“The Lake Gun” and Iroquoia

By Mary Hess (SUNY Oswego)

Presented at the 21ˢᵗ International James Fenimore Cooper & Susan Fenimore Cooper Conference:  Watersheds at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, September, 2017.

Originally published in  The James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal 31.1 (Whole No. 8, Spring 2020): 62-72.

Copyright © 2017, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

“Seneca,” he repeated slowly, dropping his voice to something like the soft, deep tones of the other; “then you are in your own country, here?”

“My country,” answered the red man, coldly, “no; my FATHER’S country, yes.”

— James Fenimore Cooper, “The Lake Gun”

In considering this obscure Cooper story, first published in 1850, it is important to untangle the complicated history surrounding the region in which it takes place, specifically Seneca Lake, in the homelands of “the People of the Hill,” as the Seneca call themselves. The echo of the infamous Buffalo Creek Treaty of 1838 is heard in the ponderous pronouncements of Cooper’s Seneca, who tells a fanciful tale meant to explain a local and curious sonic occurrence, the lake “booms” and as well as the apocalyptic appearance of what is called the Wandering Jew or the “Swimming Seneca.”

From the beginning, the treaty was a fraught endeavor, considered essential to the growth of New York State’s western frontier, as Buffalo was emerging as one of the nation’s most promising cities, a gateway to the west at the terminus of the Erie Canal. Much of the public discourse around Indian removal reached a peak years before with the pronouncements after the death of Red Jacket in 1830 as “the last of the Senecas” and with his death “all that remained of the Seneca tribe” (Densmore 123). In the haste to call the Seneca finished, political expediency combined with sentimental evocations of a time before the reservation era to push forward the treaty’s implementation, as seen in President Van Buren’s letter to the Senate in 1840:

To the Indians, themselves, it presents the only prospect of preservation. Surrounded as they are, by all the influences which work their distraction, by temptations they cannot resist, and artifices they cannot counteract, they are rapidly declining, and not withstanding the philanthropic efforts of the Society of Friends, it is believed that where they are, they must soon become extinct. (Vallone 124)

The “poor children of nature” were unwilling to accept either their removal or the settled belief that the once-powerful Seneca were finished. As John Mohawk (Seneca) observed, “Jefferson expected the Indians to melt away at the approach of American settlers.” The Seneca did not budge. Their appeals to then-governor William Seward were answered with sympathetic bromides but no real assistance: not until [63] the collapse of Whig power in New York did the departing governor lend his support to the Seneca in the Compromise Treaty of 1842, seeing it as a way to accommodate both the land-hungry western New York counties and the Seneca, who were allowed to remain on the Allegheny and Cattaraugus reservations. Seward, a passionate abolitionist, remained sympathetic to the cause of the Six Nations, but only acted in their interests when it was politically expedient.

If “The Lake Gun” is considered at all, it is as a political allegory, as “See-Wise,” a magical floating log, with its hawklike physiognomy, was meant to represent William Seward, and the dangers of his populist appeal, set in Seward’s home territory. However, Cooper did bring attention to the stress placed on Native nations through his character’s terse explication of the eternal punishment of a Seneca who offended God and was forever doomed to wander the lake.

The first brush between Seward and Cooper was when Seward defended the New York Tribune’s Horace Greeley against the litigious author and attempted to establish libel law more fair and friendly to the press. Seward: “The conductors of the press have legitimate functions to perform, and if they perform them honestly, fairly, and faithfully, they ought to be upheld, favored and protected, rather than discouraged, embarrassed, and oppressed” (Stahr 19). Cooper, a stalwart Democrat, remained invested in the idea of himself as a voice of the elite who could speak for and to the young American nation. He saw Seward’s actions as governor to be contrary to that philosophy, and distrusted his appeal to the common folk, which would come to full expression in “The Lake Gun.” Even though Seward lost the case, it established precedent that made it harder to file frivolous suits, which surely did not go down well with Cooper.

