[This is a continuation of sorts of an earlier post on Native Americans and early Mormonism.–David G.]
Joseph Smith and the Code of Handsome Lake
Lori Taylor, Ph.D.
Lori Taylor has three degrees in American Studies: Ph.D. from the SUNY at Buffalo, M.A. from The George Washington University, and B.A. from Brigham Young University. Through all of those degrees, she chased down the ways people frame and reframe the cultural and historical tidbits from which they make deep meaning. The joy in historiography for Lori is the story that makes THEN interesting NOW.
In 1994, sitting in a Western-themed lodge in Billings, Montana, a friend and colleague told me a story that I spent the next several years hunting down. I’m trained as a folklorist and oral historian, so the play of story, memory, and forgetting influence my understanding of histories. Whether the concept of “truth” plays any part in an exploration of this story, I’m not so sure. If the concept of “fact” is slippery for historians, “truth” is even more so.
“You’re a Mormon?” Nicholas said to me. “Oh, boy, do I have a good story to tell you.”
He spent more than an hour telling me about a sundance at Turtle Mountain in 1987 when dancers were talking as they prepared for the dance. It was here that he first heard the story he told me.
“Hey, you guys ever hear the story of how the Mormons came to be?” Wabanimkee had asked Nicholas and the other dancers. “The real story?”
He told them about hard times in western New York after the War of 1812. The Senecas’ transition from their pre-white-settlement lives to the new reality after two generations was not going well. Iroquois have long been farmers, but crops had failed during the year of no summer in 1816. The local Indian agent wrote, “The situation of the Indians is truly deplorable.”
During this period of transition and difficulty, the story goes, a young Joseph Smith worked as a field hand. He met Seneca field hands who were not like the other Senecas who were “into alcohol and debauchery and stuff.” He asked them why they were “so solid, so stable, so strong. And they say, well, they were followers of Handsome Lake.” Who was Handsome Lake? They told him.
Handsome Lake spent the last 15 years of his life, from 1800 to 1815, encouraging his people to turn away from alcohol, gambling, promiscuity, witchcraft, and the worst excesses that came with the settlers. He asked them to follow a code and a ceremonial cycle that maintained their Haudenosaunee identity while also embracing elements white Christian values. He preached of the need to adjust in order to survive. It wasn’t until 1826 that the women Faithkeepers of Tonawanda asked Handsome Lake’s grandson to recall the words of the teacher. From these recollections, they created the Code of Handsome Lake, which has since evolved into the Gaiwiio (Good Word), the syncretic American religion practiced today as the longhouse religion of the Haudenosaunee. For most Iroquois, Handsome Lake is a prophet.
The Seneca field hands told Joseph Smith that Handsome Lake “found a way of blending” the best of Iroquois traditions and the best of Christian traditions “because his vision told him that they only way his people were going to survive is if they held on to the root, the main root of who they were throughout time that gave them a sense of identity and strength and consistency of heritage.” They had to incorporate the new into the old “in order for them to get along in this new society that was forming.”
Hearing the story of mixing two world views into a New World view, Joseph Smith said, “this is just what the white people need because they’re just as pitiful as the Indians are. And, because it’s a new world for everybody, what the white people need to do is to take the best of their Christian heritage and traditions and stuff that come out of their European ways and mix it with the indigenous ways of the people who have lived on this land for a long time.”
“And, so what he decided, what was really needed was an equivalent of Handsome Lake’s Gaiwiio, but for the white people, maybe with a little more Christian emphasis.”
What about all of the books and gold, the dancers asked the storyteller. The Senecas helped Joseph Smith, he said. “We’ll be better, us Indians will be better off if you white people do just like we did to get along here in this new world. We’ll be better off if you folks can understand us a little bit more by taking in some of our world view, too. So, we will help you. We will help you bring this new word. We will help you bring the Word to your own people.”
The teller of the story goes on to outline melting of the gold paid Tonawanda Senecas by the British for their help during the War of 1812 into tablets like Moses’ commandments, a story that bears no resemblance to reports of thin, brass plates found in construction of the Erie Canal during that generation. They told their stories in their own writing, taught him how to read it, then told him how he would make the discovery of his golden book a media event.
The story ends, and the sundance went on. Nicholas told me the story, and he told a few others, just as Wabanimkee had told a few others before.
In the years I spent asking whether such events could be possible let alone plausible—years I spent in graduate school in western New York with Haudenosaunee teachers, students, and friends—I heard a few much shorter versions of the story.
