Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Handsome Lake, 3 November 1802

To Handsome Lake

Washington Nov. 3. 1802.

Brother Handsome Lake

I have recieved the message in writing which you sent me through Captain1 Irvine, our confidential agent, placed near you for the purpose of communicating, and transacting, between us, whatever may be useful for both nations. I am2 happy to learn you have been so far favored by the divine spirit as to be made sensible of those things which are for your good & that of your people, & of those which3 are hurtful to you: & particularly that you & they see the ruinous effects which the abuse of spirituous liquors have produced upon them. it has weakened their bodies, enervated their minds, exposed them to hunger, cold, nakedness, & poverty, kept them in perpetual broils, & reduced their population. I do not wonder then, brother, at your censures, not only on your own people, who have voluntarily gone into these fatal habits, but on all the nations of white people who have4 supplied their calls for this article. but these nations have done to you5 only what they do among themselves. they have sold what individuals wish to buy; leaving to every one to be the guardian of his own health and happiness. Spirituous liquors are not in themselves bad. they are often found to be an excellent medecine for the sick. it is the improper & intemperate use of them, by those in health, which makes them injurious. but as you find that your people cannot refrain from an ill use of them, I greatly applaud your resolution not to use them at all. we have too affectionate a concern for your happiness to place the paultry gain on the sale of these articles in competition with the injury they do you. and as it is the desire of your nation that no spirits should be sent among them, & I am authorised by the great council of the US. to prohibit them, I will sincerely cooperate with your wise men6 in any proper measures for this purpose which shall be agreeable to them.

You remind me, brother, of what I said to you, when you visited me the last winter; that the lands you then held would remain yours, & should never go from you but when you should be disposed to sell. this I now repeat, & will ever abide by. we indeed are always ready to buy land; but we will never ask but when you wish to sell: and7 our laws, in order to protect you against imposition, have forbidden8 individuals to purchase lands from you: and have rendered it necessary, when you desire9 to sell, even to a state, that an Agent from the US. should attend the sale, see that your consent is freely given,10 a satisfactory price paid, and report to us what has been done, for our approbation. this was done in the late case of which you complain. the deputies of your nation came forward, in all the forms which we have been used to consider as evidence of the will of your nation. they proposed to sell to the state of New York certain parcels of land, of small extent, and detached from the body of your other lands. the state of New York was desirous11 to buy. I sent an Agent, in whom we could trust, to see that your consent was free, & the sale fair. all was reported to be free & fair. the lands were your property. the right to sell is one of the rights of property. to forbid you the exercise of that right would be a wrong to your nation. Nor do I think, brother, that the sale of lands is, under all circumstances, injurious to your people. while they depended on hunting, the more extensive the forests12 around them, the more game they would yield. but, going13 into a state of agriculture, it may be as advantageous to a society, as it is to an individual, who has more land than he can improve, to sell a part, and lay out the money in stocks & implements of agriculture, for the better improvement of the residue. a little land, well stocked & improved, will yield more than a great deal without stock or improvement. I hope therefore14 that, on further reflection, you will see this transaction in a more favorable light, both as it concerns the interest of your nation, & the exercise of that superintending care which I am sincerely anxious to employ for their subsistence and happiness. Go on then brother in the great reformation you have undertaken. persuade our red brethren15 to be sober, and to cultivate their lands; and their women to spin & weave for their families. you will soon see your women & children well fed & clothed, your men living happily in peace & plenty, and your numbers increasing from year to year. it will be a great glory to you16 to have been the instrument of so happy a change, & your children’s children, from generation to generation, will repeat your name with love and17 gratitude for ever. in all your enterprises for the good of your people, you may count with confidence on the aid and protection of the United States, and18 on the sincerity & zeal with which I am myself animated in the furthering of this humane work. you are our brethren of the same land: we wish your prosperity as brethren should do. Farewell.

Th: Jefferson

RC (NNFoM). PrC (DLC). Dft (PHi, 1944, sold 1965); endorsed by Dearborn: “The President’s answer to the handsome Lake.” Enclosed in Dearborn to Callender Irvine, 5 Nov.: “Enclosed I have the pleasure of forwarding you the reply of the President of the United States to the speech lately addressed to him by the handsome Lake. This reply written by the hand of the Chief Magistrate of the United States, and breathing throughout a spirit of harmony and affection for his red brethren, cannot fail to excite in them corresponding sentiments, and insure the continuance of that friendly intercourse which now happily prevails between the Citizens of the United States, and the Indian Tribes. You will please to communicate the reply of the President to the Handsome Lake in the manner which shall be most agreeable to him” (FC in Lb in DNA: RG 75, LSIA).

