Volume V, Number 2, Fall 2009 · Special Issue: Proceedings of the 2008 HAAS Conference

"Movements into Alterity: Character Development via Claiming the Female Space in A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison" by András Tarnóc

András Tarnóc, PhD, is Associate Professor and Department Head at the Department of American Studies, Eszterházy Károly College, Eger, Hungary. Email:


As Alice Jardine argues in Gynesis “Any movement into alterity is a movement into a female space, a space outside the conscious subject” (Ogushi 68).The Indian captivity narratives commemorating primarily white women’s advancement into Otherness are considered the first examples of an independent and authentic American literature and as such they have been a fruitful subject for scholarly research.

Narratives of confinement, especially the Indian captivity narratives perpetuating a keystone component of the frontier experience had formed a vital aspect of early American written culture in addition to offering a blue print for the development of the American novel. Captivity narratives had yielded a wide variety of research approaches including the examination of the documents’ identity rebuilding capacity, the analysis of the deployed character development strategies along with taking a scholarly look at the protagonists’ description of the respective ethnic and racial Other in addition to the evaluation of the texts’ culture projection and ethnographic function. Out of the ever-increasing body of research literature Roy Harvey Pearce’s examination of the captivity narratives’ literary significance, Richard VanDerBeets focusing on the tropes of initiation and ritual, and Tara Fitzpatrick’s exploration of the narratives’ cultural work deserve special mention.

Accounts of women forcibly removed from their homes as a result of Indian attacks have generated special research interest. The subject of the forthcoming essay A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison (1824) “documenting pioneer fortitude and the decline of Indian life” (Namias 6) had been reprinted 27 times and reissued in 23 editions on both sides of the Atlantic.

While most captivity narratives are written after the return to the captive’s home, Mrs. Jemison recounts her life not as a former captive, but as an esteemed member of Seneca society. Kidnapped at age 14 after a Shawnee raid on her father’s farm on the Pennsylvania frontier in 1758 she was sold by her captors to the Seneca. According to the Native American custom of substituting dead family members with captives, two sisters mourning the loss of their brother adopted the young girl and renamed her Dickewamis, or Dehgewanus, meaning either “Two Falling Voices,” or “Pretty Girl.” Consequently, she would spend the rest of her life with the Indians and her two marriages would result in 8 children and 39 grandchildren.

The story of “the Old White Woman of the Genesee” had yielded diverse readings treating the Narrative as an ethnographic account, and ”a non-fictional version of The Last of the Mohicans,” while its various components inspired the plot of several children’s books (Namias 6) along with Deborah Larsen’s latest fictional interpretation titled The White (2002).

The purpose of this essay is to examine the character development of Mary Jemison during her captivity and subsequent lifelong experience with the Seneca Indians. The essay utilizes Richard VanDerBeets’ cyclical representation of the captivity experience, along with the incorporation of Joe Snader’s character development theory. Accordingly, VanDerBeets views the captivity experience on a continuum of separation, transformation, and return. Separation includes isolation from one’s culture and symbolic death, while the transformation stage entailing an overall progress from ignorance to maturity can be further divided into such categories as ordeal, accommodation, and ritual adoption. The return phase connotes symbolic rebirth with a sense of moral and spiritual gain (“Held Captive” xiv).
In addition to a cyclical interpretation of the captivity experience the application of Snader’s four part character development theory casts the incident in a different light. Consequently, the improvisational subject “masking an alien environment” attempts to cope with the apparent culture shock, the insular subject protects his or her virtue, the divisive subject mediates internal conflict, and the transgressive subject represents the “sin” of crossing national, class, (race), or gender boundaries (Baepler 239).


Mary Jemison’s oral account of her life put into writing by James Seaver titled A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison (1824) provides ample proof that the notion of Otherness is a fluid concept, always dependent upon the position of the observer. Retracing a metamorphosis from captured young white female through Indian novice to an integrated member of the Seneca tribe the Narrative provides an authentic record of female experience at the “contact zone.” It is a cruel irony of Mrs. Jemison’s plight that in any stage of her life— as a young captive facing the wrath of the Shawnee, as an unwitting adoptee of the Seneca people, as a wife of an Indian warrior, or even as the “White Woman of the Genesee” offering an oral rendition of her experiences—she is unable to escape alterity.