Seward’s political ambitions were never far away and spoke to the temper of the times: the cry for Free-Soil, Anti-Rent, and crucially, abolition, united the very citizens Cooper and the Democrats mistrusted most, and Seward was seen as the most likely national vote-getter, as explained by Horace Greeley to Thurlow Weed, Cooper’s pesky, persistent critic: “You don’t seem yet to understand that the man who enjoy most of the hatred of the Aristocracy are the very men whose names will go best before the People ... I wish you would let us try it.” He went on to urge support for Seward as a candidate for Vice President in 1948 and “any body ... but Webster or a slaveholder” for president (Huston 183). That the Anti-Renters imitated the Boston Tea Party in dressing and acting as “Calico Indians,” using names like “Big Thunder” [64] adds another level of irony — the land they worked, then rebelled against the feudal rent system, had been taken from Native people now being forcibly removed.

So, what of the two mythic phenomena “The Lake Gun” describes? According to the late Deborah Tall, a former colleague:

Lake guns or death drums of the Seneca, are the periodic booms reported by lakeside residents for centuries, an eerie phenomenon out of history and myth that persists. The guns boom unpredictably, often on sultry summer evenings, sometimes on icy mornings; they sound like distant cannons.

She related the tale of the mythical Agayentah as told by George Conover, wherein the warrior taking shelter under a tall tree is struck by lightning and he and the tree topple into the lake. The supposed Seneca legend claims that the booms are “Agayentah on the march” and the cyclical appearance of the “Wandering Chief” is his spirit circumnavigating the lake (Tall 114).

About that lake: Seneca is nearly forty miles long and the deepest of all the Finger Lakes. During the six years when I lived on its shores, in Geneva and while teaching at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, I became aware of its mysterious reputation for unexplained phenomena. Tall describes as well how the lake “burps” — a scientist colleague told her the booms are small gas explosions. But it was the legend that captivated the Hobart students — in 1840, a student claimed Agayentah appeared to him and presented him with a paddle. It is said that the warrior intoned “there will be a college on a hill...” thereby insuring Hobart’s destiny. Ever since, the Druid Honor Society presents senior members with their own paddles before graduation, and they dunk them in the lake as a symbol of transition. I worked with a student, Delvina Smith (WS ‘09), who explained her research this way:

Initially, I wanted to know who Agayentah was and why Hobart men received an oar just before graduation. But the more I researched, the more I realized that Agayentah was more than just a person; he was a legend, a hero, an icon. He symbolized the ideal characteristics of the Hobart man.

Despite my stated concerns that this was uncomfortably in “noble savage” territory, Delvina Smith’s project revealed some interesting facets of the college’s life. She was also the first and probably only William Smith student to receive her own paddle! More emphasis was placed on this legend then and now than on two long-ago Native students who had strong connections to Cooper’s story: Abraham LaFort and Peter Wilson. [65]

A Sense of Elegy

In first doing research on Peter Wilson, I hoped to establish him as the pathbreaker he was and to somehow understand the at times contradictory ways his life went awry. In doing so, I irritated a specialist in the field who saw Wilson’s life as a betrayal of his heritage; he had hoped that I would affirm his views. It is not possible to explain away Wilson’s complicity in the Buffalo Creek Treaty, but history has punished him by ignoring him for his life between, proving that LaFort’s educational experience was a predictor of the psychic stress that led both men to reject white society.

To understand the man, being there is essential. In a quiet corner of South Buffalo, New York, just off the shabby, struggling urban Seneca Street neighborhood near Cazenovia Creek, is a “pocket park” on Buffum Street. Tall trees shade the perimeter; one ancient walnut tree is the senior of them all. Neighbors walk their dogs there, perhaps pausing to read the inscription written on a simple granite boulder. This austere monument marks a long and painful journey, for here is the very last remnant of the Buffalo Creek Reservation, a refuge for the Seneca Nation, onetime home to the landless and the people fleeing the devastation of the Sullivan Campaign of 1779, that terrible hegira of fire, starvation and despair. Only the generosity of John Larkin, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s favorite clients, insured that this little park would survive by donating the land to the city of Buffalo in 1909. As it turns out, Buffum Street is a final resting place, too, for the repatriated remains brought here when the Mount Morris Dam construction flooded yet another ancestral Seneca burial ground in 1952.

