In My Reading Of A Narrative Of The Life Of Mrs. Mary Jemison, Written Essay

by James E. Seaver and edited by June Namias, I discovered many things I did not know about not only the Seneca Indians, but also the other Iroquois tribes within upstate New York. I enjoyed the perspective this book gives the reader. The story is told from someone that was introduced to the Indians, not as an original member of the tribe, but from someone that was captured by these Indians at an early age and assimilated into their culture. It serves as a direct source of information from a person that was taught everything about being an Indian. The information comes from someone that wasn’t born into the culture, and I think that is what gives the book so much life. The fact that she came from a whole different culture shows us the comparisons she makes, between the people she was once with and the people she resided with till her last days. Mary gives the book a feeling like you are almost there, like being a part of the story. Her strength is something that I thought was a crucial part of the story. The ordeal she went through and how well she dealt with everything ,in my mind, really made the story. The fact of how well she adapted to the Indian culture itself is simply amazing. It says a lot about this culture when you look at the countless number of times she was offered a chance to free herself from them and be liberated back to her own people. Through all the hardships she had to go through, when captured by the Indians and French, her family being murdered, and the unseen future she was to face, she still stood by her new-found family. The scope of this book and the time period it covers is incredible. From the readings in class and the narrative, I found the relationship between the Indians and the Revolutionary had war peaked my interest. It proves to be a profound turning point , not only in the history of the Iroquois Indians, but all tribes within the American frontier. I became particularly interested in the predicament the Iroquois had been placed in, and what they tried to accomplish to survive in this war between the patriots that bordered their land and the mother country that had originally sent these colonists over.
There had been a long history of both trust and friendship between the Iroquois and Britain. But the patriots had a certain appeal to the Indians. These patriots longed for a government much like the Indians had in place, and saw the wisdom in Indian views. A local government, where everyone either voted or council was held to discuss the issue, was the choice among these two groups. They both shared a distrust of a singular, central government body ruling over all. This is part of the enduring gift that the United States had received from the Iroquois and other Indian people, through their knowledge with the government they had in place.1
The young American Congress realized how important these Indian people were towards winning the Revolution. To attempt to secure the Indians as allies, Congress setup a commission that split the Indian country into three sections, sending three representatives to the northern department, and one each to the remaining. This was in fact copying what the French had done to receive the favor of Indian nations. Failing in doing so, they sought after the neutrality of the Iroquois Confederacy and its affiliates. The British, on the other hand, were having problems with the Indians even before the outset of the war. Indians were upset with the fact the British government was not enforcing treaties it had setup, such as settlers moving west of the 1763 Proclamation Line. They grew tired of these occurrences, and wanted actions, not promises. But in Britain’s defense, how could it govern these settlers that closely from three thousand miles away? It was indeed an impossible task, and they sought other means for compensating the Iroquois for their losses. But, seeing they would probably not win over the Confederacy, they too stressed the need to keep the Indians neutral in these affairs. There was a long, draw-out period of bickering between the British and the Americans, each side accusing the other of wrong-doings concerning Indian affairs. This quarreling made the Iroquois uneasy. The conflict between the white brothers was nothing the Indian wanted anything to do with. The Oniedas responded with this statement to Governor Trumbull:
We are unwilling to join either side of such a contest, for we love you both-old England and new. Should the Great King of England apply to us for aid-we shall deny him- and should the colonies apply-we shall refuse.2
The British met many times during 1775, and during that summer in Oswego, persuaded the Iroquois to continue their normal stance of neutrality.3
But in reality, war would cause a split between many of the Six Nations. Two influential leaders, Joseph and Mary Brant, worked diligently to convince their fellow Indians to join the British, as they thought this would be their best course of action. They felt if they won the favor of the Great King, they could further their effort in preventing continued colonist settlement of their land. Mary, the widow of the Indian superintendent Sir William Johnson, was a powerful tribal matron. Joseph, her younger brother, was a renowned warrior. In their persuasion, they won over the Senecas, Cayugas, and Mohawks. Each tribe contributed warriors to the 1777 campaign. The Oneidas and Tuscaroras, most having been converted to Christianity by Protestant missionaries, sided with the Americans. The Onondaga split into three factions, one for each side of the war effort, and one for neutrality. At a battle in Oriskany, some Oneida and Tuscarora warriors joined patriot forces in fighting their Iroquois brothers, tearing apart a league of friendship that had lasted over three hundred years. The war had not only separated tribes with different interests, but also had pitted against them each other on the battle field.4
Because of this large portion of Indians on the British side, American forces would decide to amass a large fighting force and strike a decisive blow that would forever change the Iroquois. Recent attacks by the British and their supporting Indian contingent spurred the Sullivan Expedition. This contained a group of three thousand men under the command of Major General John Sullivan. Their strategy wasn’t just simply subdue the Indian resistance. Their main objective was to severely cripple the Indians in such a way that would render them exposed and hungry. They laid waste to over 45 towns, ruined corn amounting to 160,000 bushels, along with a number of orchards. They burned everything in their path or threw it into the surrounding lakes and rivers. Horses and cattle were killed. Following this mass destruction was the one of the worst winters on record. According to Jemison, over five feet of snow fell in western New York. Most families left the area, never to return. Those who stayed were incredibly lucky if they survived the winter cold and starvation.5
The collapse of the Indian unity and policy of neutrality had significant consequences. The Revolutionary War left deep scars within the hearts of the Iroquois. As a result, mass migration out of New York into British Canada to find food and shelter broke-up the Confederacy forever. The civil war caused by the division of these people between the American and British forces started the slow erosion of the local Indian culture. While peace was met between the U.S. and Britain in Paris on September 3, 1783, the Iroquois objected to this treaty on the fact that they were not represented and saw themselves as a sovereign power. Congress disagreed. They sent delegates to met with what was left of the Confederacy at Fort Stanwix in the fall of 1784. Within the meeting that lasted three weeks, the new government declined to recognize the independent status of the tribes that they had fought against in the war. Rather than a ?free and independent? people, they were labeled as ?subdued?6. They planed to grant portions of their land as a bounty to their army to pay the public debt through land sales. Much of the land their ancestors had lived on for centuries upon centuries was taken by the government. The Iroquois lost their spirit and sense of purpose. White ways creep into their culture, and through Jemison’s notes, none was more destructive to the Indians than alcohol. It affected the whole community, especially the menfolk, who were under the stress of being forced from proud hunters and warriors to farmers overnight. Their way of life was forever lost.7
In conclusion, I would just like to emphasize how quickly one culture can over-take another in almost a blink of an eye. Certainly the Iroquois people were having to deal with the advance of white settlers onto their land, like all Indian tribes along the U.S. western border. But in a period of about 10-20 years, one culture slowly toppled another. I can’t help but pity these people. What decision should they have made? They were in a lose-lose situation concerning which nation they should side with, because no matter which group they choose, there still would’ve been repercussions, win or lose. And if they remained neutral, the war raging around them would eventually be knocking on the doorstep and affect their lives sooner or later, which in fact it did. Sometimes the process of evolution is something to marvel at, and sometimes, it is something which has no mercy upon it’s victims.

1. Donald Grinde, The Iroquois and the Founding of the American Nation, (The Indian Historian Press,1977) pp 60-61.

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2. Ibid., p 65.

3. Ibid., p 67.

4. Mary B. Norton, et. al. A People and a Nation: A History of the United States, Vol.1, 5th ed. pp 162-163.

5. James E. Seaver, A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison, ed. by June Namias (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press,1995) pp 101-105.

6. Ibid., p 30.

7. Ibid., p 31.


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