Seneca Possessed

Seneca Possessed explores how the Seneca people and their homeland were "possessed"—culturally, spiritually, materially, and legally—in the wake of the American Revolution.

Seneca Possessed
Indians, Witchcraft, and Power in the Early American Republic

Matthew Dennis

2010 | 328 pages | Cloth $45.00 | Paper $24.95
American History | Native American Studies
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Table of Contents

Introduction

PART I. DOMINION
1. Colonial Crucible and Post-Revolutionary Predicament

PART II. SPIRIT
2. Handsome Lake and the Seneca Great Awakening: Revelation and Transformation
3. Patriarchy and the Witch-Hunting of Handsome Lake

PART III. MASTERY
4. Friendly Mission: The Holy Conversation of Quakers and Senecas
5. From Longhouse to Farmhouse: Quakers and the Transformation of Seneca Rural Life
6. Seneca Repossessed, 1818-1826

Conclusion

Notes
Index
Acknowledgments


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Introduction

There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.—Walter Benjamin

I am going to tell a story of harrowing villainy and complicated—but, as I trust, intensely interesting—crime. My rascals are no milk-and-water rascals, I promise you. When we come to the proper places we won't spare fine language—No, no! But when we are going over the quiet country we must perforce be calm. A tempest in a slop-basin is absurd. We will reserve that sort of thing for the mighty ocean and the lonely midnight. The present Chapter is very mild. Others—But we will not anticipate THOSE.—William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

In the spring of 1821, on the outskirts of that rising metropolis of the West, Buffalo, New York, an unfortunate Seneca Indian, as the story goes, "fell into a state of languishment and died." In some ways his death was unremarkable. He was not famous; indeed, we have no record of his name. Unlike the fictional last Mohican whom the novelist James Fenimore Cooper would bathe in pathetic glory a few years later, he was not the "last of his race." His people, the Senecas—one of the Six Nations of the Iroquois, a once powerful confederation of tribes, including the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, Senecas, and Tuscaroras)—were in the early stages of a revival. Their resurgence would occur in response to the visions and teachings of a Native prophet, Ganiodaio, or "Handsome Lake," aided by resident agents and visitors from the Philadelphia Society of Friends, or Quakers.

Two decades earlier, in June 1799, amid a lingering post-Revolutionary crisis, Handsome Lake himself had seemed to suffer an unremarkable death. He had collapsed outside the door of his daughter's cabin in a small settlement along the Allegheny River in southwestern New York. He appeared to pass away, exiting a life of dissipation and little hope. But within an hour or two, Handsome Lake awoke. Revived from his trancelike state, he announced a fabulous revelation. Authorized by subsequent visions of cosmic journeys and supernatural encounters, Handsome Lake emerged as a prophet and inaugurated a new religion. The prophet and his followers sought to revive traditional Seneca religious practice, morality, and social order by reshaping them. They focused especially on the practical problems of drunkenness, ill health, family instability, and economic distress. Blending new and old, Handsome Lake's faith sought to conserve Seneca identity, protect Seneca autonomy, and preserve the lands upon which the physical survival of the Senecas depended. The prophet's innovations were contested, both by traditionalists and those attracted to Christianity, and adherence was never universal among the Senecas. But eventually that new religion became the "Old Way of Handsome Lake," a hopeful, popular, and enduring accommodation to the Seneca's new world.

By 1821, both Handsome Lake's prescriptions and the Quakers' humanitarian mission had become well established, and both enabled Seneca survival, as we will see, but neither promised earthly immortality. And in the confused cultural terrain of western New York, the undignified death of one anonymous Seneca man provoked suspicion. What had caused his demise? The answer was clear to his kin and community: witchcraft.

The nineteenth-century historian and biographer William Leete Stone reported melodramatically that blame quickly fell on "the woman who had nursed him and anxiously watched him at his bed-side," who "by aid of an evil spirit," it was alleged, "had compassed his death." Kauquatau, the accused witch, had fled across the Canadian frontier but was "artfully inveigled" back to the American side of the Niagara, tried by the local Seneca council, and promptly sentenced to death. The "sorceress," as Stone dubbed her, was killed at Buffalo Creek by a chief named Soonongise, commonly known as Tommy Jemmy. He cut her throat after the appointed executioner botched his bloody commission.

