Skip to content
Stories

Reading Between the Lines: A Mini Blog Series Investigating A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison

Drawing of Mary Jemison from 1892, credited to author Harriet S. Caswell.
A drawing of Mary Jemison from 1892, credited to Harriet S. Caswell.

By: Claire Lavarreda

I. Introduction

“Mother, from the time we were taken, had manifested a great degree of fortitude, and encouraged us to support our troubles without complaining; and by her conversation seemed to make the distance and time shorter, and the way more smooth. But father lost all his ambition in the beginning of our trouble, and continued apparently lost to every care—absorbed in melancholy. Here, as before, she insisted on the necessity of our eating; and we obeyed her, but it was done with heavy hearts.” (Jemison 26–27)

Captivity narratives—particularly those concerning women—have long captured the American imagination, and the colonial era was the zenith of such production. Scholars like Julia Wohlforth have explored the connections between notions of sexual purity, cultural encounter, and promotion of imperialism in examination of captivity narratives, specifically the rhetorical differences in those featuring European and non-European women (Wohlforth 1–19). This is no more evident than in A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison (1824), in which Mary Jemison (1743–1833), a white woman, was captured as a child by a group of Shawnee and French raiders and adopted into a Seneca family (Jemison 34–35). Dictated to minister James E. Seaver (1787–1827), fictionalized variations of the tale have become deeply popular: Lois Lenski’s Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison was published in 1941, Jeanne LeMonnier Gardner’s book, Mary Jemison: Indian Captive in 1966, and most recently, Jane Kelley’s Mary Jemison: Native American Captive in 2017. In fact, the American public remains so fascinated with Mary Jemison that a statue, stone, and a marker were placed in 1923 and 2006 in Biglerville, Pennsylvania, commemorating the site of her capture (Ruppenstein). 

Caption: A statue of Mary Jemison on a stone pedestal bearing an informational plaque. Photo taken by “Frankie.”

Captivity narratives, especially those concerning white women captured by Indigenous men, highlight colonial and early-republic American fascination with peoples they considered “other.” Constructions of gender and race were major threads in early American literary discourse, grappling with the reality of captivity practices in both Indigenous and colonist-settler communities. In the case of A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison, June Numias’ White Captives: Gender and Ethnicity on the American Frontier (1993) is especially helpful. Numias writes: “Materials about white captives, especially those about white female captives, provide a window on North American society by showing us the anxieties of Euro-Americans of an earlier day under the threat or power of a “savage” and unknown enemy. An examination can provide insight into aspects of gender and intergroup conflict in American life” (11).

 In collaboration with the Women Writers Project and scholars like Colleen Nugent and Sarah Connell, “Reading Between The Lines” was inspired by my encoding of A Narrative of The Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison in TEI/XML. My encoding is in progress, with the goal to be finished by the end of Spring. For the scope and purposes of this small project, this entry in “Reading Between The Lines” will seek to examine two gender-related phenomena in A Narrative of The Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison, including (1). The way in which Mary Jemison describes women that shaped her life, in contrast to the way her male transcriber James Seaver represents women and (2). The larger differences between Seaver’s prologue, appendix, and asides compared to Mary Jemison’s overall narration. For example, where Jemison strives to recount her experiences, good and bad, Seaver attempts to portray Indigenous Americans in an inferior light, taking it upon himself to include a lengthy appendix regaling his “research” on various Seneca practices (26–27). There are also numerous instances where Seaver believes it is necessary to verify the historical accuracy of Jemison’s memory, writing letters to men like John Salmon and L.S. Everett (147–148). This initial blog post will investigate the aforementioned first phenomenon—the way in which Mary Jemison describes fellow women.

II. Analysis

There are three major sets of female figures in Jemison’s narrative, including (1). Her biological mother, (2). Her adoptive sisters, and (3). Her adoptive mother. Her biological mother, though only a brief part of the narrative, is characterized as both strong and tender, and is a crucial part of Mary Jemison’s initial survival upon the family’s capture (Jemison 27). Where Mary’s father was consumed by fear and “melancholy,” Mary’s mother encouraged her children to eat and was observant of Mary’s fate—for example, when “an Indian” changed Mary’s shoes to moccasins, her mother knew Mary was to be spared, not scalped, and gave her related survival advice (27–28). Mary’s mother is a constant thread throughout her narrative—upon her mother’s final request, she recites catechisms, her parent’s names, and English words in private throughout her captivity (40).

