We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Seneca Possessed

Indians, Witchcraft, and Power in the Early American Republic

By Matthew Dennis

Publication Year: 2012

Seneca Possessed examines the ordeal of a Native people in the wake of the American Revolution. As part of the once-formidable Iroquois Six Nations in western New York, Senecas occupied a significant if ambivalent place within the newly established United States. They found themselves the object of missionaries' conversion efforts while also confronting land speculators, poachers, squatters, timber-cutters, and officials from state and federal governments.

In response, Seneca communities sought to preserve their territories and culture amid a maelstrom of economic, social, religious, and political change. They succeeded through a remarkable course of cultural innovation and conservation, skillful calculation and luck, and the guidance of both a Native prophet and unusual Quakers. Through the prophecies of Handsome Lake and the message of Quaker missionaries, this process advanced fitfully, incorporating elements of Christianity and white society and economy, along with older Seneca ideas and practices.

But cultural reinvention did not come easily. Episodes of Seneca witch-hunting reflected the wider crises the Senecas were experiencing. Ironically, as with so much of their experience in this period, such episodes also allowed for the preservation of Seneca sovereignty, as in the case of Tommy Jemmy, a Seneca chief tried by New York in 1821 for executing a Seneca "witch." Here Senecas improbably but successfully defended their right to self-government. Through the stories of Tommy Jemmy, Handsome Lake, and others, Seneca Possessed explores how the Seneca people and their homeland were "possessed"—culturally, spiritually, materially, and legally—in the era of early American independence.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Early American Studies

Front Matter

pdf iconDownload PDF (655.8 KB)

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (202.0 KB)
pp. 1-14

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...

Part I. Dominion

read more

1. Colonial Crucible and Post-Revolutionary Predicament

pdf iconDownload PDF (469.8 KB)
pp. 19-49

When the Seneca man Tommy Jemmy approached Kauquatau’s house about three miles from the white settlement of Buffalo, New York, in early May 1821, he came as an angel of death. Did Kauquatau know her executioner, and did she apprehend the nature of his mission? Did she willingly accompany him to the nearby field where she would die? Newspapers would...

Part II. Spirit

read more

2. Handsome Lake and the Seneca Great Awakening: Revelation and Transformation

pdf iconDownload PDF (609.4 KB)
pp. 53-80

‘‘The winter of 1799–1800 was in western New York long called the time of the Great Revival.’’ So wrote the historian of American religion Whitney R. Cross as he considered the onset of the Second Great Awakening. Cross’s landmark study of the nineteenth-century rise of enthusiastic religion, new prophets, and new sects expanded historians’ vision of the awakening...

read more

3. Patriarchy and the Witch-Hunting of Handsome Lake

pdf iconDownload PDF (627.6 KB)
pp. 81-114

The novelties of Seneca witchcraft were largely invisible to white observers. They paid little heed when witchcraft accusations flew about the Genesee River frontier of Mary Jemison following the American Revolution, or even when Cornplanter ordered the execution of a witch in the summer of 1799. But by the time that Tommy Jemmy slew Kauquatau in 1821, the white public...

Part III. Mastery

read more

4. Friendly Mission: The Holy Conversation of Quakers and Senecas

pdf iconDownload PDF (216.5 KB)
pp. 117-147

In the summer of 1798 Quaker missionaries first arrived among the Senecas. They looked forward, hopeful about the future, but that beginning had a significant past. The Quakers knew that Senecas had been possessed by unprecedented dangers in the post-Revolutionary years. And they were on hand when Handsome Lake, through his prophecies and programs...

read more

5. From Longhouse to Farmhouse: Quakers and the Transformation of Seneca Rural Life

pdf iconDownload PDF (231.8 KB)
pp. 148-178

Seneca women and men faced difficult choices as they remade themselves and their economic lives. But such decisions—and the dilemmas they confronted— were not entirely specific to them as Native people. Senecas shared some of the problems other poor and middling Americans encountered as new markets, new commercial relations, new systems of manufacturing, new...

read more

6. Seneca Repossessed, 1818–1826

pdf iconDownload PDF (402.1 KB)
pp. 179-220

Augustus Fox, a western New York entrepreneur and sometime impresario, had occasion to write a young English Quaker women, Elizabeth Fothergill, in August 1819. We will hear more about both soon, because they played important roles in the early career of the notorious Tommy Jemmy, before his execution of the alleged witch Kauquatau in 1821. Fothergill cared deeply...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (65.9 KB)
pp. 221-225

In 1903 in Buffalo, when volume 6 of the Publications of the Buffalo Historical Society first appeared, thoughts of death must have loomed over that western New York metropolis. Just two years earlier in their fair city—perhaps as the Historical Society’s editors prepared their volume on the Niagara Frontier, the Genesee Country, and ‘‘the pathos of a vanished folk,’’ that is, the...


pdf iconDownload PDF (383.6 KB)
pp. 227-300


pdf iconDownload PDF (772.8 KB)
pp. 301-310

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (40.4 KB)
pp. 311-313

Fitzgerald was surely right that the past pulls on us, like the current we fight as we push upstream. If only historical research and writing were as easy as riding with the stream into the past. Instead, the historian’s task is often to row out against an incoming tide, and then in again after the tide has shifted—the journey into the past through research is matched by the perils...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812207088
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812221992

Page Count: 328
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Early American Studies