Code of Handsome Lake

The Seneca religious leader Handsome Lake founded the Longhouse religion, which merged Native American and Christian traditions. Both successful and controversial, the Longhouse religion was an attempt to revive indigenous cultures within the context of the contemporary experience of Native Americans.

Summary of Event

The Code of Handsome Lake was one of several Native American religions that evolved in reaction to European colonization. Colonization;Europeans of North America
American Indians;and colonization[colonization] These religions often combined traditional Native American beliefs and rituals with the introduction of a Christian-style savior who was said to be able to recapture for Native Americans the better days they had known before colonization. One well-known example of this fusion was the Ghost Dance Ghost Dance religion, which was begun by the prophet Wovoka Wovoka, who had been raised with both indigenous and Christian influences. Tenskwatawa Tenskwatawa (also known as the Delaware Prophet) also formulated a religion that combined both traditions during the eighteenth century. [kw]Code of Handsome Lake (1799)
[kw]Lake, Code of Handsome (1799)
[kw]Handsome Lake, Code of (1799)
Religion;American Indians
Longhouse religion (American Indians)
Christianity;and American Indians[American Indians]
[g]United States;Aug. 1-2, 1798: Battle of the Nile[3360]
[c]Religion and theology;1799: Code of Handsome Lake[3370]
Handsome Lake
Red Jacket
Hall, Louis
Parker, Arthur Caswell

Handsome Lake was born at Canawaugus, a Seneca village near contemporary Avon, New York, on the Genesee River. He was a member of the Senecas Seneca nation, one of the five nations that had joined together as the Iroquois Confederacy Iroquois Confederacy. His personal name was Ganeodiyo; Handsome Lake, a reference to Lake Ontario, is one of the fifty chieftainship lines of the Iroquois Confederacy, a title bestowed on him by clan mothers. He was a half brother of the Seneca chief Cornplanter and an uncle of Red Jacket. Handsome Lake and many other Senecas sided with the British in the French and Indian War (1754-1763) French and Indian War and the American Revolution (1775-1783);Senecas American Revolution. Washington, George
[p]Washington, George;American Indians George Washington and his subcommanders, principally General Sullivan, John John Sullivan, were merciless with Native Americans who supported the British. During the late stages of the revolution, many Seneca communities were laid to waste by scorched-earth marches that destroyed crops, livestock, and homes.

After that war, many Iroquois and other Native Americans who had supported the British were forced into Canada, Canada;and American Indians[American Indians] principally to lands secured by Brant, Joseph Joseph Brant at Grand River. Others fled westward to join other Native Americans who were still free. Those who remained in their homelands were forced onto small, impoverished reservations, and repeated attempts were made to force them out. It is estimated that by 1794, the Iroquois population had shrunk to approximately four thousand people.

Handsome Lake’s revival occurred in an atmosphere of dissension within a fractured Iroquois Confederacy. The course of his life reflected the devastation of his people. Born into a prominent family of the Turtle Clan, Handsome Lake distinguished himself as a leader as a young man, before the American Revolution, when Iroquois society was still largely intact. Handsome Lake’s decline began after his birthplace was taken by whites, and he was forced to move to the Allegheny Seneca reservation. The Seneca ethnologist Arthur Parker characterized Handsome Lake as a middle-sized man, unhealthy looking, dissolute, and an alcoholic. After four years lying ill in a small cabin under the care of a daughter, Handsome Lake began having a series of visions. Later, he used these visions to rally the Iroquois at a time when some of them were selling their entire winter harvest of furs for hard liquor, turning traditional ceremonies into drunken brawls, and in winter, often dying of exposure in drunken stupors.

Handsome Lake experienced considerable remorse over his American Indians;and alcohol[alcohol] alcoholism but did not stop drinking. In 1799, Handsome Lake experienced a number of visions in which he was taken on a great journey to the sky. During this journey, he was shown a number of personages and events from the past, present, and future. In one of his visions, Handsome Lake met George Washington, who had died that year, and heard him confirm the sovereignty of the Iroquois.

