Two Falling Voices: Mary Jemison and Me


March 27, 2014 by Paula Reed Nancarrow

Mary Jemison

Mary Jemison, The White Woman of the Genesee, Statue in Letchworth State Park, formerly her property

For #ThrowBackThursday (and for #ArchiveDay on Saturday), I am republishing posts from my old Livejournal Blog, Ordinary Time. This story was told as part of a performance, Saving Pagan Babies:  Catholic Culture Clashes, featuring myself, Ann Reay, Loren Niemi, and Curt Lund at the Spirit in the House Festival, February 27-March 9, 2009, and was also part of my one woman show at the Minnesota Fringe Festival, The Sins of the Mothers, in 2011. It was originally published here. Photographs and illustrations have been added. 

I have stuck to facts whenever possible, but allowed myself to imagine and infer motives and conversations. In addition to the sources on the life of Mary Jemison cited in this story, and my own independent research on the Sullivan campaign, I want to acknowledge the influence of Deborah Larsen’s historical fiction The White, published in 2001, a stunningly beautiful book which gave me additional insight into the character of Mary Jemison.  

In the storytelling community it is often said that not everything in a story need be factual, but all of it must be true.  May this be so.


When the people of the longhouse, the Henosaunee, returned to the Chemung River Valley in the spring of 1780, after the Sullivan Campaign against the Six Nations, they found the corpses of pack horses – the horses that had carried Sullivan’s cannons, driven to exhaustion, slaughtered on the scorched earth.

Forty towns of the Six Nations  –Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Tuscarora, Mohawk… Oneida  – were no more.  Twelve hundred longhouses, a million bushels of corn, and beans, and squash – the Three Sisters – torched.  That winter hunger had put an end to the oldest democracy in the world – the Iroquois Confederacy – to make way for our own.

The Seneca warrior Hiokatoo turned in disgust to his chief.  “What kind of savages would treat an animal this way?”

“They are Christians,” Cornplanter replied.  “Their God had a Son who took their place and died for their sins.  What they do to horses does not matter to them.”

Hiokatoo got down from his own horse:  sleek, powerful, its eyes dark and liquid.  They were Seneca eyes.  “The God of the whites is no Great Spirit.  He is small and mean and stupid.”  Hiokatoo began to gather the bones for burial.

Cornplanter watched the warrior in silence.  He had seen Hiokatoo kill a white captive by nailing one end of his intestine to a post and letting the raiding party take turns chasing the man with hot pokers till he disemboweled himself.  The wife of Hiokatoo was a white captive. Cornplanter’s father was white.  Cornplanter got down off his horse to help bury the bones.

They left the skulls there to shame us. Staggered them along the trail like Stations of the Cross. When the settlers came they named the town Horseheads, in honor of the Revolutionary War Hero General John Sullivan. The Chemung County Historical Society says Horseheads is “the only town in the United States dedicated to the service of the American military horse.”

It’s the town I grew up in.

In 1965 I was nine, and my family moved into our new house on the outskirts of Horseheads, a house we built ourselves, like pioneers. The lot was on the edge of a golf course, so we would always have a nice view of nature.

My favorite book that year was Indian Captive:  The Story of Mary Jemison. It was a true story. I loved the blue-eyed, blonde haired girl ripped from her white family at twelve during the French and Indian War and adopted by the Seneca, who named her “Corn Tassel” because of her yellow hair – her beautiful yellow hair.  A homesick girl who, when a trader finally told her that her family was all dead, realized this was her home, and learned to love the Indians.

Indian Captive 2

I loved Lois Lenski’s Indians too – their gracefully rounded faces and hands, limbs sturdy like trees, like trees that lift and move and carry, trees that build things. I looked for their world beneath my own – beneath the blacktop and the golf course and the housing developments.  I couldn’t find it. I wanted to live in that world.

I took the book out from the library five times in a row. Eventually Mrs. Berlozan told me that until there were two more names on the card that were not mine, I was not allowed to check the book out again.

I didn’t know how Our Lady would feel about my liking this Mary so much. Had she died a martyr, thrown to lions or shut in a tower or gored to death by a mad cow, it would have been different.  But she lived, and she lived a pagan.  I tried not to think about it.

Our Lady was my favorite part of being Catholic. She had her own altar, her own statue and candles.  God the Father was scary, Jesus too perfect, the Holy Spirit…hard to get a grip on.  Mary interceded for you, like mothers do.  I loved the rosary, the click of beads, the grave beauty of the Latin phrases:  Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Hail Mary, full of Grace.  The Lord is with Thee.  Sancta Maria, Mater Dei,  ora pro nobis peccatoribus, Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners.

