Online Texts for Craig White's Literature Courses

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from Appendix
(by James E. Seaver)

[The following Origins account sounds like an “emergence story” more often found in Southwestern North America.]

[A.1] . . . Tradition of the Origin of the Seneca Nation.—Their Preservation from utter extinction.—The Means by which the People who preceded the Senecas were destroyed—and the Cause of the different Indian Languages.

[A.2] The tradition of the Seneca Indians, in regard to their origin, as we are assured by Capt. Horatio Jones, who was a prisoner five years amongst them, and for many years since has been an interpreter, and agent for the payment of their annuities, is that they broke out of the earth from a large mountain at the head of Canandaigua Lake, and that mountain they still venerate as the place of their birth; thence they derive their name, "Ge-nun-de-wah," [Seaver’s note: This by some is spoken Ge-nun-de-wah-gauh.] or Great Hill, and are called "The Great Hill People," which is the true definition of the word Seneca.

[A.3] The great hill at the head of Canandaigua lake, from whence they sprung, is called Genundewah, and has for a long time past been the place where the Indians of that nation have met in council, to hold great talks, and to offer up prayers to the Great Spirit, on account of its having been their birth place; and also in consequence of the destruction of a serpent at that place, in ancient time, in a most miraculous manner, which threatened the destruction of the whole of the Senecas, and barely spared enough to commence replenishing the earth.

[A.4] The Indians say, says Capt. Jones, that the fort on the big hill, or Genundewah, near the head of Canandaigua lake, was surrounded by a monstrous serpent, whose head and tail came together at the gate. A long time it lay there, confounding the people with its breath. . . . Two orphan children, who had escaped this general destruction by being left some time before on the outside of the fort, were informed by an oracle of the means by which they could get rid of their formidable enemy—which was, to take a small bow and a poisoned arrow, made of a kind of willow, and with that shoot the serpent under its scales. This they did, and the arrow proved effectual; for on its penetrating the skin, the serpent became sick, and extending itself rolled down the hill, destroying all the timber that was in its way, disgorging itself and breaking wind greatly as it went. At every motion, a human head was discharged, and rolled down the hill into the lake, where they lie at this day, in a petrified state, having the hardness and appearance of stones. [example of American Indian "writing on land": the landscape itself becomes the repository or embodiment of a tribal story]

[A.5] To this day the Indians visit that sacred place, to mourn the loss of their friends, and to celebrate some rites that are peculiar to themselves. To the knowledge of white people there has been no timber on the great hill since it was first discovered by them, though it lay apparently in a state of nature for a great number of years, without cultivation. Stones in the shape of Indians' heads may be seen lying in the lake in great plenty, which are said to be the same that were deposited there at the death of the serpent.

[A.6] The Senecas have a tradition, that previous to, and for some time after, their origin at Genundewah, this country, especially about the lakes, was thickly inhabited by a race of civil, enterprising and industrious people, who were totally destroyed by the great serpent, that afterwards surrounded the great hill fort, with the assistance of others of the same species; and that they (the Senecas) went [came] into possession of the improvements that were left.

[A.7] In those days the Indians throughout the whole country, as the Senecas say, spoke one language; but having become considerably numerous, the before mentioned great serpent, by an unknown influence, confounded their language, so that they could not understand each other; which was the cause of their division into nations, as the Mohawks, Oneidas, &c. . . . [tribes of Iroquois Confederacy; cf. Genesis 11.1-9 on Tower of Babel]

* * * * *


[A.8] Perhaps no people are more exact observers of religious duties than those Indians among the Senecas, who are denominated pagans, in contradistinction from those, who, having renounced some of their former superstitious notions, have obtained the name of Christians. The traditionary faith of their fathers, having been orally transmitted to them from time immemorial, is implicitly believed, scrupulously adhered to, and rigidly practiced. [<Exemplary formula: oral/spoken cultures = traditional cultures = generational continuity]  . . .

