- Seneca Possessed: Indians, Witchcraft, and Power in the Early American Republic
In a New York state courthouse in 1821, the Buffalo Creek Seneca leader Red Jacket rose to the defense of Tommy Jemmy, a fellow Seneca chief on trial for murdering a Seneca woman accused of witchcraft. That Jemmy had slit the woman’s throat was not in dispute, but could the Empire State charge the witch executioner with murder? At this collision of two systems of justice, Seneca sovereignty was at stake. Reminding the court of the Salem witch hunts, Red Jacket excoriated state authorities for overstepping their jurisdictional boundaries, especially when the [End Page 632] United States’ forebears had participated in a similar exercise at the close of the seventeenth century.
Matthew Dennis uses this compelling opening scene to launch into a comprehensive study of the Seneca from the end of the American Revolution through the 1820s. By focusing on the gendered implications of famed prophet Handsome Lake’s social and economic reforms and extending the narrative beyond the prophet’s death, Dennis sheds new light on the story of Seneca revitalization told by Anthony F. C. Wallace in his classic work The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca (New York, 1970). Furthermore, Dennis analyzes these internal transformations in conjunction with broader developments in American religious revivalism and the burgeoning capitalist marketplace. This thorough approach situates Seneca history within major topics in early national historiography without sacrificing a Seneca-centered narrative.
The book’s title and organization cleverly combine Red Jacket’s defense of Tommy Jemmy with the title of Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum’s Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft (Cambridge, MA, 1974) to consider the various meanings of Seneca “possession” in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Sections titled “Dominion,” “Spirit,” and “Mastery” explore the territorial, religious, and political dimensions of the Seneca’s drive for sovereignty and renewal amid U.S. expansion. Dennis ultimately attributes Seneca cultural and territorial persistence to these different forms of “possession.” Though their land and sovereignty remained under assault, the Seneca also found refuge “in the spaces opened by intergovernmental rivalry, and amid political and religious factionalism” (11).
Devastating military incursions, alcohol abuse, and land loss had ravaged the Seneca by the end of the eighteenth century. Dennis likens their post-Revolutionary suffering to “purgatory” (40), where landscapes razed by Washington’s army, the threat of land surveyors and settlers, and internal political instability made life tortuous and uncertain. In June 1799, Handsome Lake fell into a trance, initiating a series of revelations that would continue until his death in 1815. Through his teachings, Handsome Lake revived selective aspects of Seneca culture, including the Iroquois ritual calendar and dream interpretation. Dennis argues that although Handsome Lake’s prophecies “largely represented continuity—not rupture—with Iroquois religious traditions” (70), his millennialism and program of moral reform, including proscriptions against alcohol use, dancing, gambling, and other vices, reflected strong Christian influences. [End Page 633] Casting the Seneca revitalization as “an indigenous expression of the Second Great Awakening” (54), Dennis also places Handsome Lake’s movement in the context of the broader religious revivalism of the early nineteenth century.
With his Gaiwiio, or “Good Word,” Handsome Lake attracted a sizeable following, but Dennis astutely observes that the prophet did not derive authority from the Gaiwiio alone. Witchcraft accusations became an important vehicle by which Handsome Lake consolidated power and sought to reformulate Seneca gender conventions. While he increasingly targeted women, Handsome Lake did accuse his male political rivals of witchcraft, leading Dennis to grant that we must “see Seneca witch-hunting as a complex phenomenon, gendered but also affected by matters of kinship, localism, and political rivalry” (101). Though Wallace’s Death and Rebirth of the Seneca mentions Handsome Lake’s witch hunts, Dennis’s analysis of the feminization of Seneca witch hunting and the patriarchal foundations of Seneca revitalization lends the work some of its most important insights.
After tracing the internal impulses for Seneca reform and their...