The Captivity of Mary Jemison

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Mary Jemison[1] was eighty years a resident among the Seneca, and in the early part of the time the forests had few clearings, and the comforts and the vices of white men prevailed but little among them. She was born on the ocean, with the billowy sea for her cradle, and the tempest for her lullaby. Her parents emigrated from England to this country in 1742, and settled in the unfortunate vale of Wyoming, where date her first remembrances, which were all the woes that fell upon her family, the wail of the sorrow-stricken and breaking of heart-strings. The last meal they took together was a breakfast, after which the father and eldest three sons went into the field, and Mary with the other little children was playing not far from the house. They were suddenly startled by a shriek, and knew it must be from their mother. On running in they saw her in the hands of two Indians, who were holding her fast. A little boy ran to call his father, and found him also bound by another of the party, and his eldest brother lying dead upon the earth; the other two fled to Virginia, where they had an uncle, as Mary afterward learned, and those who remained were made captives and hurried into the woods. All day they were obliged to march in single file over the rough, cold soil. Night found them in the heart of the wilderness, surrounded by their strange captors, and all the horrors of Indian life or Indian death staring them in the face. They had no hope of mercy, whether permitted to live or condemned to die. The mother said to Mary, “My daughter, you, I think will be permitted to live, but they will deprive you of your father and mother, and perhaps of your brothers and sisters, so that you will be alone. But endeavor in all things to please the Indians, and they will be more kind to you. Do not forget your own language, and never fail to repeat your catechism and the Lord’s prayer every morning and evening while you live.” This she promised to do, and having kissed her child, the mother was removed from her sight.

Mary must at this time have been ten years of age. She was afterwards told, when she could understand the Indian language, that they would not have killed her parents if the captors had not been pursued, and that a little boy[2], who was the son of a neighbor, and was also taken, was given to the French, two of whom were of the party.

In the marches of the Indians it was the custom for one to linger behind, and poke up the grass with a stick after a party had passed along, to conceal all traces of their footsteps, so a pursuit was seldom successful. In deviating from a direct course in order not to get lost, they noticed the moss upon the trees, which always grows thickest upon the north side, as the south side being most exposed to the sun, became soonest dry. They also had some knowledge of the stars, and knew from the position of certain clusters that were to be seen at certain seasons, which was east and which west.

Mary was adopted in place of two brothers who had fallen in battle, and for whom the lamentations had not died away. The ceremony of adoption is very solemn, requiring the deliberations of a council and the formal bestowing of a name, as a sort of baptism, from which time the captive is not allowed to speak any other language but the Indian, and must in all things conform to Indian habits and tastes.

It is customary among them to give children a name which corresponds with the sports and dependence of childhood, and when they arrive at maturity to change it for one that corresponds with the duties and employments of manhood and womanhood. The first name is given by the relatives and afterwards publicly announced in council. The second is bestowed in the same way; and by this they are ever afterward called, except on becoming a Sachem, and, sometimes, on becoming a Chief or warrior another name is taken, and each denotes definitely the new position. Each clan, too, had its peculiar names, so that when a person’s name was mentioned it was immediately known to what clan he belonged.

A curious feature in the Indian code of etiquette is that it is exceedingly impolite to ask a person’s name, or to speak it in his presence. In the social circle and all private conversation the person spoken of is described if it is necessary to allude to him, as the person who sits there, or who lives in that house, or wears such a dress. If I ask a woman, whose husband is present if that is Mr. B she blushes, and stammers, and replies, “He is my child’s father,” in order to avoid speaking his name in his presence, which would offend him. On asking a man his name he remained silent, not understanding the reason the question was repeated, when he indignantly replied, “Do you think that I am an owl to go about hooting my name everywhere?” The name of the owl in Indian corresponding exactly to the note he utters.

When Mary Jemison had been formally named De-he-wa-mis, they called her daughter and sister, and treated her in all respects as if she had been born among them and the same blood flowed in her veins, or rather, they were accustomed to be more kind to captives than to their own children, because they had not been inured to the same hardships. There was no difference in the cares bestowed, no allusion was ever made to the child as if it belonged to a hated race, and it never felt the want of affection.