[A.9] Many years have elapsed since the introduction of Christian Missionaries among them . . . . They say that it is highly probable that Jesus Christ came into the world in old times, to establish a religion that would promote the happiness of the white people, on the other side of the great water, (meaning the sea,) and that he died for the sins of his people, as the missionaries have informed them: But, they say that Jesus Christ had nothing to do with them, and that the Christian religion was not designed for their benefit; but rather, should they embrace it, they are confident it would make them worse, and consequently do them an injury. They say, also, that the Great Good Spirit gave them their religion; and that it is better adapted to their circumstances, situation and habits, and to the promotion of their present comfort and ultimate happiness, than any system that ever has or can be devised. They, however, believe, that the Christian religion is better calculated for the good of white people than theirs is . . . . At the present time, they are opposed to preachers or schoolmasters being sent or coming among them; and appear determined by all means to adhere to their ancient customs.

[A.10] They believe in a Great Good Spirit, (whom they call in the Seneca language Nau-wan-e-u,) as the Creator of the world, and of every good thing—that he made men, and all inoffensive animals; that he supplies men with all the comforts of life; and that he is particularly partial to the Indians, whom they say are his peculiar people. They also believe  . . . that he abhors their vices, and that he is willing to punish them for their bad conduct, not only in this world, but in a future state of existence. His residence, they suppose, lies at a great distance from them, in a country that is perfectly pleasant, where plenty abounds, even to profusion. That there the soil is completely fertile, and the seasons so mild that the corn never fails to be good—that the deer, elk, buffalo, turkeys, and other useful animals, are numerous, and that the forests are well calculated to facilitate their hunting them with success—that the streams are pure, and abound with fish: and that nothing is wanting, to render fruition complete. Over this territory they say Nauwaneu presides as an all-powerful king; and that without counsel he admits to his pleasures all whom he considers to be worthy of enjoying so great a state of blessedness.

[A.11] To this being they address prayers, offer sacrifices, give thanks for favors, and perform many acts of devotion and reverence.

[A.12] They likewise believe that Nauwaneu has a brother that is less powerful than himself, and who is opposed to him, and to every one that is or wishes to be good [example of original twins in many American Indian origins stories]: that this bad Spirit made all evil things, snakes, wolves, catamounts, and all other poisonous or noxious animals and beasts of prey, except the bear, which, on the account of the excellence of its meat for food, and skin for clothing, they say was made by Nauwaneu. Besides all this they say he makes and sends them their diseases, bad weather and bad crops, and that he makes and supports witches. He owns a large country adjoining that of his brother, with whom he is continually at variance. His fields are unproductive . . . ravenous beasts are numerous; reptiles of every poisoned tooth lie in the path of the traveler . . . . He takes pleasure in afflicting the Indians here, and after their death receives all those into his dreary dominions, who in their life time have been so vile as to be rejected by Nauwaneu, under whose eye they are continued in an uncomfortable state forever. To this source of evil they offer some oblations to abate his vengeance, and render him propitious. They, however, believe him to be, in a degree, under subjection to his brother, and incapable of executing his plans only by his high permission. . . . [This account of Indian hell bears so much resemblance to the Christian hell as to suggest the latter’s influence and an example of syncretism.]

[A.13]  . . . In each year they have five feasts, or stated times for assembling in their tribes, and giving thanks to Nauwaneu, for the blessings which they have received from his kind and liberal and provident hand; and also to converse upon the best means of meriting a continuance of his favors.  . . .

[A.14] Their fourth is celebrated after corn harvest; and the fifth at the close of their year, and is always celebrated at the time of the old moon in the last of January or first of February. This last deserves a particular description.

[A.15] The Indians having returned, from hunting, and having brought in all the venison and skins that they have taken, a committee is appointed, says Mrs. Jemison, consisting of from ten to twenty active men, to superintend the festivities of the great sacrifice and thanksgiving that is to be immediately celebrated. This being done, preparations are made at the council-house, or place of meeting, for the reception and accommodation of the whole tribe; and then the ceremonies are commenced, and the whole is conducted with a great degree of order and harmony, under the direction of the committee.

