Sacred Texts  Native American  Iroquois  Index  Previous  Next 

p. 9


Handsome Lake, the Seneca prophet, was born in 1735 in the Seneca village of Conawagas (Ga:non'wagês) on the Genesee river opposite the present town of Avon, Livingston county.. He is described by Buffalo Tom Jemison as a middle-sized man, slim and unhealthy looking. He was a member of one of the noble (hoya'nê`) families in which the title of Ganio`dai'io` or Ska'niadar'io` is vested, thus holding the most honored Seneca title. What his warrior name was is not known and neither is it known just when he received the name and title by which he later became known. It is known, however, that he belonged to the Turtle clan. Later he was "borrowed" by the Wolves and reared by them. His half brother was the celebrated Cornplanter.

The general story of his life may be gleaned from a perusal of his code, there being nothing of any consequence known of his life up to the time of his "vision." In 1794 his name appears on a treaty but whether he took active part in the debates that led up to it is not known. It is known from tradition and from his own story that he was a dissolute person and a miserable victim of the drink habit. The loss of the Genesee country caused him to go with his tribesmen to the Allegany river settlements; Here he became afflicted with a wasting disease that was aggravated by his continued use of the white man's fire water. For four years he lay a helpless invalid. His bare cabin scarcely afforded him shelter but later he was nursed by his married daughter who seems to have treated him with affection. His sickness afforded him much time for serious meditation and it is quite possible that some of his precepts are the result of this opportunity. His own condition could not fail to impress him with the folly of using alcoholic drink and the wild whoops of the drunken raftsmen continually reminded him of the "demon's" power over thought and action. In the foreword of his revelation he tells how he became as dead, and of the visitation of the "four beings" who revealed the will of the Creator.

After this first revelation he seemed to recover and immediately began to tell the story of his visions. His first efforts were to condemn the use of the "first word" or the white man's "one:'gâ." He became a temperance reformer but his success came not from an appeal to reason but to religious instinct. The ravages of

p. 10

intemperance for a century had made serious inroads on the domestic and social life of his people. It had demoralized their national life and caused his brother chiefs to barter land for the means of a debauch. It threatened the extinction of his people. Such were the factors that induced the revelation.

He was a man past the prime of life, a man weakened by disease and drunkenness. Yet he assumed the rôle of teacher and prophet. In two years' time his efforts were conducive of so much reform that they attracted the attention of President Jefferson who caused Secretary of War Dearborn to write a letter commending the teachings of Handsome Lake. The Seneca construed this as a recognition of the prophet's right to teach and prophesy. The nature of the document is revealed in the following letter, a copy of which is in the possession of every religious chief of the Six Nations:

Brothers--The President is pleased with seeing you all in good health, after so long a journey, and he rejoices in his heart that one of your own people has been employed to make yon sober, good and happy; and that he is so well disposed to give you good advice, and to set before you so good examples.

Brothers--If all the red people follow the advice of your friend and teacher, the Handsome Lake, and in future will be sober, honest, industrious and good, there can be no doubt but the Great Spirit will take care of you and make you happy.

This letter came as one of the results of Handsome Lake's visit in 1802, to Washington with a delegation of Seneca and Onondaga chiefs. The successful results of his two years' ministry became more fruitful as time went on. In 1809 a number of members of the Society of Friends visiting Onondaga left the following record of the effects of the prophet's teachings: "We were informed, not only by themselves, but by the interpreter, that they totally refrained from the use of ardent spirits for about nine years, and that none of the natives will touch it."

The success of Handsome Lake's teachings did much to crystallize the Iroquois as a distinct social group. The encroachments of civilization had demoralized the old order of things. The old beliefs, though still held, had no coherence. The ancient system had no longer definite organization and thus no specific hold.

The frauds which the Six Nations had suffered, the loss of land and of ancient seats had reduced them to poverty and disheartened them. The crushing blow of Sullivan's campaign was yet felt and the wounds then inflicted were fresh. The national order of the Confederacy was destroyed. Poverty, the sting of defeat, the loss of ancestral homes, the memory of broken promises and the hostility

p. 11

of the white settlers all conspired to bring despair. There is not much energy in a despairing nation who see themselves hopeless and alone, the greedy eyes of their conquerors fastened on the few acres that remain to them. It was little wonder that the Indian sought forgetfulness in the trader's rum.

As a victim of such conditions, Handsome Lake stalked from the gloom holding up as a beacon of hope his divine message, the Gai'wiio`. He became in spite of his detractors a commanding figure. He created a new system, a thing to think about, a thing to discuss, a thing to believe. His message, whether false or true, was a creation of their own and afforded a nucleus about which they could cluster themselves and fasten their hopes. A few great leaders such as Red jacket denounced him as an imposter but this only afforded the necessary resistant element. The angels then conveniently revealed that Red jacket was a schemer and a seller of land and an unhappy wretch doomed to carry burdens of soil through eternity as a punishment for perfidy. This was enough to create a prejudice among the Indians and one that lasts to this day among all classes of the reservation Iroquois. A few others endeavored to expose the prophet but this action only created a large faction that stood strongly for him.