I could follow along with the English in my St. Joseph’s Missal, but I really didn’t need to:  it sounded like prayer.  An older brother of a Protestant friend of mine had called Latin a dead language, which confused me.  What did that mean, dead language?  It seemed very alive to me – as alive as Jesus and Mary were, certainly, although they lived on this earth a very long time ago.  And if I’d learned anything in church, it was that there was more than one way to be alive.

My father was a Protestant.  Not as bad as being a pagan, but bad. Sister had shown us that when Protestants pray, they hold their hands like this, with their fingers laced together – but when Catholics pray, they hold their hands like this, pointed upward to God, their thumbs in the shape of a cross.  And whose prayers do you think are going to heaven? Sister asked.

That was when I was taken captive.

“It will be better for us,” my mother said, “to worship together as a family,” “And to pray in English.” My Protestant friend’s older brother agreed.  People should worship in the vernacular.  I looked the word up.  It meant “native to a country.”  It was from the Latin, vernaculus.

St. Matthew’s Protestant Episcopal Church was musty and dark, like the papery leaves of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. The Mass – no, the service – was in English:  the King’s English, the language of Shakespeare. What was native about that?

We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.

There were old people everywhere. Their papery skin was lined with such prayers.  Even the children looked old. At St. Matthews, they only brought Mary out with the other decorations at Christmas. She had no altar, and no one called her Our Lady or said prayers to her in any language.

I needed a Mary.

After Mrs. Berlozan forbade me to check out Lois Lenski’s book, I did a risky thing.

I went to the adult section of the public library. I found the 1824 biography by James Seaver, who interviewed Mary Jemison in her nineties.  His sentences were long and sanctimonious, like the Book of Common Prayer.

Yet beneath that voice, I found the voice of Mary.  Her native voice.

It was not Corn Tassel’s.

My hair was chestnut.  Not blonde.

I knew from the beginning they were dead. Two days after they put the moccasins on my feet and separated me from the rest, I watched my family’s scalps prepared, scraped and stretched and dried over the camp fire.  I recognized my mother’s red hair. 

The Seneca sisters who adopted me named me Dehewamis, Two Falling Voices, because I took their brother’s place and ended their mourning.  My sisters loved me, as they loved him.  When I could feel at all, I hated them. 

But eventually winter turns to spring, as it always does.  And my sisters were persistent.  It is hard not to love back.  And things were better; my life was better, when I could love again.

I might have been twelve when I was captured.  I might have been sixteen.  I can’t remember.   

My marriage to Sheninjee was an arranged marriage, but eventually winter turned to spring, as it always does.  I found I loved him.

It was my right as a Seneca woman to name our children. I named my son Thomas, after my father.  Then a fever killed Sheninjee.  And winter came.     

After the French and Indian War, after the death of Sheninjee, the King of England offered a bounty to anyone willing to ransom white captives.  

The Seneca chief said  I had a choice.  I would not be taken against my will.  

I considered this.  I could still speak English, although I had forgotten how to read or write and  I no longer knew the Christian prayers.   I looked at my brown Thomas . He had the dark eyes of Sheninjee.  

I chose not to be redeemed. 

In the spring, when Thomas was three I caught the eye of the great warrior Hiokatoo.  I found myself looking back.   It was not an arranged marriage.  I chose him. 

The courtship was a strange one. He told me stories, as warriors do.  My sister thought he was bragging.  He told me every brutal thing he had ever done.  But at the end of each story, he would search my face, as if to say,  This is what it means to be a brave.  This is who I am.  Can you face it?  I opened to him. 

We had six more children.  

All in all I had three sons and four daughters.  I gave them all Christian names.  They took the  place of the family I had lost.  Perhaps that was wrong.

After the Sullivan campaign, before the Winter of Hunger, I hired myself out as a farm hand so my family had corn. 

In the treaty with the colonies, I came to own land. And I became…naturalized. A naturalized citizen of the United States. 

1907 Postcard Depicting Mary Jemison

1907 Postcard Depicting Mary Jemison

Eventually, Hiokatoo died of consumption, well past one hundred, still telling stories to anyone who would listen.  Not his sons.  Whiskey told them stories.  

In his fifties John, his firstborn, my second, murdered first Thomas, then James.  

Finally strong spirits brought a tomahawk to John’s head too, spilled his brains.

I buried all three.   

I was glad Hiokatoo had been spared this. This was not what it meant to be a brave.   I faced it for him.  Took his place.


On the outskirts of Horseheads, on the edge of a golf course, I grew up in the home my parents built.

