Chainbreaker/Blacksnake

Seneca Chief who led warriors to fight with the British
Photograph of Chainbreaker published in 1892.

Photograph of Chainbreaker published in 1892.

During the last half of the eighteenth century, war, diplomacy, and trade occupied the attention of the Iroquois tribes in western New York. Born in 1749 (although some accounts place the date as late as 1753), Chainbreaker’s childhood was filled with stories of atrocities on the frontier, bravery in distant battles, and speeches around council fires. A member of the Seneca tribe of the Iroquois Confederacy, Chainbreaker’s father gave him a childhood name at birth. Known as Tekayetu, he grew into a strong and respected member of the tribe. Upon reaching adulthood, Tekayetu changed his name to Tawannears, or Chainbreaker. He enjoyed success as a diplomat early in his twenties thanks to his family connections. His uncle, Cornplanter, was an accomplished diplomat and war chief, while his more distant relative Red Jacket was a key Seneca sachem, or leader.

When the Revolutionary crisis swept the American colonies, the Americans hoped to guarantee Iroquois neutrality in the coming war. Chainbreaker did not attend either of the initial councils in 1775 with the delegates from the American Congress, when other members of the Iroquois Confederacy pledged to remain neutral in the conflict between the colonies and Great Britain. By 1776, cracks had developed in the Iroquois pledge of neutrality. Mohawk chief Joseph Brant was leading a movement to join the British side in the war. Later, the Americans once again met with members of the Iroquois and other tribes at Fort Pitt to avoid warfare on the frontier. Red Jacket, Cornplanter and Chainbreaker were all present at a meeting in July 1776 with the Americans at Fort Pitt.

Speaking on behalf of Chainbreaker and the other Seneca leaders, Red Jacket initially proved non-committal. Joseph Brant made a determined effort to recruit the Senecas to the British side, but Red Jacket and Cornplanter could not be convinced. American General Philip Schuyler was able to temporarily shore up Seneca neutrality the following month in a meeting at German Flats. In early 1777, however, Seneca support became a British imperative. Lieutenant General John Burgoyne, commander of the British army in Canada, had planned a campaign which was intended to divide the American colonies. The plan called for Lieutenant Colonel Barry St. Leger to march from Fort Oswego to Albany as the western flank in a three-flank attack on Albany, New York. St. Leger’s forces at Oswego included two regiments of foot, a company of German j√§gers, and the Royal Regiment of New York loyalists under the command of Sir John Johnson, which together amounted to only seven-hundred troops. For the plan to succeed, the British needed the support of the Iroquois, and this meant convincing the Seneca to enter the war.
In the late spring of 1777, Seneca and Mohawk leaders agreed to meet with British officials at Fort Oswego. Joseph Brant once again called for war, but Cornplanter and Chainbreaker still proved reluctant. By the end of the discussions, however, Joseph Brant convinced Cornplanter to change his mind, and the western Seneca subsequently entered the Revolutionary War on the side of the British.

Portrait of Joseph Brant by George Romney circa 1776.

Portrait of Joseph Brant by George Romney circa 1776.

The combined Seneca, Mohawk, British, and German force under Barry St. Leger, who was given the temporary rank of brigadier general for the operation, amounted to sixteen hundred men. The British vanguard arrived on August 2, and on August 5, Molly Brant, the sister of Mohawk chief Joseph Brant, sent an urgent message to St. Leger, warning him of the approach of rebel militia. The American force numbered nearly eight-hundred men and was under the command of Brigadier General Nicholas Herkimer. St. Leger deployed his Loyalist regiment and four-hundred Seneca and Mohawk warriors to attack the Americans. On August 6, 1777, near Oriskany, New York, the Loyalist-Indian force ambushed Herkimer’s force, routing the Americans. Chainbreaker participated in the battle, and was surprised by the size of the victory. He commented that “I have Seen the most Dead Bodies all over that I never Did see, and at the time I thought that never again will the Blood Shed a Stream Running Down on the Descending ground” as it did on that day. He counted only thirty-seven dead for the Seneca, while American casualties numbered between three and five hundred.

