A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison

Example of the Literary Genre of Indian Captivity Narratives

Death Of Tecumseh
Death of Tecumsah: battle of Shawnee Indians with United States troops in War of 1812. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The following summarizes one of the best-known examples of the Indian Captivity Narrative. It was written in 1823 by James E. Seaver from interviews with Mary Jemison, a Scots-Irish woman who was taken by the Seneca during a raid when she was twelve and adopted by a Native family. It's important to remember, when reading it, that such narratives were often exaggerated and sensational, but, paradoxically, also depicted Native Americans in more human and humane ways than other documents of the time tended to.

Various Sources Available

The original narrative is available in whole at several other sources:

Note: in this summary, words from the original which are now considered disrespectful are used, to preserve historical accuracy of the book.

Father, His Family's Murder

From the front material:

An Account of the Murder of her Father and his Family; her sufferings; her marriage to two Indians; her troubles with her Children; barbarities of the Indians in the French and Revolutionary Wars; the life of her last Husband, &c.; and many Historical Facts never before published.
Carefully taken from her own words, Nov. 29th, 1823.

Preface: The author describes what is for him the importance of biography, then details his sources: mostly interviews with the then-80-year-old Mrs. Jemison.

Background History

Introduction: Seaver describes some of the history which his audience may or may not have known, including the Peace of 1783, the wars with the French and Indians, the American Revolutionary War, and more. He describes the Mary Jemison as she came to the interviews.

Chapter 1: Tells of the ancestry of Mary Jemison, how her parents came to America and settled in Pennsylvania, and an "omen" foreshadowing her captivity.

Chapter 2: Discusses her education, then a description of the raid where she was taken captive and her early days of captivity. It narrates her memories of her mother's parting words, the murder of her family after she was separated from them, her encounter of the scalps of her family members, how the Indians evaded their pursuers, and the arrival of Jemison, a young white man, and a white boy with the Indians at Fort Pitt.

Adopted, Receives New Name

Chapter 3: After the young man and boy are given to the French, Mary is given to two squaws. She journeys down the Ohio River, and arrives at a Seneca town where she is officially adopted and receives a new name. She describes her work and how she learns the Seneca language while preserving knowledge of her own. She goes to Sciota on a hunting tour, returns, and is taken back to Fort Pitt, but returned to the Indians, and feels her "hopes of Liberty destroyed." In time, Mary returns to Sciota then to Wishto, where she marries a Delaware, develops an affection for him, gives birth to her first child who dies, recovers from her own illness, then gives birth to a son she names Thomas Jemison.

Chapter 4: Mary and her husband go from Wishto to Fort Pitt. In this section, she contrasts the lives of white and Indian women. She describes interactions with the Shawnees and her travel up the Sandusky. She sets out for Genishau while her husband goes to Wishto. She describes her relationships with her Indian brothers and sisters and her Indian mother.

Fight Against the British

Chapter 5: The Indians go to fight the British at Niagara, and return with prisoners who are sacrificed. Her husband dies. John Van Cise tries to ransom her. She narrowly escapes several times, and her brother first threatens her, then brings her home. She marries again, and the chapter ends with her naming her children.

Chapter 6: Finding "twelve or fifteen years" of peace, she describes the life of the Indians, including their celebrations, form of worship, their business and their morality. She describes a treaty made with the Americans (who are still British citizens), and the promises made by the British commissioners and the reward from the British. Indians break the treaty by killing a man at Cautega, then take prisoners at Cherry Valley and ransom them at Beard's Town. After a battle at Fort Stanwix [sic], the Indians mourn their losses. During the American Revolution, she describes how Col. Butler and Col. Brandt used her home as a base for their military operations.

Gen. Sullivan's March

Chapter 7: She describes Gen. Sullivan's march on the Indians and how it affects the Indians. She goes to Gardow for a time. She describes a severe winter and the suffering of the Indians, then the taking of some prisoners, including an old man, John O'Bail, married to and Indian woman.