What should we make of this extraordinary event? We might easily resort to a familiar plotline. Consider this scenario: the murder was a savage deed committed by a primitive people, the last brutal act of a dying race, mired in paganism, superstition, obsolete tradition, chaos, and violence. Many of the Indians' shocked and horrified white neighbors saw in this gory execution a godlessness and barbarism they believed to be ancient and hopelessly incurable. As the Niagara Journal reported, "The superstitious belief in sorcery, which is common to all savages, and is often confirmed by the confessions of the deluded wretches who are accused of the practice, is so strongly fixed in the minds of Indians, that no argument or reasoning seems sufficient to eradicate it." That Kauquatau herself might have believed in witchcraft—and perhaps even admitted her guilt—only confirmed white Christian despair that the Senecas were a doomed people, unable to survive in the modernizing world of nineteenth-century America. As they faded from the landscape, their value to civilization was to be enshrined in white wistfulness. Romantic sentiment for the Indians' flawed nobility simply confirmed for white Americans their own refined sensibility, cultural superiority, and manifest destiny. The incident thus becomes a model for the tragic circumstances to be repeated as the United States pushed west.

In fact, however, our story is more complicated and contains a good many surprises. The witch hunt that culminated in Tommy Jemmy's act of violence was less a matter of traditional practice than it was a function of the Senecas' tacit acceptance of Euro-American misogyny. Seeing witchcraft as a female art was, ironically, a measure of "progress." Inadvertently, Christian missionaries of the previous century had helped to remake the Seneca traditions of witchcraft. Before the nineteenth century, it is unlikely that Senecas expected more women than men to practice this evil craft.

But times had changed. How much they had changed is suggested by the strangely incisive remarks attributed to Red Jacket, the famous orator and leader of the Buffalo Creek Senecas, during the inconclusive trial of Tommy Jemmy in 1821 for the "murder" of Kauquatau. As an excited editor of the Albany Argus, an eyewitness, reported in print, Red Jacket exclaimed,

What! Do you denounce us as fools and bigots, because we still believe that which you yourselves believed two centuries ago? Your black-coats thundered this doctrine from the pulpit, your judges pronounced it from the bench, and sanctioned it with the formalities of law; and you would now punish our unfortunate brother for adhering to the faith of his fathers and of yours! Go to Salem! Look at the records of your own government, and you will find that hundreds have been executed for the very crime which has called forth the sentence of condemnation against this woman, and drawn down upon her the arm of vengeance. What have our brothers done more than the rulers of your people have done? And what crime has this man committed, by executing, in a summary way, the laws of his country, and the command of the Great Spirit?

Red Jacket's speech in defense of "tradition" and Seneca independence appropriated a foreign history and deployed it skillfully. If the logic of his argument seems absurd now, it was a disarming strategy then and addressed the Senecas' quest to survive as they established a space for themselves. To a considerable degree, they had little choice. They did not go out of their way to find the new historical narrative of the rising glory of America; it found them. As we will see, Red Jacket's clever words emanated from his people's colonial predicament in a "postcolonial" United States.

In mobilizing comparative history to establish legal precedent, Red Jacket called the bluff of these white Americans who asserted that all Americans, including Indians, shared a legal and moral landscape, a single, historically based standard. It was not merely Seneca law and religion, but also white judicial and religious practice that had sanctioned the prosecution of witchcraft, a capital crime. The incidents at Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 demonstrated the fact. By 1821, the republic was nearly fifty years old, and English colonization had begun over two hundred years earlier. The Revolutionary generation was passing, and white Americans sought to define themselves in terms of their collective past, extending not only to the Revolution but further back as well. They drew widely and selectively, purposefully elevating certain heroes and events from their colonial past, while rejecting or obscuring others. The year 1821 marked the two-hundred-year anniversary of the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth, Massachusetts. White Americans increasingly celebrated with pride that mythic (and actual) event, as they adopted Pilgrim forefathers as exemplars for their new nation, worthy precursors to the sainted Washington, the Revolutionary generation, and now themselves.