Despite the victory at Oriskany, St. Leger could not force the surrender of Fort Stanwix. The British brought only eight light artillery pieces, including four mortars, which proved insufficient against the American defenses. When rumors reached the Seneca on August 21, 1777 that Major General Benedict Arnold was approaching with over three thousand Continental soldiers, they decided to abandon the siege. Without help from St. Leger or from General Sir William Howe (who was supposed to command the southern flank), General Burgoyne’s army was isolated north of Albany. Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga on October 17, 1777 marked the turning point of the Revolutionary War.

In 1778, the Seneca and Mohawk made several raids into the Wyoming Valley on the Pennsylvania frontier. Chainbreaker took part in these raids, and recalled that on one occasion in the forest when “I was about 80 Rods from where we all stopped, and I heard Some Body whistle. . . I listened for Some time. . . till I got . . . So Near that Some of them may have seen me.” At that moment “they fired at me But not one touched me.” Chainbreaker’s “gun was good for nothing, But” he was able to run and strike one of Americans with the gun’s barrel. At that “moment I took him as my prisoner and took his arms and ammunition away.” The Indian raids proved devastating to the American settlements, prompting George Washington to send four thousand Continental soldiers under the command of General John Sullivan to “destroy” the Iroquois country. Sullivan’s army marched into Seneca country in August 1779, burning forty Seneca and Cayuga villages, as well as 160,000 bushels of corn.

Portrait of Cornplanter by Frederick Bartoli circa 1796.

Portrait of Cornplanter by Frederick Bartoli circa 1796.

Sullivan’s march through Iroquois country forced Chainbreaker to flee his home and remove to the safety of British Fort Niagara. The British did not have enough food to maintain the almost 5,000 Indians who congregated there in September 1779. By November, the number had thinned to only 2,900, and would continue to fall through the winter. When the Revolution ended in 1783, fighting continued for some time on the frontier. Chainbreaker was instrumental in guiding the western Seneca through the peace process. In 1786, he went to New York, where Congress assured him that Americans would make no further encroachments on Seneca lands. Chainbreaker thus signed the 1789 Treaty of Fort Harmar, which brought the western Seneca into compliance with the earlier 1784 Treaty of Fort Stanwix. Unfortunately, expanding American settlement continued to threaten the Seneca, and in late 1790, Chainbreaker travelled to Philadelphia for a meeting with George Washington. The President assured Chainbreaker that the U.S. government would respect Seneca territory, but warfare erupted once again in 1791. The defeat of the Shawnee and other tribes at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 effectively ended the period of frontier warfare that followed the end of the American Revolution in 1783.

Portrait of Chainbreaker by John Phillips circa 1845.

Portrait of Chainbreaker by John Phillips circa 1845.

Chainbreaker underwent a profound spiritual transformation in the late 1790s, On June 15, 1799, Chainbreaker’s uncle Handsome Lake was apparently dying. Chainbreaker rushed to his uncle’s side, and discovered him on the floor. Chainbreaker felt some warmth in his uncle’s body, but could not revive him. Eventually, Handsome Lake recovered and claimed that he had been on a vision quest. Handsome Lake’s vision demonstrated to him that the Seneca could achieve “spiritual rebirth” by refusing to sell or drink alchohol, refusing to sell their land, and having their men become farmers to strengthen the community. Such prophecies were becoming more common among the Indians of Eastern America after the Revolution. Red Jacket opposed this vision, but Chainbreaker became a life-long follower of the new prophecy.

After his conversion to Handsome Lake’s teachings, Chainbreaker changed his name to Blacksnake. During the War of 1812, he fought with the Americans against the British at the Battle of Fort George in August 1813. Blacksnake led a quiet life during his last sixty years, but in 1856, at the age of one-hundred and seven, he testified in the Seneca’s lawsuit to recover their Oil Spring Reservation. Blacksnake produced a document from the 1797 Treaty of Big Tree, which included a map showing that the Oil Spring Reservation was never supposed to be a part of the Holland Company’s land grant. The court found in favor of the Seneca. Blacksnake died on December 26, 1859, at the age of one-hundred and ten.


Primary Source Documents: Chainbreaker

The following passages are based of the text of Blacksnake’s memoirs printed in Thomas Abler, ed., Chainbreaker: The Revolutionary War Memoirs of Governor Blacksnake as told to Benjamin Williams, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989). Blacksnake recited his memoirs to Benjamin Williams, a neighboring Seneca. Because Williams’s “reservation English” makes comprehension a challenge to the lay reader, the following passages are edited to be more easily understood in modern English usage. Wherever possible, the original text is preserved.