Once Mary Jemison’s, and also Red Jacket’s, graves were here. Both were moved: Jemison’s to what is now Letchworth State Park, to Gardeau, in what was once called the “White Woman’s Valley.” In 1894 Red Jacket was the object of a ceremonial burial at Forest Lawn Cemetery with other notable members of the Nation, initiated by the prominent Buffalo lawyer William Clement Bryant. This took place despite the widely held belief that the sachem’s express last wish was to be buried with his own people (Densmore 119). Only the walnut tree remained, planted after Mary Jemison’s death in 1833. It nearly met its end with so many others of Buffalo’s graceful trees after a freak October ice storm in 2007, and only spared when a young Seneca man protested and the men with the chainsaws grudgingly left it alone. This elegiac history is known to some, and there are those who still mark this sacred spot with reverent visits. Allan Jamieson, Cayuga, a seventh-generation [66] descendant of Mary Jemison, led the campaign to restore the monument, and who regrets that the black wrought-iron fence has not been replaced, melted down for scrap metal during World War I. “This is a cemetery,” he explained. “We would like the fence to return.”

Across the street is the former Indian Park School on the site of the mission house of Asher Wright and his wife, Laura, which today is the Buffalo Maritime Charter School. Wright’s place in Seneca history is one of honor — a true friend to the people. He arrived in 1831 and here began a remarkable friendship: a young Cayuga boy, Peter Wilson, met the missionary couple who devised a writing system for the Seneca language and published a newspaper, The Mental Elevator, and a hymnal in that language (Hauptman 113). That link of language proved to be a most extraordinary bond in the years to come, reflected in a long and affectionate correspondence between Wilson and his mentor Asher Wright. Peter Wilson’s letters to Wright are elegantly written, as he is very much the Victorian gentleman — full of news as he journeyed first to the Rev. Samuel Bissell’s Twinsburg Seminary in Ohio, then to Geneva, New York, once known as Kanadasaga, an important Seneca village burned by Sullivan’s army. What is particularly striking about these letters is that most, but not all, are written first in English and then conclude in Seneca. At times, Wilson signs his letters to Wright Wao-waw-anaonk (“They Hear His Voice”) — and he adds “Peter Wilson.” As time goes by, that script, like its author, becomes bolder and more assured, often featuring flourishes and curlicues.

Wilson’s first letter to Wright is written in a small, precise schoolboy script, dated Feb. 16ᵗʰ, 1854: “Mr. and Mrs. Bissell was very glad to see me and I like them very much ... my health is good I am contented so for when I left home I made up my mind not to be homesick. ...” He also expresses pleasure having seen “9 or 11 deer a ¼ mile from the house” on a walk with the Rev. Bissell (Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society). By 1842, letters attest to his friends’ efforts to place him in Geneva: on August 12, 1842, Joseph Fellows, a notorious Indian agent, wrote from Geneva to George M. Cooper. “... Peter Wilson ... has entered the office of Dr. Thomas Spencer as a student ... I have with others addressed a letter to the censors of the state Medical Society ... if you can aid the applicant I request you do it. ...” It is characteristic of Wilson that he achieved his aims through the agency of such questionable characters as Fellows, but it could be argued that the ends surely justified the means in this case. On the reverse is a copy of the letter, initialed by Fellows: “ ... An Indian Chief of the Cayuga tribe, of the name of Peter Wilson, but whose life has been principally spent on [67] the Buffalo reservation is now in this village ... He has no means of support but a small annuity from the general government and he has been advised to apply to the ... Medical branch of Geneva College to grant or obtain for him the privilege of attending lectures of the Medical professors. ...”

