America’s First Addiction Epidemic

The alcohol epidemic devastated Native American communities, leading to crippling poverty, astonishingly high mortality rates — and a successful sobriety movement.

Christopher Finan| Drunks: An American History | Beacon Press | June 2017 | 28 minutes (7,526 words) 

The following is an excerpt from Drunks, by Christopher Finan. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

The men full of strong drink have trodden in the fireplaces.

In spring of 1799, Handsome Lake, a Native American, joined members of his hunting party in making the long journey from western Pennsylvania to their home in New York. Handsome Lake was a member of the Seneca Nation, one of the six nations in the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy). He had once been renowned for his fighting skill. But the Iroquois had been stripped of almost all their lands after the American Revolution. Now fifty years old, Handsome Lake, too, was a shadow of what he had been. He would later say that heavy drinking had reduced him to “but yellow skin and dried bones.” After stopping in Pittsburgh to trade furs for several barrels of whiskey, the hunters lashed their canoes together and began to paddle up the Allegheny River. Only those in the outer canoes had to work. The rest of the party drank whiskey, yelling and singing “like demented people,” Handsome Lake said. The good times didn’t stop after they picked up their wives and children, who had accompanied them on the hunting trip and were waiting at a rendezvous. Everyone looked forward to being home in Cornplanter’s Town, named for its Seneca Leader.

The joy of their homecoming did not last long. There was enough whiskey to keep the men drunk for several weeks. Handsome Lake described the horror of that time:

Now that the party is home the men revel in strong drink and are very quarrelsome. Because of this the families become frightened and move away for safety. So from many places in the bushlands camp fires send up their smoke.

Now the drunken men run yelling through the village and there is no one there except the drunken men. Now they are beastlike and run about without clothing and all have weapons to injure those whom they meet.

Now there are no doors in the houses for they have all been kicked off. So, also, there are no fires in the village and have not been for many days. Now the men full of strong drink have trodden in the fireplaces. They alone track there and there are no fires and their footprints are in all the fireplaces.

Now the Dogs yelp and cry in all the houses for they are hungry.

Henry Simmons, one of three Quakers who had recently come to the village and had been contracted by the US War Department to “civilize” the Indians, said that some natives died. “One old Woman perrished out of doors in the night season with a bottle at her side,” he wrote. In a community meeting later, Simmons denounced “the great Evil of Strong Drink.” But the Indians did not need much persuading. After several days of deliberation, a council of Seneca elders announced that they were banning whiskey from the village.

Handsome Lake was not present at the meeting or the deliberations of the council. He was suffering from the effects of so much alcohol and may even have been experiencing delirium tremens, which is caused by the sudden withdrawal of alcohol from someone who is addicted to it. For several weeks, he lay in a bed in the home of his daughter and son-in-law, consumed by thoughts of death. Handsome Lake described the ordeal, referring to himself in the third person. “Now as he lies in sickness he meditates and longs that he might rise again and walk upon the earth,” he said. “And then he thinks how evil and loathsome he is before the Great Ruler. He thinks how he has been evil ever since he had strength in this world and done evil ever since he had been able to work.” There must have been some alcohol in the village because Handsome Lake was able to get enough to ease his suffering. Drunk, he sang sacred songs to the dead. In more sober moments, he pondered the possible cause of his affliction:

Now it comes to his mind that perchance evil has arisen because of strong drink and he resolves to use it nevermore. Now he continually thinks of this every day and every hour. Yea, he continually thinks of this. Then a time comes and he craves drink again for he thinks he cannot recover his strength without it.

Now two ways he thinks: what once he did and whether he will ever recover.

While severely depressed, Handsome Lake was not hopeless. He was cheered by the mornings. “Now when he thinks of the sunshine and of the Creator who made it he feels a new hope within him and he feels that he may again be on his feet in this world,” he wrote. But such feelings did not last long. “Then again he despairs that he will ever see the new day because of his great weakness.”

It was in this highly agitated state, seemingly torn between heaven and hell, that Handsome Lake was stricken by an apparently fatal attack. His daughter and her husband were sitting outside their cabin cleaning beans in preparation for planting when they heard Handsome Lake cry, “So be it!” As they looked toward the door, the old man staggered outside and collapsed in his daughter’s arms. He appeared to be dead, and word was sent to Cornplanter, his half-brother, and Blacksnake, his nephew, who was the first to arrive. “Is he dead?” Blacksnake asked. Handsome Lake was not breathing and had no detectable heartbeat; his body was cool. But as they carried his body indoors, Blacksnake discovered a warm spot on his chest. A half hour later, Handsome Lake began breathing normally. Warmth began to return to the old man’s body, and an hour and a half later, he opened his eyes. By this time, Handsome Lake was surrounded by his family. “My uncle, are you feeling well?” Blacksnake asked. “Yes, I believe myself well,” he answered. “Never have I seen such wondrous visions!”

