The Seneca lived in Western New York in what is known as the Finger Lakes area. The town of Palmyra sits in the center of Seneca land.
Handsome Lake (Sganyadai:yo) was a Seneca religious leader and prophet. He was born about 1735 near present-day Avon, New York. Not much is known about his parents. We do know that he was born into the Wolf clan of his mother and was later adopted into the Turtle clan.
At the time of Handsome Lake’s birth, the Seneca nation was prosperous. Living in the Finger Lakes area, which has an abundance of lakes, rivers and streams, they were successful trappers and fur traders. They traded not only with other members of the Iroquois Confederacy, but also with the ever-growing influx of Europeans that was moving further and further inland.
In 1777 Handsome Lake was part of an Iroquois war council that met with the British concerning the revolutionaries battling Britain for independence. It was Handsome Lake’s opinion that the war was a family squabble between Europeans and of no concern to the Iroquois. However, in 1778 he went along with the decision of his people and fought along side the British against the revolutionaries.
After the war, and as retribution for Iroquois support of the British, American Major General John Sullivan led a campaign against the Iroquois. It was his intent, “…to destroy everything that contributes to their support”.
Archeologist Arthur C. Parker wrote:
“Forty towns were obliterated, 60,000 bushels of corn destroyed, fruit orchards uprooted, girdled or chopped down, one containing 1500 trees. Ruin was spread like a blanket over the Iroquois country and their garden valley reduced to a desolate blighted and forsaken region dotted with blackened ruins. Hardly a food plant remained for the coming winter.” (Arthur C. Parker, Iroquois Uses of Maize and Other Food Plants, 1919, page 20)
The Iroquois began to fight back and destroyed many white villages. Cornplanter, being the Seneca War Chief, was summoned to Washington DC by George Washington. It was the desire of both men to end the fighting and to live peaceably.
As a result of this retribution, the Seneca people had suffered greatly, both temporally and emotionally. Their once great nation fell into depression, alcoholism, and immorality.
By this time Handsome Lake was an alcoholic and in poor health. He realized he had wasted much of his life. Rather than being a spiritual leader and example to his people, he had fallen into disgrace. Preparing to die, he asked his daughter to send for his half brothers, Black Snake and Cornplanter. Laying on his cot, Handsome Lake pleaded with the Great Spirit to let him die.
While working in the back of the lodge, his daughter heard someone shout “Niio” (alright or so be it). When she went to find out what was happening, she found her father lying on the ground near the door of the lodge. He appeared to be dead. When his half brothers arrived, Cornplanter found warm spots on the body and decided to postpone the burial.
The next day, Handsome Lake still appeared to be dead. At midday he woke and sat up. He related a vision he had had while presumed dead.
“Some voice from without said, ‘Come forth’. I hesitated, first thinking that I was speaking to myself. But after it was repeated three times, I arose to investigate. I, with much difficulty, got to the door of my lodge where I saw standing before me three looking alike, all dressed in clean white raiment, standing in clear swept space. Never before have I seen such handsome, commanding men. They held in their hands branches from bushes bearing berries of different colors.”
The men told Handsome Lake that He who created the world in the beginning sent them. He sent them to visit Handsome Lake because “He is grateful for my creations, furthermore, he wishes to rise from sickness and walk again upon the earth. Go down and help him to recover.”
The men told him “Take of these berries and eat of every color. They will give you strength: then come with us.”
The men then took him on a journey where he saw many of his people. He saw their sins and sufferings. After that first visit, they visited him many times and gave him instructions for the people. Handsome Lake became a great religious leader to his people. When the three messengers visited him, he then imparted the message fearlessly to his people. The religion he established among his people was called Gai’wiio meaning The Good Message or New Gospel.
Who were these three messengers? Could they have been earlier inhabitants of North America?
In the Book of Mormon, in the book of 3 Nephi, Christ called and ordained twelve Nephite disciples. When asked what they desired, nine of them asked to live to an old age and then to be taken quickly into Christ’s presence. The other three asked to remain on earth until Christ’s second coming. They were granted that request.
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Painting Handsome Lake and the Three Messengers by Ernie Smith, from the Collections of the Rochester Museum & Science Center, Rochester, NY.
Iroquois Nation Map — R.A. Nonenmacher, wikimedia commons
Iroquois Trading with Europeans — Public Domain
Seneca War Chief Cornplanter — F. Bartoli (1796)