Mary Jemison: Life, Captivity & Statue

Instructor: Margaret Moran
This lesson will explore the life story of Mary Jemison, a young pioneer woman whose life and legacy were forever changed when she was abducted by Indians in 1755.

Early Life

Mary Jemison was born in 1743 aboard The William and Mary ship while making the perilous journey with her family from Ireland to America. Her parents, Thomas and Jane Jemison, had joined a band of Protestant immigrants that were searching out cheap and available land in what is now considered Pennsylvania - land that had already been claimed by the Iroquois Confederacy, a collection of Indian tribes based in New York.

The family lived in relative peace on their expanding farm until 1755 when the growing conflict of the French and Indian war arrived on their doorstep. One fateful morning, a raiding party of six Shawnee Indians and four Frenchman captured Mary as well as her younger siblings, parents, and a young boy who was visiting. Imagine the family's terror as they were led by their captors to Fort Duquesne, located in modern day Pittsburgh, with very little food or drink. Tragically, Mary and the young boy would be the only ones to survive the journey. Her siblings and parents were killed and scalped shortly after their capture. It is believed that Mary and the boy were spared because they were at the suitable age to be adopted by the tribes.


Mary's life would be forever changed when the party reached the fort. Upon arrival, she was given to two members of the Seneca tribe and taken to their home. She was renamed, Deh-he-wa-nis, a Seneca name that means 'a pretty girl'. As she grew older, she eventually married a Delaware Indian man named Sheninjee. She and her new husband decided to relocate to an Indian settlement along the Genesee River. Unfortunately her husband would not survive the journey, and Mary, along with her first born child, had to continue the trip alone. Luckily, Mary and her child were taken in by her late husband's Seneca tribe, and she settled in at Little Beard's Town, which is located in present day Cuylerville New York. After marrying her second husband, a Seneca man, Mary decided to make the tribeland her permanent home, giving birth to six other children and living in harmony until 1779.

Adoption of Mary into the Seneca Indian Tribe
Mary Jemison


In 1779, in the midst of the raging Revolutionary War, General George Washington sent an army of approximately 5,000 men to destroy the Seneca tribe's ability to fight. The army burned homes and fields in their path of destruction. Most of the Seneca fled either to neighboring villages or to the forest, but Mary decided to venture to an abandoned village where she would live for the next 60 years. Unfortunately, hardship continued for Mary and her family 20 years later. This time their attackers were pioneers and speculators, eager to take over the land claimed by the Indians.

The Seneca tribe decided to face this new threat head on, and in 1797, a council was held. It was decided that in exchange for several reservations as well as payments, the Seneca would give up the vast majority of their tribal lands. Mary and her family, though they lived on one of the reservations, were surrounded by the culture of the white settlers around them. Mary, unlike many members of the Seneca tribe, assimilated rather easily back into the society she was born into. She was widely liked and respected, even being given the name, 'The Old White Women of the Genesee'. Her unusual story was so intriguing that a book chronicling her life was published in 1823, preserving her legacy forever.

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