Houses rose up around us, one or two new ones each summer, till the creek bed went mysteriously dry, and the fields full of puff balls and thistles, milkweed pods and garter snakes were gone, and the green was all for sport. 

On Saturday morning, the construction workers were on overtime. People were eager to move in.  I went downstairs and sat in a patch of sunlight coming in from the bay window.  The light poured down,  a wave of particles, full of the dust unto which we shall return.

The house was quiet, I thought, until the refrigerator motor suddenly went off.  No, this was quiet.  A turtle dove sighed in the chimney. Then the metallic clunk of the machinery began again, drilling a new Artesian well.

Perhaps she thought it was the grinding of corn. Perhaps the scrape of a scalping knife, the beating of drums before a gauntlet was run, the clinking of coins in a false redemption.

A volume of the encyclopedia was next to me, open to those plastic overlays of geological strata, The names sounded like books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus; Igneous, Sedimentary, Metamorphic.  The shaft hammered down, drilling for water.  Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum.

I let my prayers drill down, down, past ranch houses and farm houses and log cabins, till they struck the soft thatch of a longhouse, and the Finger Lakes filled with living water and their names once more held the flowing vowels of the Iroquois: Seneca, Keuka, Cayuga, Owasco, Canandaigua.

And there she was, the thick chestnut braids tumbling down, the beaded buckskin tunic, the trousers, the moccasins.  Mary Queen of Captives, Two Falling Voices, ora pro nobis peccatoribus. 

Praying for me.

Mary Jemison at Marsh Creek - Statue on the Grounds of St. Ignatius Loyola Catholic Church. Photograph Courtesy Jeffrey Martin

Mary Jemison at Marsh Creek – Statue on the Grounds of St. Ignatius Loyola Catholic Church. Photograph Courtesy Jeffrey Martin


13 thoughts on “Two Falling Voices: Mary Jemison and Me

  1. What a fascinating insight. I have never heard of this book, nor this lady. I bet it was quite a moment to see the statue. Thank you for linking to PoCoLo and welcome – hope to see you next week x


    • Thank you for welcoming me. As I said in my Twitter comment, I hope to have shorter posts for people to read in future. This one’s very long for a linky. And very U.S.-focused.

      I think it is interesting that the statue in the Catholic churchyard (on her white family’s homestead) looks so much like the other Mary, whereas the statue at Letchworth State Park (the only one I’ve actually seen), on what used to be Mary Jemison’s own property, has its own individuality.


  2. Having gone to school in Syracuse I recognize some of those names. As a student of education and social justice I understood aspects of the “false history” we’ve told ourselves about what happened to native cultures here and in Canada. As a child who was shuffled between Catholic and Protestant churches I empathized with those in your story who may have been judged by the way they pray, rather than the contents of their thoughts. This story touched me on so many levels – thank you for sharing!


    • Stephanie: Thank you so very much. I appreciate your taking the time to articulate your response so carefully. It’s not that often that I hit pay dirt with a reader on multiple levels, and I’m humbled. I also see your formatting is back – hope it didn’t take all day to recover it!


  3. This is a fascinating read, not a story that I was familiar with. Thank you for sharing, and the lovely comment you left on my blog x


  4. […] most notably in Saving Pagan Babies for the Spirit in the House Festival (where my story Two Falling Voices was originally performed), most recently in The Computer Wore Semiotics at the 2012 Minnesota […]


  5. WOW! What a fascinating story, one I’d not heard before. As usual you leave me wanting more, I may have to google, order and read both books; assuming they are still available to order.

    I really enjoyed this read Paula, my favorite so far this week :)

    Take care, Kimmie x


    • Thanks, Kimmie, that’s always lovely to hear. Especially since the more I learn about becoming a standout blogger, the more I realize that people seldom read through posts as long as this. Whether or not to put them up anyway is an interesting question. The Lois Lenski book is widely available; I’ll go back and put the link in the post. Deborah Larsen’s The White I already linked to. The Seaver book is a bit of a tough, but it is available as a public domain e-book from the Gutenberg project; am adding that link as well.


  6. Annecdotist says:

    Such an interesting story, Paula – cultural differences are always fascinating at any level.


  7. elainemansfield says:

    Wonderful. I hadn’t read this piece, but people whose families had been in this area many generations told about the naming of Horseheads. I’ve said other places that I live near Seneca Lake, about 30 minutes north of Horseheads. I didn’t know any details other than the killing of the horses and the display of their heads. If I ever knew anything about Mary Jemison, I’ve forgotten it. Fascinating. Thank you.


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