Mary Jemison’s story

Introduction:  Gretchen Murray Sepik is a performer, artist, and writer who goes to schools, libraries, festivals, and other venues. She brings people from history, as well as some fictitious characters, to life. On Friday, March 11th, she shared the story of Mary Jemison with the fourth graders at Huth Road Elementary School. By becoming Mary Jemison via the technique of method acting (when a performer appears to become the character), she made history come to life for the students and for their teachers. She truly put the STORY in hiSTORY. Below is Mary Jemison’s story, as told by Gretchen Murray Sepik.

Mary Jemison was born on a ship heading to Philadelphia to Irish parents (Thomas and Jane Erwin Jemison) in 1743. Her family became homesteaders in southern Pennsylvania, and she lived on the farm with them until she became a teenager. She had four brothers and a sister. Their names were Thomas, John, Matthew, Robert, and Betsey. She said that she had happy memories of her life with her family.

When the French and Indian Wars started in 1754, there was much fear. “There were stories about how the Indians were killing our people. My father felt that George Washington would defeat the Indians.”

Mary shared the story of chaos and terror. She talked about feeling uneasy in the woods and of being “alarmed by the discharge of several guns.” 

“We were captured by French and by Indians (six Shawnee and four Frenchmen). It was dark. They took us to a dismal swamp. They marched us and they watched us.” Someone removed Mary’s stockings and her shoes and put moccasins on her feet. “My mother told me to be brave and not to escape.”

Mary related how she feared for her family and her friends. She and a boy were marched all day. Their destination was Fort Dusquesne. She said, “I knew that I would never see my family and friends again. I wished that I could have told them how much I loved them.” There, she was given to the Senecas, and the boy was given to the French. She was taken by canoe to a small Seneca village.

“The women took my old clothing, bathed me, and gave me new clothing. I feared being killed. The women came and wept. They lost a brother in Washington’s war. I was to replace him.”

“I was adopted by the Senecas. I was given food, shelter, and was taught the language.” A few years later, she was married to a tall, elegant Delaware, named Sheninjee. It was an arranged marriage. He was a kind man, who won her heart. “After a time, he won my affection. I had a daughter, who lived two days. Later, I had a son, whom I named Thomas.”

At this point,Mary had been with the Indians for four years. “This was my family. In many ways, our lives were much better than the settlers’ lives.”

She talked about a long, difficult journey on foot. “Imagine walking 500 miles. I carried the baby on a cradleboard. It rained constantly, and there were mosquitoes. I rubbed the fat from bears on me and the baby to repel the mosquitoes. When I arrived near the Great Falls, I was received by my Indian mother and two sisters.”

The British were in Fort Niagara, near the Great Falls. There was a battle. It was a difficult time.

Then, to add to the sorrow that Mary experienced, “I found out that my husband became ill and died. My Indian mother did all she could to comfort me.”

She had forebodings of bad things that were about to happen. “I felt that someone was watching me. I felt cold fingers up my spine. If you know what the truth is, you must follow your heart. Women are good at this, but men are not.” She ran away from a man and hid in a cabin for three days. She feared being turned over to the British in Fort Niagara.

With the end of the French and Indian Wars came a lessening of Mary’s anxiety about being turned over to an enemy. She married again, to a Seneca chief named Hiakatoo. With him, she had six children: four daughters and two sons. Their names were John, Nancy, Betsey, Polly, Jane, and Jesse.

During the Revolutionary War, the Senecas sided with the British.

Eventually, Mary’s brother offered her the freedom to leave the Senecas. “I said no; I wanted to live with my Indian family. I was awarded 17,000 acres of land. It was beautiful land. I had good friends.”

She talked about a terrible threat to her adopted people. “Liquor threatened to destroy my society and my family, like drug abuse today,” she said, speaking as Gretchen and Mary.

Mary Jemison was interview about her life in 1824 by J.E. Siever, who produced a book about her life, called “Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison.”  She was known as Dehgewanus, “the white woman of the Genesee.”

Mary Jemison died in 1833 at the age of 90. She is buried in Letchworth State Park. She has many descendants among the Senecas. Among them is artist Peter Jemison, who gave Gretchen a great deal of assistance in her research of the life of Mary Jemison.

This is Kailey. She is dressed in an outfit that would have been common during Mary Jemison’s time.

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