Mary Jemison was born in the sea. Her family was emigrating from Ireland to Philadelphia, with Mary being born on the Atlantic Ocean aboard ‘William and Mary’. She was staying with her family in western Pennsylvania in 1758. During the French and Indian War, she got captured by a group of Shawnee Indians and French soldiers. She was about the age of fifteen when she was captured. Her parents and some of her siblings were killed during the war. She was purchased by a group of Seneca Indians who went with her to Ohio Country. She became adopted by a Seneca family who named her Dehgewanus, a name that means “Two Fallen Voices”. The family that adopted her had lost a brother at the hands of the Cherokee warriors. Therefore, the name signified the end of the mourning by the family’s two sisters. Mary Jemison was taught the ways of the Seneca and got married to a member of the Delaware Indians called Sheninjee. They had two children but one died, leaving only one.
Mary Jemison’s parents were Thomas Jemison and Jane Erwin Jemison. They were among the population that left Europe during the period characterized by instability and disease. It was during this period that Europe witnessed civil wars, intestine divisions, religious intolerance and domination. All these factors led to the Jemison’s leaving their native land to set sail to the New Found lands. It was in the course of this journey that they gave birth to their daughter Mary Jamison on board the ship Mary William. The ship was headed to Philadelphia in Pennsylvania State. The situation back home therefore resulted in their leaving for the wilderness of America to begin a new life. They left two sons and a daughter and a large network of relatives back in Europe. However, it is not clear whether they had any intention of reuniting with their children that they had left back in Europe.
Mary Jemison was born as an outcast to the civil society. She did not enjoy the support and guidance needed by children in the course of their development and growth. She was born in isolation, lacking the enjoyment of others and the tender sympathies that make the society alive. All that she had knowledge of, and subsequently interacted with, was ferocity and all acts that characterize uncultivated intelligences. For her parents, nothing out of the ordinary happened except for her birth. The landed in Philadelphia safely and settled on life outside civilization.
By the time that Mary Jemison was captured, she was well aware of the differences between her and her captors. Having been raised in a Christian family, Jemison might have found the Indian culture quite savage but she nevertheless had to contend with the fact that her destiny and fate lied in accepting this culture as hers. For instance, the Seneca believed that they broke out of the earth from a mountain at the head of Canandaigus Lake, a view that would seem very primitive to any European. They venerate the mountain as their birth place.
The actual definition of the word Seneca is the Great Hill people, and it is within this society that Jamison lived the rest of her life (Seaver, 2005:4). Jemison had no choice but to live among the people that were responsible for the death of her parents and siblings. Her captivity was characterized by unimaginable difficulties as her captors virtually denied her every basic thing that is necessary for the wellbeing of an individual. Jemison was well aware of the fact that she possessed no family as she clearly saw that they were killed by the Indians. This awareness probably left only one choice; leaving with the Indians in case they failed to kill her. Her life after captivity changed remarkably as she had to cope with a different kind of reality.
Mary Jemison’s parents focused much attention on her education to the extent that the new conditions that they encountered admitted. She learned how to read and write, and even managed to read some texts from the Bible. She also learned the Catechism that she in numerous occasions repeated top her parents. After her captivity, Jemison recounts having repeated prayers at every opportunity; a habit that she later gave up after the reality of her environment dawned on her. After falling into captivity, she never got to read any text.
The Indian and Euro-American communities were both divided by the American Revolution. Having been captured at the age of fifteen, adopted and integrated into the Indian community, Mary Jemison experienced the war as a mother and a wife. The Iroquois sought for neutrality in the ensuing conflict that surrounded them. Jemison witnessed the tribal chiefs come back from a meeting with the colonists at German Flats, safe in their belief that this neutrality would be respected. However, the British wanted the support of the Iroquois. Of the six Iroquois nations, four declared their support for the crown. This resulted in Seneca lands becoming a battleground. The scorched earth tactics of the colonists laid waste their fields. Destruction and calamities that followed the war were experienced and later told by Jamison.
