Handsome Lake

The 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua stated that the lands belonging to the Six Nations should “remain theirs until they should choose to sell the same to the people of the United States who have the right to purchase.” It also stated that the western border of the Seneca homeland ran “along the river Niagara.” The Six Nations, according to the Seneca orator Red Jacket, long had considered themselves the occupants of a borderland between the British and the United States. Now, at the end of the eighteenth century, Red Jacket and the Senecas found themselves under assault by “a cunning People without Sincerity,” Americans who asserted that the Senecas lived within the United States. As the international boundary restricted Seneca options to the west, American settlers advanced on their homeland from the east. The Senecas found themselves under siege. Phelps and Gorham were only the beginning.

In 1790, the two would-be land barons defaulted on their payments to Massachusetts, and the commonwealth in March of 1791 sold the right of pre-emption, or the right of first purchase, to the remaining Seneca lands (approximately 3.75 million acres) to Robert Morris, one of the wealthiest men in America, who in turn sold his rights to the Holland Land Company in December of 1792. Before they would pay, the Holland investors insisted that Morris extinguish the Senecas’ title to the lands in question.

The warfare that had raged in the northwest delayed Morris’s plans for several years. Finally, in 1797, his son Thomas traveled to Big Tree on the Genesee River to conduct a treaty. The treaty council was held on the south end of what is now the SUNY-Geneseo Campus. Morris encouraged his son to employ all means to acquire the Senecas’ lands, including bribery, the use of alcohol, and the encouragement of factionalism. He did so. At Big Tree, the Senecas parted with all of their land, save for 200,000 acres distributed across eleven reservations. In exchange for this massive cession of lands, Morris agreed to pay “the sum of one hundred thousand dollars, to be by the said Robert Morris vested in the stock of the bank of the United States, and held in the name of the President of the United States, for the use and behoof of the said nation of Indians.” The Senecas would receive as a payment, each year, the interest earned on this investment. Why did they sell? Certainly Morris behaved badly, using alcohol and bribes to achieve his ends. But resisting the pressure to sell land was difficult. There was, after all, no person other than Morris with the legal right to purchase their lands, and white trespassers steadily encroached on the Seneca domain. Facing the loss of all their lands, they preserved ownership of eleven critical tracts and, in a sense, transformed the rest of their vast domain into an annual cash payment designed to help them live in the presence of rapidly-increasing numbers of non-Indians.

What did the Big Tree treaty mean to the purchasers, the United States, and the Senecas? It meant a lot, and its meaning was significant for the Senecas who lived in the Genesee Valley.

Photograph of Geneseo Valley Park in Monroe County.
Geneseo Valley Today.

The Senecas had returned to the lands along the Genesee shortly after Sullivan’s campaign. Francois-Alexandere-Frederic La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, a French observer who traveled through “the Country of the Iroquois” in 1795, visited the towns that would be recognized as Seneca ground in the Big Tree Treaty. The hunting in western New York was still highly productive, an American observer noted in 1805, with one hunter who killed seven deer “without changing his location.” Rochefoucauld-Liancourt visited Canawaugus, where an “Indian, who speaks French, is waiting for us.” At “Captain Watsworth’s” in Geneseo, uphill from Little Beard’s Town and Big Tree, he and his companions noticed how “several parts of the forest have been burnt down by the Indians, who possessed this country from time immemorial.” As he traveled, he said, “we frequently traced or met with Indian camps, as they are called, i.e. places where troops of them, who were either hunting or travelling, had passed the night.” Wadsworth’s house, Liancourt said, was a vile hole filled with noisome odors.

The Wadsworth Homestead today, Geneseo – Keith Walters Photography

Liancourt encountered Wadsworth “undergoing the operation of hair dressing by his negro woman,” after he “had just sold a barrel of whisky to an Indian.” Liancourt learned that the Indians were easy prey to unscrupulous traders. “A little whisky will bribe their chieftains to give their consent to the largest cessions; and these rich lands, this extensive tract of territory, will be bartered away, with the consent of all parties, for a few rings, a few handkerchiefs, some barrels of rum, and perhaps some money, which the unfortunate natives know not how to make use of, and which, by corrupting what little virtue is yet left among them, will, ere long, render them completely wretched.”

Liancourt traveled twelve miles and visited Squawkie Hill and another Seneca village on “Mountmorris.” “They both contain Indian villages. That situate on the former height consists of about fifteen, and that seated on the latter of about four or five small log-houses, standing close together, roughly built, and overlaid with bark. In the inside appears a sort of room not floored; on the sides they construct shelves, covered with deer skins, which serve as their cabins or sleeping places. In the midst of the room appears the hearth, and over it is an opening in the roof to let out the smoke.” In addition to Liancourt’s observations, we have abundant source material that Senecas had reoccupied the Genesee Valley. There are survey maps of the reservations established at Big Tree, there are records of councils held along the river. Finally, there is the evidence of the treaty of Big Tree itself. Named after a Seneca town, the council took place in an area inhabited by Seneca people.