The Salem witch trials were something else altogether. In the decade of the 1830s, Nathaniel Hawthorne would begin to confront the sordid legacy of Salem and his own culpable ancestors, in stories such as "Young Goodman Brown" (1835) and eventually The Scarlet Letter (1851). But in the early national present—indeed, even during the enlightened eighteenth century in colonial America—the witch-hunting represented by the Salem crisis was a profound embarrassment to white, Christian Americans, as Red Jacket surely knew. Had Red Jacket simply learned the wrong history, white auditors might have wondered, embracing an anachronism as a suitable historical model? If they were to survive at all, must Indians pass through a stage of barbarism (like that exemplified by the madness at Salem) on their way from savagery to civilization? However his speech is read, Red Jacket's reference to Salem highlighted contradictions in white Americans' assessment of Senecas and of themselves. The orator humiliated those who believed themselves better than their poor, benighted Indian brethren. His speech was not naive but purposeful. We will explore the context and meaning of such Native rhetoric below, but we should emphasize here the sophistication of the Senecas we are examining, their understanding of the available means of persuasion, and their resourcefulness in negotiating the challenges of their world.

By 1821, belief in witchcraft was common but not uncontested among the Senecas at Buffalo, some of whom had begun to embrace evangelical Protestantism. Earlier, in the context of the unsettled condition that coincided with the rise of the prophet Handsome Lake, an emergency related to witchcraft accusations had disrupted Seneca communities. But Kauquatau's execution in 1821 did not represent a witch-hunting crisis—it was hardly a Seneca version of the Salem outbreak of 1692. The threat at Buffalo Creek was more external than internal, as the prosecution of Tommy Jemmy by white authorities posed a significant challenge to Seneca sovereignty, which endangered all Senecas.

In the early nineteenth century, Seneca men and women found themselves in a dangerous state of dependency. How would they accommodate—how would they withstand—this new phase of an old colonialism? Could they effectively reinvent a distinct Seneca ethnic and cultural identity in the face of an intruding American society and its aggressive economy?

Consider another familiar scenario: Led by men such as Red Jacket and the Allegany chief Cornplanter, the Senecas cleaved to tradition and united in solidarity to reject white encroachment. In unity and tradition there was strength, and together, heroically committed to ancient Iroquois culture, the Senecas stood against white missionaries, settlers, and officials. Such a tale has two common endings. The Indians are ultimately vanquished and they vanish, tragically but with a nobility and integrity stemming from their unwillingness to compromise with their conquerors. Or: the Indians prevail, again nobly and single-handedly, based on their unity, which allows them to protect their land and unaltered traditions.

This alternative fantasy narrative, with either ending, is equally simplistic and misleading, in fact misrepresenting a story that is more intricate and compelling. The noble tale of uncomplicated Indian triumph is most easily told when we carefully choose to constrain the narrative or end it prematurely at the moment of a temporary but heroic victory before ultimate disaster strikes. But if we do not stop time, and the Indians suffer a romantically tragic end, we then resolve to grant them a collective martyrdom.

We know, though, that the Senecas did not die. They endured through resilience, not intransigence, and by means of resourcefulness and adaptability, not mechanistic conservatism. Their survival and rebirth was a product of women's efforts, not merely men's; it was a difficult and contested path to survival, fraught with disagreement and dissension, failure as well as success. Some embraced Christianity and white educational efforts, for example; some did not. Some would succumb to alcohol, while others avoided or overcame it. Some agreed to sell land, sometimes through selfish motives, but sometimes acting pragmatically to forestall even greater losses. Others—women in particular, attached to the soil as agriculturalists—adopted an uncompromising resistance to land sales. And Native territories did dwindle substantially, even if Senecas managed to preserve a land base and largely avoid removal—the fate of other "civilized" tribes—to lands across the Mississippi River.

