Chapter 03 - History of Wyoming County



DEHEWAMIS, or Mary Jemison, who was commonly known as " the white woman," was a resident of the Genesee valley during seventy two years, fifty-two of which she passed at Gardeau Flats, in the town of Castile, Wyoming county.

In 1824 her biography, dictated by herself, was first published In 1877 Hon. William P. Letch worth, of Glen Iris, republished the work, which had long been out of print From this, by his kind permission, and from the recollections of those who knew her, the following sketch of her life is gleaned:

She was the third of a family of five children, and was born during the voyage of her parents from Ireland to Philadelphia. Her father was Thomas Jemison, and her mother's maiden name was Jane Irwin. After their arrival in this country they settled at Marsh Creek, on the then frontier of Pennsylvania, and engaged in agricultural pursuits. There they were prosperous and happy, till, in the spring of 1755, the entire family, with another consisting of a woman and three children, were captured by a party of six Shawnee Indians and four Frenchmen. They were taken two days' travel into the wilderness, when Mary and a boy of the other family were separated from the rest, who she afterward learned were inhumanly murdered. They journeyed westward till they came to Fort Du Quesne (Pittsburg), where she was given to two Seneca women, who adopted her in place of a lost brother, according to their custom, which required that either a prisoner or a scalp should be given to the nearest relative of the one lost.

She was taken some eighty miles down the Ohio river to a Seneca town, in the vicinity of which she remained with her adopted sisters four years, during which time she was married to a Delaware Indian named Sheninjee, and gave birth to two children; a girl, that died soon after its birth, and a son, which she named after her father, Thomas Jemison. She was treated with uniform kindness by the Indians, and was as happy as the recollection of her separation from her family would permit. She was young, her spirit was elastic, and she readily learned to adapt herself to her changed circumstances, and to love her friends, by whom she was kindly treated. Her husband and her infant son were additional ties which bound her to the wild life into which she had been adopted, and at that time her desire to leave the forest and return to civilized life was nearly extinguished. She did not look upon the life of an Indian woman as that of a drudge. She said: " Notwithstanding the Indian women have all the fuel and bread to procure, and the cooking to perform, their task is probably not harder than that of white women, who have those articles provided for them; and their cares certainly are not half as numerous nor as great." She always spoke in high terms of the Indian character, when uncontaminated by intercourse or contact with the whites. She stated:

"The use of ardent spirits among the Indians, and a majority of the attempts which have been made to civilize them by the white people, have constantly made them worse and worse; increased their vices and robbed them of many of their virtues; and will ultimately produce their extermination. I have seen, in a number of instances, the effects of education upon some of our Indians, who were taken when young from their families and placed at school before they had opportunities to contract many Indian habits, and there kept till they arrived to manhood; but I have never seen one of these but was an Indian in every respect after he returned. Indians must and will be Indians, in spite of all the means that can be used to instruct them in the arts and sciences.

"Notwithstanding all that has been said against the Indians in consequence of their cruelties to their enemies - cruelties that I have witnessed and had abundant proof of - it is a fact that they are naturally kind, tender, and peaceable toward their friends, and strictly honest; and that those cruelties have been practiced only upon their enemies according to their idea of justice."

In the autumn of 1759, she, with her two Indian brothers, came to Genisneyo, where it was arranged that her husband, Sheninjee, should join her the next spring. She made the journey on foot, bringing her infant, then nine months old, on her back. They halted a day for rest at Caneadea, and came to Little Beard's Town, then a large Seneca village, near where Cuylerville is now located. There she met her Indian mother and sisters and took up her abode. Sheninjee did not join her the next spring, and during the summer she learned that he died in Ohio soon after she left.

At the time of her arrival the French and Indian war was still in progress, and the Senecas, who were the allies of the former, were constantly on the war path. She remembered the ambush and dispersion of the detachment of English that went to attack Fort Schlosser, and the return to Little Beard's Town of the Indians with two white captives, whom they tortured to death. She also remembered the massacre at Devil's Hole, in which the Senecas from Little Beard's Town participated. After the close of the war she had her option to remain with the Indians or return to the whites; but she uniformly chose the former. At one time her abduction and delivery to the whites was attempted, in order to secure a bounty that had been offered for the return of white captives; but she eluded capture and kept herself secreted till the danger passed.

About the year 1763 she was again married, to a Seneca warrior named Hiokatoo. She bore him four daughters and two sons, whom she named, after her relatives, John, Jesse, Jane, Nancy, Betsey, and Polly. Of the daughters, Jane died in 1795 or 1796 aged about fifteen years. The others married and reared families, and many of their descendants still reside on the Indian reservations.