After this series of visions, Handsome Lake stopped his heavy drinking and later committed his code to writing. He persuaded many other Iroquois to stop drinking and to reconstruct their lives. During his own lifetime, Handsome Lake achieved some political influence among the Senecas, but his popularity was limited because of his ideological rigidity. In 1801 and 1802, he traveled to Washington, D.C., with a delegation American Indians;delegations to Washington, D.C. of Senecas to meet with President Jefferson, Thomas
[p]Jefferson, Thomas;Senecas Thomas Jefferson and resist the reduction of Iroquois landholdings.


Handsome Lake’s largest following came after his death. His code combined European religious influences (especially those practiced by the Quakers, Quakers;and American Indians[American Indians] which Handsome Lake had studied) with a traditional Iroquois emphasis on family, community, and the centrality of the land to the maintenance of culture. Adherents to his code rejected alcohol and accepted his concepts of social relationships, good, and evil, which closely resemble Quakerism.

The Quaker creed appealed to many Iroquois because the Quakers had been persecuted before coming to America, they had no ornate temples, and they lived frugally and communally, doing their best to respect their Native American neighbors. A nationalistic figure in a religious context, Handsome Lake also borrowed heavily from the Iroquois Great Law of Treaty, Great Law of Treaty (Iroquois) popularizing concepts such as looking into the future for seven generations and regarding the Earth as mother, ideas that became part of pan-Indian thought across North America and were incorporated into modern popular environmental symbolism.

With its combination of Old and New World theologies, the Code of Handsome Lake sought to reconcile the gods of Europe and America. It was to be so successful that it both subsumed the ancient religion and halted the spread of Christianity among the Iroquois. The Code of Handsome Lake has continued to be widely followed in Iroquois country as the Longhouse religion. In the late twentieth century, roughly one-third of the thirty thousand Iroquois in New York State attended Longhouse rites.

Although his code remained popular among many Iroquois, others accused Handsome Lake of having sold out to the Quakers and white religious interests in general. Louis Hall, ideological founder of the Warrior Society (Iroquois) Warrior Society in Iroquois country, regarded the religion of Handsome Lake as a bastardized form of Christianity grafted onto indigenous traditions. Hall called Handsome Lake’s visions “the hallucinations of a drunk.” Opposition to these teachings was one plank in an intellectual platform that allowed the Warriors to brand both the Mohawks Mohawk Nation Council at Akwesasne and the Iroquois Confederacy Council as enemies of the people and to claim that the Warriors were the true protectors of “Mohawk sovereignty.” Hall, who died in 1993, regarded Handsome Lake’s followers as traitors or “Tontos.” Hall’s Warriors split bitterly with followers of Handsome Lake over gambling and other issues, leading to violence at Akwesasne, which peaked in 1990 with the deaths of two Mohawks.

Further Reading

  • Deardorff, Merle H. The Religion of Handsome Lake: Its Origins and Development. American Bureau of Ethnology Bulletin 149. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1951. Presents a detailed analysis of the Handsome Lake religion from an ethnographic perspective.
  • Fenton, William N. The Great Law and the Longhouse: A Political History of the Iroquois Confederacy. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998. This meticulously detailed history of the confederacy and its member tribes includes information about the religion of Handsome Lake.
  • Handsome Lake. The Code of Handsome Lake, the Seneca Prophet. New York State Museum Bulletin 163. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1913. Outlines the Handsome Lake religion and discusses the historical circumstances of its creation.
  • Johansen, Bruce E. Life and Death in Mohawk Country. Golden, Colo.: North American Press, 1993. Details conflicts involving followers of Handsome Lake’s code and Louis Hall’s Warriors at Akwesasne in the late twentieth century.
  • Parker, Arthur. Parker on the Iroquois. Edited by William Fenton. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1968. A detailed description of the Handsome Lake religion by a noted Seneca ethnologist.
  • Swartzler, David. A Friend Among the Senecas: The Quaker Mission to Cornplanter’s People. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2000. Based upon the journal of a Quaker, the book recounts the 1799 Quaker mission to a Seneca village. Describes the Seneca culture, interactions between the Senecas and Quakers, and how Handsome Lake’s religion developed in response to these interactions.
  • Wallace, Anthony F. C. The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970. A classic work on the history of the Seneca at the time of Handsome Lake.
  • Wright, Ronald. Stolen Continents. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992. A wide-ranging study of North America since the voyages of Columbus. Contains extensive treatment of the Iroquois Confederacy; describes Handsome Lake and his religion in the general context of the subjugation of the confederacy after the Revolutionary War.

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