Indian Captive The Story of Mary Jemison, by Lois Lenski, is a fictionalized account of the true story of the Indian capture of Mary (Molly) Jemison, first published in 1941.
In the introduction to the book, Arthur C. Parker, Director, of Rochester Museum of arts and Sciences in New York explains, “Any work concerning the life and romance of Indian days requires a rather accurate knowledge of what these native people produced and how they lived.” (p. VII) He goes on to explain how much Lois Lenski invested herself in the study of the Indian way of life, tools they made and used, and examined many Indian drawings. She visited museums containing Iroquois and Seneca objects. She even visited the descendants of Mary Jemison.
Through these studies, Lois Lenski not only wrote the story, but illustrated the book with her on art, based on what she had learned.
In the Foreword, Lois Lenski writes, “In the early days of the settlement of America, children were frequently captured by the Indians. Sometimes the captivity was of short duration and they were returned to their families…. many children did not return, some by reason of their own choice.” (p. XI) Mary lived in Pennsylvania with her mother, father, two older brothers, an older sister, and two younger brothers. “With the exception of the two oldest boys, who escaped, they were all captured by the Indians on April 5, 1758. All except Mary were massacred by the Indians the day following.” (p. XII)
Mary lived her entire life with the Seneca tribe, ‘married two Indian husbands, and had her own farm and home on Gardeau Flats, just below the Portage falls on the Genesee River.” (p. XII) She died in 1833 at the age of nearly ninety-one years old.
This fictionalized account of Mary’s story covers the first two years after her captivity. (Historical reports vary as to her age at the time of capture but think she may have been anywhere from age twelve to age fifteen.)
Right after the capture, when Mary’s mother understood the Indians were taking Mary with them and the rest of the family would not be going, her mother shares important words of instruction and encouragement that Mary would always remember:
“It looks as if your life would be spared… but they’re a-takin’ you away from your family, from white people of your own kind, from everything you’ve ever known! …may God go with you! Make the best of things and be happy if you can. Don’t try to run away from the Indians….They’d find you for certain and kill you… Oh, promise me you’ll never try it…. No matter where you are, Mary, my child, have courage, be brave! It don’t matter what happens, if you’re only strong and have great courage. Don’t forget your own name or your father’s and mother’s. Don’t forget to speak in English. Say your prayers and catechism to yourself each day the way I learned you—God will be listening…. God bless you, Mary, my child. God…go…with…you.” (p. 29)
The only other person the Indians took with them was a younger neighbor boy named Davy. They were marched through the wilderness at a brisk pace to distance themselves from the white men that pursued. Hungry, cold, and wet from rain, these children were taken to a fort and given over to their future families. Mary was given to a family as a replacement for their son who had been killed by the white men. She never saw Davy again.
From the time Mary was taken, one older Indian, Shagbark, looked out for Mary (Molly) like a grandfather. Her adopted family consisted of a mother, father, and two sisters, one of which was married with a baby. Molly was soon given the job of carrying the baby in his papoose everywhere she went and caring for him. At first she resented him, but soon learned to love him and be happy about his accomplishments as she watched him grow and learn to walk.
Some of the Indians were kind to Molly, others were not. She disobeyed them several times when instructed to do things a certain way. Sometimes there was punishment for this, sometimes a patient loving acceptance, and an understanding of her sadness on losing her white family.
Although the Indians had many odd spiritual beliefs and seemed to revere and worship animals, trees, sun, and rain—there was also a giving of thanks to the “Great Spirit” for everything they saw as good. The Indians also believed that the “Great Spirit” created everything.
Molly’s Indian name was Corn Tassel after the color of her hair. Later a teenage boy was captured to replace the son of an older woman named Earth Woman. Earth Woman understood herbs and medicine and had saved Molly’s life at one point when she was desperately ill. Josiah, Earth Woman’s adopted son, was given the name Running Deer. He was old enough to be made to run the gauntlet and received his name based on his ability to run well. Molly enjoyed having another white person to talk with.
Earth Woman teaches Molly to make clay pots, moccasins embroidered with dyed porcupine quills, and about the herbs that were used for healing.
Once the Indians were adopted into a tribe, they were considered a part of the tribe and were never to leave. Josiah is so unhappy that Old Shagbark makes a canoe for him and essentially helps him escape. Earth Women, although sad at the loss of her adopted son, expresses happiness for Josiah because she knew he would never be happy to stay with the Indian tribe.
After two years with the Indians, an old white trader that Molly had known from her childhood visits the Indians to trade with them and lets Molly know that her house and barn were burned right after her family was captured. The whole family was killed and the older brothers who escaped moved South. No one knew what happened to them. Although Molly wanted to leave the Indians and go back to the white people, she now knows there is nothing left to go back to.
At the end of the book the English have come to get the Indians to fight with them against the French. They see Molly and ask to buy her from the Indians. The Chief leaves the choice with Molly.
This book won the Newbury Honor award. I highly recommend it for a great study on American History, Indian History, and for learning the value of relying on God and having courage in all circumstances. It is well suited for ages 8-12 years, and for all other ages after, if you want to do a historical study or just read for pleasure.
This book is easily found on Thriftbooks.com, Christianbook.com, Amazon, and at the Library.
For some reason the fall of the year always makes me think more about the Indians and their way of life. Maybe because of the story of the first Thanksgiving and how the Indians helped the Pilgrims.
September through November will be a great time to enjoy this book.
This sounds like a wonderful book! I love reading about our indigenous people and their lives. If you liked this one, you will also love, Conrad Richter’s “The Light in the Forest”. Our youngest read this in 6th grade and did a marvelous report on it. Little did we know, at the time, that we had Native American ancestors and current relatives who were associated with some of the Tribes mentioned in this book. But it spoke to both of us on a deep level, as if we knew they were “our people”. It’s one of those books that I’ll never forget. The one you speak of here sounds as if I’d love it, too. Thank you for this, Jane. I’ll be sure to look for it.
Debbie, Thank you for sharing “The Light in the Forest.” I’ll be sure to check that out. My dad’s grandmother was Cherokee, so I am always interested in reading books like these. There is so much valuable information in all of these middle grade books that help us learn our roots.
Another great book review Jane! Sounds like a fascinating read for young children. Thank you for sharing.
Thanks Tim. Yes, children will love this book and since they have such great imaginations they may enjoy role playing the story. Because it is based on a true story, many adults will love it for the history, also.
As always, your book reviews are detailed and insightful. Thank you!
Thank you, Joni!!