* * *

 A sky journey that included a stop in the domain of the Punisher.

Handsome Lake said his vision began when he heard a voice say, “Come out awhile.” At first, he thought he had spoken the words himself in his delirium, but after hearing the words repeated two more times, he dragged himself from his bed and stepped outdoors. There he discovered three middle-aged Indian men; their cheeks had been painted red and they wore headpieces decorated with feathers. In one hand, they carried bows and arrows that they used as staffs; in the other were huckleberry bushes with berries of every color. “Never before have I seen such handsome commanding men,” he said. The men told Handsome Lake that the Creator wanted to help mankind and had charged them with carrying his message to men:

Four words tell a great story of wrong and the Creator is sad because of the trouble they bring, so go and tell your people. The first word is One’ga? [whiskey or rum]. It seems that you never have known that this word stands for a great and monstrous evil and has reared a high mound of bones. . . . [Y]ou lose your minds and one’ga? causes it all. . . . So now all must now say, “I will use it nevermore. As long as I live, as long as the number of my days is I will never use it again. I now stop.”

The messengers explained that the Creator had made alcohol for white men to use as medicine. The white men also abused alcohol and “drink instead of work.” But Indians should not use alcohol at all, they said. “No, the Creator did not make it for you.”

Alcohol was not the only evil that faced the Seneca, but the danger of alcohol was a recurring theme in the visions that Handsome Lake experienced over the next nine months. Six weeks after his first vision, a fourth messenger took Handsome Lake on a “sky journey” that included a stop in the domain of the Punisher, a monster whose shape was continually changing and occasionally took the form of the Christian devil, complete with horns, tails, and cloven hoofs. He lived in a vast iron lodge where sinners suffered torments that fit their crimes amid scorching blasts of wind: witches were plunged into boiling cauldrons and then frozen; women who had used love potions were forced to display their naked, rotting flesh. Drinkers swallowed molten metal.

The messenger also conducted Handsome Lake along the narrow path of the righteous, which was surrounded by flowers and delicious fruit. On their arrival in the land of the Creator, he was reunited with his dead son, grandchild, and niece. Even the beloved dog that he had sacrificed during the white dog ceremony greeted him rapturously. Before sending Handsome Lake back to his people, the messenger repeated the warning against alcohol and witchcraft and said a “great sickness” would enter his village if the people did not mend their ways.

Handsome Lake’s people appeared eager to obey. Cornplanter had described his brother’s vision to the villagers soon after it was revealed in mid-June. Simmons, the Quaker adviser, said the Indians were deeply moved. They appeared “Solid and weighty in Spirit.” Simmons also “felt the love of God flowing powerfully amongst us.” Although he was regarded with suspicion by many of the natives, he felt he had to speak out in praise of Handsome Lake. Following the second vision in August, the Indians met in council again to hear the details of the sky journey. Handsome Lake was still too ill to attend.

By the time of his third vision in February 1800, Handsome Lake was able to describe it to the council himself. The three angels had asked whether the people had given up whiskey, and Handsome Lake had admitted that he did not know. They told him to have his revelations written in a book and ordered him to carry the lessons of the Gaiwiio (Good Word) to all the towns of the Haudenosaunee. In June 1801, during a three-day meeting of representatives of five of the six nations in Buffalo Creek, Handsome Lake seized his chance, announcing that the Creator had revealed to him that “[w]hiskey is the great engine which the bad Spirit uses to introduce Witchcraft and many other evils amongst Indians.” Handsome Lake’s prophecy was believed. Before the council ended, it banned the use of alcohol and appointed Handsome Lake “High Priest, and principal Sachem [leader] in all things Civil and Religious.”

Soon after, a whiskey seller named Webster witnessed the effect of Handsome Lake’s prophecy. Eighteen Onondaga chiefs who had gladly accepted whiskey from him on their way to Buffalo Creek refused to touch the bottle he put before them on their way home. Webster feared that he might be attacked, but the Onondagas reassured him:

The chiefs explained, that they had met at Buffalo, a Prophet of the Seneca nation, who had assured them, and in this assurance they had the most implicit confidence, that without total abstinence, from the use of ardent spirits, they and their race would shortly become extinct; that they had entered upon a resolution, never again to taste the baneful article, and that they hoped to prevail on their nation to adopt the same salutary resolution.