At the 1777 meeting with British officials at Fort Oswego.

. . When we arrived there at the appointed place for the council fire or convention, the [British] officers immediately came to us to See what we wanted. [They offered] to Support the Indians with Provisions and with the flood of Rum. There are Some amongst our Warriors who made use of this intoxicating Drinks, [and] there was several Barrel Delivered to us for us to Drink; for the white man told us to Drink as much as we want of it all free . .

. . . [The] Commissioner [said that he] was Sen[t] By [the] father of old England to proceed [with] the object [of] the greatest important to be communicated with the Red Brethren in Regard to the King of England[‘s] quarrel [which] Existed between America . . this is the Subject that we are considerable Bound to each other to help in any case whatever to assist Each other of the two Brothers, and love Each other and be good obedience to Submission to authority of our father and who is able to support us when we are in Distress . . . [the] American [s are] considered our father[‘]s children, But Disobedience and Rebellion [occurred against] our father[‘]s Rules and government . . . he [King George III] want[s] you all [of] the Six Nations and other Indian Nations to turn out and join with him and give the American a Dressing and punishment for his Disobedience . . .

. . . Cornplanter and Red Jacket and Several other chiefs and the head man of Each Nation of warriors agreed that they wanted [to] take the consideration on the Subject So [ad]journed, that Day, for the Next morning . .

. . . Cornplanter Says to his people–warriors must all mark and listen what we have to Say: war is war, Death is the Death, [and] a fight is a hard Business . . . Brant then Said to Cornplanter you are a very coward[ly] man. It is not hardly worth while to take Notice [of] what you have said . . . and at this time our Brave warriors appeared to not like to be called Coward men [and] began to say we must fight . .

The Seige of Fort Stanwix and the Battle of Oriskany.
. . . Early in the Day the British officers undertook to go to the fort, for the purpose of seeing] the situation and ascertain[ing] the Number of them and how it could be taken . .

. . . But while making preparations for Battle, the news came . . . that we now take up arms, [because] there was Six thousand American men arrived to meet us. So our head man made further arrangement in preparing for Battle with them . . .

. . . So we march out to the chose[n] ground, [and] when we got there, about the second Day[‘s] morning from the time our British officer was Blinfolded before going into Fort Stanwix . . . we met the Enemy at the Place appointed Near a small creek . . . as we approach[ed] to fight, we had [to] prepare to make one fire and Run amongst them. . . while we [were] Doing it, it felt no more to Kill the Beast . . . only a few white men Escape[d] from us . . . I have Seen the most Dead Bodies all over that I never Did see, and at the time I thought that never again will the Blood Shed a Stream Running Down on the Descending ground . . . yet some living cried for help, But [I] ha [d] no mercy to be spared for them . . . as to the Distress of the Senecas only 30 kill[ed] at that time, and I have took prisoners . .

On an encounter during a raid into Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley.

I was about 80 Rods from where we all stopped, and I heard Some Body whistle or Such [a] Sound on the left Side of me within a few Rods . . . I listened for Some time to hear more But [I] hear[d] no more. I [went] Back to our fires, till I got about 10 Rods from [the] folks or Near Enough–So Near that they may [have] see[n] me as I was coming toward them. I then heard aga[i]n Such a Sound right behind me. I turned and look [ed] Backward, [and] as soon as I look [ed] Back they fired at me. Not any one touch[ed] me . . and after the[y] fired I than Saw 25 or 30 well armed men. I just hoped [that] I [could] make a Jump toward them, and Run with all [my] might . . . my gun was good for nothing, [but I kept it] in my hand. The enemy fired once more before I overtook them. The first one I came to wheel[ed] around about [to] Draw his Sword and was going to [lay it] over me . . . in this moment I took him as my prisoner and took his arms and ammunition away from him . . . [my] other Indian Brother came upon the run, [and] I told him to take this prisoner. [He] Did so, and I ran on after the other ones that got away . .


For Further Reading:

Daniel Richter, The Ordeal of the Longhouse (1992).
Joseph Fischer, A Well-Executed Failure: The Sullivan Campaign against the Iroquois (1997).
Max Mintz, Seeds of Empire: The American Revolutionary Conquest of the Iroquois (1999).
Alan Taylor, The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution, (2006).