While the application of VanDerBeets’ model is usually restricted to the captivity experience and its immediate aftermath, in case of Mary Jemison this conceptual apparatus appears relevant to the protagonist’s whole lifespan. Kidnapped at age 16, and losing her parents to Indian violence Mary is adopted by two sisters of a fallen young Indian fighter. Upon entry in the Seneca community she is immediately assigned into female space and her societal value further increases by the arranged marriage to the warrior Sheninjee two years later. This marriage lasts two years and in the year of Sheninjee’s death, in 1762 the protagonist is married by Hiokatoo, an older, more respected Amerindian. The almost 52 years of the Indian spousal stage can be characterized by the reinforcement of the female space and a self-professed alterity.

Mary Jemison’s formal return to the WASP community is signified by her naturalization and land title award at age 75. Consequently, her life story can be broken into three clearly distinguishable periods. From age 16 to 18 she experiences captivity, she gains tribal membership and functions as an Indian spouse from age 18 until 69, and as the White Woman of the Genesee she begins her return to the Euro-American community, a process ending with her death in 1833. Accordingly, VanDerBeets’ cyclical theory can be applied to Mary Jemison’s life in the following manner. The separation stage ends with her marriage to Sheninjee, the protracted transformation phase continues through the two marriages, and the return segment begins with widowhood.

At the beginning of the Separation stage Mary indeed suffers a symbolic death as she not only loses her parents, but is deprived of her culture as well. Upon finding out the death of her parents, Mary makes the first reaffirmation of her alterity: “But what could I do? A poor little defenseless girl; without the power or means of escaping; without a home to go to, even if I could be liberated; without a knowledge of the direction or distance to my former place of residence; and without a living friend to whom to fly for protection, I felt a kind of horror, anxiety, and dread, that to me, seemed insupportable” (70). This expression of psychological abandonment is similar to the experiences recorded by Mary Rowlandson at the beginning of her captivity: “their glittering weapons so daunted my spirit, that I chose rather to go along with those (as I may say) ravenous Beasts” (437).

Following her capture, the private sphere of the Pennsylvania farm, or by extension the WASP community, is exchanged with the semi-public sphere of the Shawnee, then that of the Seneca tribe. While the emotional farewell of Mary’s mother warning her daughter to remember her name, her religion, and the English language functions as the last reinforcements of a WASP identity, the subsequent adoption process will lead to a restructuring of priorities. Moreover, the objectification of the protagonist—the Shawnee transfer her to the Seneca, where she is adopted by two sisters mourning the loss of their brother—reinforces her subordinate status. Paralleling the plight of Indians, being forbidden to speak English thus robbed from her own culture, her initial experience reflects cultural de-territorialization. Trying to come to terms with the conditions of her capture Mary does not, however, reveal signs of the improvisational subject as she laments: “It is impossible for anyone to form a correct idea of what my feelings were at the sight of those savages, whom I supposed had murdered my parents and brothers, sister, and friends, and left them in the swamp to be devoured by wild beasts! […] My only relief was in silent stifled sobs” (70).

At this juncture her alterity or Otherness manifests in the lack of expressive power; in fact, her “silent stifled sobs” imply externally imposed muteness. She is deprived of any means of coping with the alien environment, and to the Shawnee she amounts to no more than a prey or a commodity for the potential exchange process. When two Seneca sisters aiming to compensate for the loss of their brother accept her in the family Mary’s fate significantly changes. The adoptive act is preceded by the alteration of Mary’s appearance. Soon after capture her looks are refashioned in the Shawnee way: her shoes are replaced by moccasins along with her hair being painted red, and upon arrival in the Seneca village she is “washed clean and dressed […] in a new suit […] in complete Indian style” (76). In both cases an attempt is made to eliminate her physical alterity as the imposition of Indian clothing signifies a forceful admission into the Native American community. In addition to a name change from Mary to Dickewamis, meaning “pretty girl or two falling voices” the heroine undergoes a progression from outsider to qualified tribal membership. Her Seneca sisters’ impassioned words welcoming her in the tribe (“His spirit has seen our distress, and sent us a helper whom with pleasure we greet. Dickewamis has come: then let us receive her with joy!” (77)) appear to alleviate the burden of alterity.