[A.16] Two white dogs*, without spot or blemish, are selected (if such can be found, and if not, two that have the fewest spots) from those belonging to the tribe, and killed near the door of the council-house, by being strangled. A wound on the animal or an effusion of blood, would spoil the victim, and render the sacrifice useless. The dogs are then painted red on their faces, edges of their ears, and on various parts of their bodies, and are curiously decorated with ribbons of different colors, and fine feathers, which are tied and fastened on in such a manner as to make the most elegant appearance. They are then hung on a post near the door of the council-house, at the height of twenty feet from the ground. [*Seaver’s note: This was the practice in former times; but at present I am informed that only one dog is sacrificed.]

[A.17] This being done, the frolic is commenced by those who are present, while the committee run through the tribe or town, and hurry the people to assemble, by knocking on their houses. At this time the committee are naked, (wearing only a breech-clout [loin-cloth]) and each carries a paddle, with which he takes up ashes and scatters them about the house in every direction. In the course of the ceremonies, all the fire is extinguished in every hut throughout the tribe, and new fire, struck from the flint on each hearth, is kindled, after having removed the whole of the ashes, old coals, &c. Having done this, and discharged one or two guns, they go on, and in this manner they proceed till they have visited every house in the tribe. This finishes the business of the first day. . . .

[A.18] This feast continues nine days*, and during that time the Chiefs review the national affairs of the year past; agree upon the best plan to be pursued through the next year, and attend to all internal regulations. [*Seaver’s note: At present, as I have been informed, this feast is not commonly held more than from five to seven days. In former times, and till within a few years, nine days were particularly observed.]

[A.19] On the last day, the whole company partake of an elegant dinner, consisting of meat, corn and beans, boiled together in large kettles, and stirred till the whole is completely mixed and soft. This mess is devoured without much ceremony . . . till the whole is consumed. After this they perform the war dance, the peace dance, and smoke the pipe of peace; and then, free from iniquity, each repairs to his place of abode, prepared to commence the business of a new year. In this feast, temperance is observed, and commonly, order prevails in a greater degree than would naturally be expected.

[A.20] They are fond of the company of spectators who are disposed to . . . treat them politely in their way; but having been frequently imposed upon by the whites, they treat them generally with indifference.

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[A.21] Of these, two only will be noticed. The war dance is said to have originated about the time that the Six Nations [Iroquois Confederacy], or Northern Indians, commenced the old war with the Cherokees and other Southern Indian Nations, about one hundred years ago.

[A.22] When a tribe, or number of tribes of the Six Nations, had assembled for the purpose of going to battle with their enemies, the Chiefs sung this song, and accompanied the music with dancing, and gestures that corresponded with the sentiments expressed, as a kind of stimulant to increase their courage, and anxiety to march forward to the place of carnage.

[A.23] Those days having passed away, the Indians at this day sing the 'war song,' to commemorate the achievements of their fathers, and as a kind of amusement. When they perform it, they arm themselves with a war-club, tomahawk and knife, and commence singing with firm voice, and a stern, resolute countenance: but before they get through they exhibit in their features and actions the most shocking appearance of anger, fury and vengeance, that can be imagined . . . .

[A.24] The peace dance is performed to a tune without words, by both sexes. The Indians stand erect in one place, and strike the floor with the heel and toes of one foot, and then of the other, (the heels and toes all the while nearly level,) without changing their position in the least. The squaws at the same time perform it by keeping the feet close together, and without raising them from the ground, move a short distance to the right, and then to the left, by first moving their toes and then their heels. This dance is beautiful, and is generally attended with decency.