Another letter about Peter Wilson was written to Asher Wright by G. M. Cooper, August 16, 1842: “... I rec’d the foregoing yesterday ... get some of the Chiefs on your reservation to send a like petition so to strengthen the claim that Peter may receive the advantage of the institution...” (“Cayuga”). Wilson’s progress to Geneva is detailed in a series of letters to Wright, a pleasant travelogue, such as a son would write to a fond parent. In Marion, Wilson was told by the owner to buy a barrel and “fill them with the best his orchard affords.” No barrel was available, so instead, as Wilson tells Wright: “I went into the peach orchard and devoured the sweet things with a vengeance — I intended to eat enough for all of you.” He asks for “the botanical name of a root which I told you would cure the whooping cough. I was told by White Seneca that the plant grew where David B__ used to live before his shanty burned down.” This is characteristic of Wilson’s ever-observant character; the letters to Wright are enthusiastic about his life in Geneva — an appreciation of a favorite professor, of his rooms, his fellow Native student, Ephaz. He notes with no little satisfaction, “I tell you we live more like princes than Indian boys” (Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society).

Wilson’s educational progress was rapid and brilliant; by 1844 he had made history as the first Native M.D. in the United States, graduating five years before the first female physician, Elizabeth Blackwell. A year later, he gave an after-dinner speech at their alma mater, Geneva Medical College, at what is described as an “Aesculapian Feast”: his impassioned defense of his uncle, Red Jacket, was delivered in the Seneca tongue. The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal marked the occasion, “praising” Wilson as the “literary lion of the evening” who delivered “a capital speech, all the better for not having been understood.” Next, however, the Journal praised him for his toast, glass of water in hand, quoting Lord Macaulay.

This incident serves as the exemplar for Peter Wilson’s life as a man, simultaneously devoted to science and service to his people. The personal strain this devotion caused, however, is an ongoing theme in this remarkable life: like Ely S. Parker, his contemporary and rival, Wilson’s journey was marked by negotiating two worlds. A skilled [68] politician, Wilson rose to influence because of his natural gifts: like his uncle, Red Jacket, he was a powerful, passionate orator and also a translator for the U.S. government. Just as significant, and his calling card in the white world, was his astonishing scientific versatility: physician, dentist, surgeon, as well as a lawyer and diplomat. He was also a husband and father, first married to a white woman, the mother of his son Rush, whose death caused him great sorrow. His last years at Cattaraugus were spent with his second, Native, wife.

As a signatory to the Buffalo Creek Treaty of 1838, Wilson played a pivotal role in the migration to Oklahoma and the subsequent return of some of the Seneca and Cayuga residents of Buffalo Creek, and as their advocate, in 1847, he successfully sought funds to aid them. From the New York Historical Society:

Have we, the first holders of this prosperous region, no longer a share in that history? Glad were your forefathers to sit down upon the threshold of the Long House. Rich did they then hold themselves in getting the mere sweepings from its door. Had our forefathers spurned you from it, when the French were thundering at the opposite end to cut a passage through and drive you into the sea, whatever has been the fate of other Indians, the Iroquois might still have been a nation; and I, too, might have had — a country! (Bryant)

This passionate address, a singular example of Native oratory and most important considering the tragic example of the expansion of New York State’s ambitions at the expense of the Six Nations, is often anthologized as is, without recognition of the remarkable personal story of the man who made it. Even the schools where he excelled as a student have scant records of his history — Hobart and William Smith Colleges, also known as the Colleges of the Seneca, rightly celebrates Elizabeth Blackwell, but until recently was unaware of Peter Wilson’s achievements.

Cooper’s son Paul attended Geneva College, graduating in 1844, the same year as Wilson obtained his medical degree. Considering the small number of graduates that year, it is certain that Paul Cooper knew of Peter Wilson. And the few Native students enrolled at Hobart knew that they were not the first to matriculate. According to Hugh C. McDougall of the Fenimore Cooper Society, “The Indian [the Seneca that Fuller meets in “The Lake Gun”] is undoubtedly modeled after Abraham La Fort (De-hat-ka-tons), an Onondaga Indian Chief who, under the influence of Joseph Brant, attended Geneva College in the late 1820s, but later abandoned Christianity and returned to his traditional lifestyle” (MacDougall). As Bishop Hobart’s protege, LaFort returned to the [69] Onondaga with a belief that he could bring education and the light of Christianity to the people. His discouragement with both led to his ultimate rejection of the white world. This is disparagingly known as “going back to the blanket,” as the hostile atmosphere of the time pushed even high achieving and seemingly well assimilated Native men back to the reservation. The Seneca prophet Handsome Lake had preached against intermarriage of the races, insisting that the life of whites was not for them. Both LaFort and Wilson had married white women but chose Native spouses when they returned to the reservation.

