When Mary Jemison or Dehgewanus lived in the Genesee Valley, she was well known to her pioneer neighbors and early travelers. Several who were acquainted with her set their memories of "The Old White Woman" down for future generations.
James Seaver was hired by a group of Valley gentlemen to record the life of Mary Jemison. In November of 1823 the interview was held at Whaley's tavern, located between present day Castile and Perry NY. The next year he published the his work which has become the major resource in the study of the life of this remarkable women.
In his introduction, Seaver gave the following description of the Dehgewanus.
You can see a listing of other accounts here.
"Her appearance was well calculated to excite a great degree of sympathy in stranger, who had been partially informed of her origin, when comparing her present situation with what it probably would have been, had she been permitted to have remained with her friends, and to have enjoyed the blessings of civilization.
In stature she is very short, and considerably under the middle size, and stand tolerably erect, with her head bent forward, apparently from her having for a long time been accustomed to carrying heavy burdens in a strap place across her forehead. Her complexion is very white for a woman of her age, and although the wrinkles of fourscore years are deeply indented in her cheeks, yet the crimson of youth is distinctly visible. Her eyes are light blue, a little faded by age, and naturally brilliant and sparkling. Her sight is quite dim, though she is able to perform her necessary labor without the assistance of glasses. Her cheek bones are high, and rather prominent, and her front teeth, in the lower jaw, are sound and good. When she looks up and is engaged in conversation her countenance is very expressive; but from her long residence with the Indians, she has acquired the habit of peeping from under eye-brows as they do with the head inclined downwards. formerly her hair was of a light chestnut brown - it is now quite grey, a little curled, of middling length and tied in a bunch behind. She informed me that she had never worn a cap nor a comb.
She speaks English plainly and distinctly, with a little of the Irish emphasis, and has the use of words so well as to render herself intelligible on any subject with which she is acquainted. Her recollection and memory exceeded my expectation. It cannot be reasonably supposed, that a person of her age has kept the events of seventy years in so complete a chain as to be able to assign to each its proper time and place; she, however, made her recital with as few obvious mistakes as might be found in that of a person of fifty.
She walks with a quick step without a staff, and I was informed by Mr.Clute, that she could yet cross a stream on a log or pole as steadily as any other person.
Her passions are easily excited. At a number of periods in her narration, tears trickled down her grief worn cheek, and at the same time a rising sigh would stop her utterance.
Industry is a virtue which she has uniformly practised from the day of her adoption to the present. She pounds her samp, cooks for herself, gathers and chops wood, feeds her cattle and poultry, and performs other laborious services. Last season she planted, tended and gathered corn - in short, she is always busy.
Her dress at the time I saw her was made and worn after the Indian fashion, and consisted of a shirt, short gown, petticoat, stockings, moccasins, a blanket and a bonnet. The shirt was of cotton and made at the top, as I was informed, like a man's without collar or sleeves - was open before and extended down about midway of the hips. The petticoat was a piece of broadcloth with the list at the top and bottom and the ends sewed together. This was tied on by a string that was passed over it and around the waist, in such a manner as to let the bottom of the petticoat down half way between the knee and ankle and leave one fourth of a yard at the top to be turned down over the string - the bottom of the shirt coming a little below, and on the outside of the top of the fold so as to leave the list and tow or three inches of the cloth uncovered. The stockings, were of blue broadcloth, tied, or pinned on, which reached from the knees, into the mouth of the moccasins. Around her toes only she had some rags, and over these her buckskin moccasins. Her gown was of undressed flannel, colored brown. It was made in old yankee style, with long sleeves, covered the top of the hips, and was tied before in two places with strings of deer skin. Over all this, she wore an Indian blanket. On her head she wore a piece of old brown woollen cloth made somewhat like a sun bonnet.
Such was the dress that this woman was contented to wear, and habit had rendered it convenient and comfortable, she wore it not as a matter of necessity, but from choice, for it will be seen in the sequel, that her property is sufficient to enable her to dress in the best fashion, and to allow her every comfort of life.
Her house, in which she lives, is 20 by 28 feet; built of square timber, with a shingled roof, and a framed stoop. In the center of the house is a chimney of stones and sticks, in which there are two fire places. She has a good framed barn, 26 by 36, well filled, and owns a fine stock of cattle and horses. Besides the buildings above mentioned, she owns a number of houses that are occupied by tenants, who work her flats upon shares.
(A short description of Gardeau follows)
Mrs. Jemison, appeared sensible of her ignorance of the manners of the white people, and for that reason, was not familiar, except with those with whom she was intimately acquainted. In fact she was (to appearance) so jealous of her rights, or that she should say something that would be injurious to herself or family, that if Mr. Clute had not been present, we should have been unable to have obtained her history. She, however, soon became free and unembarrassed in her conversation, and spoke with a degree of mildness, candor and simplicity, that is calculated to remove all doubts as to the veracity of the speaker. The lives of the Indians, she appeared disposed not to aggravate, and seemed to take pride in extoling their virtues. A kind of family pride included her to withhold whatever would blot the character of her descendants, and perhaps induced her to keep back many things that would have been interesting.
(A short discussion of the role of her "cousin" George Jemison follows)
Before she left us she was very sociable, and she resumed her naturally pleasant countenance, enlivened with a smile.
Her neighbors speak of her as possessing one of the happiest tempers and despositions, and give her the name of never having done a censurable act to their knowledge.
Her habits, are those of the Indians - she sleeps on skins without a bedstead, sits upon the floor or on a bench, and holds her victuals on her lap, or in her hands.
Her ideas of religion, correspond in every respect with those of the great mass of the Senecas. She applauds virtue, and despises vice. She believes in a future state, in which the good will be happy, and the bad miserable; and that the acquisition of that happiness, depends primarily upon human volition, and the consequent good deeds of the happy recipient of blessedness. The doctrines taught in the Christian religion, she is a stranger to.
Her daughters are said to be active and enterprizing women, and her grandsons, who arrived to manhood, are considered able, decent and respectable men in their tribe."
Seaver, A Narrative of the Life of Mary Jemison, 1942 ed p x - xiv
A Glimpse of Mary Jemison
Image of Mary Jemison Aged 90