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[A.25] Their government is an oligarchy [?] of a mixed nature; and is administered by Chiefs, a part of whose offices are hereditary, and a part elective. The nation is divided into tribes, and each tribe commonly has two Chiefs. One of these inherits his office from his father. He superintends all civil affairs in the tribe; attends the national council, of which he is a member; assents to all conveyances of land, and is consulted on every subject of importance. The other is elected by the tribe, and can be removed at the pleasure of his constituents for malconduct. He also is a member of the national council: but his principal business is to superintend the military concerns of his tribe, and in war to lead his warriors to battle. He acts in concert with the other Chief, and their word is implicitly relied on, as the law by which they must be governed. That which they prohibit, is not meddled with. The Indian laws are few, and easily expounded. [<one reason “bubbas like Indians”] Their business of a public nature is transacted in council, where every decision is final. They meet in general council once a year, and sometimes oftener. The administration of their government is not attended with expense. They have no national revenue, and consequently have no taxes. [<another reason “bubbas like Indians”]

* * * * *


[A.26] The Six Nations [Iroquois Confederacy] in the state of New-York are located upon several reservations, from the Oneida Lake to the Cattaraugus and Allegany rivers.

[A.27] A part of those nations live on the Sandusky, in the state of Ohio, viz—380 Cayugas, 300 Senecas, 64 Mohawks, 64 Oneidas, and 80 Onondagas. The bulk of the Mohawks are on Grand River, Upper Canada, together with some Senecas, Tuscaroras, Cayugas, Oneidas, and Onondagas.

[A.28] In the state of New-York there are 5000, and in the state of Ohio 688, as we are assured by Capt. Horatio Jones, agent for paying their annuities, making in the whole, in both states, 5688.

* * * * *


[A.29] When an Indian sees a squaw whom he fancies, he sends a present to her mother or parents, who on receiving it consult with his parents, his friends, and each other, on the propriety and expediency of the proposed connection. If it is not agreeable, the present is returned; but if it is, the lover is informed of his good fortune, and immediately goes to live with her, or takes her to a hut of his own preparing.

[A.30] Polygamy is practiced in a few instances, and is not prohibited.

[A.31] Divorces are frequent. If a difficulty of importance arises between a married couple, they agree to separate. They divide their property and children; the squaw takes the girls, the Indian the boys, and both are at liberty to marry again.

[A.32] They have no marriage ceremony, nor form of divorcement, other than what has been mentioned.

* * * * *


[A.33] In their families, parents are very mild, and the mother superintends the children. The word of the Indian father, however, is law, and must be obeyed by the whole that are under his authority.

[A.34] One thing respecting the Indian women is worthy of attention, and perhaps of imitation, although it is now a days considered beneath the dignity of the ladies, especially those who are the most refined; and that is, they are under a becoming subjection to their husbands. It is a rule, inculcated in all the Indian tribes, and practiced throughout their generations, that a squaw shall not walk before her Indian, nor pretend to take the lead in his business. And for this reason we never can see a party on the march to or from hunting and the like, in which the squaws are not directly in the rear of their partners.

* * * * *


[A.35] The deceased having been laid out in his best clothing, is put into a coffin of boards or bark, and with him is deposited, in every instance, a small cup and a cake. Generally two or three candles are also put into the coffin, and in a few instances, at the burial of a great man, all his implements of war are buried by the side of the body. The coffin is then closed and carried to the grave. On its being let down, the person who takes the lead of the solemn transaction, or a Chief, addresses the dead in a short speech, in which he charges him not to be troubled about himself in his new situation, nor on his journey, and not to trouble his friends, wife or children, whom he has left. . . . that if he meets with strangers on his way, he must inform them what tribe he belongs to, who his relatives are, the situation in which he left them, and that having done this, he must keep on till he arrives at the good fields in the country of Nauwaneu. That when he arrives there he will see all his ancestors and personal friends that have gone before him; who, together with all the Chiefs of celebrity, will receive him joyfully, and furnish him with every article of perpetual happiness.

[A.36] The grave is now filled and left till evening, when some of the nearest relatives of the dead build a fire at the head of it, near which they set till morning. In this way they continue to practice nine successive nights, when, believing that their departed friend has arrived at the end of his journey, they discontinue their attention. During this time the relatives of the dead are not allowed to dance.