The Iroquois had taken their first step on the path to becoming a sober people.

* * *

‘I am going to lose my head,’ a man would shout. ‘I am going to drink the water that takes away one’s wits.’

Before they began to encounter European explorers and fishermen in the sixteenth century, very few indigenous people of the eastern coast of North America had ever tasted alcohol, and none had experienced anything more than the mild inebriation of fermented drinks used ceremonially. Nothing prepared them for the effects of distilled spirits. In 1609, explorer Henry Hudson offered alcohol to a group of Munsee Indians he encountered on Manhattan Island. His purpose in giving them drink was to determine “whether they had any treaherie in them,” but he was surprised when one of the Munsee became intoxicated. “[T]hat was strange to them, for they could not tell how to take it.” It must have been memorable for the Indians as well. (One theory of the origin of the word “Manhattan” is that the Indians named the island manahactanienk—the “place of general inebriation.”)

The experience of getting drunk for the first time could be terrifying for anyone. Not long after Hudson’s encounter with the Munsee, Captain John Smith, the military leader of the colony at Jamestown, gave liquor to a native man who he was trying to revive. “[I]t pleased God to restore him againe to life, but so drunke and affrighted, that he seemed Lunaticke,” Smith said. The man’s brother was “tormented and grieved” by his wild behavior.

Once the Indians lost their fear of alcohol, they fell in love with it. The euphoria of intoxication brought temporary relief from the pain of dispossession and death. A Jesuit attempting to convert the Cayuga Indians in the seventeenth century reported that they would announce their intention to get drunk before a drinking episode. “I am going to lose my head,” a man would shout. “I am going to drink the water that takes away one’s wits.” Another missionary noted that the native people appeared to relish the disorientation that occurred as the alcohol took effect. “They rejoice, shouting, ‘Good, good. My head is reeling!’ ” Once a man was drunk on alcohol, he found new powers in himself. When an Ottawa Indian was asked what brandy was made of, he said, “Of hearts and tongues. . . . [A]fter I have drank of it, I fear nothing and I talk like an angel.” The drinker experienced a surge of self-confidence. “[I]n their drunkenness, . . . they become persons of importance, taking pleasure in seeing themselves dreaded by those who do not taste the poison,” a third missionary said. Of course, inebriation also made Indians more vulnerable to manipulation by white men.

The Europeans expressed shock over the self-destructive way the Indians drank. Alcohol abuse was certainly not unknown among whites, particularly those living on the frontier where many fur traders were killed in drunken brawls. But coming from cultures that had encountered alcohol centuries earlier, some of them had clear rules against abusing alcohol. Prohibitions against drunkenness were spelled out in Christian scripture, Western social etiquette, and even law, but the natives had no prohibitions against getting drunk. Wasn’t that the point? One Indian observed: “The Great Spirit who made all things made everything for some use, and whatever use he design’d anything for, that use it should always be put to; Now, when he made rum, he said, Let this be for Indians to get drunk with. And it must be so.”

From the beginning, Indians drank to get drunk, to escape. “[G]ive two Savages two or three bottles of brandy. They will sit down and, without eating, will drink one after another until they have emptied them,” a missionary said. At first, there were limited supplies of alcohol in America. But if the Indians didn’t have enough brandy or rum to get everyone drunk, they gave it all to a chosen few. “And if any one chance to be drunk before he hath finisht his proportion (which is ordinarily a quart of Brandy, Rum or Strong-waters), the rest will pour the rest of his part down his throat,” a colonist wrote. The Europeans agreed that the Indians had a drinking problem. “They will pawne their wits to purchase the acquaintance of it,” Thomas Morton said in 1637. “Their paradise is drinking,” Louis Antoine de Bougainville observed a century later.

* * *

Where is my gun? It is gone. Where is my blanket? It is gone. Where is my shirt? You have sold it for whiskey.

