Mary Jemison was born in 1743, on a ship travelling from Ireland to America. The Jemison family worked on the outskirts of civilization, converting wildness to cultivated soil. Each each day brought the danger of being attacked by a wild beast or a hostile Indian.
The Iroquois Confederacy (Cayuga, Oneida, Seneca, Mohawk, Onondaga, and Tuscarora Indians) joined forces with the French against the British. A small raiding group of French and Indians swooped down on the frontier settlement on that spring morning in 1758, capturing a number of British colonialists, including Mary and most of her family.
The Jemisons were forced to march through the woods without food, pushed along by a warrior with a whip who flogged them anytime they slowed their pace. Mary was separated from her family in the morning and forced to march another day.
She spent the entire day wondering what had happened to her parents. When evening arrived and they stopped to rest, she discovered the truth. A warrior retrieved her mother and father's severed scalps from a sack, scrubbed them clean, and dried them over a fire while she watched.
Mary was bought at Fort Duquesne by a group of Senecas, who carried her into a canoe and paddled down the Ohio. When she arrived at the village, she discovered herself in a completely foreign world: the world of the Seneca people. They adopted the teen, discarding her previous name, dress, and existence in Ohio and wrapped her in her name identity. Dehgewanus was her new name, which meant "Two Falling Voices".
Dehgewanus spent the following few years learning Seneca methods. Sheninjee, a Delaware native, became her husband. In the summer of 1761, they had a daughter, but she died soon after delivery. She gave birth again before the following spring, this time to a son she called "Thomas" after her father, whom she still missed dearly.
Sheninjee was concerned that the conclusion of the conflict would result in the repatriation of hostages, and that he may lose his young wife. Dehgewanus and her husband embarked on an amazing adventure that summer, carrying her baby in the cradleboard on her back.
The voyage was lengthy and difficult, covering about 700 miles by the route they traveled. Her husband had parted from Dehgewanus to go hunting and trapping, but he became ill and died. Dehgewanus finally made it to the Genesee in the midst of winter, alone in an unfamiliar place.
Sheninjee's clan relations quickly settled her in Little Beard's Town, near present-day Cuylerville, New York. This was the heartland of the Seneca People, guardian of the Iroquois League's Western Door, and life was excellent along the Genesee. She remarried Hiokatoo and had six more children with him.
In 1779, George Washington dispatched a 5,000-man army to crush the Seneca's spirit and fighting ability. Little Beard's Town was their prime goal. The Senecas, along with numerous other tribes, joined with the British and became targets for the American Army. Americans arrived in the Genesee Valley and began torching the locals' farms and homes.
Dehgewanus made the choice to go to Gadaho, an abandoned settlement south of Beardstown. She and her children took refuge with two fugitive slaves, and she stayed for over sixty years. Dehgewanus reverted to her Seneca habits beside the Genesee River. Hiokatoo found her there, and the two of them rebuilt their lives together.
In the late summer of 1797, a great council was convened at the Big Tree in present-day Geneseo, New York. All of the Seneca chiefs were present. The discussions were long and contentious, and the eventual treaty pleased only a small number of those present. Much of the Seneca lands was surrendered over to settlers in exchange for twelve reservations and payments.
Despite the fact that they still had land on which to harvest corn, beans, and squash, the Seneca who stayed in the Valley struggled to prosper in an increasingly white civilization. The pressures and conflicts of the time cost Dehgewanus and her family dearly, as three of the Jemison boys were killed between 1811 and 1817.
A doctor and a journalist conducted an interview with Mary Jemison at the request of several residents. The interview took place at Whaley's Tavern in November of 1823. The next year, a little book named "A Narrative of the life of Mrs. Mary Jemison" was released, eternally preserving the story of Dehgewanus aka Mary Jemison.
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