Letchworth State Park is full of local history of every kind.
The area is the historic location of some of the tribes of the Seneca Nation, and this history is remembered throughout Letchworth State Park, but especially at the Council Grounds.
The Council Grounds is the site of a statue memorializing Mary Jemison, with her remains buried beneath it.
The site is also home to a cabin built by Mary Jemison for her second daughter, and the Council House of the Seneca Nation.
The Council Grounds is located just up the hill from the Glen Iris Inn. It can be accessed via road for handicap accessibility.
To get there, take Park Road north from the Glen Iris Inn, then turn left just at the top of the hill (past the Pinewoods Lodge). Follow signs for the Council Grounds.
At the end of the road, you’ll find plenty of parking spaces and a gravel walk to the statue and two historic buildings on the site.
You can also get to the Council Grounds and the Mary Jemison statue by climbing a trail from behind the Glen Iris Inn, or just to the right of the William Pryor Letchworth Museum.
If you’re already parked by the Glen Iris parking lot, or even down by the Middle Falls area, it’s just as easy to make the quick climb up to the Council Grounds than to go back and re-park the car.
This gravel trail is a somewhat steep climb, with stone steps and wooden stairways interspersed. Our kids relish the challenge of scampering up the hill, leaving us behind in the dust!
If you have family members with limited mobility, don’t attempt the trail; take the road instead.
What to expect (for kids)
This is a great place to introduce kids to some local Native American history, with the impactful visual of two buildings used and lived in by the Seneca tribes.
They can get a small picture of what life would have been like 150 years ago in this area for these people.
The sign boards and plaques on the buildings and the statue offer easy-to-understand information about the buildings and people being remembered.
There’s not so much information that younger ones will get overwhelmed or bored.
On the other hand, it’s just a cursory overview, so if you’re hungry for more information about Mary Jemison or the Seneca Nation, you may be left slightly wanting.
More Native American artifacts and history can be viewed at the Museum at the base of the hill, if you or the kids want to know more.
There are no interactive features other than the exploration of looking into buildings, reading the signs, and circling the statue.
Being a bit farther away from the gorge offers a bit of freedom for the little ones to run and explore without subjecting (us) parents to undue anxiety, which they appreciate as well.
A recreated historical gazebo or viewing pavilion is located at the crest of the hill, looking southward towards the falls area. This is also a fun place for the kids to explore or sit for a break if tired out from the climb.
The closest restrooms are at the bottom of the hill (next to the Museum), so it’s a good idea to stop there before the climb up if you’re hiking.
No snack shop or water fountains are at hand here, so bring snacks and water if you have hungry little ones in tow.
We usually expect to spend half an hour to an hour on this site, including the time hiking up from the Glen Iris parking lot.
Mary Jemison History
On our last visit to the Mary Jemison Statue, we happened to hit the location at the same time as a bunch of local fourth graders from several schools in the area on a field trip event.
This meant a park staff member was on the site to guide school kids around and instruct them on some of the local history.
We happily soaked up his wisdom and insights as he waited for the next school group to arrive.
Mary Jemison, known as the White Woman of the Genesee, was a settler in what is now Pennsylvania.
A Shawnee raiding party captured her family, and Mary, then a teenager, was separated from her family and sold to a Seneca tribe, who moved her to Ohio.
She was given a Seneca name, Dehgewanus, which means “Two Falling Voices,” and learned all about the Seneca ways.
She married a Delaware husband, who, afraid that his young wife would be taken away, trekked with Mary nearly 700 miles to his home in the Genesee Valley.
Mary made the trek with a baby son strapped on her back, but her husband did not survive the journey. His relatives welcomed her and made a new home for her. She remarried in the clan and had six more children.
Mary played an important role in negotiations with the new white settlers moving into the area.
She and her adopted people made a peaceful treaty, giving up much of their land but reserving several large tracts for the Seneca people.
Mary later sold her title to her land on the Gardeau Reservation and moved to the Buffalo Creek Reservation. She died at 90 and was buried at the Buffalo Creek Reservation.
Mary returns home
Some time later when the Buffalo Creek Reservation burial ground was threatened to make room for a new highway, Mary’s grandsons came to William Pryor Letchworth to ask for his help.
Mr. Letchworth invited them to bring her remains to the Glen Iris Estate.
Her remains were moved to their current resting site, and are marked by the statue that Mr. Letchworth commissioned.
The baby on her back in the statue represents her oldest son Thomas, who made the trek with her from Ohio to the Gardeau flats.
The Cabin at the Council Grounds
The site of Mary Jemison’s memorial is also home to a historic cabin that was moved to the location from the Gardeau Flats, located just north in the Park, when it was given to Mr. Letchworth.
Mary Jemison built the cabin for her second daughter Nancy, who lived there with her husband John Green. The log ladder in one corner of the room, leading to the loft above was made by Mary’s grandson John Shanks.
Other artifacts original to the house, and used by Mary and her family include the original door to the cabin, and a clock reel used for reeling yarn.
Council House at the Council Grounds
Another building of interest at the Council Grounds is the Seneca Council, which was originally located by the Genesee River in Caneadea.
Mr. Letchworth, having discovered the building still in nearly it’s original condition on the old Caneadea Reservation, had it disassembled and moved to the Council Grounds on the Glen Iris Estate.
There it was reassembled with the help of several of Mary Jemison’s grandsons.
In recent years, several of the lower beams of the building have been replaced to preserve the building. They were hewed using the historic methods and tools that would have been used to make the original building.
The other structure of interest at the Council Grounds is a wooden pavilion to one side of the Council House.
Our guide informed us that this was a reconstruction of the original Viewing Pavilion, which had been built as a place for visitors to sit and view the Middle Falls below.
The view of the falls is now obstructed by trees that have since grown up, but it remains an enchanting place to sit and take in the view of the Council Grounds and the hillside below.
A Glimpse of Mary Jemison (link)