[A.37] Formerly, frolics [drinking parties] were held, after the expiration of nine days, for the dead, at which all the squaws got drunk, and those were the only occasions on which they were intoxicated: but lately those are discontinued, and squaws feel no delicacy in getting inebriated.

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[A.38] As ignorance is the parent of credulity, it is not a thing to be wondered at that the Indians should possess it in a great degree, and even suffer themselves to be dictated and governed by it in many of the most important transactions of their lives.

[A.39] They place great confidence in dreams, attach some sign to every uncommon circumstance, and believe in charms, spirits, and many supernatural things that never existed, only in minds enslaved to ignorance and tradition: but in no instance is their credulity so conspicuous, as in their unalterable belief in witches.

[A.40] They believe there are many of these, and that next to the author of evil, they are the greatest scourge to their people. The term witch, by them, is used both in the masculine and feminine gender, and denotes a person to whom the evil deity has delegated power to inflict diseases, cause death, blast corn, bring bad weather, and in short to cause almost any calamity to which they are liable. With this impression, and believing that it is their actual duty to destroy, as far as lies in their power, every source of unhappiness, it has been a custom among them from time immemorial, to destroy every one that they could convict of so heinous a crime; and in fact there is no reprieve from the sentence.

[A.41] Mrs. Jemison informed us that more or less [all those] who had been charged with being witches, had been executed in almost every year since she has lived on the Genesee. Many, on being suspected, made their escape: while others, before they were aware of being implicated, have been apprehended and brought to trial. [compare Salem Witch Trials and conviction by hearsay in Mather's Wonders of the Invisible World] She says that a number of years ago, an Indian chased a squaw, near Beard's Town, and caught her; but on the account of her great strength she got away. The Indian, vexed and disappointed, went home, and the next day reported that he saw her have fire in her mouth, and that she was a witch. Upon this she was apprehended and killed immediately. She was Big-tree's cousin, Mrs. Jemison says she was present at the execution. She also saw one other killed and thrown into the river.

[A.42] Col. Jeremiah Smith, of Leicester, near Beard's Town, saw an Indian killed by his five brothers, who struck him on the head with their tomahawks at one time. He was charged with being a witch, because of his having been fortunate enough, when on a hunting party, to kill a number of deer, while his comrades failed of taking any.

[A.43] Col. Smith also saw a squaw, who had been convicted of being a witch, killed by having small green whips burnt till they were red hot, but not quite coaled, and thrust down her throat. From such trifling causes thousands have lost their lives, and notwithstanding the means that are used for their reformation, the pagans will not suffer "a witch to live."

* * * * *


[A.44] It is well known that the squaws have all the labor of the field to perform, and almost every other kind of hard service, which, in civil society, is performed by the men. [>example of communal labor>] In order to expedite their business, and at the same time enjoy each other's company, they all work together in one field, or at whatever job they may have on hand. In the spring they choose an old active squaw to be their driver and overseer when at labor, for the ensuing year. She accepts the honor, and they consider themselves bound to obey her.

[A.45] When the time for planting arrives, and the soil is prepared, the squaws are assembled in the morning, and conducted into a field, where each plants one row. They then go into the next field, plant once across, and so on till they have gone through the tribe. If any remains to be planted, they again commence where they did at first, (in the same field,) and so keep on till the whole is finished. By this rule they perform their labor of every kind, and every jealousy of one having done more or less than another, is effectually avoided. [theorists of capitalism would object that communal labor leads to common outcomes—that is, everyone enjoys the same standard of living—while competitive labor motivates innovation and surplus.]

[A.46] Each squaw cuts her own wood; but it is all brought to the house under the direction of the overseer—each bringing one back load.

* * * * *


[A.47] This is done by moons and winters: a moon is a month, and the time from the end of one winter to that of another, a year.

[A.48] From sunset till sunrise, they say that the sun is asleep. In the old of the moon, when it does not shine in the night, they say it is dead. They rejoice greatly at the sight of the new moon.

