The Inspiration of Mary Jemison

Going through my bookshelf on Martin Luther King Jr. Day reminded me of yet another historical figure that represents tolerance and love at a time of merging cultures: Mary Jemison.

This might strike some as a strange connection; Mary Jemison’s family was killed by the Seneca during a time of major strife between the settlers and the natives. She herself was captured as a young girl, brought to live among the Seneca tribe along the Genesee River in western New York. Alone and terrified at the prospect of being forced to adapt to an entirely new, potentially hostile environment, Mary could have been lost as another tragic example of historical difference.

However, what makes Mary’s story so resonant is the same reason why there is a statue of her in Letchworth State Park: she not only adapted to, but came to full-heartedly adopt the culture of the “Other.” Despite all of the fear and violence that came from racial conflict and stereotyping, Mary Jemison was able to open her eyes and to not only survive, but to thrive and advocate for her new people.

The book that struck this miniature epiphany is actually a children’s book that my grandmother gave me as a little piece of New York history. Indian Captive by Lois Lenski was written in 1941, and by 1942 had won a Newberry Honor. An avid young reader myself, I breezed through these pages, time after time after time.

I was enraptured by Mary’s story- full of adventure and meaning. At the same time that I was picturing the Seneca bark longhouse that I’d seen at the Ganondagon historic site, I was learning about kindness and acceptance. I was learning about the need for empathy at times of conflict, and the magical power of friendship.

Though taking place a couple hundred years prior to the Civil Rights Movement, the themes of Mary Jemison’s story undeniably echo those of MLK Jr.’s. Mary Jemison’s life certainly took place closer to my own home than any of the sites where Martin Luther King Jr. did most of his work, and I feel lucky to be able to see these connections.

These stories together remind me to keep in mind that differences can fade across time with enough exposure, and that the love and triumph involved with overcoming those differences will linger indefinitely. Here’s to working towards a world that can foster more triumphs like those of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mary Jemison.


Halie Solea 2013Story and Photo by Halie Solea