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Mary Jemison’s Life with the Seneca

Mary Jemison’s life was shaped by war. Born in 1743 on a ship carrying her family from Ireland to Philadelphia, her life took remarkable twists and turns. She gave an interview in 1823 to Dr. James Seaver, who wrote an account of her life.  Although his writing may contain bias, it remains one of our best accounts of life as a captive of American Indians in the 18th century.

Map of the Country of the Five Nations

Map of the Country of the Five Nations from “The History of the Five Indian Nations” by Cadwallader Colden, from the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation Collection.

Shortly after arriving in Philadelphia, Mary and her family moved west and settled on land in Adams County, Pennsylvania, not far south of where the Battle of Gettysburg was fought more than a century later. This was the western frontier of Pennsylvania, and the land they farmed was under the authority of the Iroquois Confederacy. They lived peacefully for some years, but when the French and Indian War broke out, Indians who were allied with the French against the British colonists attacked the Pennsylvania frontier. The Jemison farm was attacked on April 5, 1758, and Mary and most of her family plus a neighboring family were taken prisoner by a party of Shawnee Indians and Frenchmen. Two of her older brothers escaped. After two days of travel, the captors separated Mary and a neighbor boy from the others and killed and scalped the rest of their families. This wasn’t done in Mary’s presence, but according to the interview she gave Dr. Seaver, she later had to watch the scalps being prepared for trade by the Indians and recognized her mother’s long red hair.

At Fort Duquesne, Mary was sold to a band of Seneca Indians who took her down the Ohio River to their community. She was adopted into a family that renamed her Degawanis and treated her as an adopted sister. She gradually adapted to her new family and culture and married a Delaware man living in the community, named Sheninjee. As the French and Indian War drew to a close, he feared that the treaty ending the war would require the return of captives. To evade this possibility, he and Mary undertook a trek of more than 700 miles to western New York to rejoin his family. Her husband became ill and died on the way, but when Mary and her young son arrived in Sheninjee’s village, they were taken in by his clan.  She later married a Seneca man and had six children with him. They lived comfortably in the large village of Little Beard’s Town near the Genesee River until the American Revolution disrupted her life again.

TItle Page of the Life of Mary Jemison

TItle Page of “A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison” by James Seaver, from the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation Collection.

The Seneca allied with the British against the colonists, hoping to fend off colonial encroachment on Indian lands. They assisted British forces several times, and in retaliation American General John Sullivan attacked Little Beard’s Town in 1779, intending to destroy it. An ambush by the Seneca prevented Sullivan’s complete success, and many were able to flee before the attack. Mary and her children found shelter that winter in a small cabin south of Little Beard’s Town which they shared with two runaway slaves. Later her husband rejoined them, and they were able to take up their lives again on the banks of the Genesee. After the Revolution, Mary was contacted by one of her surviving brothers, but she chose to stay with her Seneca family.

In 1797 the Seneca were forced to give up much of their land, as former allies of the British. As a result of the Council of Big Tree, Mary was able to retain the land her family lived on as part of one of the reservations allotted to the Seneca. But pressure from white neighbors continued, and between 1811 and 1817 three of Mary’s sons were murdered.  In 1823 the Seneca sold their remaining land but reserved two square miles for Mary to live on.  Eventually she sold the land and moved to the Buffalo Creek Reservation, near present-day Buffalo, New York. She died at age 90 in 1833.

In 1823 Mary’s neighbors and friends suggested to James Seaver, a local minister, to take down her life story.  Her extraordinary life and the events that shaped it are best read in Seaver’s book, “Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison,” first published in 1824 and still in print and available today.

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