The arc of Peter Wilson’s life mirrors that of La Fort. While this tug of sympathies is hardly unique to either man, Wilson’s versatility and ambition made him a worthy successor to illustrious forebears in the Seneca nation — Red Jacket and Farmer’s Brother — men who both adapted to and yet also resisted the advance of white culture and modernity. Contemporary accounts speak admiringly of a handsome, well-built man. Nathaniel Strong (Seneca) commented, perhaps enviously, of his popularity with the ladies. His skill at oratory was an important part of his personal power: the 19ᵗʰ century is the historical moment when audiences appreciated most what Native and freed people offered them: novelty, certainly, entertainment, but decidedly also a clarion call to conscience from the most abused members of society. John Mohawk defined the significance of Native oratory in this way:

All human beings possess the power of radical thought; all human beings can think; all human beings have the same kinds of needs; all human beings want what is good for society; all human beings want peace ... out of that idea will come the power ... that will make the people of the Haudenosaunee among the most influential thinkers in the history of human thought ... the basic fundamental truth contained in that idea is that so long as we believe that everybody in the world has the power to think rationally, we can negotiate them to a position of peace. (Quoted in Alfred xix)

It is, of course, difficult to gauge the effect of even the most powerful speech when the speaker is silenced by time, but we do have a remarkable incident to consider which attests to his rhetorical gifts: on the inaugural run and at the 1851 ceremonial opening of the Erie Railroad, a galaxy of New York’s political notables such DeWitt Clinton and President Millard Fillmore were on the train for a whistle-stop tour. Along for the trip was none other than Daniel Webster, the premier American orator, who was expert in all three components of classical [70] rhetoric: forensic, deliberative, and epideictic. When the train reached Dunkirk, New York, in the Southern Tier, Webster was asked to speak. He demurred, but finally acceded to the crowd’s wish. Then Peter Wilson spoke. It was the opinion of the crowd that day that Wilson’s was the finer speech.

Yet this is the same man who would be humbled by the casual, endemic racism of the time. In a September 1864 letter to his friend, Buffalo lawyer William Clement Bryant, Wilson asked Bryant to help expedite the delivery of “a suit of clothes” and “an overcoat,” previously ordered and paid for, writing, “please bill me for your trouble” (Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society). He needed the articles because his professional responsibilities and propriety demanded it of him as a nineteenth-century gentleman, which he decidedly was. The pain of such slights occasionally punctuates his usually upbeat, pleasant epistolary style. Another key to his character is found in a New York Times news item, describing how Wilson was the victim of a robbery January 2ⁿᵈ, 1858, in New York City:

Peter Wilson, nephew of the renowned Red Jacket, and chief of the Cattaraugus tribe of Indians, was set upon Wednesday night as he was going through Church-street, and robbed of his money. He nabbed one of the rascals, and after giving him a good drubbing, handed him over to a Policeman. The other parties escaped. (NYT)

At the time, Wilson was practicing medicine at Bellevue Hospital. New York’s intolerant racial climate in the antebellum period has been well documented: as a Native physician, he would have been notable under any circumstances, but no mention of his occupation is given in the Times. Wilson’s identity as a physician is one that appears in records because of his remarkable generosity and dedication to service. Maris Pierce, a younger Seneca man, also educated and prominent in the Seneca Nation, first encounters Wilson when he hears of an Indian physician dispensing “free medicine.” They corresponded over the years on matters of law as well as personal matters, although the relationship was one which could be described as contentious and at times, very fractious.

Wilson returned to Versailles, New York, on the Cattaraugus Reservation around 1850, and subsequently served in the Civil War, attached to the Sanitary Commission, having petitioned the government to be allowed to enlist. According to a town history, he “rendered very efficient service, having a record both on the field and in the hospital of being one of the best operators in the army corps to which he was attached” (Fellows). There is also his time working on the reservation, [71] and particularly the Thomas Indian School, which his son Rush attended.