The Europeans would have continued simply to take advantage of Indians getting drunk if alcohol hadn’t also sometimes made them aggressive. For the most part, early contact between the Puritans and the Indians had been peaceful. While the natives did not welcome the white man, they generally avoided attacking him and even offered critical assistance when the early settlers were on the verge of starvation. “The Natives are of two sorts, (as the English are),” Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, reported. “Some are Rude and Clownish . . . , the Generall, are sober and grave, and yet chearfull in a meane. . . . There is a favour of civility and courtesie even amongst these wild Americans, both amongst themselves and towards strangers.” But the behavior of drunken Indians was often terrifying, both to the colonists and other natives. In 1680, Jasper Danckaerts, who was visiting America in search of land for his religious community in Holland, experienced Indian drunkenness while staying with friends in what would later become Brooklyn, New York:

When we arrived at Gouanes, we heard a great noise, shouting and singing in the huts of the Indians. . . . They were all lustily drunk, raving, striking, shouting, jumping, fighting each other, and foaming at the mouth like raging wild beasts. Some who did not participate with them, had fled with their wives and children to Simon’s house, where the drunken brutes followed, bawling in the house and before the door, which we finally closed.

Danckaerts, a religious and fair-minded man, did not blame the Indians for getting drunk. The fault lay with the so-called Christians who sold them the liquor. He even lectured his hosts, who admitted that they had participated in the trade. “The subject is so painful and so abominable, that I will forbear saying anything more for the present,” he wrote in his journal.

Colonial authorities agreed with Danckaerts that the solution to the problem of native drunkenness was a prohibition against selling or trading spirits. The Massachusetts Bay Colony enacted the first ban in 1633, declaring that “no man shall sell or give any strong water to an Indian.” New Netherlands approved a similar law a decade later. The most vigorous interdiction campaign was conducted in Canada, where Jesuit missionaries battled against the use of brandy in the fur trade. The Bishop of Quebec ordered the excommunication of any French trader who sold liquor to the Indians. A French governor had two traders shot for the offense. But the king of France ordered an end to restrictions on the liquor trade, and the laws elsewhere had little chance of success. As Danckaerts discovered, an Indian who wanted to buy alcohol didn’t need to look farther than the next white homestead. Everyone was eager for his trade.


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The British and the French wooed the Indians with alcohol in an effort to gain an advantage in their continental rivalry. The records of colonial traders who operated in Indian country show that 80 percent of the charges to government accounts were for gifts of alcohol to the natives. The quantity of alcohol in Indian country increased dramatically after 1720 as the fur trade prospered. Thousands of gallons of rum were carried across the Allegheny Mountains to exchange for pelts at trading posts deep in the interior. At Detroit, three hundred thousand skins bought twenty-four thousand gallons in 1767. A government official estimated that Indians in the southern territories were consuming ten thousand gallons of rum every month in 1776. An Iroquois observed the rum flowed “so plentifully as if it ware water out of a fountain.”

It was obvious to all that drinking threatened the survival of the natives. Danckaerts had observed that the Indians were willing to trade anything for alcohol, including their blankets, leggings—“yes, their guns and hatchets, the very instruments by which they obtain their subsistence.” The impact on the Indian economy was devastating. Little Turtle, a leader of the Miami, told a group of Quakers in 1801 that Indians returning from the hunt with furs were targeted by white men who invited them to drink. Even those who repeatedly refused found themselves weakening:

[O]ne finally accepts it and takes a drink, and getting one he wants another, and then a third and fourth till his senses have left him. After reason comes back to him, he gets up and finds where he is. He asks for his peltry. The answer is, you have drunk them. Where is my gun? It is gone. Where is my blanket? It is gone. Where is my shirt? You have sold it for whiskey. Now, brothers, figure to yourself what a condition this man was in—he has a family at home, a wife and children that stand in need of the profits of his hunting. What must their wants be, when he is even without a shirt?

Furs were all the Indians had to trade. Guns were one of their few capital goods. When these were gone, the hunters and their families found themselves sinking into poverty. If the harvest had not been good, they faced starvation as well. In 1737, Conrad Weiser visited a village of Onondagas and Shawnees that had been hit hard by alcohol. “Their children looked like dead persons and suffered much from hunger,” he reported.

Many Indians didn’t live long enough to starve to death. “When we drink it makes us mad,” a Delaware Indian lamented. “We do not know what we do, we then abuse one another. We throw each other into the fire.” Drinking-related injuries were common. “[S]ome falling into Fires, burn their legs and arms, contracting the sinews, and become Cripples all their Life-times. Precipices break their Bones and Joints, with abundance of Instances,” explorer John Lawson wrote, describing natives in the Carolinas. Many drunks died of exposure after wandering away from their villages and passing out in the snow. John Josselyn, a naturalist, noted that the victims included women, “especially old women who dyed dead drunk.” The number of alcohol related deaths among Indians appears to have been shockingly high. A Choctaw leader estimated that his tribe had lost a thousand people in just eighteen months.

* * *

Surrounded by white People, and up to their Lips in Rum, so that they cou’d not turn their heads anyway but it ran into their mouths.

