- Purchase/rental options available:
The Catholic Historical Review 87.4 (2001) 766-767
[Access article in PDF]
A Friend among the Senecas: The Quaker Mission to Cornplanter's People
A Friend among the Senecas: The Quaker Mission to Cornplanter's People. By David Swatzler. (Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books. 2000. Pp. xv, 319. $24.95.)
The Seneca people of the Six Nations Iroquois confederacy emerged badly bruised from the American Revolution. They suffered the burning of most of their villages at the hands of rebel forces in 1779 because of their alliance with the loyalist cause, and then they endured the trauma of living in squalid refugee camps along the Niagara River. As they tried to rebuild their lives after 1783, they found themselves facing grave new challenges. By 1797, through a series of one-sided treaties, land-hungry Americans forced the tribe to cede most of its territory and settle on reservations, where Euroamericans assumed that the surrounded and outnumbered natives would disappear through assimilation as their traditional economy lost its viability. Within Seneca society itself, poverty, disease, the loss of independence, and a sense of hopelessness created new levels of social disintegration, marked in part by increased alcohol abuse and interpersonal violence. However, reformers and religious leaders arose within Iroquois communities in the 1790's who responded to these challenges with fresh models on how to strengthen their people temporally and spiritually, and thereby secure their future. The most famous was the Seneca prophet, Handsome Lake, whose legacy continues to have a major impact in Six Nations religion and life today. At the same time that these reform efforts began within the aboriginal world, the Society of Friends, or Quakers, undertook a mission to the Senecas, directing their efforts primarily at the people of the Allegany Reservation in western New York and the Cornplanter Grant in Pennsylvania.
David Swatzler's A Friend among the Senecas studies the tribe's late-eighteenth-century turmoil and the efforts of the Quaker missionaries, especially Henry Simmons, to help them adjust to the Euroamerican agrarian culture that would come to dominate their old homeland. Simmons' story forms the core of the book, but his work is framed within a broad contextualization of Seneca ethnohistory. As a result, Swatzler not only includes chapters on the dynamics of missionary-native interaction, but he also presents sections addressing various aspects of aboriginal culture. Overall, the parts on the mission are quite interesting, as the author tells the story of a Christian enterprise that did not incorporate a strong proselytizing thrust because of the denomination's distinct theology. Instead, Simmons and his compatriots promoted the agricultural, craft production, and educational skills they believed the Senecas needed to embrace in order to make their way in a rapidly changing world. Many of their views on improving the agrarian economy coincided with those of Seneca reformers. However, most natives saw such activity as a way to generate enough prosperity to maintain their independence and to protect spiritual and cultural values much more than the Quakers did. Other aspects of the missionary agenda, such as changing the land occupation régime to approximate European practices, conflicted with collectivist native values. [End Page 766]
David Swatzler is not a historian or an anthropologist, but rather works in the nuclear power industry. He took up his study out of personal interest, conducted extensive archival research, and then wrote A Friend Among the Senecas as his first book. As one accordingly might expect, there are some analytical weaknesses, and various scholars have covered the ethnographical subjects in the text with more sophistication. In addition, the book must live in the shadow of a still-important study of the same period in Seneca history, Anthony Wallace's Death and Rebirth of the Seneca (New York: Knopf, 1969). Nevertheless, A Friend Among the Senecas has its strengths. The narrative of the Quaker mission is enlightening and informative, and the book reproduces Henry Simmons' fascinating 1799 journal about his work among the Senecas for the first time. Thus, David Swatzler's effort is a worthy one that...