Mary Jemison was born on the ship that brought her Irish parents, brothers and sisters to America in 1743. A few years later her family moved from Philadelphia to a homestead on the Pennsylvania frontier. The family toiled on the edge of civilization transforming the wilderness to cultivated soil. Each new day brought with it the fear of attack by wild beast or hostile Indian.
These fears became reality on the morning of a spring day in 1758. The British
colonies were engulfed in a war against the French. The Iroquois Confederacy
(consisting of the Cayuga, Oneida, Seneca, Mohawk, Onondaga, and Tuscorora
Indians) allied with the French against the British. On that spring morning
in 1758 a small raiding party made up of French and Indians swooped down on
the frontier settlement capturing a number of British colonialists including
Mary and most of her family (two of her brothers escaped.) At age thirteen,
Mary”s life changed forever. From that day until her death 78 years later she
never left the Indian culture. Mary”s story of her capture and life among the
Seneca was first published in 1824.
Abduction at Dawn
On a morning in March 1758, Mary, her mother and a friend were preparing breakfast when they were startled by the sound of gunfire. They rushed to the door to find a man and his horse lying dead a short distance away. The man was a neighbor chased and shot by a raiding party that now stormed into the cabin taking all inside prisoner. Mary begins her story as she and her family are herded through the wilderness towards Fort Duquesne located on the present-day site of Pittsburgh:
“The party that took us consisted of six Indians and four Frenchmen, who immediately commenced plundering, as I just observed, and took what they considered most valuable; consisting principally of bread, meal, and meat. Having taken as much provision as they could carry, they set out with their prisoners in great haste, for fear of detection, and soon entered the woods.
On our march that day, an Indian went behind us with a whip, with which he frequently lashed the children, to make them keep up. In this manner we traveled till dark, without a mouthful of food or a drop of water, although we had not eaten since the night before. Whenever the little children cried for water, the Indians would make them drink urine, or go thirsty. At night they encamped in the woods, without fire and without shelter, where we were watched with the greatest vigilance. Extremely fatigued, and very hungry, we were compelled to lie upon the ground, without supper or a drop of water to satisfy the cravings of our appetites. As in the daytime, so the little ones were made to drink urine in the night, if they cried for water. Fatigue alone brought us a little sleep for the refreshment of our weary limbs; and at the dawn of day we were again started on our march, in the same order that we had proceeded the day before.
About sunrise we were halted, and the Indians gave us a full breakfast of provision that they had brought from my father”s house. Each of us, being very hungry, partook of this bounty of the Indians, except father, who was so much overcome with his situation, so much exhausted by anxiety and grief, that silent despair seemed fastened upon his countenance, and he could not be prevailed upon to refresh his sinking nature by the use of a morsel of food. Our repast being finished, we again resumed our march; and before noon passed a small fort, that I heard my father say was called Fort Canagojigge.
That was the only time that I heard him speak from the time we were taken till
we were finally separated the following night.
Toward evening, we arrived at the border of a dark and dismal swamp, which was covered with small hemlocks or some other evergreen, and various kinds of bushes, into which we were conducted; and having gone a short distance, we stopped to encamp for the night.
Here we had some bread and meat for supper; but the dreariness of our situation, together with the uncertainty under which we all labored, as to our future destiny, almost deprived us of the sense of hunger, and destroyed our relish for food.
As soon as I had finished my supper, an Indian took off my shoes and stockings, and put a pair of moccasins on my feet, which my mother observed; and believing that they would spare my life, even if they should destroy the other captives, addressed me, as near as I can remember, in the following words:
“My dear little Mary, I fear that the time has arrived when we must be parted for ever. Your life, my child, I think will be spared; but we shall probably be tomahawked here in this lonesome place by the Indians. Oh! how can I part with you, my darling? What will become of my sweet little Mary? Oh! how can I think of your being continued in captivity, without a hope of your being rescued? Oh! that death had snatched you from my embraces in your infancy: the pain of parting then would have been pleasing to what It now is; and I should have seen the end of your troubles! Alas, my dear! my heart bleeds at the thought of what awaits you; but, if you leave us, remember, my child, your own name, and the names of your father and mother. Be careful and not forget your English tongue. If you shall have an opportunity to get away from the Indians don”t try to escape; for if you do they will find and destroy you. Don”t forget, my little daughter, the prayers that I have learned you – say them often: be a good child, and God will bless you! May God bless you, my child, and make you comfortable and happy.”
During this time, the Indians stripped the shoes and stockings from the little boy that belonged to the woman who was taken with us, and put moccasins on his feet, as they had done before on mine. I was crying. An Indian took the little boy and myself by the hand, to lead us off from the company, when my mother exclaimed, “Don”t cry, Mary! – don”t cry, my child! God will bless you! Farewell – farewell!”
The Indian led us some distance into the bushes or woods, and there lay down
with us to spend the night. The recollection of parting with my tender mother
kept me awake, while the tears constantly flowed from my eyes. A number of
times in the night, the little boy begged of me earnestly to run away with
him, and get clear of the Indians; but remembering the advice I had so lately
received, and knowing the dangers to which we should be exposed, in traveling
without a path and without a guide, through a wilderness unknown to us, I told
him that I would not go, and persuaded him to lie still till morning.
My suspicion as to the fate of my parents proved too true; for soon after I left them they were killed and scalped, together with Robert, Matthew, Betsey, and the woman and her two children, and mangled in the most shocking manner
After a hard day”s march we encamped in a thicket, where the Indians made a shelter of boughs, and then built a good fire to warm and dry our benumbed limbs and clothing; for it had rained some through the day. Here we were again fed as before. When the Indians had finished their supper, they took from their baggage a number of scalps, and went about preparing them for the market, or to keep without spoiling, by straining them over small hoops which they prepared for that purpose, and then drying and scraping them by the fire.
Having put the scalps, yet wet and bloody, upon the hoops, and stretched them to their full extent, they held them to the fire till they were partly dried, and then, with their knives, commenced scraping off the flesh; and in that way they continued to work, alternately drying and scraping them, till they were dry and clean. That being done, they combed the hair in the neatest manner, and then painted it and the edges of the scalps, yet on the hoops, red. Those scalps I knew at the time must have been taken from our family, by the color of the hair. My mother”s hair was red; and I could easily distinguish my father”s and the children”s from each other. That sight was most appalling; yet I was obliged to endure it without complaining. In the course of the night, they made me to understand that they should not have killed the family, if the whites had not pursued them.”