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Frontier woman: the Genesee Valley's 'white Seneca'


She is known as "The White Woman of the Genesee," a frontier-family's daughter who was captured by Native Americans and lived the rest of her life as one of them. Although not well known nationally --- not like Martha Washington or Sakagawea --- for some Upstate New Yorkers, hers is a cherished, captivating story. And her monument is familiar to many who frequent Letchworth State Park.

Mary Jemison was born to Scotch-Irish parents as they crossed the Atlantic in the winter of 1743. Like many settlers arriving in the colonies, the Jemisons hoped to start a new life, lured by the promise of free land. Landing in Philadelphia, they settled within the year in southern Pennsylvania at Marsh Creek near Gettysburg.

In their pursuit of unclaimed land, settlers were pushing to the edges of the frontier, a string of camps, settlements, and small boomtowns. It was a harsh existence. The land was heavily forested, and every tree, stump, and stone had to be cleared by hand; it could take years to get it in shape for farming. The farther the settlers pushed into the wilderness, the greater the opportunities became, but so did the dangers.

The colonies were at the center of a struggle between two great European rivals, the French and the British, and in the midst were Native Americans, struggling to maintain their existence but often drawn into the conflict. In the spring of 1758, a band of French soldiers aided by Shawnee warriors stormed through the Marsh Creek settlement. Mary's two oldest brothers managed to escape, but the Shawnee captured the rest of the family, scalped the parents, and took Mary --- then 15 years old --- and a child from a nearby farm westward toward FortDuquesne, near Pittsburg.

Years later, an aging Mary Jemison described the harrowing trip to her biographer, James Seaver:

"On the way, we passed a Shawnee town where I saw a number of heads, arms, legs, and other fragments of bodies of some white people who had just been burned. The parts that remained were hanging on a pole, which was supported at each end by a crotch and the whole appearance afforded a spectacle so shocking that even to this day the blood almost curdles in my veins when I think of them."

At FortDuquesne, she told Seaver, she was offered to two Seneca women who had lost a brother in a skirmish with George Washington's army. Accepting her, they began a ceremony that was both a mourning for the dead and an adoption of the living.

"I stood surrounded by the wailing women," she told Seaver, "expecting every moment to feel their vengeance, and suffer death on the spot. I was, however, happily disappointed. I was considered and treated by them as a real sister, the same as though I had been born of their mother."

In a matter of days, one life ended for Jemison, and a new one began. The Seneca took the clothes she was wearing and tossed them into the river, dressing her in traditional Seneca garb, a deerskin top that pulled over the head and pants with flaps tied at the groin. They named her Dehgewanus, meaning "Two Falling Voices."

And while she could have left the Senecas later in her life, she did not. She lived as a Seneca into old age, witnessing the profound changes and sharing the adversities of her new people. Ten years before her death, she shared the memories of her life with Seaver, who compiled the story into the biography he titled "Mary Jemison, White Woman of the Genesee." First published in 1824, the book reads like a Seneca oral history.

Jemison has something of a cult following among New York history buffs, and over the years, volumes of work have been written about her. Michael Oberg, professor of history at SUNY Geneseo, says many of his students are drawn to her story, attracted by her amazing resilience to adversity.

"In the big picture, she's a minor player," says Oberg. "She didn't sign any treaties. And she didn't impact any of the tumultuous events going on around her. But I tell my students that she is a symbol of what happened to people living in the frontier. It was the 'outer edge' of the known world. It was seen as this line between savagery and civilization. But the various conflicts blurred that line, and there were these odd relationships between the different players. You could see the range of interdependencies that developed in order to survive. And Jemison's life reflects that point well."

Oberg says the Seneca did not question why she continued to live with them, though whites were puzzled.

"She was white," says Oberg, "but I'm not convinced that she was white in any real sense. She went from being Mary Jemison to Dehgewanus. Later, her identity seemed to evolve again into a combination of her European and Seneca lives. This ark shows just how complicated the lines were between red and white people at the time."

Her arrival in the GeneseeValley was the result of another dramatic turn of events in her life. After several years living with the Senecas, she married her first husband, Sheninjee, and within a year gave birth, first to a baby daughter who died and then to a son, Thomas. Sheninjee decided to take his young wife and child north to his homeland in the GeneseeValley, where he felt they would be safer, but along the way he was injured while hunting and died.

Incredibly, Dehgewanus continued what historians say was a 700-mile journey on her own, the infant Thomas strapped to her back. In the winter of 1762, she arrived in the GeneseeValley and found Sheninjee's clan. Although they were complete strangers, they took her in.

Among the contemporary experts on Jemison's life and the history of the Senecas is Peter Jemison --- an artist, curator, manager of the Ganondagan Historic Site in Victor, and a direct descendant of Mary Jemison and Sheninjee.

