When Mary Jemison or Dehgewanus lived in the Genesee Valley, she was well known to her pioneer neighbors and early travelers. Several who were acquainted with her set their memories of "The Old White Woman" down for future generations.
As historical societies and pioneer associations formed in the late 19th century, it became popular to print stories of "olden times" in the local newspapers. A Geneseo newspaper, the Livingston Republican ran this account by a H.A. Dudley in 1893.
Please remember that this account may not be completely historically accurate and reflects a cultural bias and prejudice against Native Americans. But it does present the attitudes and memories of an individual who had contact with Dehgewanus and provides us with a glimpse of her move to Buffalo Creek Reservation.
You can see a listing of other accounts here.
"Every child of a pioneer in Western New York and Southwestern Pennsylvania often heard the story of Mary Jemison, 'the white woman of the Genesee." It was so thrilling and tragic in its details that it came to take the place of the ideal characters of Scott and Cooper, for this was a "true story."
Taken captive from her pioneer home in Pennsylvania when a child so young that she could not give her exact age, having father, mother and other relatives taken away from her: adopted by two squaws who took her in place of a brother killed in battle; adapting herself to Indian life; having two Indians for husbands; bearing half-breed children; changing residence often; finally having a more permanent home of her own on the banks of the Genesee river, where she lived for many years still clinging to her Indian mode of living, even when surrounded by white people: - all these incidents and many others gave the story of Mary Jemison a flavor not often gained by reading books.
My first visit to Mary Jemison was with an aunt who knew her well and who was always greeted as the woman who had "hair just like my mother's" The old woman would stroke the auburn tresses, and sit down on her low and well-worn rocking chair and croon over her reflections of the mother who charged her, when ruthlessly separated in the woods of Pennsylvania, not to forget the name of her childhood, nor the prayers she had taught her in the pioneer home which had that day been burned to the ground.
She was small in stature, white herself, dressed in Indian fashion; moccasins, cloth pantaletts, petticoats and a garment for the body and shoulders that was a cross between a jacket and a shirt. This, I remember, completed her wardrobe for indoor work. She wore a blanket when going from home. Her household consisted of her daughter Polly, her sons Tom and John, and perhaps others. Tom and John would go off to the river or the woods as soon as any white visitors came to see their mother and would stay away until the guests departed. Polly would busy herself around the house and seemed relieved when the visitors made preparations to depart for home.
Sunday was a day often selected to visit the old white woman, and with friends who had gained her confidence she would throw off the reserve which seemed natural to her, and would talk freely about her life. She tried once to go back and live among while people, but what could she do with her half-breed children? ... No, she had taken on the modes and habits of the Indians, and she was too old now to learn again the ways of the whites. She had her broad acres, which were reserved to her in fee simple. It was her home and she would stay with the Indians.
But the Indians were nearly all gone now, (about 1830). She was surrounded by white farmers who looked with envious eyes on her rich bottom lands which neither she nor her boys could work to advantage. If she lived with the Indians she must move with them to the reservation near Buffalo. She was white woman enough to own her own land, but too much of an Indian to work it profitably. So she sold out her pleasant home property and went with her tribe to their reservation.
I saw her again while she was being taken from Gardeau to the Buffalo Reservation. The party had started from the Genesee river valley early in the morning and had stopped on one of the back streets of Perry village to feed the horses and get breakfast. There were several covered wagons in line and the horses were taken to feed troughs at the back of each wagon and thus an opportunity was given to us children to climb up over the wagon tongue and over the traps, guns and household goods of these half gypsies, to find a the read of one of the wagons, a little old woman with thin, white hair cut short at the next and a face that looked like a baked sweet apple in color and wrinkles.
She smiled pleasantly at us, and asked for our names. We were sorry for her, because she had to live with the Indians, but the situation was too complicated for us and we left her to get some big copper cents to put in a split shingle, stuck in the ground, for Tom and John to shoot at with their bows and arrows. The Indian procession soon started toward the West, and while this particular tribe has become almost extinct, the Indian procession is still going toward the setting sun."
H. A. Dudley, Warsaw NY April 6, 1873.
The Livingston Republican, Thursday April 20, 1893
A Glimpse of Mary Jemison
Image of Mary Jemison Aged 90