Life among the Seneca women living at Little Beard’s Town and in the Genesee Valley
Prior to the Revolutionary War, Little Beard’s Town was the largest Seneca village in western New York. One hundred and twenty eight homes were surrounded by hundreds of acres of cornfields and vegetable gardens along the Genesee Flats.
Mary Jemison, the White Woman of the Genesee, lived among the Seneca for most of her life. In her memoir, The Life of Mary Jemison by James Seaver, first published 1824, she gives brief glimpses of Seneca women’s daily lives and their traditions and powerful position in the society.
The Seneca Nation still has thousands of members in western New York and proudly promotes and preserves their rich culture and heritage to present day. This is an excerpt from the Seneca Nation of Indians website:
“The Seneca Nation of Indians has a proud and rich history. We are the largest of six Native American nations comprising the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederacy or Six Nations, a democratic government that predates the United States Constitution. We are known as the "Keeper of the Western Door," for the Seneca are the westernmost of the Six Nations. In the Seneca language we are also known as O-non-dowa-gah, (pronounced: Oh-n'own-dough-wahgah) or "Great Hill People." (From https://sni.org/)
"Within the Seneca's matrilineal society, women have historically been held with high regard, possessing power and responsibility to their clan and tribe. Traditionally, the oldest woman of a clan, the Clan Mother, was responsible for nominating, installing, and removing chiefs. They also named all members of their clans. Clan mothers had the right to command a war party to avenge the death of a loved one or to find a suitable person to adopt.” (From https://sni.org/culture/clans/)
For more information and a closer look at the life of Seneca women, visit the Ganondagan Seneca Art & Culture Center's new exhibit, "Hodinöhsö:ni’ Women: From the Time of Creation," which examines the many ways in which Hodinöhsö:ni’ women have acted as positive forces in our world, and provides a glimpse into their complex and sophisticated way of life. As the exhibit unfolds, it demonstrates that, from the time of Creation to the present, Hodinöhsö:ni’ women continue to provide guidance, wisdom, healing, joy, sustenance, hope, peace and love to the world.
Mary Jemison (1743-1833), the "White Woman of the Genesee," is among the most famous female Indian captives in American history.
James E. Seaver’s "A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison," originally published in 1824 with more than thirty editions, describes in Mary’s words the details of her life among the Seneca. This memoir has been cited by scholars as highly significant in the study of women’s history and in understanding American Indian culture.
Mary Jemison was born about 1743 on a ship as her parents immigrated to America. She spent her first thirteen years on a farm in Pennsylvania. In the summer of 1755, most of her family was captured by a band of French soldiers and Shawnee warriors. While two of her brothers escaped, her parents, younger siblings, and several friends were brutally killed. Mary was later adopted by the Seneca, eventually adapting to their way of life and living at Little Beard's Town, near present-day Cuylerville. The Senecas gave her the name “Deh-he-wa-mis” meaning “Two Falling Voices.”
Mary was given numerous opportunities to return to white society, but every time she elected to remain with her Seneca family and friends. In 1797, the Treaty of Big Tree granted Mary 18,000 acres on the Gardeau Flats, near Letchworth State Park, where she continued farming late into her life.
In 1831, she chose to sell her land and removed to the Buffalo Creek Reservation, where she died at just over 90 years of age. Forty-one years later, thanks to the efforts of William Pryor Letchworth, Mary was re-interred on a bluff in Letchworth State Park, her beloved home, where a statue was erected in her honor.