The US believed that by entering into this agreement, Morris had paid funds that extinguished the Indians’ right of possession. Morris had obtained the right of preemption from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and, with the Indians’ occupancy right paid for, the US believed that he was free to transfer that land to the Holland Land Company, which was better equipped than he to begin the complicated work of settling up townships and overseeing its sale. Morris, the United States, Massachusetts and New York officials were remarkably consistent on this point and no significant disagreements existed.

Within a year of the treaty, Seneca women had complained that some of the reservations were too small. Speaking for the women in a 1798 council with the surveyor Joseph Ellicott and the federal agent Israel Chapin at Big Tree, Red Jacket said they were the owners of the land, “& now we are sorry our seats are so small, as we Women since the bargain it has given our minds much uneasiness to think our seats so small.” Clearly some Senecas wanted to renegotiate. In response to these demands, adjustments were made to the Tuscarora and Cattaraugus reservations. In 1801, Red Jacket made it abundantly clear that many of his followers had taken the advice of the United States. They expected, as a result of Canandaigua and the Big Tree annuity, “that we should be furnished with farming utensils for cultivating the ground & raise wheat & other grain—that we must have spinning wheels & learn our children to spin & knit—we were told we must make use of Cattle instead of moose, Elk etc & swine instead of beans, sheep, in place of dear, etc. etc.”

Red Jacket noted that “We finde ourselves in a situation which we believe our fore Fathers never thought of—instead of finding our game at our doors we are obliged to go to a great distance for it, & then finde it but scarce compared to what it us’d to be.” White people, Red Jacket continued, “are seated so thick over the Country that the dear have almost fled from us, and we finde ourselves obliged to pursue some other mode of getting our living, and are determined in all our Villages to take to husbandry, and for this purpose we want to be helped.” This is such an important insight: Red Jacket expected for his people to be able to draw subsistence from the lands they ceded, but now they found so many non-native people settling there that it had altered the game potential of the land.

The Senecas believed that at the Treaty of Big Tree they granted white settlers access to the vast majority of their lands in what is now western New York, with the exception of the reservations set aside for the Senecas’ exclusive use. Though they allowed white settlers access to these lands, the Senecas reserved the rights they normally would have possessed to the woods: the right to hunt and fish there. Land is as land does. Its nature is defined in its use.

The Big Tree treaty, at the end of a long passage identifying the specific reservations set aside from the tract ceded to Robert Morris, stated the following:

Excepting and reserving to them, the said parties of the first part and their

heirs, the privilege of fishing and hunting on the said tract of land hereby intended to be conveyed.

Seneca Reservation

We do know that Senecas passed through the region they had ceded to Morris in the years after the treaty. They moved from reservation to reservation. They continued to hunt and fish.Doing so was not without cost. Annuities were never adequate to offset what had been lost. The crises of the Revolution—Sullivan’s invasion; homelessness after their villages had been burned; the painful life of refugees; and, finally, pestilence in the form of dysentery, smallpox and measles—further combined to reduce dramatically Seneca population and damage Seneca morale. Drunkenness became a serious social problem after the war. Some Senecas committed suicide. And with the Big Tree treaty, the Senecas’ lost much of their homeland.

The Quaker missionaries who arrived at the isolated Allegany reservation at the invitation of Cornplanter attempted to offer one solution to these problems. They hoped to teach the Senecas to farm and to raise livestock and there were some takers. Cornplanter’s followers drew selectively from what the missionaries offered. Elsewhere, leaders like Red Jacket resisted the establishment of missions and schools. Many Senecas distrusted white Americans, whatever the intentions of the missionaries, and hoped to keep the growing numbers of settlers off of their remaining lands.

An alternative to the Quakers’ message existed at Allegany. Born in 1735 at Canawaugus, the Seneca village along the Genesee near today’s Avon, Cornplanter’s half-brother Handsome Lake had, like Tenskwatawa and other important Indigenous prophets,, lived a life of dissipation. Late in 1799, as he lay ill, “three spiritual beings, in the forms of men, sent by the Great Spirit, appeared before him.” They carried him to the spirit world, and taught Handsome Lake the “will of the Great Spirit, upon a great variety of subjects, and particularly in relation to the prevailing intemperance.” Handsome Lake visited “the realm of the evil-minded,” where he beheld “the punishments inflicted upon the wicked, that he might warn his brethren of their impending destiny.”

