state parks, but surely few of us are familiar with even most of them, and the 2015 newspaper poll that labeled Letchworth the number one state park in the country was a bit silly. However, having been there, that outcome seems at least defensible.

On the other hand, while the Genesee flows through a scenic gorge that was beautiful from every angle, it does seem a stretch to call Letchworth, as some do, “the Grand Canyon of the East.” It does not have the depth of the Grand Canyon with different climates and flora as you descend. It does not have the colors of the Grand Canyon. It does not have the burros of the Grand Canyon. It is not the Grand Canyon of the East. Letchworth, instead, has beauty and charm of its own. And it has its own history.

William Pryor Letchworth donated a thousand acres to New York state in 1906 that formed the heart of Letchworth State Park. Mr. Letchworth, a successful industrialist and businessman from nearby Buffalo, had started buying the land a half century before. Pictures at the park show that the riverbank was clear cut and studded with ugly lumbering mills. W. P. Letchworth razed the mills and allowed most of the land to reseed naturally. A house was also part of the purchase. Letchworh had this site landscaped by William Webster, who had been mentored by Frederick Law Olmstead. Letchworth named this estate Glen Iris. Glen Iris functions today as an inn.

The restaurant in the inn, where we had an ok lunch, is named Caroline’s. The back of the menu explained why but left me with some questions. Letchworth did much charitable and social work with a special concern for children, and in 1875 he inspected all the state institutions that housed children. The menu indicates that Caroline Bishop met Letchworth when she was fifteen and was impressed by him. She completed her education and taught school for ten years but then in 1883 became a secretary and executive assistant to Letchworth, who was sixty. The menu states, “Caroline was his true right hand—from research and writing assistance for his numerous books to knowing every detail of his business and legal documents.”

She was with Letchworth when he suffered a stroke and when he died seven years later in 1910. She became superintendent of the park at its inception and later the curator and librarian of the museum that stands on the Glen Iris grounds. She worked at the park until shortly before her death in 1926.

William Pryor Letchworth was a noteworthy man, and his name lives as does a bit of his story in Letchworth State Park. Caroline Bishop must have been a noteworthy woman. How many females were superintendents of state parks in 1915 or helped create a museum that still attracts people? But as with many other noteworthy women, even with her abilities widely apparent, she was consigned to be the sidekick to a “great man.” Most of these women are lost to history, so I was glad that the restaurant in Glen Iris was named after her, and I could learn something about Caroline Bishop.

But, I must confess, I wanted to know a bit more. The brief accounts of Mr. Letchworth I have read mention no marriage but an active male social life. The brief accounts of Bishop’s life do not mention any social life except for what seems the delicately put statement that Caroline “was also a close companion [to Letchworth], because once she began as his assistance (sic), she never left his side.” My prurient side was left hanging. Tell me more, please, tell me more.

Caroline Bishop’s roles in the life of Mr. Letchworth and in the creation of the park named after him may have been largely forgotten and she may have been little known in her lifetime except as an easily forgettable minor adjunct to Letchworh, but another woman with a connection to the land that would become Letchworth State Park, Mary Jemison, was widely known.

(continued October 11)