Dehewamis continued to reside at Little Beard's Town till 1779. Of the condition of the Senecas during the interval between the close of the French and Indian war and the breaking out of the Revolution, she spoke in the highest terms. It must be remembered that this was long before any settlements had been made by the whites. She said of them: "No people can live more happy than the Indians did in times of peace, before the introduction of spirituous liquors among them. Their lives were a continual round of pleasures. Their wants were few, and easily satisfied, and their cares were only for to-day, the bounds of their calculation for future comfort not extending to the incalculable uncertainties of to-morrow. If peace ever dwelt with men it was in former times in the recess from war among what are termed barbarians. The moral character of the Indians was (if I may be allowed the expression) uncontaminated. Their fidelity was perfect, and became proverbial. They were strictly honest, they despised deception and falsehood, and chastity was held in high veneration; and a violation of it was considered sacrilege. They were temperate in their desires, moderate in their passions, and candid and honorable in the expression of their sentiments on every subject of importance."

The Seneca Indians during the war of the Revolution were the allies of the English, as is well known. After the massacres at Cherry Valley and Wyoming, in which it was believed they bore a conspicuous part, the well known expedition of General Sullivan was sent against them to destroy their towns and devastate their country. On the approach of the army toward Little Beard's Town some of the Indians fled to the neighboring woods, and others, with the women and children, went across Wyoming county to Catawba creek, which empties into Tonawanda creek at Varysburg

On their return to their village they found everything destroyed. Resolved to care for herself, Dehewamis, with her five children, went up the river till she arrived at Gardeau Flats, where she hired to two negroes, fugitive slaves, who had a cabin and a field of corn there, to husk corn on shares.

The name of these flats is usually spelt Gardeau; but it is pronounced Gardow. It is given by Morgan Ga-da-o, and is defined by him "bank in front." An old settler in Perry, Mr. Otis, says he was informed by the Indians that it means a " cross hill," or a hill projecting from another; and that it was given to these flats because a spur, evidently an old slide, projects across the valley at the northern boundary of the flats. Mrs. Jemison said of it: "My land derived its name - Gardeau - from a hill that is within its limits, which is called in the Seneca language Kautam. Kautam, when interpreted, signifies up and down, or down and up, and is applied to a hill that you ascend and descend in passing, or to a valley." The valley where these flats lie is entered from the north by ascending and descending the spur of a hill spoken of, hence the appropriateness of the name. The fact, however, that the Seneca language has no labials renders it doubtful whether she was correctly understood in the pronunciation of this word.

By her labor she succeeded in procuring sufficient corn to sustain her family during the severe winter which followed, and she continued to reside on these flats during fifty-two of the fifty-four remaining years of her -life. The negroes with whom she found refuge left the flats two or three years later.

Not long after the close of the Revolution her brother proposed that if it was her choice she should abandon her Indian life and return to the whites. Her eldest son, Thomas, urged her to do this, and offered to accompany her and assist her on the journey; but the chiefs refused to let him go because he gave promise of becoming an eminent warrior or counsellor. To quote her own language: " The chiefs refusing to let him go was one reason for my resolving to stay; but another, more powerful, if possible, was that I had a large family of Indian children, and that if I should be so fortunate as to find my relations they would despise them, if not myself, and treat them as enemies, or at least with a degree of cold indifference, which I thought I could not endure.

"Accordingly, after I had duly considered the matter, I told my brother that it was my choice to stay and spend the remainder of my days with my Indian friends, and live with my family as I had hitherto done. He appeared well pleased with my resolution, and informed me that as that was my choice I should have a piece of land that I could call my own, where I could live unmolested, and have something at my decease to leave for the benefit of my children.

She heard no more concerning the land till the time of the council of Big Tree, in 1797, when Farmer's Brother sent for her to attend the council, informed her that her brother had spoken to him concerning the land, and requested her to choose and describe it. Said she: " I accordingly told him of the place of beginning, and then went round a tract that I judged would be sufficient for my purpose (knowing that it would include the Gardeau Flats), by stating certain bounds with which I was acquainted."

