The White Woman of the Genesee

If you’ve visited Letchworth State Park or are from Wyoming County, NY you’re probably familiar with Mary Jemison a/k/a The White Woman of the Genesee. Hers is a fascinating story spanning the years before the Revolutionary War into the early 1800s. Mary’s life is a Western New York legend, a rich part of the pre-Revolutionary War history of the beautiful Genesee River valley.
A daughter of Thomas and Jane Jemison, Mary drew her first breath on board the sailing ship William and Mary in the fall of 1743. Her parents, of Scotch-Irish heritage were Protestant settlers in Adams County, near Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

On April 5, 1758, Indians and Frenchmen descended on the frontier neighborhood, killing many and dragging off captives. Mary, her parents and siblings, several neighbors along with their children were among those captured. The settlers were forced to march many miles through woods and swamps. Their fate was almost certain death, but the second night on the march, Mary was given a pair of moccasins to replace her shoes. A young boy was also given a pair of moccasins that same night. Mary’s mother believed her daughter would be spared because of this gesture, which proved to be right. Mary had to endure the sight of her parents’ scalps hung to dry after that night.

Mary was adopted by two Seneca sisters who taught her the language and customs of their tribe. They gave her a new name–Dehgewanus, which meant Two Falling Voices. Jane Jemison’s parting words to her daughter were to never forget the prayers she’d been taught and her own language. She never did forget, but Mary was wise enough to understand that her life was changed forever and quickly immersed herself in the ways of the Seneca. She married a Delaware warrior and bore two children. Her firstborn, a girl lived only a couple of days and then a son was born, whom she named Thomas after her father. Mary moved with the Seneca sisters and eventually took up residence in Little Beard’s Town or present day Cuylerville, NY. Sheninjee, her husband went off to fight and never returned the summer of 1760. Many months later she learned he had died from illness in Ohio.

Around 1763, Mary married Hiakatoo, a well-known Seneca chief. He was much older than Mary–over 60 years old at the time and she was only 24. Six children were born to them, two sons and four daughters: John, Jesse, Jane, Nancy, Betsey, and Polly. She remembered her family in the naming of the children after those murdered in the raid during the French and Indian War.

Hiakatoo was powerful and a fierce chief. Reported to be over six feet tall, he provided protection and security for his tiny wife. They were married for over 40 years and by her account it was a happy marriage. Her children, although her greatest joy, were also a source of great sadness. Her son, John killed his two brothers in separate alcohol-induced fights. Thomas was murdered in 1811 and Jesse in 1812. The men were in their fifties at that time. John was eventually killed in a drunken brawl at Squawkie Hill Reservation. A link to the map is here.

Mary never went back to the white culture, although she was given opportunities over the years. Her adopted people, the Senecas were her family. However, she never referred to herself as Indian and all of her children were given English names. She became a highly respected woman among both the Senecas and settlers. In 1797, the Council of Big Tree was convened on the banks of the Genesee River, near present day Geneseo, NY. Land had been promised to Dehgewanus (Mary) and now that the Seneca Nation was in negotiations to relinquish over a half million acres of land to a land speculator, Robert Morris, it was time for Mary to select her land. A huge tract of land was eventually given to her – 17, 297 acres, an area six miles wide, 4 3/4 miles long on both sides of the Genesee.

Red Jacket, one of the Seneca chiefs, fought against Mary with great eloquence. However, Red Jacket lost the argument and Dehgewanus’ claim was approved. Cabins were built for her children and herself on the Gardeau Flats. Her good friend and adviser, Thomas Clute helped her manage the tract of land and leases for many years.

In 1823, James Seaver interviewed Mary at the home of Mrs. Jennet Whaley in the Town of Castile. Seaver recorded that even at 80, Mary walked without assistance and she still had a peaches-and-cream complexion. Seaver’s book, A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison is a classic in Western New York history.

​I highly recommend reading his book if you want to learn more about this fascinating woman. Seaver’s formal style of writing may be a challenge, but his in-depth interview with the elderly Mary is riveting. Arch Merrill, a well-known WNY journalist in the 1940s and 1950s wrote several books about the history of the Genesee Valley and his easy-to-read style may suit you better. Merrill’s book, The White Woman and Her Valley is also recommended.

Mary Jemison died at around age 90 on September 9, 1833 and was buried on the Buffalo Creek Reservation in Buffalo, NY. William Pryor Letchworth, who owned what is now Letchworth State Park, and which was part of Jemison’s land, created a memorial to her in the park. In 1870, he had the Seneca Council House located in Caneadea, NY moved to his property and in 1874 received permission to move Jemison’s remains to be re-interred near the Council House. A bronze statute of a young Mary was also erected in September, 1910 to honor the memory of this courageous woman.

Her life will always be one for the books. As Arch Merrill said in The White Woman and Her Valley,

“No frontier girl was ever forced to lead a stranger life. Mary Jemison’s years were full of toil and woe. Yet she never lost her sunny smile, her fortitude or her abiding generosity.”

Resources:

History of Wyoming County 1841-1880, F. W. Beers & Co.
A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison, James E. Seaver, 1824
The White Woman and Her Valley, Arch Merrill, 1955

Helpful Links: http://www.letchworthparkhistory.com/jem.html
Ebook Link to Seaver’s book

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