White Woman

Genesee River falls

En route to Montreal on June 1, my friends and I camped at Letchworth State Park on the Genesee River in western New York. We only had a couple of hours to look around before dark, but we took in the Lower Falls in the so-called Grand Canyon of the East. Huge red oaks lined the canyon’s rim, and the stone walls built by Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) crews in the 1930s stretched for miles. We followed the rather poorly signed stone steps down to the bridge below the falls — the crowning achievement of the CCC boys.

Letchworth SP bridge

We were entranced by the patterns of foam in the river, and hung out there for close to an hour. Though much of the park was severely over-browsed by deer, the steep-sided gorge provided a refuge for hobblebush, mountain maple and other uncommon plants. We watched rock doves flying in and out of holes in the cliffs — a different bird entirely from their urban cousins. We spotted a female common merganser swimming upstream, followed by four chicks. They headed for a submerged shelf of rock about a hundred feet below the falls, where the chicks attempted to imitate their mother as she dove repeatedly under the roiling water in search of fish.

Just before dusk, we drove to the gravesite of Mary Jemison, or Dehgawanus, “the White Woman of the Genesee,” whose autobiography was one of the most popular Indian captive narratives in the 19th century. The grave was capped by a bronze sculpture of her in full Indian dress, and flanked by two, reconstructed log houses: the cabin of one of her daughters, and a small Seneca council house. A nearly tame doe grazed about twenty feet away as we circled the shrine. Much of what is now Letchworth Park once belonged to Jemison; she lived about five miles downstream from the Lower Falls.

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Mary Jemison at the age of 90, from an old postcard (source)

“In stature she is very short, and considerably under the middle size, and stands tolerably erect, with her head bent forward, apparently from her having for a long time been accustomed to carrying heavy burdens in a strap placed across her forehead. Her complexion is very white for a woman of her age, and although the wrinkles of fourscore years are deeply indented in her cheeks, yet the crimson of youth is distinctly visible. Her eyes are light blue, a little faded by age, and naturally brilliant and sparkling. Her sight is quite dim, though she is able to perform her necessary labor without the assistance of glasses. Her cheek bones are high, and rather prominent, and her front teeth, in the lower jaw, are sound and good. When she looks up and is engaged in conversation her countenance is very expressive; but from her long residence with the Indians, she has acquired the habit of peeping from under eye-brows as they do with the head inclined downwards. Formerly her hair was of a light chestnut brown–it is now quite grey, a little curled, of middling length and tied in a bunch behind. She informed me that she had never worn a cap nor a comb.

“She speaks English plainly and distinctly, with a little of the Irish emphasis, and has the use of words so well as to render herself intelligible on any subject with which she is acquainted. Her recollection and memory exceeded my expectation. It cannot be reasonably supposed, that a person of her age has kept the events of seventy years in so complete a chain as to be able to assign to each its proper time and place; she, however, made her recital with as few obvious mistakes as might be found in that of a person of fifty.

“She walks with a quick step without a staff, and I was informed by Mr. Clute, that she could yet cross a stream on a log or pole as steadily as any other person.

“Her passions are easily excited. At a number of periods in her narration, tears trickled down her grief worn cheek, and at the same time, a rising sigh would stop her utterance.

“Industry is a virtue which she has uniformly practised from the day of her adoption to the present. She pounds her samp, cooks for herself, gathers and chops wood, feeds her cattle and poultry, and performs other laborious services. Last season she planted, tended and gathered corn–in short she is always busy.”

–James E. Seaver, A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison (1824)

Genesee River falls closeup

The Jemisons were Scotch-Irish settlers on the Pennsylvania frontier during the French and Indian Wars. Captured by a raiding party of Shawnee, they were all killed and scalped except for the twelve-year-old Mary, who was given to a Seneca family to adopt in place of a dead son — a common practice among Indians of the Eastern forest.

“On a pleasant day in the spring of 1755, when my father was sowing flax-seed, and my brothers driving the teams, I was sent to a neighbor’s house, a distance of perhaps a mile, to procure a horse and return with it the next morning. I went as I was directed. I was out of the house in the beginning of the evening, and saw a sheet wide spread approaching towards me, in which I was caught (as I have ever since believed) and deprived of my senses! The family soon found me on the ground, almost lifeless, (as they said,) took me in, and made use of every remedy in their power for my recovery, but without effect till day-break, when my senses returned, and I soon found myself in good health, so that I went home with the horse very early in the morning.

“The appearance of that sheet, I have ever considered as a forerunner of the melancholy catastrophe that so soon afterwards happened to our family: and my being caught in it I believe, was ominous of my preservation from death at the time we were captured.”

–Mary Jemison, according to Seaver (ibid.)

Genesee River foam 1

“As I have before observed, the family to which I belonged was part of a tribe of Seneca Indians, who lived, at that time, at a place called Genishau, from the name of the tribe, that was situated on a river of the same name which is now called Genesee. The word Genishau signifies a shining, clear or open place.”

Genesee River foam 2

“No people can live more happy than the Indians did in times of peace, before the introduction of spirituous liquors amongst them. Their lives were a continual round of pleasures. Their wants were few, and easily satisfied; and their cares were only for to-day; the bounds of their calculations for future comfort not extending to the incalculable uncertainties of to-morrow. If peace ever dwelt with men, it was in former times, in the recesses from war, amongst what are now termed barbarians. The moral character of the Indians was (if I may be allowed the expression) uncontaminated. Their fidelity was perfect, and became proverbial; they were strictly honest; they despised deception and falsehood; and chastity was held in high veneration, and a violation of it was considered sacrilege. They were temperate in their desires, moderate in their passions, and candid and honorable in the expression of their sentiments on every subject of importance.”