Whatever may be the merits of the prophet's teachings, they created a revolution in Iroquois religious life. With the spread of his doctrines the older religious system was overturned until today it is to be doubted that a single adherent remains. Handsome Lake's followers were few at first. He was despised, ridiculed and subject to bodily insults. Certain failures to live up to a preconceived idea of what a prophet should be caused a continual persecution. Cornplanter, his half brother, continually harassed him, as may be seen in the relation. Some of his failures, real or fancied, caused calumny to be heaped upon him and they are current today among those inclined to scoff. It is said that he learned his ideas of morality from his nephew, Henry Obail (Abeal), who had been at school in Philadelphia. Henry, it is said, took him up in the mountains and explained the Christian Bible to him, thus giving him the idea of devising the Gai'wiio`. Other tales are that he failed to find the great serpent in the bed of the Allegany river though he pretended to locate it and charge it with having spread disease among the people, and that he erected an idol on an island in the river, a thing which from more authentic accounts he did not do.

Previous to his residence at Tonawanda he had lived ten years

p. 12

at Cornplanter's town and two years at Cold Spring. At the latter place he made so many enemies that he resolved to leave with his followers. This was in about 1812. With him went his chief followers and his family, among them his grandson Sos'he:owâ who later became his successor.

Sos'he:owâ was born in 1774 in the old town of Ganowa'gês, the home of both Cornplanter and Handsome Lake. Lewis H. Morgan, who knew him well, describes him as "an eminently pure and virtuous man . . . devoted . . . to the duties of his office, as the spiritual guide and teacher of the Iroquois."

Morgan gives a full account of the recitation of Sosehawa at the mourning council at Tonawanda in 1848 1 and credits the translation to Sosehawa's grandson, Ely S. Parker (Ha-sa-no-an-da). 2

During the prophet's four years' stay at Tonawanda he became many times discouraged, "reluctant to tell," and though the people gradually became more friendly, he seemed loath at times to proclaim his revelations. Some Christian Indians have explained this as caused by an uneasy conscience that came with greater knowledge of the white man's religion but there is no evidence of this. During this stay he was invited to visit the Onondaga and this he did, though according to his visions it necessitated the singing of his "third song," which meant that he should die. In a vision which he related he saw the four messengers who said "They have stretched out their hands pleading for you to come and they are your own people at Onondaga" (section 122).

When the word was given, Handsome Lake with a few chosen followers started to walk to Onondaga. His prediction of his own death, however, caused many more to join the party when it became definitely known he had started. The first camping spot mentioned is at the old village, Ganon'wa'gês. Here upon retiring he commanded the company to assemble "early in the morning." At the morning gathering he announced a vision. It had been of a pathway covered with grass. At the next camp, at Ganundasa'ga, his vision was of a woman speaking. On the borders of Onondaga he discovered that he had lost a favorite knife and went back to find it. He was evidently much depressed and approached Onondaga with a reluctance that almost betokened fear. Upon his arrival he

p. 13

was unable to address the people because of his distress, so that it was said, "Our meeting is only a gathering about the fireplace." A game of lacrosse was played to cheer him but he could only respond to the honor by saying: "I will soon go to my new home. Soon will I step into the new world for there is a plain pathway before me leading there." He repaired to his cabin at the foot of the hill, in sight of the council house and there after a most distressing illness "commenced his walk" over the path that had appeared before him. He was buried under the council house with impressive ceremonies and his tomb may still be seen though the house has been removed. A granite monument, erected by the Six Nations, marks his resting place.

Handsome Lake lived to see his people divided into two factions, one that clung to the old order and one that followed him. After his death the older order gradually faded out of existence, either coming over to the New Religion or embracing Christianity. Thus by the time of the Civil War in 1861 there were only the two elements, the Christians and the followers of Handsome Lake. They stand so arrayed today but with the "new religionists" gradually diminishing in number. The force of Handsome Lake's teaching, however, is still felt and affects in some way all the New York reservations, except perhaps St Regis.

Handsome Lake as the founder of a religious system occupied such a position that his followers place implicit confidence in that system whatever his personal weaknesses and failures may have been.

"He made mistakes," said Chief Cornplanter, "many mistakes, so it is reported, but he was only a man and men are liable to commit errors. Whatever he did and said of himself is of no consequence. What he did and said by the direction of the four messengers is everything--it is our religion. Ganiodaiio was weak in many points and sometimes afraid to do as the messengers told him, He was almost an unwilling servant. He made no divine claims, he did not pose as infallible nor even truly virtuous. He merely proclaimed the Gai'wiio` and that is what we follow, not him. We do not worship him, we worship one great Creator. We honor and revere our prophet and leader, we revere the four messengers who watch over us--but the Creator alone do we worship." Such is the argument of his followers.


12:1 Morgan, League, p. 233, Rochester, 1851.

12:2 Later known as Dionî'hogä'wê, Door Keeper, a sachem of the Seneca. Parker was Morgan's collaborator in writing the League of the Iroquois.

Next: Present Effects of Handsome Lake's Teaching