The Indians began expressing fear of alcohol in the seventeenth century. Tequassino and Hatsawap, two Nanticoke sachems, persuaded the governor of Maryland to ban the sale of liquor to their tribe in 1679. William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, approved a similar law. When a new governor promised vigorous enforcement of the law twenty years later, the Indians reacted cautiously. One leader, Orettyagh, “Exprest a great Satisfaction and Desired that the Law might Effectually be put in Execucon and not only discoursed of as formerly it has been.” The Indians would be disappointed again. Two decades later, Mingoes, Shawnees, and Conoys urged another governor to take action against the liquor dealers. Officials admitted they were powerless to enforce the law because “the Woods are so thick & dark we cannot see what is done in them.”

Recognizing that they could not count on the colonists to solve the problem, natives took matters in their own hands. In 1738, a hundred Shawnee warriors living along the Allegheny River signed a statement that was delivered to the Pennsylvania governor. “This day we have held a council, and it is agreed by the Shawnee in general that whatever rum is in our towns shall be broke and split and not drunk,” they said. The Shawnee were as good as their word, spilling at least forty gallons of liquor in the streets. Indians in other places also took action: villagers at Otsinigo, New York, warned liquor dealers to stay away; some Iroquois chiefs banned the sale of rum in their communities as well. But even the most vigorously enforced Indian ban could not stop natives from purchasing liquor from the colonists. Indians who lived close to white communities were the most susceptible to alcohol abuse. According to one of their chiefs, the Tuscarora “lived but wretchedly being Surrounded by white People, and up to their Lips in Rum, so that they cou’d not turn their heads anyway but it ran into their mouths.” To escape alcohol, they finally moved from the Carolinas to southern New York.

The Indian efforts at self-policing generally failed. The natives were divided: for every sachem who saw the devastating impact of the trade on his people, there were a dozen young men who wanted to drink when they returned from months of hunting, and they had the pelts to trade. Some tribes fled into the wilderness to escape alcohol, but that didn’t work for long as the white population moved westward. The great Indian leader Pontiac, who moved his followers from Detroit, admitted that their new home was close enough to whites “that when we want to drink, we can easily come for it.” Aucus al Kanigut, the Tuscarora chief who had moved his people from the Carolinas to New York, feared that the victory over alcohol was only temporary. “We also request you would give us some medicine to cure us of our fondness for that destructive liquor,” he said. The whites had no medicine and offered very little advice. In 1767, a group of Indians sought the counsel of William Johnson, the British superintendent of Indian affairs in the northern territories. “[T]he best Medicine I can think of to prevent your falling into your former Vice of drinking is to embrace Christianity,” Sir William replied.

Although Benjamin Franklin shared with his fellow colonists many stereotypes about Native Americans, he was also deeply concerned about the impact of alcohol on them. His newspaper periodically reported on the consequences of alcohol abuse among the natives, and in 1753 he issued a public warning of the danger. In his famous Autobiography, Franklin expressed fear for their future. “[I]f it be the Design of Providence to extirpate these Savages in order to make room for Cultivators of the Earth, it seems not improbable that Rum may be the appointed Means,” he said.

By the time of Handsome Lake’s first vision in May 1799, America’s indigenous people had lost most of their land in the East and Midwest. William Henry Harrison, a future US president who was governor of Indiana and the Louisiana territories, told his superior in Washington that the Indians were suffering a crisis of leadership:

This poisonous liquor not only incapacitates them from obtaining a living by Hunting but it leads to the most atrocious crimes— killing each other has become so customary amongst them that it is no longer a crime to murder those whom they have been accustomed to esteem and regard. Their Chiefs and their nearest relatives fall under the strokes of their Tomahawks and Knives. This has been so much the case with the three Tribes nearest us—the Peankashaws, Weas, & Eel River Miamis that there is scarcely a Chief to be found amongst them.

Harrison blamed white settlers for corrupting the Indians with alcohol. “This is so certain that I can at once tell by looking at an Indian who I chance to meet whether he belong to a Neighboring or more distant Tribe,” he wrote. “The latter is generally well Clothed healthy and vigorous, the former half naked, filthy and enfeebled with Intoxication, and many of them without arms except a Knife which they carry for the most villainous purposes.” Harrison believed the Indians were close to “exterpation” and begged his superior to bring the problem to President Thomas Jefferson’s attention. The following year Jefferson signed legislation banning the sale of alcohol to the Indians. Once again, the authorities lacked either the will or the resources to enforce the law.

