Handsome Lake

Part of a series on
Anthropology of religion
Social and cultural anthropology
Handsome Lake Preaching at Tonawanda by Jesse Cornplanter

Handsome Lake (Cayuga language: Sganyadái:yoˀ, Seneca language: Sganyodaiyoˀ) (Θkanyatararí•yau•[1] in Tuscarora) (1735 – 10 August 1815) was a Seneca religious leader of the Iroquois people. He was a half-brother to Cornplanter, a Seneca war chief.[2]

Handsome Lake, a great leader and prophet, played a major role in reviving traditional religion among the Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse), or Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy. He preached a message that combined traditional Haudenosaunee religious beliefs with a revised code meant to revive traditional consciousness to the Haudenosaunee after a long period of cultural disintegration following colonization. This message was eventually published as the "Code of Handsome Lake" and is still practiced today.


  • Early life 1
  • Brings a Message of Gaihwiyo ("Good Word") 2
  • A Tale Of How America Was Discovered 3
  • See also 4
  • Footnotes 5
  • Further reading 6
  • External links 7

Early life

Handsome Lake was born as Hadawa'ko ("Shaking Snow") around 1735 in the Seneca village of Canawaugus, located on the Genesee River near present-day Avon, New York. Very little is known of his parents; his mother, Gahonnoneh, later had an affair with a Dutch fur trader and gunsmith, resulting in the birth of Handsome Lake's half-brother, Cornplanter. Handsome Lake was born into the Turtle clan of his mother, as the Iroquois have a matrilineal kinship system. He was eventually adopted and raised by the Wolf clan people.[3] Born during a time when the Seneca nation was at its peak of prosperity through fur trading, Handsome Lake witnessed the gradual deterioration of his society. Other well-known relatives in Handsome Lake's family included Governor Blacksnake, Red Jacket and Half-Town.

In 1794 he signed the U.S. treaty with the Six Nations (known as the Pickering Treaty). He visited Washington, D.C. with Cornplanter in 1802.

Several factors contributed to the erosion of morale and spiritual welfare of the Haudenosaunee. At its peak in the early 18th century, the Haudenosaunee controlled much of what is now the midwestern United States, which it had conquered through decades of warring against the tribes native to those areas in the Beaver Wars. In the period after the American Revolution, the Haudenosaunee lost most of their land in New York and Pennsylvania and were forced to live on reservations, including in Canada, as punishment for taking the side of the British Crown in the revolution. Although these reservations included much of the prime real estate in Western New York, including several of the prominent creek and river valleys, the small and fragmented native lands were separated by wide swaths of land that was eventually earmarked for American settlement in what would be known as the Holland Purchase. This dislocation followed years of social disruption due to epidemics of infectious disease and major wars. Alcohol was also introduced to the tribes in this time frame, a substance to which numerous Haudenosaunee (including Handsome Lake himself) soon began consuming in excess, exacerbating the erosion of the traditional family unit. This situation was a result of the cultural clash between the fledgling United States and the once equally powerful Six Nations people. The traditional religious rituals were no longer applicable to the environment in which the Haudenosaunee people found themselves.

Brings a Message of Gaihwiyo ("Good Word")

In 1799, after a period of illness due to many years of excessive alcoholic indulgence, Handsome Lake had the first of a series of visions. In his first vision, he was warned by three spiritual messengers about the dangers associated with alcohol; he was also told that witches were creating chaos within his tribe and that the persons guilty of witchcraft must repent and confess. Handsome Lake was directed to reveal these warnings to the people. His nephew, Owen or Governor Blacksnake (a/k/a Skandyo'swadi), and half-brother Cornplanter were with him during this time and believed in the power of his visions and their revelations. Shortly after Handsome Lake's first vision, he ceased drinking alcohol. When he regained his health, he began bringing a message of Gaiwiio (the "Good Word") to his people. He preached against drunkenness and other evil practices. His message outlined a moral code that was eventually referred to as the Code of Handsome Lake.[3] The Code outlawed drunkenness, witchcraft, sexual promiscuity, wife beating, quarreling. Handsome Lake presented his message along with a threat that fire would destroy the world if this Code were not obeyed.

