Teachable Primary Sources: Handsome Lake’s “How America Was Discovered.”

An illustration of an indigenous American man with a feather in his hair
Jesse Cornplanter, drawing of Handsome Lake (Wikimedia Commons).

One of the most interesting, and most difficult, primary sources that I have taught with is Handsome Lake’s “How America Was Discovered.”

Handsome Lake was a Seneca man who came to prominence in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. He was an important prophet who was involved in the revival of traditional religion among the Haudenosaunee. He argued that the Native peoples of the continent should reject western culture—including alcohol consumption and land selling. Many Seneca disagreed, but his ideas resonated and have proven to be remarkably resilient across centuries. Indeed, his ideas continue to shape the religious practice of the Haudenosaunee today.

In 1923, a folklorist named Arthur Parker, who was a descendant of Handsome Lake, recorded a short narrative about the discovery of America that has been attributed to Handsome Lake. It was first written down more than a century after Handsome Lake died, but it is closely aligned with his theology. According to Parker, the story goes like this (my insertions are in brackets):

A great queen [Isabella of Spain] had among her servants a young minister. Upon a certain occasion she requested him to dust some books that she had hidden in an old chest. Now when the young man reached the bottom of the chest he found a wonderful book [the Bible] which he opened and read. It told that the white men had killed the son of the Creator [Jesus] and it said, moreover, that he had promised to return in three days and then again forty but that he never did. All his followers then began to despair but some said, “He surely will come again some time.” When the young preacher read this book he was worried because he had discovered that he had been deceived and that his Lord was not on earth and had not returned when he promised. So he went to some of the chief preachers and asked them about the matter and they answered that he had better seek the Lord himself and find if he were not on the earth now. So he prepared to find the Lord and the next day when he looked out into the river he saw a beautiful island and marveled that he had never noticed it before.  As he continued to look he saw a castle built of gold in the midst of the island and he marveled that he had not seen the castle before. Then he thought that so beautiful a palace on so beautiful an isle must surely be the abode of the son of the Creator. Immediately he went to the wise men and told them what he had seen and they wondered greatly and answered that it must indeed be the house of the Lord. So together they went to the river and when they came to it they found that it was spanned by a bridge of gold. Then one of the preachers fell down and prayed a long time and arising to cross the bridge turned back because he was afraid to meet his Lord. Then the other crossed the bridge and knelt down upon the grass and prayed but he became afraid to go near the house. So the young man went boldly over to attend to the business at hand and walking up to the door knocked.

A handsome man welcomed him into a room and bade him be of ease. “I wanted you,” he said. “You are a bright young man; those old fools will not suit me for they would be afraid to listen to me.  Listen to me, young man, and you will be rich.  Across the ocean there is a great country of which you have never heard. The people there are virtuous; they have no evil habits or appetites but are honest and single-minded. A great reward is yours if you enter into my plans and carry them out. Here are five things. Carry them over to the people across the ocean and never shall you want for wealth, position or power. Take these cards, this money, this fiddle, this whiskey and this blood corruption and give them all to the people across the water. The cards will make them gamble away their goods and idle away their time, the money will make them dishonest and covetous, the fiddle will make them dance with women and their lower natures will command them, the whiskey will excite their minds to evil doing and turn their minds, and the blood corruption will eat their strength and rot their bones.”

The young man thought this a good bargain and promised to do as the man had commanded him. He left the palace and when he had stepped over the bridge it was gone, likewise the golden palace and also the island. Now he wondered if he had seen the Lord but he did not tell the great ministers of his bargain because they might try to forestall him. So he looked about and at length found Columbus to whom he told the whole story. So Columbus fitted out some boats and sailed out into the ocean to find the land on the other side. When he had sailed for many days on the water the sailors said that unless Columbus turned about and went home they would behead him but he asked for another day and on that day land was seen and that land was America. Then they turned around and going back reported what they had discovered. Soon a great flock of ships came over the ocean and white men came swarming into the country bringing with them cards, money, fiddles, whiskey and blood corruption.

Now the man who had appeared in the gold palace was the devil and when afterward he saw what his words had done he said that he had made a great mistake and even he lamented that his evil had been so enormous.

It’s a pretty extraordinary account: Handsome Lake describes how Europeans went searching for Jesus Christ, but ended up finding Satan, who led them to America. In this account, Columbus and Queen Isabella have only small roles to play. As the final paragraph reveals, the main actor is the devil.

This narrative is obviously useful for thinking about Native people and in the early American republic. It can be a part of a discussion about the Second Great Awakening, about indigenous resistance to settler colonialism, or about the Seneca.

But I’m (maybe) a little bit strange because I like to use it to teach about the Columbian exchange at the very beginning of classes about early American and Atlantic history. Recently, I taught this source alongside Christopher Columbus’s famous 1493 letter about his first voyage. In some ways, they couldn’t be more different: one is an eyewitness account of one of the first European trips to the Americas written during that voyage. The other is a story told by someone who didn’t witness these events, that was recorded more than a hundred years after it was first told.

Whose account is more credible? Whose is more accurate? Who cares? Those questions don’t really matter in this case. The point of reading this narrative, especially alongside Columbus’s account, is to challenge students to think more deeply about what the exchange of goods, ideas, and diseases meant for people on both sides of the Atlantic. For Handsome Lake, it meant an erosion of Native culture and an “enormous” evil. For Columbus, it was an opportunity. For Handsome Lake, it was the work of the Devil. For Columbus, it was God’s Providence.

Ultimately, I like this source because it creates space for a conversation about who gets to determine the meaning that moment when the indigenous peoples of the America and Europeans began to discover each other.

European and settler sources define so many crucial moments in indigenous history. Those sources allow Europeans to implicitly claim ownership over that history. Yet here is an indigenous man exerting ownership of a familiar episode of early modern European history. It’s sort of thrilling, isn’t it?

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