* * *

The tormentor would urge him, saying: Come, drink—you used to love whiskey.

New, more militant Indians began to take the place of their discredited leaders. They opposed all efforts by white men to “help” them, believing that the Indians must arrive at their own solutions. Banning the consumption of alcohol was at the top of their list. In the 1750s, a Delaware woman who had been relocated to western Pennsylvania announced that she had been told by the “Great Power that they should destroy the poison from among them.” Soon, other Delaware prophets emerged to urge the people to recapture the happiness of the days before the arrival of the white man by resisting incursions on their lands, rejecting Christian religion, and reviving the religious ceremonies of their forebearers. All the prophets agreed that it was essential for their people to stop drinking alcohol. “Hear what the Great Spirit has ordered me to tell you,” the prophet Neolin announced:

You are to make sacrifices, in the manner that I shall direct; to put off entirely from yourselves the customs which you have adopted since the white people came among us; you are to return to the former happy state, in which we lived in peace and plenty, before these strangers came to disturb us, and above all, you must abstain from drinking their deadly beson [poisonous, bewitched medicine, i.e., liquor], which they force upon us for the sake of increasing their gains.

The warrior Pontiac would later cite Neolin’s teachings as an inspiration for the attacks that wiped out nine of the thirteen British forts from the frontier.

Ten-sqúat-a-way

Tenskwatawa. Via Wikimedia.

Forty years later, the most militant of all Indian prophets began to speak. Ellskwata was the son of a Shawnee chief and the brother of Tecumseh, who would come as close as any man ever did to uniting the natives in opposition to the newly minted Americans during the War of 1812. Ellskwata was a known drunkard and braggart until one day in 1805 when he had his first vision. His visit to heaven bore several similarities to Handsome Lake’s Sky Journey, which had occurred only a few years earlier. The drunkard was punished by “a cup of liquor resembling melted lead; if he refused to drink it he [the tormentor] would urge him, saying: Come, drink—you used to love whiskey. And upon drinking it, his bowels were seized with an exquisite burning.”

Like the prophets before him, Ellskwata, now calling himself Tenskwata (Open Door), urged the Indians to reject white ways, including alcohol. Indians and whites had separate origins, and “the Great Spirit did not mean that the white and red people should live near each other” because whites “poison’d the land.” Tenskwata’s preaching was not confined to the Shawnee; many Indians accepted his prophecy.

By September 1807, Indian thirst for liquor was disappearing in Michigan. “All the Ottawas from L’abre au Croche adhere strictly to the Shawney Prophets advice they do not wear Hats Drink or Conjure,” one trader reported. (Hats were a symbol of white settlers.) “Rum is a drug [on the market]. . . . Indians do not purchase One Galln per month,” another complained. But Tenskwata’s hopes for an Indian revival died with his brother during the Battle of Tippecanoe. He was exiled to Canada for ten years.

Handsome Lake shared with other nativists a desire to save his people by restoring their pride in being Indians. Soon after awakening from his first vision, he said the messengers had told him that the Strawberry Festival, then under way, must always be held and that all must drink the berry juice. Later, he was instructed to revive the white dog ceremony, which involved eating the flesh of the sacrificed animal. The revival of Indian religion was crucial because Handsome Lake’s vision had revealed that Christianity was not intended for Indians. He had seen a church with a spire but no door, which he saw as a symbol of the difficulty that Indians had in accepting the white man’s religion. Jesus Christ also appeared in his dream and told him this in as many words. According to Handsome Lake, Christ said, “Now tell your people that they will become lost when they follow the ways of the white man.” Handsome Lake was obsessed by the danger posed by magic and would soon lead a campaign against witches that would result in the murder of at least one woman.

Handsome Lake also opposed the sale of any more land to the whites and was ambivalent about the arrival of the Quakers. The Quakers did not attempt to convert the Seneca. They wanted to help the Indians make the transition from hunting to farming. But this fundamentally changed Indian life, as the Quakers pushed the men toward the fields that women traditionally tended and attempted to move the women into strictly domestic duties. No less threatening was the opening of a school where the Quakers taught the children how to read and write English. Many worried that the students would cease to be Indians. Handsome Lake was not opposed to all English education, but he believed that it should be limited to enabling Indians to protect their interests by reading treaties and other contracts.

