As I’ve been extracting the surnames of the New York Indian tribes from the Indian census (1888-1893), which consist of the Six Nations, Jemison, Jimerson, Jemerson and variant spellings are found in all of the tribes. It’s a very unusual name otherwise, but very common within the tribes.
It also has a very unusual genesis – not Native at all. Mary Jemison, the progenitor of the Jemison lines, was a captive white woman.
Mary Jemison (Deh-he-wä-mis), was born in 1743 and died September 19, 1833. She was born to white immigrant parents and died an adopted Seneca. When she was in her teens, she was captured in what is now Adams County, Pennsylvania, from her home along Marsh Creek, and later chose to remain a Seneca.
Mary Jemison was born to Thomas and Jane Jemison aboard the ship William and Mary in the fall of 1743 while en route from what is now Northern Ireland to America. Upon their arrival in America, the couple and their new child joined other Scots-Irish immigrants and headed west from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to what was then the western frontier (now central Pennsylvania). They “squatted” on territory that was under the authority of the Iroquois Confederacy.
During the time the Jemisons were establishing their home, the French and Indian War (Seven Years War) was raging. One morning in 1755, a raiding party consisting of six Shawnee Indians and four Frenchmen captured Mary, her family (except two older brothers) and Davy Wheelock, a boy from another family. En route to Fort Duquesne (present-day Pittsburgh), Mary’s mother, father, and siblings were killed and scalped. Mary and the other young boy were spared. Once the party reached the Fort, Mary was given to two Seneca Indians, who took Mary downriver. The Seneca adopted Mary, renaming her Deh-he-wä-mis which she learned meant, “… a pretty girl, a handsome girl, or a pleasant, good thing.”
She married a Delaware named Sheninjee. They had a son whom she named Thomas after her father. Sheninjee took her on a 700-mile (1,100 km) journey to the Sehgahunda Valley along the Genesee River in present-day New York state. Although Jemison and their son reached this destination, her husband did not. Leaving his wife to hunt, he had taken ill and died. She arrived alone, with her baby, in the dead of winter. She was received with open arms by her husband’s clan and settled to a happy life among the Seneca in Sehgehunda, or “Vale of the Three Falls”. She married Seneca chief Hiokatoo, and she had six more children.
During the American Revolutionary War, the Seneca were allies of the British. Jemison’s account of her life includes some observations during this time, as she and others in the Seneca town helped Joseph Brant and Iroquois warriors who fought against the colonists.
After the war, the Seneca sold much of their land at Little Beard’s Town to European-American settlers in 1797. At that time, during negotiations with the Holland Land Company held at Geneseo, New York, Mary Jemison proved to be an able negotiator for the Seneca tribe. She helped win more favorable terms for giving up their rights to the land at the Treaty of Big Tree (1797).
In 1823, the tribe sold most of the remainder of the land, except for a 2-acre (8,100 m2) tract of land reserved for Jemison’s use. Known locally as the “White Woman of the Genesee”, she lived on the tract until she sold it in 1831 and moved to the Buffalo Creek Reservation. Jemison lived the rest of her life with the Seneca Nation. She died on September 19, 1833, aged 90. She was initially buried on the Buffalo Creek Reservation.
When the reservation was closed and the burial ground there threatened, her grandchildren turned to William Pryor Letchworth, whose estate, Glen Iris, encompassed the land where Sehgehunda had been. He immediately invited them to bring Mary home. Her remains were placed in a new walnut coffin and taken back to the Genesee Valley. A full ceremony was held at the old Seneca council house, and she was laid to rest in March of 1874. Letchworth erected a granite marker, on top of which is a statue which he dedicated in 1910, after his estate had been incorporated into Letchworth State Park in present day Castille, New York.
A bronze statue of Mary Jemison, created in 1910 by Henry Kirke Bush-Brown, marks her grave. Dr. George F. Kunz helped with the 1910 memorial to Jemison, “The White Indian of the Genesee”, who is buried at “the ancient Indian Council House of the Senecas.” Dr. Kunz always was fascinated by Native Americans, and contributed much to their memorials in New York.
Today, the various Jemison families of New York carry her legacy.
Late in life, she told her story to the minister James E. Seaver, who published it as a classic “captivity narrative”, Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison (1824; latest ed. 1967). Many history scholars consider it to be a reasonably accurate narrative.
You can read Mary’s life story in the “Narrative of the Life of Mary Jemison.” The drawings in this article are from this book, published in 1856.