Mary Jemison
A drawing depicting Mary Jemison being dressed in Indian clothes, from the 1856 printing of “The Life of Mary Jemison, Deh-He-Wa-Mis”

Mary said her tasks were always light, and everything was done to win her love and make her happy. She now and then longed for the comforts of her cottage home, and wept at the thought of her mother’s cruel death, but gradually learned to love the freedom of the forest, and to gambol freely and gaily with her Indian play-mates. When she was named they threw her dress away, and clothed her in deer skins and moccasins, and painted her face in true Indian style. She never spoke English in their presence, as they did not allow it, but when alone, did not forget her mother’s injunction, and repeated her prayers and all the words she could remember, thus retaining enough of the language to enable her easily to recall it when she should again return to civilized society, as she constantly indulged the hope of doing, by an exchange of captives.

But when she was fourteen years of age, her mother selected for her a husband, to whom she was married according to Indian custom. His name was Sheningee, and though she was not acquainted with him previously, and of course had no affection for him, but proved not only an amiable and excellent man but a congenial companion, whom she loved devotedly. He had all the noble qualities of an Indian, being handsome and brave, and generous, and kind, and to her very gentle and affectionate.

Now she became thoroughly reconciled to Indian life, her greatest sorrow being the necessary absence of her husband on the war-path and hunting excursions. She followed the occupation of a woman, tilled the fields, dressed the meats and skins, and gathered the fuel for the winter’s fire, and although this seems to the whites as unfeminine labor, it was performed at their leisure, and occupied very little of their time.

When the hunters returned they were weary and passive, and seldom were guilty of fault-finding, and so well did an Indian woman know her duty, that her husband was not obliged to make his wants known. Obedience was required in all respects, and where there was harmony and affection, cheerfully yielded, and knowing as they did that separation would be the consequence of neglect of duty and unkindness, there was really more self-control, and about little things, than those who are bound for life. They did not agree to live together through good and through evil reports, but only while they loved and confided in each other, and they were therefore careful not to throw lightly away this love and affection.

The labor of the field was performed in so systematic a manner, and by so thorough and wisely divisioned labor, that there were none of the jealousies and enjoyings which exist among those who wish to hoard, and ambitious to excel in style and equipage. And before the fire-water came among them, dissentions of any kind were almost unknown. This has been the fruitful source of all their woes. It was not till Mary became a mother that she gave up all longing for civilized society, and relinquished all hope of again returning to the abodes of the white man. Now she had a tie to bind her which could not be broken. If she should find her white friends they would not recognize her Indian husband, or consider her lawfully married: they would not care to be connected by ties of blood to a people whom they despised: her child would not be happy among those who looked upon her as inferior, and she herself had no education to fit her for the companionship of the white people. She looked upon her little daughter and thought, it is Sheningee’s it is dearer to me than all things else I could not endure to see her treated with aversion or neglect.

But only a little while was she permitted this happiness, her daughter died while yet an infant, and when Sheningee was away. Again the feeling of desolation came over her young spirit, but all around her ministered in every way to her comfort, and became more than ever endeared to her heart. After a long absence, Sheningee returned. She afterwards had a son, and named him after her father, to which no objection was made by her Indian friends, and her love for her husband became idolatry. In her eyes he seemed everything noble and good: she mourned his departure and longed for his return, for his affection prompted him to treat her with gentle and winning kindness which is the spirit of true love alone.

But again the separation, and she must pass another winter alone. For hunting was the Indian’s toil, and though they delighted in it, the pangs of parting from his wife and little one, made it a sacrifice, and spread a dark cloud over a long period of his life. And now it became dark indeed to Mary, for she waited long and Sheningee came not. She put everything in order in his little dwelling. She dressed new skins for his couch, and smoked venison to please his taste. She made the fire bright to welcome him, hoping every evening when she lay down with her baby upon her bosom, that ere the morning sun the husband and father would gladden them by his smiles, but in vain; winter had passed away, and the spring, and then came the sad tidings that he was dead, she became a widow and her child fatherless.

