Mary Jemison / Dehgewänis

By Kiana Clark

Born in 1743 as Mary Jemison on a voyage from Ireland to Pennsylvania, she and her family were captured by Shawnee warriors during the French and Indian War. Her captors killed and scalped Jemison’s parents and siblings, which was a traditional act of mourning after the loss of one of their own in battle. A Seneca family adopted Jemison, along with another young boy from a different family, and gave her the name Dehgewänis. Although she mourned the loss of her family, Jemison quickly assimilated into Seneca culture and spoke highly of her adopted siblings and parents, going on to marry a Native man named Sheninjee and have a son with him. After Sheninjee died while on a hunting trip, she married another Seneca man named Hiakatoo and had six children with him. 

Jemison’s tribe was only involved in the Revolutionary War to a limited extent due to their remote location and small numbers, but her memoir describes Native American interests in siding with the British, as well as the nature of skirmishes between Native Americans and British troops and the disruption of daily life that came along with fleeing war. Despite several opportunities to return to white, colonial society, Jemison preferred her life with the Seneca and chose to remain with her tribe until her death in 1833, even leaving the land that she acquired to the Seneca people. Before her death, she told the story of her life to James Seaver, an American minister who transcribed it and published the memoir as The Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison. 

About a year passed off [after the end of the French and Indian War], and we, as usual, were enjoying ourselves in the employments of peaceable times, when a messenger arrived from the British Commissioners, requesting all the Indians of our tribe to attend a general council which was soon to be held at Oswego. The council convened, and being opened, the British Commissioners informed the Chiefs that the object of calling a council of the Six Nations, was, to engage their assistance in subduing the rebels, the people of the states, who had risen up against the good King, their master, and were about to rob him of a great part of his possessions and wealth, and added that they would amply reward them for all their services.

The Chiefs then arose, and informed the Commissioners of the nature and extent of the treaty which they had entered into with the people of the states, the year before, and that they should not violate it by taking up the hatchet against them. [1]

The Commissioners continued their entreaties without success, till they addressed their avarice, by telling our people that the people of the states were few in number, and easily subdued; and that on the account of their disobedience to the King, they justly merited all the punishment that it was possible for white men and Indians to inflict upon them; and added, that the King was rich and powerful, both in money and subjects: That his rum was as plenty as the water in lake Ontario: that his men were as numerous as the sands upon the lake shore:—and that the Indians, if they would assist in the war, and persevere in their friendship to the King, till it was closed, should never want for money or goods. Upon this the Chiefs concluded a treaty with the British Commissioners, in which they agreed to take up arms against the rebels, and continue in the service of his Majesty till they were subdued, in consideration of certain conditions which were stipulated in the treaty to be performed by the British government and its agents.

As soon as the treaty was finished, the Commissioners made a present to each Indian of a suit of clothes, a brass kettle, a gun and tomahawk, a scalping knife, a quantity of powder and lead a piece of gold, and promised a bounty on every scalp that should be brought in. Thus richly clad and equipped, they returned home, after an absence of about two weeks, full of the fire of war, and anxious to encounter their enemies.

During the revolution, my house was the home of Col’s Butler and Brandt [2], whenever they chanced to come into our neighborhood as they passed to and from Fort Niagara, which was the seat of their military operations. Many and many a night I have pounded samp [3] for them from sun-set till sun-rise, and furnished them with necessary provision and clean clothing for their journey.

For four or five years we sustained no loss in the war, except in the few who had been killed in distant battles; and our tribe, because of the remoteness of its situation, from the enemy, felt secure from an attack. At length, in the fall of 1779, intelligence was received that a large and powerful army of the rebels, under the command of General Sullivan, was making rapid progress towards our settlement, burning and destroying the huts and corn-fields; killing the cattle, hogs and horses, and cutting down the fruit trees belonging to the Indians throughout the country,

Our Indians again held a short council on the expediency of giving Sullivan battle, if he should continue to advance, and finally came to the conclusion that they were not strong enough to drive him, nor to prevent his taking possession of their fields, but that if it was possible they would escape with their own lives, preserve their families, and leave their possessions to be overrun by the invading army. 

In one or two days after the skirmish at Connissius lake, Sullivan and his army arrived at Genesee river, where they destroyed every article of the food kind that they could lay their hands on. A pan of our corn they burnt, and threw the remainder into the river. They burnt out houses, killed what few cattle and horses they could find, destroyed our fruit trees, and left nothing but the bare soil and timber. 

[After the end of the Revolutionary war, Jemison continued to live in Genesee County, New York, and was given a large tract of land by the tribal council in 1797. In 1823, she described disputes over her land, her attempt to become a naturalized citizen, and her attempt to have her land recognized by the government.]

Mr. Clute, suspecting that some plan was in operation that would deprive me of my possession, advised me to have nothing to say on the subject [of selling her land] to Mr. Brooks, till I had seen Esquire Clute, of Squawky Hill. Soon after this Thomas Clute saw Esq. Clute, who informed him that the petition for my naturalization would be presented to the Legislature of this State, instead of being sent to Congress; and that the object would succeed to his and my satisfaction. Mr. Clute then observed to his brother, Esq. Clute, that as the sale of Indian lands, which had been reserved, belonged to the United States, an act of the Legislature of New York could have no effect in securing to me a title to my reservation, or in depriving me of my property. They finally agreed that I should sign a petition to Congress, praying for my naturalization, and for the confirmation of my land to me, my heirs, etc. 

Whenever the land which I have reserved, shall be sold, the income of it is to be equally divided amongst the members of the Seneca nation, without any reference to tribes or families. 

Discussion Questions

    1. What incentives did the British offer to the Seneca people for fighting on their side? Are there other motives or interests that the Seneca may have had?
    2. In what ways did the Seneca contribute support to the British Army? How did the war impact their daily lives?
    3. After the war, what problems did Mary Jemison face regarding land ownership? What does her situation tell you about the status of land, specifically Indigenous land, after the Revolution?


Ames, William Homer. “Mary Jemison: 1743–1833.” In Notable Women of Pennsylvania, edited by Biddle Gertrude Bosler and Lowrie Sarah Dickinson, 56-57. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1942. Accessed April 14, 2021.

Walsh, Susan. “”With Them Was My Home”: Native American Autobiography and A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison.” American Literature 64, no. 1 (1992): 49-70. Accessed April 14, 2021. doi:10.2307/2927488.



[1] This referred to an agreement made by the Six Nations council that they would remain neutral in the Revolutionary War. 

[2] Leaders of Mohawk and Iroquois Confederacy troops for the British.

[3] A dish similar to porridge, made of coarsely ground corn.