Blood and Water: American Adoption Stories – Mary Jemison (1753)

Source: James E. Seaver, A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison(Canadaigua, N.Y.: J.D. Bemis, 1824), 43–51 (1753)

In 1753 (during the Seven Years’ War), Mary Jemison, then fifteen years old, was captured by a Seneca tribe along the Pennsylvania frontier. Mary was then (via a ceremony that confused and frightened her) adopted and incorporated into the tribe– a prisoner to take the place in the family of a young man killed by the English in battle. Adoption was a common practice among pre-colonial American peoples in the wake of a death in the tribe. After a tribesman was killed, the tribe would take from the opposing side a captive. This captive was then offered to the grieving family of the fallen warrior and could be killed to satisfy the family’s desire for revenge or adopted to take the place of the lost child. Adoption, luckily Mary Jemison’s fate, was more commonly chosen by the Seneca– a testament to their decidedly non-European views toward family.

Mary Jemison related her life story to James Seaver, a doctor who lived near her home in western New York in 1823. A full transcript of her personal account as noted in James E. Seaver’s  A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison can be found here.

Mary Jemison’s experience showcases adoption in a different sort of American culture. During the colonial period of the United States, white captives were often adopted into tribal family units through ceremony. John Smith, for example, is believed to have been one of such adoptees.

Unlike Mr. Smith, Mary Jemison was a teenager when she was adopted, and spent many of her formative years with the Seneca. She eventually fully assimilated into native American culture– learning their language, hunting strategies, trade practices, etc.

The narrative of Mary Jemison differs from the violent and “savage” depictions of native society that many British colonists propagated at that time. Ms. Jemison notes that when she arrived in Seneca territory they offered her “a suit of Indian clothing, all new, and very clean and nice” and that she was immediately and joyfully accepted into her new family. Over the course of her adoption ceremony, Mary wrote that her captors’ affect transitioned from mourning the loss of their brother to serenity.

[Joy] sparkled in their countenances, and they seemed to rejoice over me as over a long-lost child. I was made welcome amongst them as a sister to the two squaws before mentioned, and was called Dickewamis; which being interpreted, signifies a pretty girl, a handsome girl, or a pleasant, good thing. That is the name by which I have ever since been called by the Indians.

Speaking of her new brothers, Mary said that she “was ever considered and treated by them as a real sister, the same as though I had been born of their mother.”

In her account, Mary also mentions her adoptive sisters– though she doesn’t include the caveat “adoptive”.

My sisters… were kind good natured women; peaceable and mild in their dispositions; temperate and decent in their habits, and very tender and gentle toward me. I have great reason to respect them, though they have been dead a great number of years.

Because she preferred the ways of the Senecas to those of her colonial roots, and because she felt so utterly accepted and like she belonged with her adoptive family, she refused to return to live with the colonists when the opportunity was given her years after her abduction and adoption.  

The story of Mary Jemison is easily one of the earliest examples of interracial adoption in post-colonial North America. Her story provides a glimpse into Native American philosophies on adoption and family. Jemison’s story also raises questions about kith and kin and the concept of “real” family (addressed in other posts on this blog). Who were her real family? Mary’s decision may surprise us. 

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5 thoughts on “Blood and Water: American Adoption Stories – Mary Jemison (1753)

  1. I have read about Mary Jamison before and this was an interesting focus into her life through the lens of adoption. This article shows me that the study of both American adoption history and the perspectives of other cultures can be helpful to weed out the negative views our culture has about adoption and embrace the positive and healthy perspectives.

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  2. As someone who had no prior knowledge about the Native American practice of abduction and adoption, it’s interesting to see that skin tone seemed to play no part in this process. Today, we see families where parents and children have different skin tones and we feel an impulse to find some way to rationalize this; we think that the kids are probably adopted. But in colonial times, it seemed to make no difference whether someone had light or dark skin; they were accepted into the tribe without any reaction to physical appearance.

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  3. It’s so interesting to me that she refused to go back to the colonies. The emphasis on kinship within Native American societies seems to be taken very seriously and interestingly has complete disregard for race. It’s interesting to contrast their broad view of family and adoption with the Christian colonists and the emphasis they placed on race while the Christian theology professes all as children of God. Fascinating article.

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  4. Mary Jemison was one of my heroes in elementary school; her autobiography was my favorite book. I think it’s so interesting that the Senecas used adoption of a white child as a way of retribution for losing one of their own family.

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  5. Mary Jemison’s story shows a different type of adoption. It is interesting that the natives took a captive from the other side when one of their own children was killed and also interesting that they were often adopted. She says that she was loved in the tribe and treated like family. Why else would she want to stay in the tribe and not return to colonial life?

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