Senecas survived through luck as well as skill. The Allegany Senecas, for example, were fortunate to acquire Quakers as missionaries and patrons, rather than agents of other Protestant denominations, typically much more aggressive in their proselytizing and less tolerant of those Indians who sought partial accommodations with Christianity. The Senecas were similarly the beneficiaries of other catastrophes: the War of 1812, for example. The war was an inconclusive and damaging conflict fought in part on the borderland that was Six Nations terrain. While some Native leaders counseled neutrality when it erupted, many Seneca men participated, including our defendant Tommy Jemmy. In that service to the United States they demonstrated a loyalty that helped obscure memories of the Seneca alliance with the British in the American Revolution. The failure of the United States to conquer Canada by the war's end permanently etched an international border on the North American map, which enlarged Seneca political and military significance in the early nineteenth century. More immediately, the war's outbreak short-circuited a strong push by some white officials and speculators for Seneca concentration and removal. Removal efforts would reemerge a decade later, but again they would fail.

Senecas survived with outside help and despite the meddling of outsiders. Most prominently, Quakers acted as true friends to Senecas, giving them material aid and advice, offering instruction and counsels, and intervening at treaty negotiations and in the halls of government. But friendly advice is not always right. Quakers could misunderstand or provide guidance in directions Senecas chose not to go—for example, to adopt unavailing social and economic arrangements that would likely reduce, not improve, their standard of living. Much worse, of course, were those who intruded with hostile or selfish intent—for example, land company agents and public officials sometimes in their employ. Senecas suffered but survived such interference as well.

This book explores the ordeal of the Senecas in the early national period, the era of the prophet Handsome Lake (d. 1815) and extending into the 1820s. Handsome Lake played the midwife in a Seneca rebirth, but not without challenges. Through trial and error, innovation and conservatism, the Senecas reshaped their world, down to its most basic components: the nature of economic life, spiritual meaning and practice, gender organization, social arrangements and political order. If their struggle was more desperate than the ordeals of most other Americans, it was not unique. Like other Americans, the Senecas found "progress" profoundly unsettling. Choosing whether to hold to tradition or undertake the perils of transformation, they were in many ways comparable to nineteenth-century backcountry farmers, urban mechanics, or farm girls attracted by mill jobs, similarly swept up in a maelstrom of change.


Seneca Possessed focuses on Seneca communities but situates Native experience more broadly in order to refine our understanding of the early American republic. We often think of Indians as casualties of the expanding republic, and they were. But non-Indians too could be overwhelmed by the avalanche of social and economic change, even if some found new opportunity in a rapidly developing America. Indians' acquisition of "civility" and (at best) interdependence would not "elevate" them so much as reduce them to the limited and dependent way of life typical of white citizens in the increasingly commercialized, and later industrialized, United States.

This was a time of transformation. America was developing new modes of agricultural and industrial production, constructing a national market economy, renegotiating issues of nationalism, identity, and roles for women, and experiencing waves of religious revivalism and reform. Examining the Senecas provides fresh perspectives on these local and national alterations. Economic growth and prosperity were tied to land and resources. Whose? In fact, Seneca homelands were among the first Native lands to be expropriated and used by white Americans to create opportunity and wealth in the early republic. Americans reshaped the landscape of central New York by imposing new forms of property ownership and by replacing the extensive and complex agricultural subsistence system of the Six Nations with one based on intensive agricultural production and extraction of commodities for nearly limitless markets. The Seneca experience illuminates a larger story, one that accounts for costs as well as benefits. The Genesee Valley became for a time America's breadbasket. By the 1830s, one of the most vibrant new industrial cities in the United States would emerge there at Rochester, connected to the world via the Erie Canal, which officially opened in 1825. Rochester was set in the heart of Seneca lands, in a place that, it is often said, had been wilderness a generation earlier. It was not.

But the Seneca story is not mere prologue. As others moved in, Senecas remained, and they continued to farm and participated in the changing economy. That involvement sometimes defied the unrealistic prescriptions of white missionaries and idealistic reformers. These white patrons might have had good intentions, but they lacked the imagination and imperatives that led Senecas themselves to develop hybrid economies of survival. Seneca persistence in subsistence farming, paired with their engagement with the expanding market economy, forces us to reevaluate the course of economic development in the era, not only for Indians but for other rural folk. We see a history here at odds with the scenarios of Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier thesis or older theories of progress from savagery through barbarism to civility. "Settlement" produced unsettlement, development created both wealth and poverty. Opportunity came with costs in the early American republic. And such costs—human and environmental—were not borne equally.

