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An interesting letter from Thomas Jefferson to Handsome Lake

Handsom Lake, a religious leader and prophet of the Seneca people, came to the forefront of Iroquois culture when he advocated the teachings he received from three visions, or dreams. Handsome Lake nearly died of alcoholism and its related effects. In 1799, on the verge of death, he saw three visions that saved his life and changed the lives of the Iroquois people 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 the time were desperate for the circumstances they found themselves in. The country and its lands had been invaded by European settlers fleeing Europe in search of a new home. As more and more people came, they were presented with things unknown to the people of the tribe, not all of which were good. As an example, the settlers introduced them to alcohol (water from the white man’s fire).

The Native American way of life changed dramatically with the migration from Europe. Lands were taken; land was sold. The Iroquois culture was getting lost in “the ways of the white man.” As a result, more Native Americans turned to “the drink” to ease their pain from the situation unfolding around them. Visions of hope and encouragement from Handsome Lake gradually began to turn his despondency into optimism and his yearning to thrive and succeed in his new surroundings returned.

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 documents. He was greatly admired for his stance on equal rights for all, and yet he was sometimes criticized for his own practice of owning slaves, his actions apparently contradicting his words.

President Thomas Jefferson learned of the progress Handsome Lake was making among the indigenous 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 deals and settlements. A government agent, Captain Irvine, was assigned to Handsome Lake to work near him and carry his messages back and forth with the president. Handsome Lake and some Iroquois representatives were invited to dinner with Thomas Jefferson and he spoke with the president about the rights of Native Americans to keep their land. President Jefferson gave his word to Handsome Lake in a letter in 1802, reaffirming his arguments at that dinner, saying the land would not be taken unless the tribes were willing to sell. Jefferson said that the government was always willing to buy land, but he would not ask if the owner did not want to sell it.

President Thomas Jefferson also made a proclamation that the United States would no longer sell liquor or spirits to Native Americans, as it was Handsome Lake’s desire to curb and control the influence of alcohol on the tribes. Jefferson also instituted a law to prohibit people from buying Native American land, 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 unfair. Jefferson argues that a government representative was there and assured him that everything was fair and equitable and that the vendor was selling freely.

President Jefferson also went on to say that while he understood the tribal peoples’ needs for hunting land, he also thought that Handsome Lake should encourage its people to think about the great opportunity that agriculture presented. The president tried to persuade Handsome Lake to promote the advantages of growing crops and having women weave their own family’s clothing to make possible a better quality of life for Native Americans. President Jefferson expressed his wish and hope for the happiness of the Iroquois and all their “red brothers.”

The letter was unusual for the time; it was an open admission of Jefferson’s willingness to work with Native Americans and count them as brothers. President Jefferson’s letter was also an important endorsement for the Handsome Lake religious movement. Whether or not his letter stood the test of time in efforts to count Native Americans as equals is left for you to decide from the actual factual story.

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