Cover image for Chainbreaker : the Revolutionary War memoirs of Governor Blacksnake as told to Benjamin Williams
Chainbreaker : the Revolutionary War memoirs of Governor Blacksnake as told to Benjamin Williams
Blacksnake, Governor, approximately 1753-1859.
Publication Information:
Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, [1989]

Physical Description:
xvii, 306 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm.
General Note:
Includes index.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
E99.S3 B533 1989 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



Chainbreaker is one of the earliest memoirs of an American Indian--a Seneca chief know as Governor Blacksnake to his white neighbors on the New York frontier. A fighter in the American Revolution, the old chief (who also went by the name Chainbreaker) had an exciting story to tell to his fellow Seneca, Benjamin Williams, in the mid-nineteenth century. His account is now published in its entirety for the first time, with extensive commentary by Thomas S. Abler setting the text in historical perspective.

The narrative begins with a flurry of diplomatic activity as the English and the rebellious Americans eagerly seek alliances with the Senecas and other tribes in the Iroquois Confederacy. Only in 1777 did Iroquois warriors enter the conflict. Blacksnake describes the fighting as he saw it on such fields as Oriskany, Wyoming, and Newtown. Educated not only to the warpath but to the council fire, he is sensitive to the central role his people played in peace negotiations after the defeat of the British. He describes also the efforts of the Senecas to promote peace between the Americans and the still hostile Indians of the Ohio country. Blacksnake was well placed to make and observe history: One of his uncles was Cornplanter, a prominent figure during the Revolutionary War and its aftermath. Another uncle was the prophet Handsome Lake, whose vision in 1799 led to a revitalization of Seneca religion and culture and is recounted here. Blacksnake's story provides a rare Indian view of warfare and diplomacy during a time when the Six Nations of the Iroquois still played a major role in the history of North America.

Author Notes

Thomas S. Abler, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Waterloo, is the co-author of A Canadian Indian Bibliography, 1960-1970 (1974).

Reviews 1

Choice Review

Rarely in Native American studies does there appear a set of written documents created by the people under study. This volume is one of those fortunate instances. It is a memoir written down by a relative of a Seneca who was present at major events on the late 18th and early 19th century New York frontier. Chainbreaker--a translation of Governor Blacksnake's Seneca name--participated in the battles of Oriskany, Wyoming, and Newtown. He does not evade the harsh realities of war, yet he also comments on his sadness at the loss of human lives on both sides. Chainbreaker served as a diplomat under his uncle, Cornplanter, during and after the Revolution; his recollections of Seneca efforts to bring peace to the Ohio region underscore the naivete of the traditional stereotype of the "savage" Indian. Finally, his eyewitness description of his cousin Handsome Lake's vision that led to the creation of a revitalized Iroquois religion offers additional insights into the complex, and quickly changing world or the Iroquois. The book's value is enhanced by Abler's excellent commentary and critical notes. He assists the reader through some very difficult "reservation English" and his speculations on gaps and apparent errors in Blacksnake's chronology are careful and reasoned. Where necessary, Abler details his own analysis of the problem and then offers several alternatives for the reader's examination. College, university, and public libraries. -R. L. Haan, Hartwick College