Similarly, Mary’s adoptive Seneca sisters are a major and positive influence on her life. Absorbed into their family as repayment for the loss of their brother in war, Mary notes how she was “…ever considered and treated by them as a real sister, the same as though I had been born of their mother” (39). Her sisters (though only addressed as sisters, not by any names) teach her their language, take care of her when she is sick during childbirth, and educate her on traditional practices. At one point Mary states: “…I loved them as I should have loved my own sister had she lived,” and utilizes words like “warmth,” “kind,” “affection,” “companions,” “gentle,” “diligent,” and “respect” to describe them throughout (40–54). Correspondingly, Mary views her adoptive Seneca mother with equal fondness, though she constitutes only a small part of the narrative. Mary takes care to note the protective nature of her adoptive mother, especially when one of her sisters wishes to take Mary to an execution of two white prisoners at Genishau (56). Mary quotes:

How, my daughter… can you think of enduring the sound of their groanings and prayers to the Great Spirit for sudden deliverance from their enemies, or from life? And how can you think of conducting to that melancholy spot your poor sister Dickewamis…who has so lately been a prisoner… the recollection of her former troubles would deprive us of Dickewamis, and she would depart to the fields of the blessed, where fighting has ceased, and the corn needs no tending…With war we have nothing to do… (57)

Further examples of her adoptive mother’s empathy and compassion are noted in the same chapter, in which Mary’s first husband, Sheninjee, passes away in Wiishto. Now a widow with a young child, Mary recalls how her adoptive mother consoles her and eases her pain, supporting her until she is married to a new man named Hiokatoo, also known as Gardow (57–62).

Though her mothers and sisters are her main figures of influence, women in general guide Mary’s life. Her husbands, soldiers that surround her due to the Revolutionary War, and children are deeply important, of course—shaping her domestic sphere, her safety, and her environment—but it is women that comfort, discipline, and educate her. For example, Mary’s kinship with fellow women is noted when she and her second husband, Hiokatoo, take in a Nanticoke woman after she is abused by her white husband (for crafting a red cap for another man), or when she does not recall the names and fates of white prisoners at Wiishto, except for a woman named Priscilla Ramsay, whom she remembers in detail (even listing where Ramsay lives, who she married, etc) (44, 80). In Mary’s account, women are complex: brave, tender, caring, and respectable. Mary did not “dare to cross” her sisters, but loved them deeply (44).

In contrast, James Seaver’s discussions on women are shallow. In his appendix, he notes “One thing respecting the Indian women is worthy of attention,” which is a “becoming subjection to their husbands” (Seaver 171–172). He notes the value of Indigenous women in direct correlation to men, seeking to both uplift the image of white men and shame Indigenous men. For example, in his section titled “Of The Manner Of Farming, As Practised By The Indian Women,” Seaver begins by writing, “It is well known that the s****s have all the labor of the field to perform, and almost every other kind of hard service, which, in civil society, is performed by the men” (175). In contrast, Mary Jemison notes how her labor “was not severe,” and the division of labor was equitable—Indigenous men typically hunted and fought, and Indigenous women were in charge of agriculture and their homes (Jemison 47–64). In Mary Jemison’s narrative, women are human beings, with feelings, personalities, and problems. Though Seaver’s preface indicates that the appendix was taken from bits of Mary’s account, he mentions “parts not derived from her,” and a close reading of the preface and appendix highlights how different they are from Mary’s “voice” throughout the main narrative. Where Mary recounts experience and centers women, Seaver attempts to make a grand gesture of “civilization” and manhood. In his preface, he states:

Few great men have passed from the stage of action, who have not left in the history of their lives indelible marks of ambition or folly… such pictures, however, are profitable, for “by others’ faults wise men correct their own…” It will be observed that the subject of this narrative has arrived at least to the advanced age of eighty years; that she is destitute of education and that her journey of life… has been interwoven with troubles, which ordinarily are calculated to impair the faculties of the mind… If, therefore, any error shall be discovered… it will be overlooked by the kind reader, or charitably placed to the narrator’s account, and not… the compiler…At the same time it is fondly hoped that the lessons of distress that are portrayed, may…excite in our breasts sentiments of devotion and gratitude to the great Author and finisher of our happiness. (Seaver v–vi)

Not only does Seaver promote Jemison’s work as his own (while simultaneously asking the audience to blame her for any mistakes), but he uses the preface to focus on the achievements of men. Mary Jemison, the very subject of the narrative, is dismissed as uneducated and impaired, merely an accomplice to the great feats of manhood.

To further support this claim regarding the difference between Mary Jemison and James Seaver’s portrayal of women, I decided to create two Word Trees to investigate the words used after gendered pronouns. One Word Tree features only Mary Jemison’s direct narrative—I excluded Seaver’s appendix, preface, and introduction—and one Word Tree features only Seaver’s excluded material. Using the platform created by Jason Davies (though the technique was invented by Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viégas), I was able to create two visualizations from A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison and search for gendered pronouns in the “different contexts” in which they appear (Wattenberg and Viégas). The first visualization, which is only Mary’s part of the narrative, can be seen below, and accessed here:

Caption: An image of a word tree featuring Mary Jemison’s parts of her narrative, which include chapters 1–16, featuring the search term “she” on the left.