The day that Jemison was captured, she got home in the morning where she met a man, a woman whom she later learned was her sister-in-law, and three children. They came to stay for a short while even though Jemison did not know why they came. When she arrived, the man took the horse that she had and probably left to hunt game as he took also his gun. Jameson’s parents at the time were busy in their endeavors. Everything seemed usual in their small neighborhood and it seemed like an ordinary day. The normalcy was interrupted with the sound of gun shots that seemed not far away from their home. A report later came that the man had been shot by the Indians. It was apparent that they were being attacked by the Indians, a thought that sent fear among them (Seaver, 1995:7). It was later revealed that the man was discovered by the Indians who followed him to Jemison’s place. Mary Jemison and her family were captured, her father having been made harmless by being rushed into the house. Their properties were plundered by the Indians. During the period that they were captured, her brothers managed to escape to Virginia. All these took place during the final stages of the Revolutionary War.
Mary Jemison and the rest of the party were taken captive by six Indians and four Frenchmen. Their captives took everything that they considered valuable. The experience of captivity was horrible for the captives, especially the children whom were sometimes force3d to drink their urines whenever they asked for water to drink. Jemison, in her conversation with Seaver, recalls going days without food and water. Jemison’s mother always encouraged them to face the situation with fortitude even as they understood that once they were departed, they could not have the chance to meet again. Jemison and a little boy whom they had been taken captive with were separated from the rest of the captives. Jemison’s parents, siblings and the rest of the captives were killed in the cruelest manner by the Indians, as described by Jemison. They had a chance of escaping but they could not owing to their ignorance of the wilderness. The Indians held that the captives were killed because some white individuals were pursuing them. After they were taken captives, their closest neighbors had sought to rescues them. This might have compelled the Indians to kill the other captives.
On their way to their unknown destination, Jemison was joined by another white captive. The Indians made a stop at Fort Pitt where Jemison, the boy and the other captive who had joined them, were subjected to a ceremony. They were painted like Indians. This could have symbolized their acceptance into the Indian society.
Mary Jemison was adopted by one of the Seneca families who treated her as one of their own. It was the tradition of the Indians that when one of their own died or was taken captive in war, a prisoner or the scalp of an enemy was given to the remaining relatives. This was done in a ceremony of adoption. Such a ceremony was carried out when Jemison arrived in the village. However, the family that had lost a member could also take the opportunity to revenge the death of one of their own. In the case of the family that adopted Jemison, they chose to keep her as a replacement and thus treated her as one of their own. Amidst all the difficulty and strangeness of her environment, Jemison was extremely happy to be accepted for adoption (Seaver, 2001:90). The Indian family received her to replace the slain brother. She was thus received and treated as one of their own, being considered a real member of the family. The ceremony frightened her as she thought the community’s vengeance would be put upon her.
Having been accepted as a member of the community, Jemison was assigned various chores. She was given the job of nursing children and performing household chores. She was at times sent out with the Indian hunters to aid them in carrying game. She describes her situation as easy as she did not have any difficulty to endure. However, she was constantly tormented by the thoughts of her parents and siblings. These thoughts that at times clouded her mind made her lonely, gloomy and solitary with the result that her happiness was constantly destroyed. Her sisters did not allow her to speak English even though she tried whatever she could not to forget her language. This consisted in repeating prayers, catechism and everything that she had learned. She retained her English language ability until it was possible for her to get into contact with other English speaking individuals with whom she constantly conversed with.
She learned the language of the Indians with her sisters diligently offering the lessons. She soon learned it and could fluently communicate in it. Mary Jemison describes her sisters as good natured and kind, peaceful in their moderate in their dispositions, descent and temperate in their habits and very gentle towards her. These characteristics made it possible for her to feel part of the family as she was regarded in the same way that siblings regard each other. She had every reason to respect them as it was not easy to be treated in such a manner especially when there is general belief that she belongs to an enemy tribe.
Life among the Indians
Jemison’s life was not difficult as the town where she lived produced an abundance of food and game. Life for her was not difficult except when she remembered her family. The Indians constantly went to make peace with the British and Jemison was always in their company. On one such occasion, the Indians took her to see the white people, an event which made her to desire to be emancipated from the Indians. The Europeans became interested in her and sympathized with the kind of life that she was living. In the course of their conversation, her sisters apparently became alarmed and took her away (Seaver, 1995: 54). One of her brothers informed her that the white people came to take her back. The sight of white people made Jemison desire to go back home. As much as she had been with the Indians for a year and learned their language and some aspects of their culture, she longed to get back to civilization. She felt as though her escape from the Indians would be like a second captivity and thus fought against that thought. Time made her overcome the unpleasant thoughts and feelings that characterized her life. She slowly became contented.
