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The White Woman of the Genesee

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Mary Jemison or Dehgewanus

"The White Woman of the Genesee"

In the fall of 1743, somewhere on the stormy Atlantic, a child was born to Thomas and Jane Jemison aboard the ship William and Mary. The little baby girl was named Mary, and although she was not aware of it, she was joining her parents and brothers and sisters on a voyage to the New World.

The Jemison family landed in Philadelphia and soon joined the other Scotch-Irish immigrants on the western frontier, a place that promised them cheap land and freedom. Thomas Jemison took his family to the Marsh Creek settlement near South Mountain (not far from present day Gettysburg PA), raised a cabin, and began to build a new life.

Although life was hard on the western edge of the colony of Pennsylvania, Mary fondly recalled these "childish, happy days" full of hard work and the love of a family that now number six children. But when Mary was fifteen, these happy times came to a tragic end.

The French and Indian War was raging throughout the English Colonies and Canada. It was a bitter struggle between two European powers, and colonies and native people of both sides suffered. Those on the frontier suffered the most.

In the spring of 1758 a raiding party of French soldiers and Shawnee warriors descended upon the frontier region that included Marsh Creek. On Wednesday, April 5th, they swept over the little clearing where the Jemison's lived. The two oldest boys escaped, but Mary, her parents, and the rest of the family were taken captive.

The raiding party headed west toward Fort Duquesne (Pittsburgh). The decision was made to lighten their load since they had too many captives to outrun the pursing militia. At nightfall they separated a tearful Mary from her family, along with a neighbor boy who had also been captured, and led them away. The rest of the Jemison family were killed and scalped.

At Ft Duquesne Mary was purchased by a party of Senecas who loaded her in a canoe and headed down the Ohio. When she arrived at the village, she found herself in a very different world; the world of the Seneca people. They adopted the teenager, throwing her old name, clothing, and existence in the Ohio, and wrapping her in her name identity. She was now Dehgewanus, or "Two Falling Voices".

Over the next years Dehgewanus learned the Senecas ways. She took a Delaware husband, Sheninjee. A little girl was born to them in the summer of 1761, but died soon after birth. Before the next spring she gave birth again, this time to a son which she named "Thomas" after her father who she still missed terribly.

That summer, with her baby in the cradleboard on her back, Dehgewanus and Shenijee started a remarkable journey. Shenijee worried that the end of the war would mean a return of captives, it was possible that he might lose his young wife. They would go to his homeland along the Genesee River near a Valley called Sehgahunda.

The journey was long and hard, almost seven hundred miles by the route they took. Finally in the dead of winter did Dehgewanus reach the Genesee, but without Shenijee. He had separated from Dehgewanus to do some hunting and trapping, and took ill and died. Dehgewanus, now a widow, was in a strange new land.

But Shenijee's clan relatives soon made a home for her at Little Beard's Town near present day Cuylerville New York. This was the heartland of the Seneca People, keeper of the Western Door of the Iroquois League, and life along the Genesee was good. She remarried to Hiokatoo, with whom she would have six more children. This was, she remembered, a time when she and her adopted people "lived quietly and peaceably."

That peace was shattered by the Revolutionary War. The Senecas and several of the other tribes sided with the British, and became the targets of the American Army. In 1779 George Washington sent an army of five thousand soldiers to destroy the Seneca's will and ability to fight. Their main target was Little Beard's Town.

The Seneca hoped to stop the invaders with a well laid ambush, but despite losses, the American's reached the Genesee Valley and began to burn the fields and homes of the inhabitants. As they approached Little Beard's Town, the Seneca fled into the forest. Many others flooded the Seneca villages untouched by the Army, but Dehgewanus made the decision to go to the abandoned village of Gadaho, south of little Beardstown. There she and her children found shelter with two runaway slaves, and there she would live for nearly sixty years.

Along the banks of the Genesee, Dehgewanus returned to her Seneca ways. Hiokatoo found her there and together they rebuilt their lives. For nearly twenty years they lived there until the white man invaded once more. This time the

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