Chapter 8: Ebenezer Allen, a Tory, is the subject of this chapter. Ebenezer Allen comes to Gardow after the Revolutionary War, and her husband responds with jealousy and cruelty. Allen's further interactions include bringing goods from Philadelphia to Genesee. Allen's several wives and business affairs, and finally his death.

Offered Her Freedom

Chapter 9: Mary is offered her freedom by her brother, and permitted to go to her friends, but her son Thomas is not permitted to go with him. So she chooses to stay with the Indians for "the remainder of my days." Her brother travels, then dies, and she mourns his loss. Her title to her land is clarified, subject to restrictions as Indian land. She describes her land, and how she leased it out to white people, to better support herself.

Chapter 10: Mary describes her mostly happy life with her family, and then the sad enmity that develops between her sons John and Thomas, with Thomas considering John a witch for marrying two wives. While drunk, Thomas often fought with John and threatened him, though their mother tried to counsel them, and John finally killed his brother during a fight. She describes the Chiefs' trial of John, finding Thomas the "first transgressor." Then she reviews his life, including telling how his second son by his fourth and last wife attended Dartmouth College in 1816, planning to study medicine.

Husband Dies

Chapter 11: Mary Jemison's husband Hiokatoo died in 1811 after four years of illness, estimating him at 103 years of age. She tells of his life and the battles and wars in which he fought. 

Chapter 12: Now an elderly widow, Mary Jemison is saddened that her son John begins fighting with his brother Jesse, Mary's youngest child and the main support of his mother, and she describes how John comes to murder Jesse. 

Interactions With Cousin

Chapter 13: Mary Jemison describes her interactions with a cousin, George Jemison, who came to live with his family on her land in 1810, while her husband was still alive. George's father, had emigrated to America after his brother, Mary's father, was killed and Mary taken captive. She paid his debts and gave him a cow and some pigs, and also some tools. She also loaned him one of her son Thomas' cows. For eight years, she supported the Jemison family. He convinced her to write a deed for what she thought was forty acres, but she later found out that it actually specified 400, including land that didn't belong to Mary but to a friend. When he refused to return Thomas' cow to one of Thomas' sons, Mary decided to evict him.

Son Goes to Buffalo

Chapter 14: She described how her son John, a doctor among the Indians, went to Buffalo and returned. He saw what he thought was an omen of his death, and, on a visit to Squawky Hill, quarreled with two Indians, starting a brutal fight, ending with the two of them killing John. Mary Jemison had a funeral "after the manner of the white people" for him. She then describes more of John's life. She offered to forgive the two who killed him if they would leave, but they would not. One killed himself, and the other lived in the Squawky Hill community until his death.

Chapter 15: In 1816, Micah Brooks, Esq, helps her confirm the title of her land. A petition for Mary Jemison's naturalization was submitted to the state legislature, and then a petition to Congress. She details further attempts to transfer her title and lease her land, and her wishes for disposal of waht remains in her possession, at her death.

Reflects on Her Life

Chapter 16: Mary Jemison reflect on her life, including what the loss of liberty meant, how she took care of her health, how other Indians cared for themselves. She describes a time when it was suspected she was a witch

I have been the mother of eight children; three of whom are now living, and I have at this time thirty-nine grand children, and fourteen great-grand children, all living in the neighborhood of Genesee River, and at Buffalo.


Sections in the appendix deal with:

  • Devil's Hole battle in 1763
  • General Sullivan's Expedition in 1779
  • Seneca traditions about their origins and language
  • Indian religion, feasts, the great sacrifice
  • Indian dances: the war dance and the peace dance
  • Indian government
  • the Six Nations
  • courtship, marriage, divorce
  • family government
  • funerals
  • credulity: belief in spirits, witches, etc.
  • farming by Indian women
  • Indian ways of computing time and keeping records
  • anecdotes
  • description of the Genesee river and its banks
  • a hunting anecdote
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Your Citation
Lewis, Jone Johnson. "A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/narrative-of-mrs-mary-jemison-life-4050403. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2023, April 5). A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/narrative-of-mrs-mary-jemison-life-4050403 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/narrative-of-mrs-mary-jemison-life-4050403 (accessed June 6, 2023).