Her life was changed when a party of Delaware Indians came and lived in common with them. Among them were five white individuals that they had captured. They made her condition much reconcilable as they all comprehended the English language. Jemison got married according to the Indian customs to one of the Delaware Indians called Sheninjee at the suggestion of one of her sisters. She describes this man as noble, generous in conduct, peaceful and just. Jemison found it difficult to reconcile herself to the thought of marrying an Indian. However, the Indian soon gained her affection through his generosity, good nature, tenderness and friendship. She fell in love with him, which appeared strange to her. She considered him a good companion and an agreeable husband owing to the way that he treated her. They lived happily for a period of three years after which tragedy begun to befall them. She gave birth a year after her captivity and lost her child within two days of birth. She also became sick to the extent that she thought all her troubles would end.
Soon after the birth of their second child, Mary Jemison and her Indian husband began a trip to his homeland. Her husband’s homeland was in New York along the Genesee River. Her husband died in the hands of the Cherokee during a war with Mary continuing with the trip. This was a tragedy for her considering the extent to which he loved his husband. The faced the tragedy with fortitude, having been in worse situations, and proceeded with her journey. The Senecas of New York welcomed her and made her a home at Little Beard’s Town. She got married again to a member of the Seneca and gave birth to seven other children. She became a member of the Seneca community and remained in New York until her death. Her second husband perished at the Buffalo Creek Reservation aged ninety on September 19, 1833 (Seaver, 2001:53).
Why Mary Jemison remains an icon
By the time of the war between Britain and the colonies, Mary Jemison had been married twice to the Indians. She had a husband and seven children living at the time. She was almost two hundred miles from white dwellings and did not know whether she had any relatives existing on earth. She therefore chose not to accept her liberation but to spend the rest of her life with the Indians, a people of whom she had known relatives and various kinds of friends. She carried this resolution completely into effect thereby become the Indians faithful and correct chronicler for more than seventy five years.
Jemison possessed so much kindness of heart and an uncommon portion of hospitality that many sought to preserve and court her friendship. She tended to the poor, the hungry and the naked and made everyone who came to her house as comfortable as they could get. She possessed so much goodness of heart that she won many hearts and admirers. She is still being celebrated as the friend of those in difficulty and this could be attributed to the kind of life that she herself led. Her benevolence is still commemorated.
Vicissitude and trial characterized the life of Mary Jemison. At the age of thirteen years, she fell into captivity and trained in the duties of a typical Indian female. She became inspired by Indian sentiments and essentially changed into one of them. Jemison’s sad destiny was to be obscured into a race in which she had no ancestry, having been born on the sea and rendered an orphan by the Red Men. She affiliated with a society in which she had every justification to loathe. This change, a reverse of nature’s order, was made perfect by her marriage to an Indian, and her mothering of Indian children. As if the curses of the gods were upon her, two of her sons got killed by their brother, with the tragedy being concluded by the killing of the fratricide.
Jemison faced her trials with extreme endurance and strength of heart, notwithstanding the calamities and difficulties that characterized her life. She died at a ripe age of ninety one. However, holding that difficulty was a characteristic feature of her long life would be an exaggeration. Among the Seneca, Jemison found attached friends and was in numerous occasions treated with kindness and consideration. The affection and esteem with which the Seneca cherished her is evidenced in the liberal provisions that the chiefs offered her before they finally discarded their hereditary domain. The Gardeau Reservation was ceded to her for her personal use. The Gardeau Reservation, within the Genesee River, had a nineteen thousand acre land. This act of generosity increased her posterity to the levels beyond dreams, had she opted afterwards to retain and go back to civilized living. It was not the smallest difficulty of her condition that when emancipation and restoration were finally extended and urged upon her, she realized that the time had expired for her acceptance and was therefore compelled to fulfill her destiny by dying a Seneca woman.
Seaver, J. (2001). The Life of Mary Jemison: The White Woman of the Genesee. Digital Scanning
Seaver, J. (1995). A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison. University of Oklahoma Press