"This was a highly developed society, with its own legal system, its own teaching methods and spiritual beliefs," he says. "We had our own values, and we cared for our elderly and our sick."

Mary Jemison, he says, was fully embraced by the Seneca people as one of their own. She was not a slave, and she was not made to do any work or act any differently from other Seneca women.

And she lived very much as a Seneca. "Her day-to-day life really focused around the chores and responsibilities of Seneca women," says Peter Jemison. "Non-Indians referred to her as The White Woman of the Genesee, but she didn't see herself that way. And the Seneca didn't see her that way, either."

"Her life was really determined by the various stages of the crops --- corn, beans, and squash --- which is what Seneca women did. There was a specific time for every stage of this work, and they carried all of this knowledge about planting, nurturing, separating the seeds, and harvesting and storing. This was key to their survival, because they had six months of winter to get through."

Mary remarried, this time to a Seneca chief, Hiokatoo, and bore six more children, some living long lives, others surviving only a few days.

Peter Jemison emphasizes the transitions his ancestor's life underwent: separated from her parents in a violent raid, she lived among the people who fought the settlers, only to find that it became the Seneca who were persecuted.

By the mid-1700's, it was clear to the Seneca and the five other tribes of the Iroquois that whites would continue their push west toward the interior territories. Their attempts to unify as a force of resistance failed, and they often ended up fighting each other instead. They also feared the superior might of the British, and their leaders debated how to avoid getting caught in the middle of the coming war between the white Europeans and the white colonists.

In a disastrous decision, the Senecas sided with the British --- and on the eve of the Revolutionary War, to prevent the British from using the Senecas to fight against him, George Washington ordered General John Sullivan to remove the threat.

They burned the Senecas' fields and destroyed peach and apple orchards, says Peter Jemison, "all in an effort to eliminate us."

Seneca women and children fled their villages to seek safety in the forests; warriors met Sullivan's army in a fierce battle near HoneoyeFalls at the head of ConesusLake.

Sullivan, Mary Jemison told James Seaver, left every village from Canandaigua to the Conesus shores "a black and burned patch of earth."

"Thousands become refugees and seek shelter from the British at FortNiagara in the winter of 1779," says Peter Jemison. "But when they get there, they are shut out. The snow was said to be 6 feet deep. So most of them perished; either they froze or starved to death."

Sullivan's attack and the Senecas' flight to FortNiagara is sometimes compared to the Cherokees' "Trail of Tears." With nothing to eat and no shelter, the Senecas became homeless nomads on their own land.

But the tragedy is also another example of Mary Jemison's instinct for survival.

"Instead of going to FortNiagara, she stays in the GeneseeValley, where she meets two escaped Negro slaves," says Peter Jemison. "These two men take Mary and her children in, and all of them live in this log cabin. She works out an arrangement with them, and for every ear of corn that she husks and braids, she received some of those kernels for her own use."

Peter Jemison adds a commentary: the Revolutionary War was about many things, he says, but from his perspective as a Native American, it was ultimately a war over resources.

"You can say it was about freedom and unfair taxation," he says, "but the real objective of it was to get our land. Washington's objective was to take our land by force, because he wanted to ensure the protection of the colonies --- of New York. When the war ends in 1783 with the Treaty of Paris, it doesn't even mention the Iroquois. The British are defeated, but living on this land are Iroquois who never signed any treaty. We never surrendered, and we never agreed to give up our land."

By the early 1800's, the remaining Seneca were living on reservations. The 1779 agreement known as The Big Tree Treaty, between Robert Morris and the Holland Land Company and David Ogden and the Ogden Land Company, essentially stripped the Seneca of their homeland, which was then sold to settlers coming to the GeneseeValley. Mary Jemison was given her own reservation, about 20,000 acres of land. Called the Gardeau Flats, the area encompassed most of what today is LetchworthPark and parts of the towns of Mt.Morris and Nunda.

Jemison lived at the bottom of the GeneseeRiver gorge near the north end of the park. "It was very fertile soil," says Nick Loverdi, a member of the Mt. Morris Historical Society. "Remember, the dam wasn't there, so it probably flooded a little, but every spring the river would lay this dark rich silt down from Pennsylvania and the Ohio valley. They could turn it with their hands. Today that same land on the flats --- the area as you just come into town off the I-390 --- is rock hard. Those farmers can hardly split it open with all that heavy machinery."

The chaos of the war may have ended, but the tension over land continued. Mary, writes James Seaver, never became melancholy describing her capture or her parents. It was her description of this later portion of her life that made her "teary." Confined to reservations that were surrounded by white people and their laws; the once flourishing Seneca culture declined into a state of disease and drunkenness. And Mary spent much of her time fending off opportunists trying to scam her out of her last possessions.

