Seneca Possessed: Indians, Witchcraft, and Power in the Early American Republic

Seneca Possessed: Indians, Witchcraft, and Power in the Early American Republic

Seneca Possessed: Indians, Witchcraft, and Power in the Early American Republic

Seneca Possessed: Indians, Witchcraft, and Power in the Early American Republic


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.


There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a
document of barbarism.

—Walter Benjamin

I am going to tell a story of harrowing villainy and complicated—
but, as I trust, intensely interesting—crime. My rascals are no milk
and-water rascals, I promise you. When we come to the proper places
we won’t spare fine language—No, no! But when we are going over
the quiet country we must perforce be calm. a tempest in a slop
basin is absurd. We will reserve that sort of thing for the mighty
ocean and the lonely midnight. the present Chapter is very mild.
Others—But we will not anticipate those.

—William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

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 would bathe in pathetic glory a few years later, he was not the “last of his race.” His people, the Senecas—one of the Six Nations of the Iroquois, a once powerful confederation of tribes, including the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, Senecas, and Tuscaroras—were in the early stages of a . . .

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