Very long did she mourn Sheningee, for it seemed to her there was none like him. But again the sympathies of his people created a new link to bind her to them, and she said she could not have loved a mother or sisters more dearly than she did those who stood in this relationship to her, and soothed her with their loving words.

Not for four years was she again urged to marry, and during this time there was an exchange of prisoners and she had an opportunity to return to her kindred; she was left to do as she chose. They told her she might go, but if she preferred to remain she should still be their daughter and sister, and they would give her land for her own where she might always dwell. Again she thought of the prejudice she would everywhere meet, and that she could never patiently listen to reproaches concerning her husband’s people. It would not be believed that he was noble, because he was an Indian; and she would have no near relatives and those she had might reject her if she should seek them, so she came to the final conclusion and never more sighed for the advantages or pleasures of civilized life. She came with the brothers of Sheningee to the banks of the Genesee, where she resided the remaining seventy-two years of her life.

Her second husband Hiokatoo she never learned to love. He was a Chief and a warrior brave and fearless; but though he was always kind to her, he was a man of blood. He delighted in deeds of cruelty and delighted to relate them. And now the fire water had become common, and the good were bad and the bad worse, so that dissensions arose in families and in neighborhoods, and the happiness which had been almost without alloy was no longer known among these simple people.

She adds her testimony to that of all travelers and historians concerning the purity of their lives, having never herself received the slightest insult from an Indian and scarcely knowing an instance of infidelity or immorality. But when once they had tasted of the maddening draught the thirst was insatiable, and all they had would be given for a glass of something to destroy their reason. Now they were indeed converted into fiends and furies and sold themselves to swift destruction.

Hiokatoo hesitated at no crime and took pleasure in everything dark and terrible, but this was a small trial compared to those which Mrs. Jemison was called upon to endure from the intoxication and recklessness of her son. Her eldest, the son of Sheningee, was murdered by John, the son of Hiokatoo, who afterward murdered his own brother Jesse, and came to the same violent death himself at the hands of others. When they came to be in the midst of temptation there was no restraining principle, and, even after they grew up her house was the scene of quarrels and confusion in consequence of their intemperance, and she knew no rest from fear of some calamity from the indulgence of their unbridled passions. The Chief of the Seneca nation, to which her second husband belonged, gave her a large tract of land, and when it became necessary that it should be secured to her by treaty, she plead her own case. The commissioners without inquiring particularly concerning the dimensions of her lots, allowed her to make her own boundaries, and when the document was signed and she was in firm possession it was found that she was the owner of nearly four thousand acres, of which only a deed in her own hand-writing could deprive her. But though she was rich she toiled not the less diligently and forsook not the sphere of woman in attending to the ways of her household, and also, true to her Indian education, she planted and hoed and harvested, retaining her Indian dress and habits till the day of her death. During the revolutionary war her house was made the rendezvous and headquarters of British officers and Indian Chiefs, as her sympathies were entirely with her red brethren, and the cause they espoused was the one she preferred to aid. It was in her power to sympathize with many a lone captive, she always remembered her own anguish at the prospect of spending her life in the wilderness. The companion of Indians, and though she had learned to love instead of fearing them, and knew they were, as a people, deserving of respect and the highest honor, she understood the feelings of those who knew them not.

Her supplication procured the release of many from torture, and her generous kindness clothed the naked and fed the starving. Lot after lot, acre after acre the Indians sold their lands, and at length the beautiful valley of the Genesee fell into the hands of the white people, except the dominion of “the white woman,” as she was always called, which couldn’t be given up without her consent. She refused, at the time of the sale, to part with her portion, but after the Indians removed to Buffalo reservation and she was left alone, though a lady in the manor and surrounded by white people, she preferred to take her abode with those whom she now called her own people. Most emphatically did she adopt the language of Ruth in the days of old, “Entreat me not to leave thee, or return from following after thee, for whither thou goest I will go, and where thou lodgest I will lodge, thy people will be my people, and thy God my God, where thou diest will I die, and there will I be buried.”

She as thoroughly pagan as the veriest Indian who had never heard of God, and she exclaimed with him that their religion was good enough and she desired no change.

