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Blacksnake. Tah-won-ne-ahs. Wolf Clan. (c1749-1859)


Portrait of Governor Blacksnake. John Phillips. 1845
Purchased by Lewis Henry Morgan in 1873
Rochester Museum & Science Center Collections

The man known as Governor Blacksnake was a keen observer of the important events during one of the Senecas most turbulent periods of history. In the 1840s, Blacksnake sat down and dictated his life's story to a neighbor, Benjamin Williams, who wrote it down in English. It tells the story of the councils, battles and home life of the Senecas in fairly accurate detail. As the nephew of both Cornplanter and Handsome Lake, important and influential Seneca leaders from the 1770s to the early decades of the 1800s, Blacksnake was actively involved in the events he described.

Blacksnake was born ca. 1749 on the east side of Seneca Lake, in the Seneca village of Kendaia. Approximately one year later, his family moved to Ganawauges (Avon, NY), where other family members already lived. His maternal grandmother was the sister of Gai-ya-sot-ha, a respected orator and spokesman for the Senecas in important councils with the French, British and American colonists. Blacksnake remained at Ganowauges until General Sullivan invaded Seneca territory in 1779. He then followed his mother's family to live along the Allegheny River, and settled in Cornplanter's Town, Jenuchshadago ("Burnt House"). There his sister became the leading Wolf clanmother.

On June 15, 1799, Blacksnake's uncle, Handsome Lake, fell into a coma. All tought he was dead. It was Blacksnake who discovered "a warm spot on his chest" and informed the others that he still lived. He was present when Handsome Lake told about the visits from the Creator's messengers during his sickness. The messengers told him of a new path the Senecas could take to survive the confusion and devastation under which they now suffered.

Not everyone embraced this new way of life, and the Senecas became more factionalized over the next several years. After one political argument between his two uncles Cornplanter and Handsome Lake, Blacksnake moved with Handsome Lake's followers to Coldspring (1803), where he played an important political role, including that of being his uncle's personal counselor. He remained at Coldspring when Handsome Lake left the Allegany in 1809 and moved to Tonawanda.

Blacksnake openly opposed the Treaty of 1838 with the Ogden Land Company, but by that time his political power had already passed on to younger men. He lost all political influence when the Allegany and Cattaraugus Senecas deposed the traditional chiefs and formed their own republican form of government in 1848. Yet he did retain his standing as a respected elder. In 1856, it was Blacksnake who testified for the Seneca Nation in their successful suit to recover their lands at Oil Spring. He testified that although that reservation had not been included in the Treaty of Big Tree in 1797, agent Robert Morris had given Handsome Lake a separate piece of paper stating that Oil Spring was not part of the land sale. Blacksnake died at Coldspring 3 years later, on December 18, 1859, at approximately 109 years of age.