One milestone of the Separation stage is the Fort Pitt episode, during which when taken to this settlement by her sisters the extraordinary attention paid to her by white onlookers raises hopes of a potential return. Having been hurried back to camp Mary dejectedly laments: “My sudden departure and escape from them, seemed like a second captivity” (81).

As a fresh captive Mary’s character development is stunted in the Separation stage. Lacking any emotional or physical apparatus to deal with her ordeal during the first days of her captivity she is unable to act as the improvisational subject. As she is treated as an object by the Indians she is not afforded any opportunity to reach the status of the transgressive subject either. Furthermore, not being familiar with Indian culture she cannot function as a mediator between two civilizations while no need emerges for the protection of her virtue. Having been installed into the Seneca family structure as a substitute for a fallen Indian warrior her value increases as demonstrated by the adamant refusal of her sisters to part with her during the Fort Pitt peace talks: ”So great was their fear of losing me, or of my being given up in the treaty, that they never once stopped rowing till they got home” (80). It is also noteworthy that any move on the character development scale is preceded by a greater entry into Indian culture as Mary Jemison “being now settled and provided with a home” (78) begins to display traces of the improvisational subject subsequent to solitary prayers and the recital of catechism.
The Separation stage also witnesses a variation of the notion of alterity. Having been kidnapped by the Shawnee Mrs. Jemison is considered a pawn in the potential exchange process, thus her alterity is functional towards the Indians. Signified by the name change and the cleansing ritual bath she enters the Seneca community thereby becoming the Other in the eyes of white settlers.

Following a two year Separation stage the protagonist embarks upon a prolonged Transformation period accentuated by a two year marriage to Sheninjee and by an almost fifty year matrimony to Hiokatoo. In the Transformation phase the heroine advances to transgressive and divided subject status since the exchange of vows results in racial and cultural border crossing in addition to a structural entry into Native American society.

Attempting to mediate and alleviate internal strife brought on by the potential clash between Native American and WASP culture Mrs. Jemison also displays the characteristics of the divided subject. Through the description of the negative effects of excessive alcohol consumption she is compelled to reconcile internal conflicts as the substance destroying the Indians, her new people, is introduced by the representatives of the Anglo community. The protagonist’s recognition of the baneful effects of “ardent spirits” (84) assigns her the role of an ethnographer. By this time she had lost her “traumatic foreignness” (Ben-Zwi xiii) attributed to her at the beginning of the captivity experience. The “alienating knowledge” (Ben-Zwi xviii) represented by the content of her mother’s final warning gives way to an emphatic portrayal of the alcohol-wrought social and psychological damage affecting the Seneca community. Her liminality is further underscored by the fact that the duty of caring for and protecting her children steers her towards the Indian community, but the “potent draught”-induced (127) demise of her sons Thomas, John, and later Jesse is the direct result of their alcohol abuse.

Mary Jemison’s alterity is operative in several contexts. At the beginning of her captivity the Indians treated her as a prey, the ethno-racial Other. Following her adoption she was considered a novice in the Seneca community, entirely Othered by the Anglo settlers. Despite being integrated into the Seneca people via marriage, her secondary position within the female sphere continued. Her identity was still largely defined by her husband as after losing her child she was denied entrance to Seneca society until the return of Sheninjee.