Handsome Lake sought to live peacefully with whites. This may have had something to do with the fact that the Iroquois resided on reservations encircled by whites, and thus they had no military options. But it also appears that he had never become embittered by whites. He disagreed with those who believed that the newcomers were trying to exterminate the Indians. He viewed whites as neither good nor bad. Indians and whites were different. Their religions were not opposed: the Christians followed the teachings of Jesus Christ, and the Indians had the Gaiwiio, and the two gospels did not appear to conflict. Handsome Lake even seemed willing to allow Christian Indians to keep their new religion as long as they were faithful to its moral code. This tolerance may have reflected his experience with the Quakers, who did not seek to judge the character of any man’s faith. Handsome Lake was grateful for the Quakers’ efforts to help his people and supported most of their economic reforms. In general, Handsome Lake believed that the Great Spirit wanted mutual respect between races and individuals. In time, he came to regret his attack on witches.

* * *

When white people urged them to drink whiskey, they would ask for bread.

Handsome Lake saw that many of the Indians’ problems were the result of a breakdown in their sense of obligation to each other and to the community. Some members of the younger generation had lost respect for their elders, provoking arguments between fathers and sons. Some mothers were interfering too much in the lives of their daughters and disrupting the relationship between husbands and wives. Too many men were refusing to marry in order to avoid responsibility for raising children or were “putting aside their wives” through divorce. Women were sometimes guilty of being jealous of other women and brutal to their children. Much of Handsome Lake’s visions bore on the importance of strengthening the bonds between family members. Husbands must be the heads of their families. It was no longer enough to participate in the hunt and spend the rest of the year in idleness. They must “harvest food for [the] family” and take care of the livestock. Women must be good housewives, caring for their husband and children, welcoming guests, and looking out for orphans. Mothers-in-law should mind their own business.

It was obvious to Handsome Lake that alcohol worsened all of the Indians’ problems. Alcohol had played a key role in defrauding Indians of their lands. Heavy drinking was a major source of violence in the community and contributed to a decline in economic productivity, while undermining some families by increasing philandering, fueling arguments between husbands and wives, and occasionally leading to child abuse. But where other prophets blamed the white men for using drink to destroy the Indians, Handsome Lake explained how they were destroying themselves:

Good food is turned into evil drink. Now some have said that there is no harm in partaking of fermented liquids.

Then let this plan be followed: let men gather in two parties, one having a feast of food, apples and corn, and the other have cider and whiskey. Let the parties be equally matched and let them commence their feasting at the same time. When the feast is finished you will see those who drank the fermented juices murder one of their own part but not so with those who ate food only.

Handsome Lake was offering his people an alternative: they didn’t have to drink. A white man later asked an Onondaga man why his people had suddenly stopped drinking when they had been urged to do it for years. “[T]hey had no power,” he replied. “[B]ut when the Great Spirit forbid such conduct by their prophet, he gave them the power to comply with their request.”

Tecumseh02

Tecumseh. Via Wikimedia.

The Quakers were the first to notice the change in the Seneca. Henry Simmons had been living in Cornplanter’s Town when Handsome Lake and his drunken compatriots had torn it up. Soon after Handsome Lake’s first vision, Cornplanter told Simmons that the Allegheny Seneca “now drank much less than formerly.” Over the next year, “the Indians now became very sober, generally refraining from the use of strong liquor, both at home and abroad among the white people,” Simmons said. One of them told another Quaker, “no more get drunk here, now this two year.”

In 1803, Handsome Lake suffered the first of several setbacks, losing his title as the supreme leader of the Six Nations to Red Jacket, the leader of the Seneca in the Buffalo Creek reservation. But the loss of political power did not undermine Handsome Lake’s moral authority. He made annual visits to many of the Seneca reservations where his following continued to grow. A Quaker delegation that toured Handsome Lake’s stronghold in the Allegheny Valley discovered that white settlers in the area were amazed that the Seneca “entirely refused liquor when offered to them. The Indians said . . . that when white people urged them to drink whiskey, they would ask for bread or provisions in its stead.”

The Indians’ main tool for enforcing the ban on alcohol was community pressure. Occasionally, they resorted to threats, like the one they issued to a white trader who sold cider to some Seneca without telling them that it contained alcohol. When the fraud was discovered, sober Indians told him that they would break his barrels if he did not get out of town, which he promptly did. With their own people, the Indian enforcers confined their efforts to verbal harassment. If the chiefs discovered that someone had gotten drunk “when they were out in the white settlements, they were sharply reproved by the chiefs on their return, which had nearly the same effect among Indians, as committing a man to the workhouse among white people.”