Senecas were not the only Americans attempting to define their place in the United States. While few besides patriotic writers and orators worried excessively about matters of American identity—the question first posed by Crèvecoeur in 1782: "What, then, is the American, this new man?"—many faced the practical problem of how to live in the American world as women and men amid rapid change.

The Quakers faced particular challenges, which deserve some comment given how critical they are to our story. When they came from Philadelphia as missionaries to the Senecas beginning in 1798, they carried with them considerable historical baggage. The Friends' experience in Pennsylvania had been preceded by years of struggle and persecution, in the British Isles and New England, where they were banished by Puritan authorities and subjected to witchcraft accusations and even death in the seventeenth century. William Penn's Holy Experiment in Pennsylvania had gone much better, but by the mid-eighteenth century the Quakers faced a crisis of conscience in Pennsylvania as violence erupted in the colonial backcountry between Natives and white settlers. Many Quaker legislators withdrew from provincial government rather than authorize funds to prosecute frontier wars, which would compromise their commitment to pacifism and friendly relations with the Indians. If Quakers lived in a violent world, many sought to avoid complicity, to withdraw, and to seek other paths to peace. Such a path eventually led them to the Senecas in western New York at the end of the eighteenth century. By the early nineteenth century, Friends' commitment to living a principled life was challenged further, as they witnessed the persistence of slavery, the growth of a capitalist economy, and the emergence of a new evangelical Protestantism. Quakers were forced to contemplate whether they could participate in such a world, how, and on what terms. Friends would disagree, and by 1827 they experienced a schism that divided "Orthodox" and "Hicksites" along fault lines that were social and economic as well as theological. Even before 1827, the Quaker mission to the Senecas exposed some of the Friends' ambivalence and anxiety about the commercial and industrial transformation of the country. Their work with Senecas could represent both a withdrawal from the world and a means to engage and reform it.

The Quakers-Seneca relationship proved important to both parties. Each learned from the other, though the lessons could be complicated. Along with the legal aid and practical skills they acquired, for example, Senecas gained insight into white American thinking about such essential matters as property, work, family, and the individual. Quakers found a nongovernmental means to fulfill their humanitarian desires. Some Quakers perhaps dreamed of reconstructing Seneca communities as models of ideal social "conversation," but mostly they focused on practical affairs—growing crops efficiently, building mills to grind corn and saw wood, reshaping Indian family life, teaching children to read and write, helping Senecas protect their land—not on utopian goals or even religious conversion.

Gender was at the center of this relationship; for each, the other's gender order was a large part of what made them strange. Gender affected how Senecas and Quakers understood each other and how they interacted. Gender was often at the heart of what Quakers hoped to change among the Senecas, and it was often at the core of Seneca resistance to Quaker prescriptions, for women as well as men. And yet each learned lessons about gender from the other, which helped both Quakers and Senecas imagine ways they might promote social change. An unintended consequence of Quaker missionary efforts, for example, appeared in the 1840s, when women's rights advocates such as the New York Quaker Lucretia Mott began to deploy Seneca gender models (at least as they imagined them) in their attempts to reform American society. Mott and others increasingly found new value in the status and power that Seneca women commanded within their communities, a status and power that had sometimes thwarted Quaker reforms. Ironically, by 1848, the rise of the Senecas could help lead to Seneca Falls.

Early nineteenth-century Senecas lived at the epicenter of other critical developments in the American national experience. The act of dispossessing Senecas (and their resistance to such dispossession) forced white officials to work out the meaning of United States federalism and the relationship between state, tribal, and national jurisdictions. As the Tommy Jemmy case would reveal, the sovereignty question remained unresolved, as Senecas, New York State, and the United States made overlapping and often contradictory claims about their authority.

