57 pages 1 hour read

Lois Lenski

Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 1941

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Summary and Study Guide


Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison is a historical children’s novel originally published in 1941. The novel was written and illustrated by American author Lois Lenski (1893-1974), who was known for her well-researched historical and regional books. In 1942, Indian Captive received a Newbery Honor. The book is a fictionalized retelling of the true story of Mary Jemison, who was kidnapped by the Senecas from her home in Pennsylvania and remained with them for the rest of her life. In 1824, A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison, written by James E. Seaver, was published, and quickly gained popularity as part of the genre of American Indian captivity narratives. The quotes and page numbers referred to in this guide are taken from the e-book version of the novel published by Open Road Integrated Media.

The novel uses the term “Indians” to refer to Indigenous Americans. This study guide uses the term “Indian” in summary material to follow the term used in the novel; elsewhere, it refers to Indigenous people or to the Senecas specifically.

Plot Summary

The novel begins in the Jemison family home in Marsh Creek Hollow, Pennsylvania, in 1758. The Jemisons’s farming life is interrupted when their home is attacked by a group of “Indians” and French soldiers. The Jemisons are taken captive and forced to leave their home. Twelve-year-old Molly and another captive named Davy are separated from the group and taken to Fort Duquesne along the Ohio River. Two Seneca sisters, Squirrel Woman and Shining Star, take Molly from the fort to Seneca Town, where Molly is adopted into their family and given the name “Corn Tassel.” 

Molly is initially overcome with grief and culture shock. Slowly, she learns the Seneca language and adapts to Seneca culture. When Molly accompanies the sisters to Fort Duquesne for trading purposes, she meets a group of white people who express concern for her circumstances and wish to keep her. To evade them, Shining Star and Squirrel Woman decide to move Molly to Genesee Town. 

After the long journey, Molly is ill and exhausted; she has lost all hope, as she views life in Genesee Town as the beginning of another captivity. Molly recovers under the care and wisdom of Earth Woman, who teaches Molly about Seneca spirituality and traditional skills. One day, a white trader visits Genesee Town, and Molly recognizes him from her time in Marsh Creek Hollow. The trader’s name is Fallenash; he does not have any news about Molly’s family, and although he is kind to her, he refuses to help her escape from Genesee Town.

Another English captive, Josiah Johnson, is brought to Genesee Town and renamed Running Deer. Josiah’s presence makes Molly feel happier to live with the Senecas. Eventually, Josiah escapes with the help of Shagbark, one of the Seneca elders, while Molly is away helping the women at the sugar camp. While Molly is saddened by his departure, she continues to build her friendships with Beaver Girl and Little Turtle (later called Turkey Feather). When an English soldier comes to Genesee Town, Squirrel Woman hides Molly in the cornfield. Molly disobeys Squirrel Woman and meets the English man, Captain Morgan; although she is drawn to the familiarity of the English language, Molly feels distrustful of him.

One day, Molly saves Shining Star’s son, Blue Jay, from a dangerous snake, and she is praised for her courage. Fallenash, the white trader, returns and tells Molly that her family was killed after she was separated from them. Fallenash encourages Molly to pursue a life of happiness with the Senecas. Captain Morgan plans to return to Genesee Town, and Shining Star’s brother Gray Wolf tries to capture Molly to sell her to him. When Captain Morgan arrives, Chief Burning Sky allows Molly to decide whether she will stay with the Senecas or leave with the captain for Fort Niagara. Molly realizes that she belongs with the Senecas and decides to stay with them for life. Chief Burning Sky renames Molly “Little-Woman-of-Great-Courage,” and the village children celebrate Molly’s decision. Molly feels happy and believes that her mother would be happy, too.

The novel is told from the perspective of a third-person narrator. While the narrator is omniscient— evidenced by the few times information is shared that Molly has no access to—for most of the narrative, the perspective is strongly tied to Molly’s knowledge and experience. The main plot is driven by Molly’s internal conflict over her identity. In the beginning, Molly despises the Seneca people and culture, vowing that she will never lose her white identity. She is overcome with grief and can only dream of escape. By the end of the novel, Molly identifies herself as part of the Seneca community. Although she has often longed to escape her captivity and rejoin English society, when she is finally given the choice, she realizes her desires have changed and she wants to stay. She continues to be marked by grief, but this pain has helped form her courage, and she no longer sees the Seneca people as the cause of her loss.  

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By Lois Lenski