Handsome Lake recognized that it would not be easy for his people to keep away from sin, and he showed tolerance for their weakness. He endorsed public confession as a way of relieving guilt and was willing to meet with individuals privately if their behavior had been particularly heinous. He preached that even people who confessed on their deathbeds could save themselves from damnation. So the community never concluded that a drunk was beyond saving. In 1809, the Quakers were told by residents of the Cattaraugus reservation that all the men there had stopped drinking. “[B]ut there were yet three women who would sometimes become intoxicated, yet they did not intend to cease labouring with them till they become reformed.”

Sobriety spread beyond the Seneca to other Iroquois tribes. The Onondaga chiefs who had scared the whiskey trader Webster on their way home from the grand council in 1801 succeeded in their goal of carrying the Prophet’s words to their people. Two years later, a missionary wrote that the Onondaga had “for two years greatly reformed in their intemperate drinking.” The Oneida, who were divided between native and Christian factions, were somewhat less successful. But Handsome Lake’s message was preached even to the Christian Indians. Their white minister acknowledged that the native religion “absolutely forbid the use of rum, and assert[ed] that no Indian can be a good man who takes even a spoonful.”

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They had got their eyes open to see.

Seven years after Handsome Lake’s visions, the Indians had begun to recognize the full extent of the damage that alcohol had done to their people. At a Seneca reservation, the leaders told William Allinson that “since they had got their eyes open to see they were sensible that strong drink had done them a great deal of mischief and kept them poor but now they had got hold of it and was determined never to let it raise again.” Allinson was one of the Quakers who were encouraging the Iroquois to accept white values, and he praised the Seneca for embracing the profit motive. “They are naturally avaricious and saving & not being so liable to Imposition as when they drank Spirits, some of them are growing rich.”

Handsome Lake never succeeded in reforming all of the Iroquois or even all of the Seneca. Red Jacket, the leader of the large Seneca reservation at Buffalo Creek, remained a political foe. While he denounced demon rum, he was known to drink. There were also small Seneca reservations along the Genesee River that lay close to white settlements. In these places, “we are almost discouraged about our Brothers,” Handsome Lake admitted. But these were the exceptions. Every year, Handsome Lake walked hundreds of miles to visit his followers and make new converts. It was obvious to all but the most cynical observers that a great change had occurred among the Iroquois. In 1809, Quaker Jacob Taylor attended a meeting of the Council of the Six Nations at Buffalo Creek. “I think I never saw so many Indians together before that conducted with so much propriety—the number could not be well ascertained, but it was thought there were about One Thousand, and I don’t remember seeing one Drunken Indian among them,” he said.

Handsome Lake died on August 10, 1815, at the age of sixty-six. It had been sixteen years since he launched his campaign to save the Iroquois people by preaching the Gaiwiio. He had been making his annual tour, when he received an invitation to speak at the Onondaga reservation in central New York. Although it was 150 miles away, he made the journey by foot, speaking at villages as he traveled. He was sick and depressed by thoughts of death by the time he arrived at Onondaga. The meeting that he had hoped to address had to be canceled, but he emerged from the small cabin to make a final address:

I will soon go to my new home. Soon I will step into the new world for there is a plain pathway before me leading there. Whoever follows my teachings will follow in my footsteps and I will look back upon him with outstretched arms inviting him into the new world of our Creator. Alas, I fear that a pall of smoke will obscure the eyes of many from the truth of the Gaiwiio but I pray that when I am gone that all may do what I have taught.

Handsome Lake was buried in the center of the council house in Onondaga.

When the news reached the outside world, the Buffalo Gazette published an obituary that began by carefully distinguishing between Handsome Lake and Tenskwata. It called him “the Peace Prophet” and recounted how a fifty-year-old man who was “remarkable only for stupidity and beastly drunkenness” had experienced his great dream. “The chief immediately abandoned his habits, visited the tribes—related his story—which was believed, and the consequence has been, that from a filthy, lazy drunken set of beings, they have become cleanly, industrious, sober, and happy,” the obituary said.

A few months before his death, Handsome Lake had experienced his final vision. He was walking in a field of corn. “Suddenly a damsel appeared and threw her arms about my neck and as she clasped me she spoke saying, ‘When you leave this earth for the new world above, it is our wish to follow you,’ ” he recalled. “I looked for the damsel but saw only the long leaves of corn twining around my shoulders. And then I understood that it was the spirit of the corn who had spoken, she the sustainer of life.”

So I replied, “O spirit of the corn, follow not me but abide still upon the earth and be strong and be faithful to your purpose. Ever endure and do not fail the children of women. It is not time for you to follow for the Gaiwiio is only in its beginning.”

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