Federalism was a republican means of resolving the imperium in imperio question—dividing sovereignty and reconciling local control with a national state—but it was not always clear in practice whose order should prevail where, under what circumstances. Nor was it settled whether Indian nations themselves constituted sovereign entities—like states—within the larger federal structure. States' rights and national authority would clash throughout the nineteenth century, of course, and in 1860 the irreconcilable conflict over slavery would explode in civil war. Before this disastrous breakdown, however, in myriad ways that had less to do with the slavery question, Americans sought to work out the logic of federalism, to define the discrete realms of state and national governments. Indians found themselves in the middle of these contests, particularly because they owned considerable amounts of land. If most nineteenth-century white Americans came to believe that they collectively possessed not only sovereignty over that territory, but a property right in that land—despite the Indians' actual possession and legal claims—it remained vague who held such powers, states or the national government. The Seneca experience in New York is part of that story, which extends through the Cherokee cases of the 1830s and the Trail of Tears. Yet Senecas, unlike most Cherokees, managed to persist in their homelands and maintain some autonomy, even as the United States and the state of New York spelled out their respective responsibilities, jurisdictions, and Indian dependence. In the spaces opened by intergovernmental rivalry, and amid white political and religious factionalism, Senecas could sometimes find refuge.

Finally, that physical refuge and its environs were the setting for another critical development in the history of the early republic—the revivalism and reform that remapped America's social and religious landscape. It was not a coincidence that the newly created "Old Way" of Handsome Lake emerged out of the same Burned-Over District of the Second Great Awakening that witnessed the rise of the evangelist Charles Grandison Finney, the utopian John Humphrey Noyes, the prophet Joseph Smith, and other religious innovators. Like white newcomers in early republican western New York, the Senecas experienced a rapidly transforming and stressful world, and they acted creatively. Through the prophecies of Handsome Lake and the prescriptions of resident Quaker agents, the inventive process advanced fitfully, incorporating elements of Christianity and white society and economy, along with older Seneca ideas and practices, into a hybrid faith and new Seneca way of life. Ironically, though a revised Seneca society and religion emerged in these decades in response to the changing world around them, the Code of Handsome Lake would ultimately take its place as tradition.

Issues of gender, kinship, and power were central to the Senecas' attempt to negotiate their way out of their predicament. The story that follows examines how government officials, speculators and capitalists, white settlers, Protestant missionaries and moral reformers all encroached on the Seneca people, and distinctly affected men and women. Internal debates were also gendered, particularly when they concerned overlapping kinship and community arrangements. Indeed, Seneca revitalization was the work of both sexes. Theirs is a story not of isolation and decline but of connections and persistence. Too often it has been told as a saga of declension and disappearance. It does contain its share of tragedy, and its plot is complex, but Senecas have not left the stage, and their experience is more universal than it might initially appear to be.


Seneca Possessed conjures up the title of Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum's classic social history of the Salem witchcraft crisis of 1692, Salem Possessed. In the spirit of Red Jacket, who pointed us toward Salem's story, Seneca Possessed explores how the Seneca people and their homeland were "possessed"—culturally, spiritually, materially, and legally. Like Salem, Massachusetts, Seneca territory became a site of contention as it was settled and transformed, as new forms of economic enterprise struggled to prevail, as government systems changed. Both places were colonized by outsiders and possessed in culturally specific ways. And, amid conflicts over land, modes of production, gender, and political power, both places were possessed by their indigenous devils. Both the residents of Salem and of Seneca communities struggled among themselves, as they tried to accommodate their changing times, control their destinies, find security, and define the particular natures of their social, cultural, and spiritual landscapes.

Possession is commonly defined as "property, wealth, or dominion." As legal historian Stuart Banner has demonstrated, the roughly fifty-year period following the American Revolution—the period of this book—witnessed a radical transformation of legal thought about Native land. It culminated in the 1823 landmark Supreme Court decision Johnson v. M'Intosh in which Chief Justice John Marshall asserted that American colonists, through discovery and conquest, had acquired the right to "ultimate dominion over the land," including the "power to grant the soil, while yet in possession of the natives." As Banner shows, Marshall was a poor (if influential) historian. In fact, throughout the colonial period Britain and its colonial governments had not claimed such rights, through discovery or conquest or any other means. They had recognized Indians as the "owners," "proprietors," or "possessors" of their land, in the same manner as Europeans. In 1823, Marshall acknowledged Indians "to be the rightful occupants of the soil, with a legal as well as just claim to retain possession of it," but he claimed they were not the land's owners. "Indian ownership," ambiguously defined by Marshall, was considered inferior to the ownership vested in European powers and was thus inferior to the claims of white speculators and settlers to whom such lands were granted. Senecas lost possession of vast tracts during the early nineteenth century, but they continued to possess other lands. Seneca Possessed maps the shifting meaning of Seneca property, wealth, and dominion—of what they possessed and how they possessed it.