The apparent emotional bond to her sisters notwithstanding Mary’s position within the tribe remained precarious demonstrated by a dispute between an elder tribal leader and her Indian brother. In the intra-tribal argument concerning her redemption and the subsequent financial reward she becomes an unwitting pawn. Moreover, the main attributes of the female space are clearly outlined by the speech of her adoptive Indian mother reproaching her daughter, that is, Mary’s “Seneca sister,” for her intention to participate in a frolic preceding an execution: “Our task is quite easy at home, and our business needs our attention. With war we have nothing to do: our husbands and brothers are proud to defend us […] Let our warriors alone perform on their victims their customs of war!” (92).

The American Revolution and War of Independence augment the the protagonist’s alterity with an other dimension. Although at first the Seneca along with the other tribes of the Six Nations declare neutrality, they are cajoled by the British to participate in the war on their side. Consequently, Mary and the Seneca will not only be seen as the ethno-racial Other, but the enemy as well. Moreover, as a result of siding with the British, Mary is forced to perform domestic duties in support of the “military operations” (100): “Many and many a night I have pounded samp for them from sun-set till sun-rise, and furnished them with the necessary provision and clean clothing for their journey” (100).

The Otherness of Mary and the Seneca is reified in General Sullivan’s punitive raid and in the subsequent revenge attacks on white settlements. The terms “they burnt our houses,” “destroyed our fruit trees” (104) express full identification with the Indians, and allude to the total acceptance of Otherness. Having escaped the advancement of the Americans Mary Jemison moves northward eventually settling at Gardow. She shares her new abode with runaway slaves who guard her with the same jealous attention as the two squaws did.

Mrs. Jemison is perceived as an Other or relegated into alterity by her relatives as well. Her cousin George acts toward her in the course of a fraudulent land deal in a way that recalls the treatment the Indians received in the hands of the U.S. government. Instead of the sale of the originally agreed 40 acres she is defrauded into selling a 400 acre section of her land because of her “ignorance of writing” (145). Her professed alterity is reinforced by her Indian-held temporary image as a witch and bringing the insular subject into mind towards the end of her life she reaffirms her virtue by refusing any accusations of adultery arising out of the fair hair and light complexion of some of her children.

The prolonged Transformation stage spans half a century and two marriages. The protagonist also experiences the ordeal, accommodation and adoption periods as well. Indeed the time spent with the Seneca launches her on a progress from ignorance to mature knowledge. The ordeal stage includes both physical and psychological suffering. Despite a structural entry into Indian society she was not allowed to return to her quarters after giving birth to a daughter in confinement (82). Moreover, she is further objectified in the power struggle between a younger Indian and the older chief. Also, the loss of her three sons due to alcohol-induced violence adds to her tribulations. Acquiring such skills as carrying heavy loads in the Indian way, that is with a strap attached to one’s head and identifying with the Indians in the frontier conflict represents accommodation, and her decision of staying with the Seneca prepares the way for ritual adoption epitomized by the land title award.

The Transformation stage results in a re-interpretation of alterity. Mary Jemison’s transgression signified by the marriage posits her as the ethno-racial and cultural Other in the eyes of the WASP community, while membership in a tribe allied with the British in the War of Independence carries political enemy status as well. The Transformation stage allows the greatest advance on the character development continuum. The theretofore beleaguered victim acquires skills for improvisation and after the completion of the transgression process her mature knowledge allows her to function as a divided subject mediating between hostile cultural configurations.

The loss of Mary’s three sons not only undermines her position within the tribe and loosens her ties to the Seneca community, but it lays the foundation of the Return stage starting subsequent to the death of her second husband. While the initial interpretation of the Return phase is not applicable as the protagonist does not achieve full integration into the WASP community, her actions imply intention of re-approaching her original culture. In the course of the Return period the protagonist once again enters VanDerBeets’ continuum, fulfilling an additional cycle of ordeal, accommodation and ritualized adoption. Being defrauded on a land sale by her cousin George amounts to a rude awakening to the greed of white people while turning to an Anglo lawyer reflects accommodation to the demands of the American legal system. It is also noteworthy that upon getting closer to white civilization Mary once again lacks the tools to become the improvisational subject, that is, she cannot deal with the now alien legal and cultural environment. The intended Return stage gains completion with the naturalization process, an official recognition of incorporation into WASP society. Naturalization along with the confirmation of her land title indicates reverse transgression or border crossing on a political and economic level, while her intent to benefit the Seneca people from the eventual sale of her estate implies multiple loyalties and the achievement of the status of the divided subject. In the Intended Return stage she reassumes the role of the Other vis-á-vis the Anglo community, yet demonstrated by the name “the Old White Woman of the Genesee,” she is still treated with reverence by the Seneca.


