Handsom Lake, a religious leader and prophet of the Seneca people came to the forefront of the Iroquois culture when he advocated teachings he received from three visions, or dreams. Handsome Lake nearly died of alcoholism and its related affects. In 1799, at death’s door, three visions appeared to him that saved his life and turned the lives of the Iroquois people around from despair to hope. These visions shared the idea that the Iroquois people should return to their traditional roots, while still accepting the new realities of their current situation.
Native American tribes at that time were in despair at the circumstances in which they found themselves. The country and their lands had been overrun by European settlers who were fleeing Europe in search of a new home. As more and more people arrived, things unknown to the tribal people were introduced to them – not all of them were good. As one example, the settlers introduced alcohol (white man’s fire water) to them.
The Native Americans’ way of life was drastically changed with the migration from Europe. Lands were taken; lands were sold. The Iroquois culture was getting lost in “white man’s ways.” As a result, more Native Americans turned to “the drink” to ease their pain from the situation unfolding around them. Handsome Lake’s visions of hope and encouragement gradually began to turn their despondency into optimism and return their yearning to thrive and succeed in their new environment.
Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States from 1801 to 1809, wrote a letter to Handsome Lake. Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence and many other important papers. He was greatly admired for his stance on equal rights for all, and yet was sometimes criticized for his own practice of possessing slaves, his actions seemingly contradicting his words.
President Thomas Jefferson heard of the progress Handsome Lake was making among the tribal people and his proposal that they stay away from alcohol. President Jefferson admired Handsome Lake and thought he was a man worthy of negotiating peaceful agreements and settlements. A government agent, Captain Irvine, was allocated to Handsome Lake, to work near him and carry his messages with the President back and forth. Handsome Lake and some Iroquois representatives were invited to dine with Thomas Jefferson and he spoke with the President about the rights of the Native Americans to retain their land. President Jefferson gave his word to Handsome Lake in a letter in 1802, restating their discussions at that dinner, saying that land would not be taken unless the tribes were willing to sell. Jefferson said the government was always willing to buy land, but would not ask if the owner did not wish to sell.
President Thomas Jefferson also made a proclamation that the United States wouldn’t sell liquor or spirits to the Native Americans anymore, as that was Handsome Lake’s wish and desire to curb and control the influence of alcohol on tribal people. Jefferson also instituted a law to prohibit individuals from buying Native American lands and, during any transaction, a government representative would have to be present to ensure a fair process.
In the letter, Jefferson references Handsome Lake’s complaint that a land deal by the State of New York was unjust. Jefferson argues that a government representative was there and assured him all was fair and equal and that the seller sold freely.
President Jefferson also went on to say that while he understood the tribal people’s needs for land to hunt on, he also thought Handsome Lake should encourage his people to think about the great opportunity that agriculture presented. The President tried to persuade Handsome Lake to promote the advantages of planting crops and women weaving their family’s own clothes to make possible a better quality of life for the Native Americans. President Jefferson expressed his desire and hope for the happiness of the Iroquois and all his “red brethren.”
The letter was an unusual one for the times; it was an open admittance of Jefferson’s willingness to work with the Native Americans and count them as brethren. President Jefferson’s letter was also an important endorsement for Handsome Lake’s religious movement. Whether or not his letter stood the test of time in efforts to count the Native Americans as equal is left for you to decide from the history of actual events.