Lot 306    

Seneca Chief Governor Blacksnake Quarter Plate Daguerreotype
2009, Winter American History, Dec 9
Identified with a slip of inked paper beneath the cover glass, and with the following identification pasted onto the pad of the case: Governor Blacksnake (Tha-o-hawyuth) or (Tha-o-wa-nyuth) The Nephew (Seneca). Died at Cold Spring, NY in South Valley Allegany [sic] Reservation Dec 26th 1859 age 117 or 120 years. A large and powerful man. Photo artist F.C. Flint 402 So. Salina St. Syracuse, N.Y. In spite of this detailed information, we could find no listing for Flint.

Born near Seneca Lake about 1753, this important Seneca war-chief was known to his people as Chainbreaker; to Whites he was Governor Blacksnake. According to some of his early biographers he was given this moniker by George Washington, though this may be merely apocryphal.

Chainbreaker/Blacksnake was the nephew of Cornplanter, an important Seneca war-chief and Handsome Lake, a Seneca religious figure. Cornplanter and Handsome Lake were both members of the Wolf clan, and in the matrilineal Seneca society, these two elders were responsible for the upbringing of their sister’s male child – Chainbreaker. By the time of the Revolutionary War, Chainbreaker/Blacksnake was a young warrior. While not yet old enough to be a diplomatic leader, he was present with Cornplanter at the peace negotiations after the war. This close association resulted in another common moniker, “The Nephew.”

By the second quarter of the 19th century, having won their “Second Revolution” in the War of 1812, Americans were constructing their “national myth” (Abler 2005: 10) and Indian Wars and the Revolution, as well as the frontier in general, were a major part of this. Chainbreaker/Blacksnake became something of a local celebrity in upstate New York, so in the 1840s he began relating his memories to young Ben Williams – the Revolution from the viewpoint of a native veteran. Williams clearly had an eye toward publishing the Seneca chief’s biography, though never finished the task. The great collector and historian Lyman Draper purchased Williams manuscript for $25, which serves as the basis for much of what we know about Chainbreaker’s/Blacksnake’s life. (This was Draper’s first purchase of what would eventually fill 484 volumes, now housed at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.)

Chainbreaker’s/Blacksnake’s memoirs contain information about the French and Indian Wars -- second-hand knowledge gleaned at many council fires as a young boy; the American Revolution -- first-hand knowledge from a warrior; Indian conflicts at the end of the 18th century, again as a participant (many villages were burned in the late 1790s); and the War of 1812. The next period seems to be “missing.” Williams’ notes do not cover much of the intervening decades, whether lost in the fire, or not written down, or not deemed important, is unknown.

Chainbreaker/Blacksnake was also at the center of one of the great transformational events in Seneca history: the formation of the Code of Handsome Lake. While there are numerous variations on the story, the general scenario is consistent: Handsome Lake fell into a coma – perhaps induced by alcohol abuse. Seeking help, his daughter ran to Blacksnake and Cornplanter for aid. With the aid of Blacksnake, Handsome Lake was revived, and reported that during his sleep had had a vision. Three spirit messengers warned about dangers of alcohol consumption and witchcraft. Subsequent visions added other “evil practices” such as sexual promiscuity, wife beating, fighting and gambling. From this point forward, Handsome Lake preached against the abuse of alcohol, and urged the Iroquois to adopt his new “code” that incorporated elements of Christianity and traditional Iroquois culture. The new religion gained in popularity, with none more fervent follower than Chainbreaker, himself, having witnessed first hand Handsome Lake’s near death and recovery. Some sources indicate that it was Chainbreaker who dictated the Code of Handsome Lake to be written down years after the prophet’s death (in the late 1840s). The new religion had enough Christian elements to meet with Quaker approval, as well as that of Thomas Jefferson. The Quakers had established schools and other social services on the Iroquois reservations, and their writings refer to Chainbreaker as Handsome Lake’s “privy Counsellor” (Abler 2005: 218).

The present daguerreotype of Blacksnake has been reproduced in several volumes on the Seneca. It appears first in Donaldson’s 1892 volume on the Seneca, facing p.28, with no attribution. A copy of the daguerreoptype was also used as the cover illustration of Adler’s (2002) biography, and it was used again by Abler (2005) as the frontispiece. None of these publication provide any credit or attribution as to the original owner. The daguerreotype - along with a box of other unrelated images -- was recently found in a warehouse in upstate New York.

An exceptionally important image of a well-known Native American diplomat and historical figure. During his lifetime Governor Blacksnake saw the conquest of North America by the British; the birth of the United States of America; and the decline of his people from members of a powerful Confederacy to a handful of poor villagers scattered on a reservation on a fraction of their original territory.

See the following for publications using this same image: Abler, Thomas S. (ed.) (2005) Chainbreaker: The Revolutionary War memoirs of Governor Blacksnake as told to Benjamin Williams. University of Nebraska Press. Adler, Jeanne W. (ed.) (2002) Chainbreaker’s War: A Seneca Chief Remembers the American Revolution. Hensonville (NY): Black Dome Press. Donaldson, Thomas (1892) … Indians. The Six Nations of New York: Cayugas, Mohawks (St. Regis), Oneidas, Onondagas, Senecas, Tuscarowas. Extra Census Bulletin. Washington. U.S. Government Printing Office.
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