Pieces of the Past
Artifacts, Documents, and Primary Sources
from Letchworth Park History

The Reburial of Mary Jemison

  Four decades after the death of Mary Jemison, the Seneca burial grounds on the Old Buffalo Creek Reservation was in danger of being lost to the ever expanding city of Buffalo. Mr. Letchworth, upon the urging of Mary's descendants and other Seneca, carefully undertook the project of bringing the "Old White Woman" home to the Genesee Valley. This account, written by Mr. Letchworth, describes the process.

The following account and illustrations are from the 1898 edition of the "Life of Mary Jemison" by James Seaver. This chapter was added to the appendix of the 1877 edition of the work by Mr. Letchworth.


"Mary Jemison was buried in the Mission burial ground near Buffalo, on the southerly side of the yard, the grave looking toward the east. The burying ground is much smaller than formerly, the old and decayed boundary fence having been contracted to within a few feet of where she was buried. Red Jacket was interred near her grave. His remains were removed to the Cattaraugus "Reservation, and subsequently to Forest Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo. A large black walnut tree grew over the grave of the "White Woman," its great branches extending protectingly over it and the spot where Red Jacket was first buried. The grave was situated in the line of one of the new streets of Buffalo, as appears by one of the maps outlining projected enterprises, and the onward march of improvement would doubtless in time have brought the tramp of thousands of restless feet to the spot.

The soil is that of a dry yellow loam. The grave had doubtless been dug by the Indians, and was not as deep as those usually made by white people. The process of exhuming was directed by her grandson, "Dr. Shongo," and his instructions were scrupulously observed. An excavation both wide and long was made, in order to facilitate removal. Time, it was found, had obliterated any elevation or depression of earth over the grave, if it ever had been so marked. A small fragment of the head-stone alone told of its sacred precincts. About two and a half feet from the surface of the ground fragments of decayed wood were visible. They proved, upon close examination, to be part of the original coffin, which was almost entirely disintegrated by decay. Parts of the coffin could only be recognized by a discoloration of the earth, where the dark wood had mingled with the soil and become a part of it. Its outline, however, was distinctly defined. Every piece of the decayed coffin and the minutest particle of its contents, including the earth itself, were reverently and carefully lifted up, com-mencing at the foot of the grave, and placed in the same relative position in a new coffin; the undertaker using for this purpose a broad shovel. The new coffin, of solid black walnut, elegantly mounted in silver rested close beside the grave.

The bones which came under observation in process of disinterment were clean and dry, and in some cases almost disintegrated, as is usually the case when subjected to the action of soil of this nature. The cranium and jaw were perfect. The shape of the chin betokened firmness, and the intellectual and moral faculties, as indication by the location and six of the various organs of the brain, were largely developed. The hair upon the top of the head was gray,thick, and short. At the back base of the skull there were a few soft, silken, yellow curls lying underneath the gray. The bright soft curls hidden away amid the trophies of age were noted by Mrs. Asher Wright, the wife of the reverend missionary of this name, in one of her visits to the "White Woman" before her death. As Mrs.Wright saw her lying upon her bed of skins and blankets in her log hut, these curls stole out from their hiding-place, as her withered fingers crept under her head, revealing at the same time a bit of fair white skin, delicate as an infant's, which shone in luminous contrast with her deeply wrinkled sunburnt features, that had weathered three-fourths of a century of sunshine and storm and wigwam smoke. A pair of buckskin moccasins contained a few delicate bones, all that was left of the small, well-shaped feet that had served her in long and toilsome marches through forest wilderness. The leather of the moccasins was perfect, but the thongs with which they had been sewed and the cotton thread used in embroidering the bead work upon them had entirely decayed so that the parts were not held together. It was evident that she had been buried in the costume in which she had been named by the children of the forest when a lonely little girl on the banks of the Ohio, an hundred years agone. The broadcloth of which her leggins and skirt had been made was unmistakably distinguishable,although but in very small fragments. It was of fine texture. The bottom of the leggins had been hemmed with a narrow silken ribbon, originally either pink or scarlet, upon which small white beads were embroidered. This silken binding was almost as perfect as when made. A somewhat similar silken border or hem embellished the broadcloth skirt. This border was like-wise in a good state of preservation. Near the center of the grave was found a peculiarly shaped porcelain dish, which probably contained when placed there, articles of food. In the dish was a wooden spoon greatly decayed. The spoon was between four and five inches long, having a wide, shallow bowl. The dish was of the size of a small dinner plate, and was shaped like an ordinary tea saucer. It was white and ornamented at equal intervals with pale blue sprigs or blossoms. These were doubtless provided by her Indian relatives to supply her with food while journeying to the Indian's happy hunting grounds.

The entire contents of the grave having been duly gathered and placed in a new coffin, the lid was secured, and it was conveyed by the undertaker, as directed by " Dr. Shongo," to the Erie Railway depot, whence it was conveyed to Castile Station, Wyoming County, N. Y., and the day following re-interred with appropriate ceremonies near the old Council House of the Senecas on the Genesee River, near the Upper Falls of the Genesee. At the time of the Indian Council held within this historic building on the 1st of October, 1872, Thomas Jemison, a venerable grand-son of the deceased, planted a black walnut tree at the spot which is now the foot of her grave. The nut from which this tree grew came from the tree which sheltered the old Jemison grave on the Indian Mission ground. The black walnut coffin is enclosed in a stone sarcophagus, which is closely sealed with cement. At the close of the ceremonies which took place at the re-interment on the Genesee, the coffin was opened, and "Dr. Shongo " took therefrom a lock of hair from the head of his deceased relative. With this exception all that was once mortal of the "White Woman of the Genesee," and all that her grave contained in the old Mission burying ground, are held in the stone sarcophagus buried near the old Council House.


Also see our Glimpse of Mary Jemison

and images taken the day of the reburial on the Council Grounds.



Seaver, Life of Mary Jemison, 1898 edition, pp271-275

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