A survey was made of this tract in 1798 by Augustus Porter, and the following is a copy of his field notes, recorded on the back of a map belonging to Michael Brooks, and now in the possession of Norman Seymour, of Mount Morris:

"Beginn at the point of high rocks; thence east one mile 79.48 to an oak post in the old path marked N. E. C. of R.; a white oak tree 24 inch diamets. 14 e. 49 links; another white oak tree 14 inch diameter n. 72 e. 29 links; a white oak 14 inch marked with a blaze 3 noches n. 87 w. 19 links; thence south 372.04 to a white ash post marked S. E. C. of R.; a s. maple 24 inch a blaze 3 noches n. 87 w. 38 links; a beach 12 inches a blaze 3 noches n. 30 e. 34 links; thence west 481.88 (at 355.32 it intercepts with steep rock w. side Gen. River); thence north 372 chains 4 links; thence east 322.40 to place of beginning; containing 17,929 acres and 137 rods. "
By A. Porter, Sept. 14, 1798"

The grant of this reservation was violently opposed by the Indian demagogue Red Jacket but was made notwithstanding this opposition. After the white woman became the owner of these flats she adopted the practice of letting her land to be tilled on shares by white people, and thus she was enabled to live in what she termed comparative ease. When, however, it is known, as is stated on the authority of old resident?, that one of her easy tasks was to carry from a saw-mill in Perry, five miles distant, sufficient boards for a house; and that she accomplished this by lashing together a few at a time with bark strings and suspending them across her back with a strap of the same material, passed over the top of her head after the. Indian fashion, her easy life will be appreciated.

On this reservation she lived in quietness which was seldom broken except by domestic afflictions, which were severe. Of her three sons, Thomas, John and Jesse, John became the murderer first of Thomas, and afterward of Jesse; and he was afterward killed by other Indians at Squawkie hill. Thomas, it will be remembered, was the son of her first husband, Sheninjee; and he was the one she brought on her back from Ohio. He was of a mild, peaceable disposition except when under the influence of liquor; then of course reason was disenthroned in him, and, in her words, he conducted himself "like a wild or crazy man, without regard to relatives, decency or propriety."

On the first of July, 181 1, in a fit of intoxication, he engaged, as he had frequently done before, in a quarrel with John, at the house of their mother, in the course of which the latter seized him by his hair, dragged him out at the door, and killed him with a blow of his tomahawk. The matter was investigated by the chiefs of his tribe, and John was acquitted, Thomas having been regarded as the first aggressor. Thomas was fifty-two years old at the time of his murder. He left a family, of whom one, a son named Jacob Jemison, was educated in part at Dartmouth College. He afterward passed through a regular course of medical studies and became an assistant surgeon in the United States Navy. He died on board his ship in the Mediterranean squadron about 1850, when about forty years old. In November of the same year Dehewamis's last husband, Hiokatoo, died of consumption.

The bad character which the murder of Thomas gave John caused him to be shunned, and this soured his disposition. In the month of May, 1812, while both, with George Shongo, their brother-in-law, were at work for Robert Whaley, of Castile, a drunken quarrel occurred, in which John killed Jesse by stabbing him. He was twenty-seven or twenty-eight years of age when killed.

John was killed, as before stated, at Squawkie hill by two Indians, named Doctor and Jack. He was fifty-four years of age when killed, and left two wives and nine children. After the lapse of a few weeks Jack, one of the murderers, poisoned himself by eating muskrat root. Doctor, the other assassin, died of consumption in 1819.

In 1811 negotiations commenced between Jellis Clute and Micha Brooks and Dehewamis, for the purchase of a part of her reservation. A special act of naturalization was passed by the Legislature in 1817 to enable her to convey this land, and the transaction was finally consummated in the winter of 1822 and 1823. By this she conveyed all her reservation, except two miles square and a lot for Thomas Clute. The following is a description of that which she retained:

"The tract which I reserved for myself begins at the great slide, thence running west one mile, thence north two miles, thence east about a mile to the river, and thence running southerly up the river, and bounding on the west bank to the place of beginning. In consideration of the before mentioned sale to Messrs. Gibson, Brooks and Clute, among other things they bound themselves, their heirs, assigns, etc., to pay to me, my heirs or successors, three hundred dollars a year forever."

She finally determined to leave Gardeau Flats and join the Indians of the tribe on the reservation at Buffalo. She therefore received a commutation of her annuity, sold her remaining two square miles, and, with her daughters, their husbands and children, removed from Gardeau in 1831. She made her residence on Buffalo Flats, where she resided till her death, September 9th, 1833, at the age of about ninety-one years. She was buried at the cemetery near the Seneca mission church, and a marble slab, with an appropriate inscription, erected at her grave.