The first words immediately following Mary’s use of “she” are rooted in action—women “lived,” “made,” “said,” “had,” and “returned.” Phrases like “She is handsome and pleasant,” “She lived and I had been brought up with her,” “She said she would bake a small cake and lay it at the door,” are present. A search for the term “Her” reveals similar action—though the word “husband” is present, it is describing women traveling and interacting with a husband. The visualization can be seen below and accessed here:

Caption: This is a second image of Jemison’s narrative, this time featuring the searched term “her” on the left.

In contrast, a search for “He” and “Him” reveal interesting differences. “He” is associated with words like “was,” “had,” “would,” “died,” and “should,” and “Him” is associated with words like “and” and “with,” which are followed by connections to women: for example, the statement “… him, and fed him, and clothed him, and welcomed him there! Oh friends, he is happy; then dry up your tears!” is actually said by Mary’s adoptive sisters as they mourn their brother and welcome Mary.

Caption: Two images side by side of Jemison’s narrative featuring the search terms “him” and “he.” The left side featuring “him” is reversed.

James Seaver’s sections look different. A search for the word “Her” reveals some action words – the presence of “was,” “is,” “had,” and “wore,” but the connecting phrases are not centered on women—rather, they are about them. For example, by selecting “She – had –,” we can see Seaver’s focus on describing Mary Jemison’s physical appearance, noting how “She had never worn a cap nor a comb,” and “She had some rags, and over these her buckskin moccasins.

Caption: The above two images feature the search “she” in Seaver’s parts of the narrative, including the preface, the introduction, and the appendix.

A search for the term “Her” is especially interesting. Here the top words are “Life,” “To,” “House,” “Age,” “Head,” and others. These seem promising—as if Seaver has some actual content on women — but a click on one of these corresponding terms reveals either a focus on Seaver, the men in Jemison’s life, or, again, Jemison’s physical appearance. For example, “Her-life” connects to “I was employed to collect the materials,” and “Although her companion was a bosom ancient Indian warrior…” while “Her-cousin” connects to “Mr. George Jemison.”

Caption: An image of the search term “her” in Seaver’s narrative.

By contrast, searches for “He” and “Him” are rich with action and characterization. “He” connects to phrases like “Was a hero,” “Was a young man,” “Is able to give much information,” etc. “Him” has more context, diving into glorified war tales and phrases like “him, designing, no doubt, to make his sufferings more lasting than that of his companions…”

Caption: These two images feature the search terms “he” and “him” side by side, drawn from Seaver’s parts of the text.

Of course, it should be noted that gender relations and social roles were vastly different two hundred years ago. Mary Jemison herself notes what is respectable for women and men, and frequently compares white and Indigenous practices, morals, and labor, occasionally upholding those of white people as superior. In this sense, both Seaver and Jemison conceive of Indigenous peoples as “Other,” but with stark differences. Jemison sees herself as “Other” in both white and Indigenous spaces, considering herself “an outcast” (19). She is raised in a white Christian home but adopted into a Seneca family, wherein she chooses to stay and have a family, learn the language, practice the customs, etc. She is both an insider and an outsider. On the other hand, Seaver views the Seneca (and other Indigenous peoples) as “Other” and therefore lesser, not just different. It is easy to see these differences throughout Jemison’s narrative—where she details times of peace, boredom, joy, cruelty, loss, and war, Seaver focuses only on sensational bits, such as “great Sacrifice,” “Feasts,” “Their Preservation from utter Extinction,” etc.

III. Conclusion

Through an examination of three major female roles in Mary Jemison’s life, it is clear that her kinship with fellow women extended beyond boundaries of race (or, as explained by scholars such June Numias, ethnicity due to pre-nineteenth century definitions). Furthermore, A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison is a small window into broader structures of gender, identity, and political upheaval throughout the colonial period. Stay tuned for Part II of the “Reading Between the Lines” series, in which we explore the ways in which Mary Jemison’s story has changed over time and portrayed women.

Sources

Jemison, Mary. A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison. Canandaigua: J.D. Bemis, 1824. 

Numias, June. White Captives: Gender and Ethnicity on the American Frontier. University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Ruppenstein, Andrew  and “Frankie.” “Mary Jemison Historical Marker.” The Historical Marker Database, February 7, 2023, https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=121191 

Wattenberg, Martin and Fernanda Viégas. “Word Tree.” Hint.FM, accessed February 16, 2024, http://hint.fm/projects/wordtree/ 

Wohlforth, Julia. “Captive Bodies and Captive Minds: Women in English Captivity Narratives from the Early Modern Mediterranean to Colonial America.” Dissertation. Tufts University, 2021.

More Stories

A wordcloud describing the most search words with slavery and American largest

NULab Research Project: LLMs, Literature and History

04.26.2024
Image of the community care and preservation zine co-designed with the Reckonings Project.

Community Collaboration with the Reckonings Project

04.25.2024
An image of the room where the NULab 2024 Spring Conference was held

NULab Spring Conference 2024 Recap

05.01.24
Blog