Saturday, April 14, 2012

Life of Mary Jemison

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An Essay on Aspects of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison


Imagine, a teenage girl of fifteen, leading a typical family life in rural America, suddenly, with little warning, having she and her family violently set upon and abducted by a strange band of invaders. These kidnappers, so different in actions, customs and appearance that the mere sight of them brought a terror that the next breath might be their last. Is this a present day kidnap story. No! It occurred in 1758 to Mary Jemison during the French and Indian wars in rural Pennsylvania. This is a story of great loss and cultural upheaval in a young girl’s life and how she was able to transcend her circumstance and build a life as a white person that has been kidnapped and adopted into the Seneca Indian culture. In 18, Mary recounted the story of her life at the age of 80 to James Seaver who that developed this into the book “A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison”. This essay analyzes aspects of Mary’s life and how she responded and was able to cope with the cultural divide between her European ancestry and the Indian culture as expressed through the Seneca Indians and other tribes of the northeast.


The Jemison family roots were from either Scotland or Ireland and probably of some wealth and status in that society. Mr. Jemison felt the societal divisions, civil wars and inability to practice religious freedom in his country was overbearing and the cause for him to seek opportunity in the new world of America. It appears that Mr. Jemison and his family were very religious and the religious attitudes at the time were too rigid and strict for the family to practice their religion with freedom from interference. By taking the family to America and the promise of religious freedom and a new start, would allow him to be able to acquire more land for his family and would able to raise his children with religious freedom, peace and prosperity.


Mary Jemison was born on the high seas on a ship in route to America in 174. The Jemison family arrived in the Americas and settled briefly in Philadelphia in the area that became the State of Pennsylvania. After a short stay in the city, Mr. Jemison having lived and being fond of rural life, left the city (Seaver, 6), and moved his family to the then frontier settlements of Pennsylvania. The Jemison family by now had land and had built their home in the wilderness of rural Pennsylvania and they were living comfortably there. By 175 the family began to hear stories of French and Indian raids plus Indian barbarities inflicted upon the whites in those days. (Seaver, 6) It gave her parents great alarm for their safety. By 1754 a regional army was formed to protect settlers from the Indians and French attacks. It is apparent by tone of Mary’s entire story and logical inference that the Indians felt pressure that their land was being overrun by the influx of European settlers. They were being forced further and further west. The Indians were endanger of having their land taken away or their tribes wiped out to the point of extinction. It appears that in retribution the Indians pillaged settler’s lands, killed settlers, and burned down their properties.


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The day of the attack, a band of six Indians and four Frenchmen descended on the Jemison’s household. The intruders captured all the family and several friends and immediately plundered food and other valuable items (Seaver, p.67) from the Jemison household and took the family and several friends captive. Mary’s two brothers were able to hide, escape the raid and traveled to Virginia to live with family. It is clear that this is a critical, life-changing event, for even at the age of 80 Mary is able to recount minute details of the attack and captivity of her family. Mary and her family were quickly taken away deep into the woods while the Indians erased evidence of their presence so as not to show the household had been raided and so no one would go out looking for the intruders for vengeance. Talk about a profound culture shock! As the band of captors and captives rapidly moved away from the family farm, the children were unprepared for the hunger, thirst and torment by the Indians. If the children cried out in thirst, the Indians would make them drink urine rather than give them water. (Seaver, 68) They were whipped with sticks on their backs to keep up the pace with the Indians and Frenchmen. Fear must have gone through Mary’s mother and father for the safety of all of them. Mary’s mother noticed that some of the Indians favored Mary by taking off her shoes and replacing them with moccasins. She thought this might be a sign that her daughter’s life would be spared. In a private moment her mother told Mary not to forget her English tongue and remember to say her prayers and if given the chance to escape, not to do so for fear that they would track her down and kill her. (Seaver, 68) Apparently Mary remembered exactly what her mother told her. This may be the reason that she did not want to escape even though she had chances to get away. In the early years of her captivity, in her heart she still wanted to go back to white society, but it appears that fear and a certain amount of identifying with one’s captors kept her from making an escape. Mary’s mother, father, brother, sister, and neighbors were killed during this trek. Mary distinctly remembered the scalps that the Indians got and used as trophies of their victories most of them being from her family and friends. Again, harsh treatment and torture was a powerful technique used by the Indians to enforce obedience by captives and Mary in particular in accepting her new way of life. Mary had to endure all of this without complaining. Through all this Mary still harbored a desire to be free and was not comfortable with the Indian way of life. (Seaver, 80) Mary was traded by the original band of Indians to two squaws of the Seneca Tribe. A custom of the Indians is that if they lost a member of their family to war, the family had the option to seek revenge of captives or adopt them into the family to replace the lost member.(Seaver, 77) This latter choice was Mary’s fate. The two Indian women came to examine Mary as if she were a being traded for something and in reality she was traded for something. The loss of the squaws’ brother who was killed in war. The two women as well as other women of the tribe conducted a ceremony of adoption.(Seaver, 76) In some ways it was easy for Mary to begin integration into and accept the Native American values and traditions as the squaws gave her relatively light chores to do with the tribe and genuinely accepted her into the Seneca family. Her new sisters would not allow Mary to speak the English language but remembering what her mother told her about never forgetting to say her prayers. Often this inability to express some of the things in her heart and mind made it sad for her to remember her past family and former life. The continuing enforcement of Indian ways, language and customs Mary had gone through early on and without anyone to reach out to for help essentially set the course of her life from that point forward. After the first year that Mary had lived with the Seneca Indians she did have opportunity to escape and go back to the white society but by that point she was used to living the life style of the Indians and had also become attached to her Seneca sisters. By then it was always a heavy, fearful thinking when she thought about returning to white society and an unknown reception. I believe this is a complex psychological issue and not one easily resolved by a simplistic answer that it was either easy to accept her circumstances or hard. Continuing the routine of life you are used to doing is sometimes the easier and more powerful path than embarking on an adventure with an unknown outcome.


After four years with her Seneca Indian family, Mary was told that she would have to leave the tribe and go stay with other Indians. Mary traveled to her new home and was soon married according to Indian customs and had a child with her husband. To me this is a pivotal point in her life in Indian culture. When you reach the point of marriage and having children, there must have been a final, mental acceptance of this life and the values. This was another reason I think Mary never left the Indians. While she originally felt stuck in her circumstances, now with a child she felt it might be impossible to take an Indian child and fit in with white society.


In 175 Mary Jemison’s husband died and she continued to live the Indian life raising her son. She was again offered her freedom, but was afraid that if she took it she would be killed by her Indian family. Again, she denied her desire for freedom to keep herself and son safe. By the time her son Thomas was three or four years old she remarried another Indian and eventually had four daughters and two more sons with her second husband, for a total of seven children (an eighth died in childbirth with her first husband). After all of this time with Indians, Mary’s thinking had now experienced a complete turnaround. She now feared returning to white society. This would no longer be the freedom she dreamed about early in her capture but the feeling that if she went back to white society they would not accept her children and the feeling that since her children were of Indian ancestry they would be considered the enemy. Over the years Mary lived a reasonably prosperous and long life because of the land she eventually acquired and the healthy lifestyle she maintained as an “Indian” woman reaching the relatively old age of 80 in the year 184, and living to the age of 0.


The part of Mary Jemison’s life that has been discussed here in becoming part of Indian culture reminds me of the stages people go through when faced with death denial, refusal to accept your situation, resignation and acceptance. Mary seemed to experience every one of these emotions and situations throughout her life. Sometimes you have to make the best of the situation you are in. I believe that describes the life of Mary Jemison.





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