Forty years passed after her burial at that place, and the stone that marked her grave had been almost entirely chipped away to furnish mementoes of the woman who had figured so strangely in the early history of the region. Through the cemetery had also been surveyed a street, which, when opened, would pass over this grave. It was therefore determined to remove her remains from the grave that had thus been desecrated, and which was likely soon to be obliterated, and deposit them where such desecrations would not be likely to occur. This determination on the part of some of her descendants was seconded and supported by some philanthropic and benevolent citizens of Buffalo, who were deeply interested in all that pertained to pioneer and Indian history. In March, 1874, these remains were carefully disinterred by an undertaker, under the direction of her grandson Dr. James Shongo, and placed in a tasteful black walnut coffin. It is noteworthy that "near the center of the grave was found a peculiarly shaped porcelain dish, containing what may have been when placed there articles of food. In the dish was a wooden spoon greatly decayed. These were doubtless provided by her Indian relatives to supply her with food while journeying to the Indians' happy hunting grounds."

The coffin, containing everything that was found in her grave, was taken to the council-house grounds at Genesee Falls, where, after brief and appropriate religious services in the old council- house, it was placed in a stone sarcophagus, sealed with cement, and interred. A black walnut tree was planted near the foot of the grave by her grandson Thomas Jemison, son of the babe she brought on her back from Ohio. The seed was borne by the tree that shaded her grave at Buffalo. The grave is curbed with stones that were once used as rude headstones in the Indian cemetery at Gardeau. They had been plowed up and afterwards used to construct a road culvert. Mr. Letchworth and Dr. Shongo were permitted to remove them from this culvert and bring them here, to place around the grave of her who had perhaps assisted to plant them at the heads of the desecrated graves of her kindred. The grave within this curbing is covered with flowers, the seeds of which were furnished by Dr. Shongo. What is left of the old headstone is planted at the head of the grave. Near this stands a marble monument - a square block some six feet in height- on one face of which is copied the inscription which was originally engraved on her tombstone. Upon this pedestal is to be placed a bronze statue of Mary Jemison, in her Indian costume, bearing on her back a babe, just as she came to the Genesee valley. Here, on the banks of the Genesee, to the murmur of which she listened during seventy-two years of her eventful life, repose her honored remains.

It is proper here to state on the authority of the well-informed investigator of Indian history William C. Bryant, Esq., of Buffalo, that the generally accepted orthography and signification of "the name conferred upon the captive by the two gentle Indian women who adopted her as their sister "is incorrect. He says: "The name should be written Deh-ge-wa-nus, and means, literally, the two falling voices. The Indians in pronouncing the name make a circular or undulating sweep of the hand downwards, to emphasize the idea of a prolonged or dying cadence."

The tragical death of her three sons has been spoken of. The fourth wife of the oldest, Thomas, was the daughter of Sally, a Seneca squaw, by an English trapper and fur-trader. Sally was afterward one of the wives of "Indian Allen." His son Thomas, or Buffalo Tom, as he was familiarly called, who died in 1878, was an influential man in the Seneca nation, and was highly esteemed for his many virtues by all who knew him.

Of her daughters, Mary married an Indian named Billy Green, Betsey married John Green, and Polly, the youngest, married George Shongo. All lived with or near her while she remained at Gardeau, and had large families of children. Her descendants on the different reservations are numerous.

Her second husband, Hiokatoo, to whom she was married about 1763, and who was the father of six of her children, was born on the banks of the Susquehanna in 1 708. His mother was sister to the mother of the worthy chief Farmer's Brother. From his youth he was a warrior, and though kind in his domestic relations, he was endowed with all the cruelty and blood thirstiness of a savage, and always boasted exultingly of the many barbarities and cruel tortures he had inflicted on captive foes. From his youth down to the close of the Revolution he was engaged in all the wars of the Senecas, often leading hostile expeditions. He was second in command in an expedition that went against Cherry Valley and other frontier settlements, and was said to have been engaged in the massacre of Wyoming. It is said that after the commencement of the Revolutionary war he was engaged in seventeen campaigns, and during the French and Indian war he was in every battle that was fought on the Susquehanna and Ohio. Of his martial pride, which he entertained to the last, his wife said:

"I have frequently heard him repeat the history of his life from his childhood, and when he came to that part which related to his actions, his bravery, and war; when he spoke of the ambush, the combat, the spoiling of his enemies, and the sacrifice of his victims, his nerves seemed strung with youthful ardor, the warmth of the able warrior seemed to animate his frame, and to produce the heated gestures which he had practiced in middle age. He was a man of tender feelings to his friends, ready and willing to assist them in distress; yet as a warrior, his cruelties to his enemies were perhaps unparalleled, and will not admit of a word of palliation."

SOURCE:  History of Wyoming County, N.Y., with Illustrations, Biographical Sketches and Portraits of Some Pioneers and Prominent Residents; F. W. Beers & Co.; 1880