Among the questions I asked during my research was, what other comparisons have been made by those familiar with both the Iroquois longhouse and Mormonism? Edmund Wilson, on a tour of the Six Nations for the New Yorker in the 1950s, visited Philip Cook, Mohawk of Akwesasne. Cook was a convert to the LDS church. He told Wilson that he wondered whether Joseph Smith might have been influenced by Handsome Lake through Senecas in western New York, but “he concluded that no white man at the time could ever have had access to their ceremonies or understood what was said if he had.”
Tracing the lines of acquaintances of all the people I know who know this story (at least, those who told me they know this story), I find that one man knew them all or knew who told them. In another of Edmund Wilson’s articles for the New Yorker, he wrote of Wallace “Mad Bear” Anderson, in 1958 a dynamic man of 31 years old. Mad Bear become one of those elders who for young people in the 1960s and 1970s imparted Indian wisdom and stories. He also, in his extensive travels, made connections with indigenous peoples around the world and worked to bring them together. He spread Iroquois stories and his contemporary interpretations far and wide as a merchant seaman then as a travelling elder.
Mad Bear Anderson is the trickster figure in the story of Handsome Lake followers and Joseph Smith—possibly a source, possibly just a very strong teller of the tale.
Could these events have happened?
On the one hand, there are parallels between Handsome Lake’s teachings and Book of Mormon, economic and social interactions between Iroquois and white settlers at the time were still extensive during the early decades of the 19th century, and Lucy Mack Smith wrote that Joseph talked about Indians “as if he had spent his whole life among them.” Joseph Smith was interested in the people who lived around him. Young Joseph was a member of the juvenile debating club in Palmyra during 1822 when Red Jacket, arguably the most widely-known Seneca of this period, delivered a speech in town. Joseph also liked to hang out on Ganargua Creek (Mud Creek) in the area where Iroquois travelers camped. He had interest and access.
On the other hand, melting down gold for thick tablets seems unlikely for quite a few reasons, including economic reality and cultural skill sets, and a coordinated cross-cultural media event is more of our day than of the 19th century. Even if such an event as described in the story actually happened in time, it is unlikely there would be any historically useful trace beyond memory through story.
Is the story possible? Sure. Is it plausible? Probably not, at least not in the specifics. After 200 years, a story can stretch to meet a lot of different needs. I’ve frequently heard people say after hearing the story, “I always wondered about that.” This story makes connections between peoples, connecting a few dots of curiosity. That may be the need it meets. Then again, it may bring up more questions than it claims to answer as it sparks an interest in what happened hundreds of years ago between early Mormons and their Haudenosaunee neighbors.
A generation ago, after scholars went through New York, turned it upside down and shook it out, someone asked if there is “anything new to be found in the history of the Church in New York.”
Scholars have looked for influences on Mormonism in Puritan roots, evangelical revivals, hermetic traditions, folk magic, and in various social movements. Given the fact that Joseph Smith lived in Iroquoia—New York, Ontario, and beyond—we can include those historical sources for another potential area of influence. There is plenty “anything new” in Mormon history where it meets the parallel space of Indian Country. I’m confident more areas of influence will be added to the list in time as well.
Of course there is an endless new history to be written. We look in different places. We find different traces of the past. We ask different questions as we ourselves change. And, we rewrite histories we thought we knew when they no longer answer the questions we ask about our past. If history weren’t so fluid, there wouldn’t be much point in our discussing it here.
The story and the questions come from my PhD dissertation, Telling Stories about Mormons and Indians (State University of New York at Buffalo, 2000).
 Nicholas C. P. Vrooman, “Handsome Lake, Joseph Smith, and the Word,” recorded 7 November 1994. For clarity, I’ve made my paraphrase and quotation of the story italics.
 Erastus Granger to Acting Secretary of War, George Graham, 20 January 1817. In Charles M. Snyder, ed., Red and White on the New York Frontier: A Struggle for Survival. Insights from the Papers of Erastus Granger, Indian Agent, 1807-1819 (Harrison, New York: Harbor Hill Books, 1978): 85.
 Elisabeth Tooker, “Iroquois Since 1820,” in Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 15, Northeast, ed. Bruce G. Trigger (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1978): 452. There were others who contributed to the codification of the teachings of Handsome Lake as well.
 The New Yorker articles were published as Edmund Wilson, Apologies to the Iroquois (1959, 1960; Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1991): 123.
 Even as a colleague read over this post before I sent it, he said, “Now I understand better what my grandfather said to me about Seneca gold.” People I’ve known for years sometimes come up with pieces around the edges of this story.
 Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Liverpool: S.W. Richards, 1853): 85. If she told her stories in chronological order, the dates of these recitals would be 1823 or 1824.
 Chad Flake, review of The Restoration Movement: Essays in Mormon History, eds. F. Mark McKiernan, Alma R. Blair, Paul M. Edwards, BYU Studies 15/3 (Spring 1975): 373.