Governor Blacksnake

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Governor Blacksnake
'Tah-won-ne-ahs , Thaonawyuthe
Chainbreaker, painted by John Phillips, 1845
Seneca leader
Personal details
Born Between 1737 and 1760
Died 1859
Allegany Reservation, New York.
Resting place Hillside Haven Cemetery, Cattaraugus County, New York
Relations Uncles, Cornplanter and Handsome Lake
Known for Fought with the British at Battle of Oriskany, during the American Revolutionary War; fought with the Americans in the War of 1812
Nickname(s) Chainbreaker

Tah-won-ne-ahs or Thaonawyuthe (born between 1737 and 1760, died 1859), known in English as either Governor Blacksnake or Chainbreaker, was a Seneca war chief, who, along with other Iroquois leaders (most notably Joseph Brant), fought on the side of the British during the American Revolutionary War from 1777 to 1783, most notably at the Battle of Oriskany.[1] Governor Blacksnake also led a successful struggle to restore the Oil Spring Reservation to the Seneca.[2]

Early life[edit]

Governor Blacksnake was born near Seneca Lake in western New York in the Seneca/Cayuga village of Kendaia (Apple Town)[3] and was raised in Canawaugus, New York (today known as Avon, Livingston County, NY).[4] [5] His birth date has been given variously from circa 1760 to as early as 1737 (as is claimed on his gravestone, which was erected 1930, though it also erroneously claims him to have been on the side of the Continental Army during the Revolution). The 1737 birthdate would have made him 121 or 122 years old at the time of death; such an early date seems implausible as no man has been verified to have lived that long. What is known is that Chainbreaker lived an exceptionally long life. He must have been at or near adulthood by the time he became a war chief.

He is well known to have fought in the French (Seven Years) War in 1756, and his death in 1859 is well documented. Thus being at least a teenager, in order to take part in war circa 1756, he must have been over 110 years minimum at death, which is reported to be December 26, 1859. Iroquois and other Native American tribal nations were well noted for their extended lifespans, and rumors such as the 'fountain of youth' were a result of Europeans seeking to find a cause of their longevity.[citation needed] We now know that environment, lack of diseases, genetics and specifically inherited telomeres are the likely source.

Cornplanter and Handsome Lake were his maternal uncles. Blacksnake was a member of the Wolf Clan, as were they, whose traditional function for males was to serve as war chiefs. In the matrilineal system of kinship of the Iroquois, a child's maternal uncles were very influential, as the child gained social status from his mother's clan.

In his youth, he accompanied his uncle Cornplanter "on special missions to see General George Washington as well as to members of the Continental Congress".[5] In 1788 he moved to his uncle Cornplanter's lands when his home village (Canawaugus) was sold to the U.S. in the Phelps and Gorham Purchase of Seneca Lands. Converted to his uncle Handsome Lake's religion and became an active promoter, moving with Handsome Lake to nearby Coldspring with his uncle Handsome Lake in 1803 after a dispute with Cornplanter.[6]

While Blacksnake continued to advocate "temperance, morality, and adherence to the overall principles of Handsome Lake," he rejected Handsome Lake's "proscription against Indian participation in the 'white man's wars".[6] He adapted Handsome Lake's religion and by the 1840s had formulated his own version of it that accompanied his general urging to find a path of compromise. He permitted missionaries and Western schooling on the Reservation and encouraged followers to work toward social harmony and to take advantage of schooling.[6]

Involvement in American Wars[edit]

In 1777 Blacksnake took part in the siege of Fort Stanwix and the Battle of Oriskany in British General St. Leger's part of the Saratoga campaign. In 1778 he participated in the Battle of Wyoming under the command of Colonel John Butler. In 1779 he attempted to defend Seneca settlements against the raid of Colonel Daniel Brodhead.[7] Blacksnake carried messages for the British on a trail that passed through today's Napoli, New York.[8]

After his work on behalf of the British in the Revolutionary War, he became reconciled to the outcome of the war. He volunteered to fight on the American side in the War of 1812,[2] and participated in the Battle of Fort George.[1]

Struggle for Oil Spring Reservation[edit]

Photograph of Governor Blacksnake, (Tha-o-na-wyuthe) or ("Tha--o-wa-nyuths,") "The Nephew" (Seneca).

Governor Blacksnake "helped save the Oil Spring Reserve, laying the basis of the recently-settled land claim (June, 2005) over Cuba Lake."[9]

Stanley Clark, Benjamin Chamberlain, and William Gallagher owned lands adjacent to the Oil Spring Reservation. On behalf of the three, Clark surveyed Reservation lands and claimed it, granting one-quarter of the reservation to Horatio Seymour, later governor of New York, and in the 1850s, conveying another quarter to Philonius Pattison. In response to these actions, the Seneca began a case which ended up in the New York Court of Appeals, Seneca Nation of Indians v. Philonus Pattison. A state court case protested Seymour, Gallagher, Chamberlain, and Clark's claims to the northeast quarter of Oil Spring. Governor Blacksnake, who had attended the negotiations of the Treaty of Big Tree, testified that he and Joseph Ellicott had surveyed the Oil Spring lands and the omission of the lands from the treaty was a mistake. He was able to produce a map copied by the Holland Land Company in which the Oil Spring Reservation was marked similarly to other Seneca lands. The case was laid to rest in 1861 when the court found for the Senecas. Pattison, Chamberlain, Clark, Gallagher, and Seymour were forced to leave the reservation. While later incursions by the New York State Board of Canal Commissioners and tourist activities eroded additional land from the Reservation, Governor Blacksnake's actions helped preserve at least some of Oil Spring as Seneca lands.[10]

Later life[edit]

In later life, his political influence waned, as younger men of the Seneca assumed control,[11] but he continued to participate in the Iroquois Condolence Council into his nineties. [12]

Blacksnake died on the Allegany Reservation in Cattaraugus County, New York. He is remembered by the Seneca Nation as "a man of rare intellectual and moral power."[1]


  1. ^ a b c "Historic Seneca Leaders". Seneca Nation of Indians. 2012. Retrieved 2012-10-02. 
  2. ^ a b Hauptman 2008.
  3. ^ "The Hatchet and the Plow". 
  4. ^ "Chainbreaker". 
  5. ^ a b Hauptman 2008, p. 16.
  6. ^ a b c Hauptman 2008, p. 18.
  7. ^ Adler (ed), Jeanne Winston (2002). Chainbreaker's War. Hendersonville, NY: Black Dome Press. ISBN 1883789338. 
  8. ^ "Napoli, Cattaraugus County, NY : Development". Retrieved 2012-10-02. 
  9. ^ "Iroquois Indian Elders in Historical Perspective: Three Portraits: A lecture by Laurence M. Hauptman, at the Iroquois Indian Museum". New York Council for the Humanities. 2012-10-05. Retrieved 2012-10-02. 
  10. ^ Hauptman 2008, p. 29.
  11. ^ "Blacksnake. Tah-won-ne-ahs. Wolf Clan. (c1749-1859)". RMSC - Louis Henry Morgan Website - Johnson Family Tree. Retrieved 2012-10-02. 
  12. ^ Hauptman 2008, p. 19.


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