Mary Jemison, the Irishwoman who turned Native American

Irish Connections: Kidnapped in 1775 after her family’s slaughter, she was raised by the Seneca tribe

‘The White Woman of the Genesee’: statue to Irishwoman Mary Jemison.

‘The White Woman of the Genesee’: statue to Irishwoman Mary Jemison.

 

Letchworth State Park in New York State is a spectacular place. Its 15,000 acres are gouged by deep gorges and waterfalls, so it’s much used for all sorts of activities including geocaching, camping, whitewater rafting and hunting. It’s also the site of the grave of Mary Jemison, also known as Deh-he-wä-mis.

Irish connections to North America are many and varied. Direct links with Native Americans, however, are harder to come by. Mary Jemison was born mid-Atlantic in the autumn of 1743, on board the William and Mary which was bringing her parents, Thomas and Jane Jemison, from Northern Ireland to America. After landing in Philadelphia they joined other Protestant Scots-Irish immigrants who were heading west in search of cheaper land.

The Jemisons settled – squatted, really – on land that was under the control of the Iroquois Confederacy, an association of six tribes in the region, which included the Mohawk, Onondaga and Seneca peoples. They cleared land at a place called Marsh Creek, created a farm and had several children.

Within a decade of their arrival skirmishes had begun in the French and Indian war. The North American leg of the Seven Years’ War between France and Britain, a nasty, messy conflict, saw both sides working alongside Native American allies.

One morning in 1755, a raiding party made up of six Shawnee men and four Frenchmen captured Jemison and her family. They brought them to present-day Pittsburgh, then known as Fort Duquesne and under French control. En route Thomas and Jane, as well as several of Mary’s siblings, were killed and ritually scalped.

Mary and a boy from another family were spared, probably because they were considered suitable for adoption. At Fort Duquesne, Mary was given to two Seneca who took her downriver to their settlement. Her adoptive Seneca family renamed her Deh-he-wä-mis, which meant “a pretty girl” or “a good thing”.

It must have been an almost unimaginable lifestyle change for this 12-year-old Irish girl, yet Jemison became fully assimilated into Seneca culture and, as an adult, chose to stay with her new family rather than return to British colonial life. She married twice – her first husband died while hunting – and had a total of seven children.

Captivity narrative

At the age of nearly 80, Mary told her story to a local minister, Rev James E Seaver. It was published in 1824, the kind of classic “captivity narrative” that would later inspire a raft of Hollywood Westerns, including The Searchers and A Man Called Horse.

Rev Seaver’s description of Jemison paints a fascinating picture. She spoke English plainly and distinctly, he wrote, “with a little of the Irish emphasis”. He added that “she has the use of words so well as to render herself intelligible on any subject with which she is acquainted”.

She was small in height, with light blue eyes. “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. 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 eyebrows as they do with the head inclined downwards.”

She walked quickly, without a stick, and “could yet cross a stream on a log or pole as steadily as any other person”.

At this time the Seneca, having taken the British side during the war, was being forced to give up its land to the United States. Jemison helped the tribe to negotiate more favourable terms, and a two-acre tract of land was set aside for her use. She eventually moved to the Buffalo Creek Reservation, living with the Seneca Nation until she died in 1833, aged 90.

In 1921 a statue of Jemison was erected in the grounds of a church in the town of Orrtanna, Pennsylvania, near her home in Adams County. Part Pocohontas, part Virgin Mary, it’s an extraordinary image – an apt memorial for an extraordinary woman.

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