Trek of the Dead

“Poor Boyd was stripped of his clothing, and then tied to a sapling, where the Indians menaced his life by throwing their tomahawks at the tree, directly over his head, brandishing their scalping knives around him in the most frightful manner, and accompanying their ceremonies with terrific shouts of joy. Having punished him sufficiently in this way, they made a small opening in his abdomen, took out an intestine, which they tied to the sapling, and then unbound him from the tree, and drove him round it till he had drawn out the whole of his intestines. He was then beheaded, his head was stuck upon a pole, and his body left on the ground unburied. […]

“This tragedy being finished, our Indians again held a short council on the expediency of giving Sullivan battle, if he should continue to advance, and finally came to the conclusion that they were not strong enough to drive him, nor to prevent his taking possession of their fields: but that if it was possible they would escape with their own lives, preserve their families, and leave their possessions to be overrun by the invading army.

“The women and children were then sent on still further towards Buffalo, to a large creek that was called by the Indians Catawba, accompanied by a part of the Indians, while the remainder secreted themselves in the woods back of Beard’s Town, to watch the movements of the army.

“At that time I had three children who went with me on foot, one who rode on horse back, and one whom I carried on my back.

“Our corn was good that year; a part of which we had gathered and secured for winter.

“In one or two days after the skirmish at Connissius lake, Sullivan and his army arrived at Genesee river, where they destroyed every article of the food kind that they could lay their hands on. A pan of our corn they burnt, and threw the remainder into the river. They burnt our houses, killed what few cattle and horses they could find, destroyed our fruit trees, and left nothing but the bare soil and timber. But the Indians had eloped and were not to be found.”

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“For provisions I have never suffered since I came upon the flats; nor have I ever been in debt to any other hands than my own for the plenty that I have shared.

“My vices, that have been suspected, have been but few. It was believed for a long time, by some of our people, that I was a great witch; but they were unable to prove my guilt, and consequently I escaped the certain doom of those who are convicted of that crime, which, by Indians, is considered as heinous as murder. Some of my children had light brown hair, and tolerable fair skin, which used to make some say that I stole them; yet as I was ever conscious of my own constancy, I never thought that any one really believed that I was guilty of adultery.

“I have been the mother of eight children; three of whom are now living, and I have at this time thirty-nine grand children, and fourteen great-grand children, all living in the neighborhood of Genesee River, and at Buffalo.

“I live in my own house, and on my own land with my youngest daughter, Polly, who is married to George Chongo, and has three children.

“My daughter Nancy, who is married to Billy Green, lives about 80 rods south of my house, and has seven children.

“My other, daughter, Betsey, is married to John Green, has seven children, and resides 80 rods north of my house.

“Thus situated in the midst of my children, I expect I shall soon leave the world, and make room for the rising generation. I feel the weight of years with which I am loaded, and am sensible of my daily failure in seeing, hearing and strength; but my only anxiety is for my family. If my family will live happily, and I can be exempted from trouble while I have to stay, I feel as though I could lay down in peace a life that has been checked in almost every hour, with troubles of a deeper dye, than are commonly experienced by mortals.”

Many Jemison memorial

3 Replies to “White Woman”

  1. In a past life, I wrote an academic paper on Mary Jemison, comparing her self-told story of Indian assimilation to the untold story of Eunice Williams, which John Demos sleuthed in *The Unredeemed Captive.* Part of my thesis (I think) was that Puritan America wasn’t ready to admit that a girl like Williams could “go native,” but 19th century audiences were more likely to romanticize Indians & thus could handle Seaver’s version of Jemison’s story.

    If you’re interested, you can read more here:


  2. Hey, thanks! Very interesting paper. Mary Rowlandson’s is the only other captivity narrative I’ve read; I’d heard of Frances Slocum, but not Eunice Williams. I did sense quite a bit of rewriting by Seaver in the Jemison narrative.

    An obvious point to make here — something that strikes me every time I read about White-Indian relations in the 19th century and before — is that the Indians didn’t have any notion of ethnic identity at all. That is, “tribes” were polities to which immigrants could be, and often were, admitted by adoption, even as adults. At any one time, as much as a third of the population of any given “tribe” could be of foreign origin, at least within historical times (the wave of European epidemics must’ve upset the aboriginal status quo a bit). Thus, the Indian nations anticipated the evolution of the U.S. into a nation of imigrants much more than the xenophobic English colonies did.

  3. Most folks hadn’t heard of Eunice Williams until Demos published *The Unredeemed Captive* a handful of years ago to mild popular acclaim. (It’s a good book if you like books that narrate & speculate about of obscure historical events.) Eunice’s *father* (who was a preacher) wrote a famous captivity narrative in which he talked about the Lord “saving” him from Indian savagery…and at the end he mentions only briefly that his daughter is still captive & needs our prayers, too.

    It would have undermined Rev. Williams’ evangelical point to spend much time talking about Eunice, since her continued captivity presumably pointed to the Lord’s deafness to prayer. So since her assimilation didn’t work toward Christian ideological ends, her story was almost entirely lost to history.

    You’re right about Native notions of ethnicity…even today, Native Americans don’t define ethnicity in terms of “blood” in the same way that white folks do. For most Native Americans, you’re “Native” if you belong to a community of other Native Americans, which explains why there’s never been much qualm about intermarriage in traditional Native American communities. (It also explains why Natives are normally nonplussed when white folks announce that they’re “part Indian” because they have a Cherokee grandmother. Being Indian isn’t about who your grandmother was. It’s about who you cast your lot with today.)

    Only white folks seem obsessed about defining ethnicity in terms of blood percentages, which is probably a carry-over from how blackness & slave-status was defined.

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