Handsome Lake soon became obsessed with witch hunting and demanded confessions from those whom he suspected of witchcraft; some of those who refused to confess were killed. His witch hunting nearly became a catalyst for war with another tribe when he accused a prominent young man from that tribe of being a witch and demanded his punishment. Gradually, the sentiment of the people turned against Handsome Lake for what they considered an overzealous pursuit of witches. As a result of this change in attitude, he stopped his accusations and briefly assumed a less prominent leadership role. Handsome Lake became popular again during the War of 1812, when he attracted many new followers.

The rise of Handsome Lake's religion was more successful than most religions during that time, apparently because his code combined traditional Iroquois religion with white Christian values. It stressed survival without the sacrifice of the Iroquois identity, and recognized the need to make adjustments in order to survive in their changing world.

The Code of Handsome Lake was one of the most successful uprisings during the time. His Code combined traditional Iroquois religious values with Christian values, and then-President Thomas Jefferson gave his endorsement to Handsome Lake's code in 1803.[4] With the help of Handsome Lake’s relatives, his visions were written down and published in 1850. The Code of Handsome Lake remains practiced among the Seneca and is considered to be a traditional indian religion. Beginning in the 1820s, it became traditional for the Code to be recited every September at Tonawanda in the Seneca Nation.

A Tale Of How America Was Discovered

How America Was Discovered [2] is a story told by Handsome Lake, and documented by Arthur C. Parker, about a young minister who meets the one he perceives to be the Lord, who then asks him to go to a new land and bring with him cards, money, a fiddle, whiskey, and blood corruption. In return the young minister will become rich. The young minister sought out Christopher Columbus, and with the help of his crew, traveled to the Americas. They turned back to report what they had seen, which caused an immigration of people from Europe to the Americas. Along with the people came the five things that aided in destroying the natives. The end reveals that the "Lord" in the gold castle was actually the devil, and that even he knew what he had caused was wrong.

See also

  • Tenskwatawa, Shawnee Prophet
  • Wovoka, founder of the Ghost Dance movement
  • Smohalla, dreamer-prophet associated with the Dreamers movement in the Pacific Northwest


  1. ^ Rudes, B. Tuscarora English Dictionary Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999
  2. ^ Wallace, Paul A. W.; Hunter, William A. (1999). Indians in Pennsylvania. Harrisburg, Pa: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. p. 176.  
  3. ^ a b Parker, Arthur C. (Nov 1, 1912). "The Code of Handsome Lake, the Seneca Prophet" (PDF). [NYS] Education Department Bulletin (163). Retrieved June 2, 2015. 
  4. ^ To Brother Handsome Lake

Further reading

  • Bjorklund, Karna L. The Indians of Northeastern America, Dodd, Mead, & Co. New York. 1969.
  • Graymont, Barbara. The Iroquois in the American Revolution, Syracuse University Press. Syracuse, New York. 1972.
  • Wallace, Anthony, The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca, 1969, ISBN 0-394-71699-X
  • Manseu, Peter, "One Nation, Under Gods", 2015, Little, Brown and Company ISBN 978-0-316-10003-8

External links

  • Arthur C. Parker, "The Code of Handsome Lake, the Seneca Prophet", 1913
  • John H. Martin, "Handsome Lake: A New Religion for the Seneca", The Crooked Lake Review, Fall 2005
  • Alfred G. Hilbert, "Handsome Lake: The Iroqouis Who Saw Visions", The Crooked Lake Review, February 1995
  • Text of letter from Thomas Jefferson to Handsome Lake, Avalon Library, Yale University
  • Arthur C. Parker, "Seneca Myths and Folk Tales", 1923
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and USA.gov, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for USA.gov and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.