<< CLICK HERE At any time to return to the Johnson Family Tree >>

Handsome Lake. Ganiodaio. Turtle Clan. (c. 1735-1815)


Handsome Lake and the Three Messengers.
Ernie Smith, 1936. Tempera.
[click here for more information about this painting]

The prophet known as Ganiodaio ("Handsome Lake") was born in Ganowauges (near present day Avon, NY) around the year 1735. Arthur C Parker wrote that Handsome Lake was born into the Wolf Clan, but was later "borrowed" (adopted) and raised by members of the Turtle Clan. He is known as being the half brother of Cornplanter, who would become a noted Wolf Clan war chief and leader of the Senecas at Allegany. His mother, Gah hon no neh, was a leading matron of the Wolf Clan at Ganowauges. His Indian name has not been recorded; instead, he is known by Ganiodaio, which is one of the 50 condoled chief's names in the Haudenosaunee's Great Law.

Handsome Lake attended the Council of Oswego in 1777, where he strongly supported a neutral stance in the American Revolution. However, through the influence of Mohawk leader Joseph Brant, the Senecas eventually agreed to join the Mohawks, Onondaga, and Cayugas and take up arms against the Americans. Throughout the war, Handsome Lake followed Cornplanter into battle and was present at the battles at Wyoming Valley, Newtown, Susquehanna Valley, and Schoharie.

Following the war, he was present at the major treaty-making councils between the Haudenosaunee and the United States. His name as Ganiodaio appears on the treaties signed at Fort Stanwix (1786), Canandaigua (1794) and Big Tree (1797).

After General Sullivan's expedition into Haudenosaunee Territory in 1779, Handsome Lake moved with Cornplanter's family to Jenuchshadago ("Burnt House") along the Allegheny River. Demoralized by the results of the war, he began to drink excessively and his health increasingly deteriorated. On June 15, 1799, his daughter sought out his nephew Blacksnake to tell him that her father was dead. But when the nephew went to Ganiodaio's bedside, he found "a warm spot on his chest" that proved he was still alive.

When Handsome Lake awoke from his coma, he told of a series of visits he had from the messengers of the Creator. He used those visions, as well as others he would have later, to create a new way of life for the Senecas to follow. Known today as the Gaiwiio, the message speaks against such detriments as alcohol, land sales and witchcraft. Handsome Lake's new way of life for the Senecas received support from the Society of Friends (Quakers) who had been invited by Cornplanter to Jenuchshadago in order to help the Senecas at Allegany adjust to a new way of living. The Quakers saw Handsome Lake's visions as a strong positive force on the Reservation.

Handsome Lake continued to preach at Jenuchshadago until quarrels between himself and Cornplanter became intolerable. In 1803, he and his followers moved to Coldspring, which was located a few miles north on the Allegheny. As Ganiodaio's power and influence increased in his new home, some people at Allegany began to question some of his teachings, especially his support for the execution of people identified as witches. In 1809 Handsome Lake and his followers moved again, this time to the Tonawanda Reservation where his message had gained support.


Handsome Lake Preaching His Code at the Tonawanda Longhouse.
Ernie Smith, 1936. Watercolor.
[click here for more information about this painting]

For the remainder of his life, Handsome Lake traveled to Indian settlements, preaching his message throughout New York and the Ohio Territory. In 1812, he voiced his strong objections to Seneca participation in the new war between the British and the Americans, but his advice fell on deaf ears. Many Seneca warriors, including a majority living at Tonawanda, joined the Americans against their former allies.

On a journey to Onondaga Territory in 1815, Handsome Lake stopped at the site of his childhood home at Ganowauges. He was not feeling well and knew that the end of his life was near. He died on August 10, and is buried at Onondaga.