His last years at Cattaraugus were likely difficult — he had suffered a stroke — and his death in 1872 was briefly remarked upon in a Buffalo newspaper as the passing of an old chief — a quiet end for a man of such energy and passion, but one that somehow is fitting for a man who at last sought the peace and company of life among his people. It was Peter Wilson, after all, who had argued for the burial of Red Jacket’s remains at Cattaraugus. When asked in a letter from Asher Wright about his “calculations in respect to settling among the Indians,” the young medical student about to graduate from Geneva Medical College responded:

This is a serious question; and I only wish that the circumstances among the people were such that I could not without any hesitation answer, I am with them for life, but the unsettled state of the people, political commotion and its ever-changing consequences which threaten dissolution forbid that I should be decided about this point ... I however sometimes seriously ponder upon this subject; and even doubt whether it is right for me to forsake them when my services may be most needed. ... (Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society)

It seems clear that Peter Wilson’s life was one of service, both to his patients and to his Cayuga and Seneca people. Abraham LaFort, a noble symbol to an earlier generation of Hobart students, remains elusive: the toll of being a token, a missionary to the proud and resistant Onondaga, caused him to surrender that identity and work to empower the tribe, the only one of the Six Nations to effectively resist removal, coincidentally with some support from Seward. It would be unthinkable to leave the heart of the Iroquois Confederacy. Whether Cooper realized it or not, his story, with its sense of an elegy, speaks to the pain of those men, and looks to an uncertain future. Cooper sought to warn of the advancing and bloody crisis, of the dangerous populist politics of Seward, but “Seneca” also looks ahead to a world where there is no true homeplace.

Cooper railed about demagogues and of the danger to the republic yet sees into the future Peter Wilson evoked by pleading for a homeplace. Tommy Orange’s acclaimed novel of the urban Indian, There There, recalls the cultural stress of Wilson and LaFort and underscores the spiritual dislocation and resignation sorrowfully brought into the present. A searing preface to the novel spans the history they navigated and echoes the sense of loss: [72]

We know the sound of the freeway better than we do rivers, the howl of distant trains better than wolf howls, we know the smell of gas and freshly wet concrete, the smell of burnt rubber, better than we do the smell of cedar or sage or even frybread — which isn’t traditional, like reservations aren’t traditional, but nothing is original, everything comes from something before, which was once nothing. Everything is new and doomed. We ride buses, trains, and cars across, over, and under concrete plains. Being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere. (Orange 11)

Works Cited

  • Alfred, Taiaiake. Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Lake Gun. 1850. Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.org/files/2328/2328-h/2328-h.htm. Accessed 2 September 2017.
  • Bryan, William J., ed. The World’s Famous Orations. New York, Funk and Wagnalls, 1906. Bartleby.com.
  • Bryant, William Clement. Papers, Box 1, “Letterbook.” Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, Buffalo, NY.
  • Densmore, Christopher. Red Jacket: Iroquois Diplomat and Orator. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1999.
  • Fellows, Sharon C. Email to the author. 7 January 2009.
  • Hauptman, Laurence M. Conspiracy of Interests: Iroquois Dispossession and the Rise of New York State. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1999.
  • “Researching Hobart, A History.” Hobart and William Smith Colleges, 25 August 2009, www2.hws.edu/article-id-12294/. Accessed 9 September 2009.
  • Huston, Reeve. Land and Freedom: Rural Society, Popular Protest, and Party Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Liveauctioneers.com. Cayuga Chief Peter Wilson-Letters. 2009. Accessed 2 June 2009.
  • MacDougall, Hugh. “First and Last Tales: “Imagination” and “The Lake Gun.” Accessed 2 June 2009.
  • Orange, Tommy. There There. New York: Knopf, 2018.
  • Stahr, Walter. Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012.
  • Tall, Deborah A. From Where We Stand: Recovering a Sense of Place. Knopf, 1993.
  • Vallone, Stephen J. “William Seward, Whig Politics, and the Compromised Indian Removal Policy in New York State, 1838–1843. New York History 82.2 (2001): 107-134.