She was ninety years of age eighty years she had been an exile from the land of her birth. She had forgotten the prayer her mother taught her, and knew nothing of the worship of her father, when one morning she sent a messenger to tell the missionaries she wished to see them. She had ever before refused to listen to them if they came to her dwelling, but they hastened to obey the summons, glad to feel that they should be welcomed, though quite uncertain concerning the nature of the interview she proposed. She was literally withered away, her face was scarcely larger than an infant’s and completely checkered with fine wrinkles, her teeth were entirely gone and her mouth so sunken that her nose and chin almost met, her hair not silvery, but snowy white, except a little lock by each ear which still retained the sandy hue of childhood, her form which was always slender, was bent, and her limbs could not longer support her. She had revived the knowledge of her language since she had dwelled among the white people but, “Oh,” said she, as the ladies entered, “I have forgotten how to pray; my mother taught me and told me never to forget this, though I remembered nothing else,” and then she exclaimed, “Oh, God! have mercy upon me.” This expression she had heard in her old age, and now uttered it in the fullness of her heart. There had come a gleam of light through all the darkness and superstitions of Paganism, and this spark was kindled at the fireside of that little cottage home, and fell upon her heart from a mother’s lips, and now revived at the remembrance of a mother’s love and her dying blessing. It was eighty years since she had seen that mother’s face, as she breathed out her soul in anguish, bending over her in the silent depths of the wilderness, eighty years since she listened to “Our Father who art in Heaven,” from Christian lips, and now the still small voice which had so long been silent, spoke aloud, and startled her as if an angel called. She tried to stifle it, and for many days after it awoke in her bosom, she heeded it not, but it gave her no rest. No earthly voice had since reminded her that her heart was sinful, and needed to be “washed in the blood of the lamb, that taketh away the sins of the world,” in order to be clean. The seed which had been sown in it when she was a little child, had just sprung up; the snows of eighty winters had not chilled it, the mildew of nearly a century had not blighted it, and the heavy hand of hundreds of calamities had left it unharmed. She had not been in the midst of corruptions, therefore it had not been destroyed. The little germ was still alive, and proving that it had not been in vain.

The aged woman sat pillowed up in bed with her children, and children’s children of three generations around her, and lifting her withered hands and sunken eyes to Heaven, once more repeated, “Our Father, who art in Heaven,” while a new light, like a halo, overspread her face, the tears flowed in floods down her cheeks, and in the dark eyes of every listener there glistened tears of sympathy in her new found happiness.

When she was asked if she regretted that she had not consented to be exchanged, she still said, “No. I love the Indians; I love them better than the white people. Because they had been kind to me, and provided generously for my youth and old age, and my children would inherit an abundance from the avails of the lands, and herds, and flocks.”

A few days after the new light dawned upon her spirit, in the year 1833, Mary was numbered with the dead. She had embraced the faith which makes no difference between those who come at the first or the eleventh hour, and those who were present at the dissolution of her soul and body, doubted not that Jesus had whispered to her the same consolation that fell upon the heart of the thief upon the Cross, “This day shall thou be with me in Paradise”

Footnotes

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  1. I have found Mary Jemison’s name spelled multiple ways. Depending on the source of the material, you may find her as Mary Jemison, Mary Janeson, Mary Janison, or Mary Jemmison. In the manuscript “The Captivity of Mary Jemison” her name is spelled in two manners, Mary Jemmison and Mary Janison, neither of which were correct, so we have taken the liberty of changing it in the material to the proper format.
  2. The little boy we learn from related material was named Davy Wheelock. Unfortunately, we never learn what happens to little Davy in this story, but another manuscript detailing Mary Jemison’s captivity states that Davy was taken away by a white man. Since at this time the Seneca were trading with the French it is likely that the man who took Davy away was a Frenchman. It was common practice for Native’s to trade white and Indian captives to the French, where they would grow up in a household as a servant or slave.


MLA Source Citation:

Johnson, Elias. Legends, Traditions, and Laws of the Iroquois, or Six Nations and History of the Tuscarora Indians. Lockport, New York: Union Printing and Publishing Co. 1881. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 28 November 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/the-captivity-of-mary-jemison.htm - Last updated on Jan 8th, 2014


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