‘Little woman of great courage’-the life of Mary Jemison
Mary Jemison’s is a remarkable story. Born in 1743, she was captured by Indians whilst in her teenage years. Her family had emigrated from Ireland and settled on the troubled Pennsylvania frontier in lands controlled by the Iroquois. The Seven Years War broke out and its realisation in the New World, the French and Indian war set the border-lands ablaze. In 1755 a mixed raiding party of Shawnee warriors and Frenchmen captured the Jemison family and an unrelated boy but subsequently killed most of them. Mary was sold to the Senecas and disappeared into the wilderness. Her remarkable story of captivity that gradually led to integration into the life of the Indians of the Eastern woodlands makes vital reading for all those interested in the role of women in the opening up of early America. Jemison eventually elected to live her life as a Seneca despite much subsequent interaction with white settlers. Her descriptions of the part played by the Indian tribes during the Revolutionary War are both unusual and vitally interesting.
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Our Indians were also among those who lay in ambush on the Niagara River to intercept a party of the British who were guarding a quantity of baggage from Lewiston to Fort Schlosser. When the British party arrived at the designated point, the Indians arose from their ambush, and drove the British off the bank of the river, into a place called the Devil’s Hole, together with their horses, carriages, and loading, and everything belonging to the party. Not a man escaped being driven off; and of the whole number, one only was fortunate enough to escape with life.<br>
I spent the winter comfortably, and as agreeably as I could have expected to, in the absence of my kind husband. Spring at length appeared, but Sheninjee was yet away; summer came on, but my husband had not found me. Fearful forebodings haunted my imagination; yet I felt confident that his affection for me was so great that if he was alive he would follow me and I should again see him. In the course of the summer, however, I received intelligence that soon after he left me at Yiskahwana he was taken sick and died at Wiishto. This was a heavy and an unexpected blow. I was now in my youthful days left a widow, with one son, and entirely dependent on myself for his and my support. My mother and her family gave me all the consolation in their power, and in a few months my grief wore off and I became contented.<br>
In a year or two after this, according to my best recollection of the time, the King of England offered a bounty to those who would bring in the prisoners that had been taken in the war, to some military post where they might be redeemed and set at liberty.<br>
John Van Sice, a Dutchman, who had frequently been at our place, and was well acquainted with every prisoner at Genishau, resolved to take me to Niagara, that I might there receive my liberty and he the offered bounty. I was notified of his intention; but as I was fully determined not to be redeemed at that time, especially with his assistance, I carefully watched his movements in order to avoid falling into his hands. It so happened, however, that he saw me alone at work in a cornfield, and thinking probably that he could secure me easily, ran towards me in great haste. I espied him at some distance, and well knowing the amount of his errand, run from him with all the speed I was mistress of, and never once stopped till I reached Gardeau. He gave up the chase, and returned: but I, fearing that he might be lying in wait for me, stayed three days and three nights in an old cabin at Gardeau, and then went back trembling at every step for fear of being apprehended. I got home without difficulty; and soon after, the chiefs in council having learned the cause of my elopement, gave orders that I should not be taken to any military post without my consent; and that as it was my choice to stay, I should live amongst them quietly and undisturbed.<br>
But, notwithstanding the will of the chiefs, it was but a few days before the old king of our tribe told one of my Indian brothers that I should be redeemed, and he would take me to Niagara himself. In reply to the old king,3 my brother said that I should not be given up; but that, as it was my wish, I should stay with the tribe as long as I was pleased to. Upon this a serious quarrel ensued between them, in which my brother frankly told him that sooner than I should be taken by force, he would kill me with his own hands! Highly enraged at the old king; my brother came to my sister’s house, where I resided, and informed her of all that had passed respecting me; and that, if the old king should attempt to take me, as he firmly believed he would, he would immediately take my life, and hazard the consequences. He returned to the old king.<br>
As soon as I came in, my sister told me what she had just heard, and what she expected without doubt would befall me. Full of pity, and anxious for my preservation, she then directed me to take my child and go into some high weeds at no great distance from the house, and there hide myself and lay still till all was silent in the house, for my brother, she said, would return at evening and let her know the final conclusion of the matter, of which she promised to inform me in the following manner: If I was to be killed, she said she would bake a small cake and lay it at the door, on the outside, in a place that she then pointed out to me. When all was silent in the house, I was to creep softly to the door, and if the cake could not be found in the place specified, I was to go in: but if the cake was there, I was to take my child and; go as fast as I possibly could to a large spring on the south side of Samp’s Creek, (a place that I had often seen,) and there wait till I should by some means hear from her.<br>
Alarmed for my own safety, I instantly followed her advice, and went into the weeds, where I lay in a state of the greatest anxiety, till all was silent in the house, when I crept to the door, and there found, to my great distress, the little cake! I knew my fate was fixed, unless I could keep secreted till the storm was over, and accordingly crept back to the weeds, where my little Thomas lay, took him on my back, and laid my course for the spring as fast as my legs would carry me. Thomas was nearly three years old, and very large and heavy. I got to the spring early in the morning, almost overcome with fatigue, and at the same time fearing that I might be pursued and taken, I felt my life an almost insupportable burthen. I sat down with my child at the spring, and he and I made a breakfast of the little cake, and water of the spring, which I dipped and supped with the only implement which I possessed,—my hand.<br>
In the morning after I fled, as was expected, the old king came to our house in search of me, and to take me off; but, as I was not to be found, he gave me up, and went to Niagara with the prisoners he had already got into his possession.<br>
As soon as the old king was fairly out of the way, my sister told my brother where he could find me. He immediately set out for the spring, and found me about noon. The first sight of him made me tremble with the fear of death; but when he came near,—so near that I could discover his countenance,—tears of joy flowed down my cheeks, and I felt such a kind of instant relief as no one can possibly experience, unless when under the absolute sentence of death he receives an unlimited pardon.<br>
We were both rejoiced at the failure of the old king’s project; and after staying at the spring through the night, set out together for home early in the morning. When we got to a cornfield near the town, my brother secreted me till he could go and ascertain how my case stood; and finding that the old king was absent, and that all was peaceable, he returned to me, and I went home joyfully.<br>
Not long after this, my mother went to Johnstown, on the Mohawk River, with five prisoners, who were redeemed by Sir William Johnson, and set at liberty.<br>
When my son Thomas was three or four years old, I was married to an Indian, whose name was Hiokatoo, commonly called Gardeau, by whom I had four daughters and two sons. I named my children, principally, after my relatives, from whom I was parted, by calling my girls Jane, Nancy, Betsey and Polly, and the boys John and Jesse.