We have seen this before. Spirit travelers, departing this world for a time to learn lessons to save their people from destruction, called upon their people to reform their ways, to pay attention to their rituals. Handsome Lake began to preach to the Senecas and their Longhouse kin. His followers codified his teachings into the Gaiwiio, the code of Handsome Lake. He did not call for armed resistance: enveloped by white settlements, Handsome Lake and other Senecas knew that armed resistance to the expansion of white America was suicide. He and his followers did, however, assemble a rich gospel that defined sin, and what one must do to achieve salvation. He defined heaven and hell, and gave guidance to the Senecas and their neighbors on how to live well in a world dominated by white people who were different, and who threatened fundamentally native ways of living.

The Seneca prophet Handsome Lake looked past tribal and geographic boundaries. He described his followers as Indians, people who had something in common that distinguished them from “the white-skinned race,” one of the “different classes” of humanity, “which were placed separate from each other, having different customs, manners, laws and religions.” The Indians, Handsome Lake believed, “were entitled to a different religion, a religion adapted to their customs, manners and way of thinking.”

That way of thinking would have been familiar to many native peoples who found their communities in crisis. Bad things happened; disasters struck. But there could be no accidents, no random events. Disaster struck because of the displeasure of forces in the native cosmos, because of sin. Native peoples, Handsome Lake preached, must sin no more, reform their ways, and restore their rituals. Handsome Lake’s creator bore important similarities to the good twin, and Tawiskaron, the evil twin, presided over Handsome Lake’s hell. Instead of fighting in the distant past to give shape to the cosmos, however, in Handsome Lake’s cosmology they fought for the allegiance of Iroquois men and women, both on earth and in the hereafter. In this sense, the Gaiwiio relied upon older religious traditions. But there were innovations. Handsome Lake’s belief in the very existence of a heaven and hell was one. His calls for self-control and temperance, and his denunciation of sin and belief in the importance of confession show that his religious vision was not entirely isolated from that of neighboring Christians. Like Tenskwatawa, Handsome Lake’s visions fused a variety of elements into a consistent religious system designed to save the Senecas and their native neighbors from destruction. His teaching empowered his believers to take steps to address the problems they faced. It was a result from the entire range of interactions between native peoples and newcomers that took place in Seneca country in the years after the Revolution.

Handsome Lake denounced the sin of drunkenness.“How many of our people have been frozen to death,” Handsome Lake asked, and “how many have been drowned while under the influence of the strong waters?” Those who drank suffered on earth. They destroyed their communities, or their own lives, or were “thrown into houses of confinement by the pale faces.”The Great Spirit commanded followers of the Gaiwiio to abandon the drinking of alcohol, a great sin.

Drunkenness brought great destruction to the Senecas but so, too, did the sale of land. Handsome Lake told his followers that “your chiefs have violated and betrayed your trust by selling lands.” All should enjoy the land equally; nobody had the right to sell it. After Big Tree, nothing “is now left of our once large possessions, save a few small reservations.” Any sale of land, Handsome Lake said, was a sin that offends the Great Spirit. The Senecas in his audience, Handsome Lake said, should remember that “you occupy and possess a tract in trust for your children,” and that “you should hold that trust sacred, lest your children are driven from their homes by your unsafe conduct.”

The Senecas must preserve their lands, but Handsome Lake recognized that his followers lived in the midst of white people. Compromises had to be made. The residents of Canawaugus visited taverns in Avon, and used ferries to cross the river. The interaction was close enough to allow Senecas to learn much about the Newcomers. The Senecas’ Creator intended for the Senecas to live off animals they hunted but because of the presence of the Americans, soon “there will be no more game for the Indian to use in his feasts.” The Senecas, Handsome Lake taught, could thus raise domestic animals. “The pale-faces are pressing you upon every side.” Senecas could tend cattle, and build comfortable houses. This was, he told his listeners, “all you can safely adopt of the customs of the pale-faces.”

Those other customs were the source of so much pain for the Senecas, and Handsome Lake’s religion taught his followers what to do about them. Handsome Lake journeyed in one of his visions along a road until he reached a fork. One path led to the House of the Great Spirit. The other led to the House of Torment, a hell reserved for Seneca sinners. Handsome Lake visited this hell. He looked down on the many rooms in a dark, soot-stained mansion in the land of Torment. In one chamber, he saw a drunkard, forced by the Punisher to drink molten metal which he spewed from his mouth in a blaze of fire. Handsome Lake saw a husband and a wife. They began to argue and their tongues and eyes became so distorted that they could neither see nor speak. It was a frightening place: card players burning, wife-beaters striking women as their arms exploded; alcohol vendors with their flesh rotting away; fiddlers, sawing off their arms for all of eternity. These were the sins of white men and women, and through the Gaiwiio, Handsome Lake’s followers learned to avoid them.

Further Reading:

Dennis, Matthew. Seneca Possessed: Indians, Witchcraft and Power in the Early American Republic, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).

Fadden, Ray. “The Visions of Handsome Lake,” Pennsylvania History, 22 (October 1955), 341-358.

Wallace, Anthony F. C. The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca, (New York,1970).