[A.49] In order to commemorate great events, and preserve the chronology of them, the war Chief in each tribe keeps a war post. This post is a peeled stick of timber, 10 or 12 feet high, that is erected in the town. For a campaign they make, or rather the Chief makes, a perpendicular red mark, about three inches long and half an inch wide; on the opposite side from this, for a scalp, they make a red cross, thus, +; on another side, for a prisoner taken, they make a red cross in this manner, X', with a head or dot, and by placing such significant hieroglyphics [symbols] in so conspicuous a situation, they are enabled to ascertain with great certainty the time and circumstances of past events. [This form of record-keeping, known as aides de memoire or memory-aid (like tying a string around your finger) is, like wampum, not exactly the same as alphabetical writing but nonetheless a generally reliable form of record-keeping as long as generational continuity is maintained.]

[A.50] Hiokatoo had a war-post, on which was recorded his military exploits, and other things that he thought worth preserving.

* * * * *


[A.51] Hiokatoo used to say that when he was a young man, there lived in the same tribe with him an old Indian warrior, who was a great counselor, by the name of Buck-in-je-hil-lish. Buckinjehillish having, with great fatigue, attended the council when it was deliberating upon war, declared that none but the ignorant made war, but that the wise men and the warriors had to do the fighting. This speech exasperated his countrymen to such a degree that he was apprehended and tried for being a witch, on the account of his having lived to so advanced an age; and because he could not show some reason why he had not died before, he was sentenced to be tomahawked by a boy on the spot, which was accordingly done. . . .

[A.52] Little Beard, a celebrated Indian Chief, having arrived to a very advanced age, died at his town on the Genesee river about the first of June, 1806, and was buried after the manner of burying chiefs. In his lifetime he had been quite arbitrary, and had made some enemies whom he hated, probably, and was not loved by them. The grave, however, deprives envy of its malignity, and revenge of its keenness.

[A.53] Little Beard had been dead but a few days when the great eclipse of the sun took place, on the sixteenth of June, which excited in the Indians a great degree of astonishment; for as they were ignorant of astronomy, they were totally unqualified to account for so extraordinary a phenomenon. The crisis was alarming, and something effectual must he done, without delay, to remove, if possible, the cause of such coldness and darkness, which it was expected would increase. They accordingly ran together in the three towns near the Genesee river, and after a short consultation agreed that Little Beard, on the account of some old grudge which he yet cherished towards them, had placed himself between them and the sun, in order that their corn might not grow, and so reduce them to a state of starvation. Having thus found the cause, the next thing was to remove it, which could only be done the use of powder and ball. Upon this, every gun and rifle was loaded, and a firing commenced, that continued without cessation till the old fellow left his seat, and the obscurity was entirely removed, to the great joy of the ingenious and fortunate Indians.

[A.54] In the month of February, 1824, Corn Planter, a learned pagan Chief at Tonnewonta, died of common sickness. He had received a liberal education, and was held in high estimation in his town and tribe, by both parties; but the pagans more particularly mourned his loss deeply, and seemed entirely unreconciled. They imputed his death to witchcraft, and charged an Indian by the name of Prompit, with the crime.

[A.55] Mr. Prompit is a Christian Indian, of the Tuscarora nation, who has lived at Tonnewonta a number of years, where he has built a saw-mill himself, which he owns, and is considered a decent, respectable man.

[A.56] About two weeks after the death of Corn Planter, Mr. Prompit happened in company where the author was present, and immediately begun to converse upon that subject. He said that the old fashioned Indians called him a witch—believed that he had killed Corn Planter, and had said that they would kill him. But, said he, all good people know that I am not a witch, and that I am clear of the charge. Likely enough they will kill me; but if they do, my hands are clean, my conscience is clear, and I shall go up to God. I will not run nor hide from them, and they may kill me if they choose to—I am innocent. When Jesus Christ's enemies, said he, wanted to kill him, he did not run away from them, but let them kill him; and why should I run away from my enemies?

[A.57] How the affair will terminate, we are unable to decide.






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