The MESSAGE from Handsome Lake has not been found and is not recorded in SJL. Callender IRVINE sent it from Presque Isle on 7 Oct. Irvine wrote Dearborn on 26 Nov. to acknowledge the receipt of “the Presidents talk to the Handsome Lake” (DNA: RG 107, RLRMS). Dearborn and TJ may have thought at first that a reply to the Seneca leader by the secretary of war would be sufficient. Dearborn wrote to Irvine briefly on 23 Oct. enclosing “an answer to the talk of Handsome Lake, which you will be pleased to deliver him.” In that response, Dearborn addressed Handsome Lake as “Brother” and said that he was replying on behalf of the president, “your father,” who was “highly pleased with the exertions you have made” to encourage Indians “to quit drinking strong liquors, and for changing their habits in such a manner as to introduce a more happy state of society. It is to be hoped,” Dearborn wrote, “that the Great Spirit will continue to enable you to set such an example of sobriety, honesty and Brotherly love among your red brethren as will have a good effect on the white people.” Any sale of the Senecas’ lands “must at all times depend on the will of your Chiefs,” who would not part with land “unless they were satisfied that the sale would meet the approbation of the majority of the nation.” Dearborn assured Handsome Lake that “your father the President of the United States will at all times be happy in hearing of your wellfare and of the improvements and means of happiness you may introduce amonge your Brethren.” Dearborn hoped “that the Great Spirit will hold you by the hand and support you in every good work in which your red Brethren may be engaged” (DNA: RG 75, LSIA).

AUTHORISED BY THE GREAT COUNCIL OF THE US: an act of 30 Mch. 1802 allowed the president “to prevent or restrain” the sale or distribution of spiritous liquor to Indians (U.S. Statutes at Large description begins Richard Peters, ed., The Public Statutes at Large of the United States . . . 1789 to March 3, 1845, Boston, 1855–56, 8 vols. description ends , 1:146; Vol. 36:279, 443n).

Handsome Lake and a delegation of Senecas had VISITED Washington in March (Vol. 37:29–43).

FORBIDDEN INDIVIDUALS TO PURCHASE LANDS: the act of 30 Mch., like previous congressional acts governing “trade and intercourse” with Native Americans, stated that “no purchase, grant, lease, or other conveyance of lands, or of any title or claim thereto, from any Indian, or nation, or tribe of Indians” was valid unless the transaction was “by treaty or convention, entered into pursuant to the constitution.” The law made it a misdemeanor for anyone “not employed under the authority of the United States” to negotiate land transactions with Indians, allowing an exception only for an agent of a state, who could attend treaty negotiations and, in the presence of federal commissioners, “propose to, and adjust with the Indians, the compensation to be made” for lands that fell within the agent’s state (U.S. Statutes at Large description begins Richard Peters, ed., The Public Statutes at Large of the United States . . . 1789 to March 3, 1845, Boston, 1855–56, 8 vols. description ends , 1:472, 746; 2:143).

LATE CASE: the sale of the Black Rock tract along the Niagara River; see Dearborn to TJ, 3 Sep. SENT AN AGENT: John Tayler.

GO ON THEN BROTHER: writing near the end of the twentieth century, Anthony F. C. Wallace noted that “the framed text” of TJ’s letter to Handsome Lake “hangs today on the walls of the council houses where the rituals and the recitations of the code of the Old Way of Handsome Lake are still performed.” The Seneca visionary’s followers “treasured” the letter, Wallace observed, as an affirmation by the president of the United States of the program of revitalization that was fundamental to the Code of Handsome Lake and the Longhouse religion (Anthony F. C. Wallace, Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans [Cambridge, Mass., 1999], 292; Anthony F. C. Wallace, The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca [New York, 1969], 272; Vol. 37:30).

1Rank interlined in Dft in place of “mr.”

2Here in Dft TJ canceled “very.”

3Here in Dft TJ canceled “will be.”

4Here in Dft TJ canceled “administered” and “sold them.”

5Here in Dft TJ canceled “brother.”

6Preceding two words interlined in Dft in place of “people.”

7TJ interlined the preceding passage, beginning “we indeed,” in Dft.

8Word interlined in Dft in place of “made it unlawful for any.”

9Word interlined in Dft in place of “are willing.”

10Here in Dft TJ canceled “and a fair price.”

11Word interlined in Dft in place of “willing.”

12Word interlined in Dft in place of “deserts.”

13Here in Dft TJ canceled “as you are.”

14Here in Dft TJ canceled “brother.”

15Word interlined in Dft in place of “brothers,” here and at two places in the letter’s concluding passages.

16Here in Dft TJ canceled “brother.”

17Preceding two words interlined in Dft.

18Here in Dft TJ canceled “be assured that nobody, with more sincerity or with more zeal than myself, will.”

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