"A lot of speculators tried to exploit her in her later years," says SUNY Geneseo's Oberg. "Under New York law at the time, Indians could not sell their land to a private party."

The law was designed to prevent whites from taking advantage of the Seneca. "But land was big money in New York during those days," says Oberg, "and Mary had plenty of it."

Two Geneseo businessmen used their influence to get the law changed, and Jemison later sold most of it to them for a fraction of its value.

There is a tendency to romanticize Mary Jemison's life, says Oberg. But, he says, it was a life marked by tragedy. "Make no mistake," he says, "these reservations were truly horrid places. They've been described as 'slums in the wilderness' by some historians. And alcohol was a terrible problem that touched Mary's life deeply."

Within a five-year period, Mary lost her three sons. In alcohol-related fights, John killed his half-brother Thomas and his brother Jesse. John himself was killed later in a fight in which alcohol was involved. The loss of Thomas --- the son she had carried on her back from Pennsylvania --- was particularly difficult. It was he to whom she had turned for advice on important decisions, particularly when it came to dealing with whites.

When James Seaver interviewed Jemison, he found her still agile, despite her age. She gathered her own firewood, tended to her livestock, and could still "cross a log" with ease, he said. He described her as a short, small-framed woman, with blue eyes. And though her hair was almost white, she told him it was light brown when she was young. She usually spoke in the Seneca language, but Seaver said she spoke to him "in almost perfect English except for a faint Irish curl."

Jemison had had opportunities to leave the Senecas several times during her life, but she had stayed with them, fearing how her children would be treated off the reservation. She continued to live on the flats until three years before she died. Then she was taken to the Buffalo Creek Reservation, where she died in 1833.

Many of her descendants lived in the Mt.Morris, Perry, and Nunda communities into the early 1900's. But, says historian Nick Loverdi: "Nowadays, I'm sad to say that nobody takes much interest in the past. One of her grandsons lived just outside Mt.Morris, but people don't talk much about her any more. It's a shame, too: all this history, and it happened right here."

A highway crew rebuilding Main Street in Mt.Morris uncovered Seneca artifacts last summer during excavation. Otherwise, there is scarce evidence that a community of Indians once thrived here. And Jemison wouldn't recognize much of the area today. Mini-marts, McDonald's restaurants, and a Rite Aid Pharmacy dot the highway into Mt.Morris. But she might be relieved to discover that the Gardeau Flats where she lived look about the same.

Nor has everyone forgotten about her. In mid-October, a popular time for the park, visitors to the Gardeau site gaze down the gorge to the river bed where Jemison's cabins once stood, and exchange looks of disbelief. "And she was a woman," one of them says.

A makeover

Mary Jemison is buried in Letchworth State Park, and her grave site, along with one of the Jemison cabins and a recreation of a Seneca Council House, are part of a historical landmark site and museum complex conceived by Buffalo businessman William Pryor Letchworth.

Letchworth had bought much of the land surrounding the GeneseeRiver gorge in that area in 1859, to preserve both its natural beauty and its Seneca heritage. He built his retirement home on the property and began planning a museum complex that would include the Council House, the Jemison cabin, and Mary Jemison's grave. In 1906, he gave the vast property and the buildings to the state to be preserved as a park.

The cabin and Council House were made of pine, however, and over the years, they had deteriorated badly. If they were to be preserved as Letchworth had wanted, major improvements would be needed. Park officials also wanted to move the buildings closer together, as Letchworth had envisioned.

In 1997, park officials secured a grant from "Save America's Treasures," a public-private partnership that helps preserve important historic structures and collections.

The Letchworth preservation has been a thorough, painstaking process. Most of the damage to the buildings was in the lower sections, where the logs were closest to the ground. And the restoration had to be done under strict guidelines. The buildings could not be disassembled. No nails could be used, and no drill holes could be made in the wood. The structures had to be jacked, braced, and then moved, one as much as 120 feet --- without letting them collapse into a pile of rubble.

New logs replacing the most heavily damaged wood were chosen to match the originals as closely as possible, and they were hewn by one of the few people in the country who still knows how to do that work, AlfredUniversity professor Leon Buckwalter.

"It's a very specialized trade, and there's not much demand for it now," says Buckwalter. "Obviously, no power tools were used, to match the authenticity of the original logs.

Work on the site should be completed by spring 2006. And then the Jemison cabin will be open for visitors. Brian Scriven, historic site manager for LetchworthState Park, estimates that about 25,000 people visit the nearby William Pryor Letchworth museum, a structure housing Seneca artifacts and items of regional natural history. "About half of those people go up to the Jemison site behind the museum," he says. "So we figure that there must be about 10,000 to 15,000 visitors to the site." While there's no official count, because it's an outdoor site, Mary Jemison, says Scriven, "definitely has her following."