Mary Jemison
"The White Woman of the Genesee"


Mary Jemison
Statue of Mary Jemison at Letchworth State
Park erected by William Letchworth in 1910.*

Born in 1743 aboard the ship as her parents were immigrating to America, Mary Jemison grew up on a farm near the site of present-day Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. A raiding party of French soldiers and Shawnee warriors captured Mary and her family in 1755; two of her brothers were able to escape. The rest of the Jemison family were killed and scalped. Mary was later turned over to a party of Senecas who gave her the name "Deh-he-wa-mis" meaning "Two Falling Voices." A few years later she came to the Genesee Valley and settled at Little Beard's town in Cuylerville. Mary soon adapted to the way of life of the Seneca and lived peacefully among them, but the pain of losing her family stayed with her always. When Sullivan's army was en route to destroy Little Beard's town, the chiefs sent the women and children west into the woods temporarily for safety. Some left the area permanently, but Mary returned and tried to salvage what she could to feed her children.

When Mary was interviewed in 1823 by James Seaver for a narrative on her life in captivity,** she vividly described the impact the devastation of the Genesee Valley area by Sullivan's army on the lives of the Seneca Nation. Some of her recollections conflicted with soldier's journals, yet the memoirs provide invaluable insight into the way of life of the Indians during the mid-18th and early 19th century in this area. The story of her captivity led to national recognition
that has increased over time. After the death of her first husband, Mary married another Seneca and had several more children. Despite repeated opportunities to leave the Seneca way of life, Mary choose to remain where she considered her home, farming the Gardeau flats.***

Nearly twenty years after Sullivan's Campaign, Mary was present at yet another pivotal moment in the history of Livingston County. In 1797 negotiations between white developers and the Senecas for the sale of more than three million acres of land west of the Genesee River, resulted in the signing of the Treaty of Big Tree at Geneseo. Mary was able to secure title to nearly 18,000 acres of excellent quality land. In the 1820s she sold most of the tract and was still actively tilling the soil and raising crops on a two-acre parcel at nearly ninety years old. She finally decided it was time to sell the remainder of the reservation in 1831 and move to the Buffalo Creek Reservation.*** Two years afterwards, Mary Jemison died.

Forty-one years later the "White Woman of the Genesee" returned to her Valley. The Buffalo Creek Reservation had been sold, and the old burying ground was threatened. Her grandchildren approached William Letchworth,**** who had purchased most of the original Gardeau tract. In March of 1874, the remains of "Deh-he-wa-mis" were removed back to her former home by train. In ceremonies held in the ancient Council House that blended both the Seneca and Christian ways, she was re-interred on the bluff above the Middle Falls in Letchworth Park, where a monument still stands today.

*Photo from the Livingston County Historian's collection.
**James E. Seaver's, A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison was originally published in 1824, more than 30 editions have been published since that time.
***For location of the Gardeau and Buffalo Creek Reservations, see map on page 35 of Sullivan Campaign of the Revolutionary War: The Impact on Livingston County.
****For more information on the life of William Pryor Letchworth see page 63 of Sullivan Campaign of the Revolutionary War: The Impact on Livingston County.

(Sullivan Campaign of the Revolutionary War: The Impact on Livingston County, page 31)