Possession can also mean "domination by an extraneous personality, demon, passion, or idea." Seneca Possessed traces the contests for ascendancy among extraordinary figures, both Senecas and outsiders, competing for Seneca hearts, minds, and souls. At times Senecas believed their neighbors and kinspeople to be possessed by demons, and some acted to purge such evil from among them—Tommy Jemmy, for example, in the spring of 1821. Seneca men and women were possessed by passions, the feelings natural to all people—fear, anger, love, and joy—enlarged during periods of tumult. At times such possession seemed to take on the torturous characteristics of a religious passion—the prolonged suffering of martyrs. And Senecas were possessed by new ideas, which promised revival, offered by Handsome Lake, by Quakers, and by other Christian missionaries.

Finally, possession can mean "control or mastery," not merely of property but of selves. To be self-possessed is to exhibit control or command over one's powers, to exhibit presence of mind or composure. Seneca Possessed scrutinizes this quest for mastery as well. It examines a people known historically for their self-possession, whose collective composure was severely challenged by the crises they faced in post-Revolutionary America. It analyzes that ordeal and the Senecas' successes in fending off cultural and material dispossession, as they countered white prepossessions and assaults and constructed a new way to survive as Senecas.


In 1821, an anonymous Seneca man was prematurely dead, the Seneca "witch" charged with killing him had her throat cut, and a Seneca chief, who had acted as her official executioner, found himself in a Canandaigua jail, indicted for murder. Would Tommy Jemmy join Kauquatau and her alleged victim in an unnatural death—the punishment for a capital crime? What had he done? What possessed him? Answering such questions will require us to thicken the plot and to cover several decades to explain how Tommy Jemmy came to wield that knife in the spring of 1821. Seneca Possessed explores the fluid meaning of Tommy Jemmy's act, its larger context, its implications and consequences. It is a complicated story—history, not murder mystery—but to simplify it would be a crime.

The nature of events dictates that Seneca Possessed cannot be a linear history, a one-thing-after-another, chronological retelling of a two-hundred-year-old narrative. So, a word about organization: Part I ("Dominion") examines the perils Senecas faced in the wake of the American Revolution and the colonial background that shaped them (and their post-Revolutionary tribulations); it defines a Seneca problem. Part II ("Spirit") probes the Senecas' religious response to those troubles—particularly the prophecy of Handsome Lake and the hybrid religion he founded—as well as the new dilemmas engendered by that nativist revival. It analyzes Seneca solutions and the fresh quandaries that solutions themselves can (and did) produce. Part III ("Mastery") focuses on the Quakers and their Seneca mission—their own diagnoses and prescriptions for the afflictions they saw among the Indians. In turn, it analyzes the drawbacks inherent in those Quaker reforms, and the Senecas' efforts to respond and endure in the face of such measures. Finally, it takes our story of accommodation, resistance, and persistent negotiation through the 1820s—the fiftieth anniversary of American nationhood and the decade of the Erie Canal's inauguration—by which time the Senecas had developed the religious, cultural, and political tools to survive, despite the difficult path ahead of them. These parts sometimes overlap chronologically but do not cover the same ground; they adopt different angles of vision to allow us to see the field more clearly and completely—a necessary accommodation to the distant time and place we seek to understand, an arena of astonishing volatility and variegation.

Like William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair, "Our history is destined . . . to go backwards and forwards in a very irresolute manner seemingly, and having conducted our story to to-morrow presently, we shall immediately again have occasion to step back to yesterday, so that the whole of the tale may get a hearing." But, Thackeray reasons, "the romancer is obliged to exercise this most partial sort of justice. Although all the little incidents must be heard, yet they must be put off when the great events make their appearance." Such events are "entitled to the pass over all minor occurrences whereof this history is composed mainly, and hence a little trifling disarrangement and disorder was excusable and becoming." And so we raise the curtain, not on Thackeray's Chiswick Mall but in western New York. To paraphrase his "History Without a Hero," this is Buffalo, "not a moral place certainly; nor a merry one, though very noisy."