It can be concluded that Mary Jemison’s life represented a continuous movement into alterity. Having been kidnapped by the Shawnee she was forcibly removed from the inherent Otherness of being a female child in a male dominated society. In fact an insistence on her Otherness via the preservation of her original family name, language, and religion provides an essentialist impulse functioning at varying intensity throughout her life. After the Shawnee prepare her for transfer to the Seneca the signifiers of her original cultural identity are erased and as a result of the subsequent ritual bath and name change the respective reference points of her alterity shift as well. Despite being adopted into the tribe, she cannot shed the guise of the racial and cultural Other.

She is not allowed to speak her own language in the presence of her sisters, she is chosen a husband, and her social standing is greatly dependent upon the intra-tribal prestige of Sheninjee and Hiokatoo respectively. Throughout her life Mary Jemison was restricted to the female space. While the Indian attack removed her from an almost certain allocation to the Anglo private sphere, her induction in the Seneca community allowed her to occupy the Indian female space. Although she asserted that the Anglo female space was characterized by domestic arts, the matrilineal Seneca society enabled her to function in between the female and male power zones. Mrs. Jemison’s role and identity modifications can also be explained by De Lauretis’ social space-off concept as the heroine indeed functions not in the center but against the hegemonic spatial discourse. Justified by the power structure of the Seneca she is caught in a space off between the female and male power sphere. In the matrilineal Seneca community women held considerable powers in domestic affairs as deciding the fate of prisoners of war, and choosing male members to serve in councils during wartime corresponded to judicial and legislative powers, while men dominated in such areas as hunting, fishing, warfare, and diplomacy. Despite being accepted into the tribe indicators of Otherness continued to plague her. In fact she was objectified several times. Her two sisters jealously guarded her from white onlookers at Fort Pitt, her agricultural skills earned the armed attention of her black masters, and she was taken advantage of by her relatives as well.

The concept of alterity can be given several interpretations. In case of Mary Jemison this continuous movement was uninterrupted. Her original alterity did not change only the respective reference points were modified. Mary Jemison’s steady progression towards alterity coincides with her advancement on Snader’s continuum of character development. On the whole, Mary Jemison as a fresh captive was forced into the position of the improvisational subject, the successful passing of this stage, that is, dealing with the tasks of masking an alien environment brought on the demand outlined by the insular subject as many female authors, among them Mary Rowlandson and Jemison herself as well, report on the preservation of their personal integrity. Accommodation results in becoming the transgressive subject as passing through racial, ethnic, or class lines implies original intent, and indeed no captive can avoid the fate of the divided subject either.

In sum Mary Jemison’s life parallels the stages of the captivity experience. Despite gaining structural entry into Indian society via marriage and childbirth, her acceptance is always partial, thus she cannot omit the respective Transformation and Return stages. In a final look back at her life the protagonist asserts the powerful motivational force of the “anxiety for freedom:” I am sensible, however, that no one can pass from a state of freedom to that of slavery, and in the last situation rest perfectly contented” (157-158). Indeed, Mrs. Jemison could find no rest on a life’s journey during which her alterity might have changed appearances, but would never fully abandon her.

Works Cited

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  • Ben-Zvi, Yael. “Ethnography and the Production of Foreigness in Indian Captivity Narratives.” American Indian Quarterly. (Winter 2008). Vol. 32. No. 1. ix—xxxii.
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  • Seaver, James, E. A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison. Ed. by June Namias. Norman and London: U of Oklahoma P, 1992.
  • VanDerBeets, Richard. Held Captive by Indians. Selected Narratives. 1642-1836. Knoxville: U of Tennesse P, 1994.