Samson Occom (Mohegan) (1723-1792)
A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff
Classroom Issues and Strategies
"A Short Narrative of My Life" (dated September 17, 1768) is one of the earliest life histories written by an American Indian. Shortly after he returned from England in the spring of 1768, Occom began his "Short, Plain, and Honest Account of my Self" in order to refute false reports that he was a Mohawk, that Wheelock received large sums for his support, and that he had been converted just before the English tour in order to become a special exhibit (Blodgett 27). An important topic both in his narrative and sermon, as well as in the selections from Apess and Copway, is religious conversion. Students, who generally cannot understand why Indians became devout Christian converts, need to know that for Indians and slaves, Christianity offered the possibility of being regarded by whites as equals under God. Indian authors, like slave narrators, frequently contrasted whites' professed Christianity with their mistreatment of minorities. Students also need to understand that until at least the late nineteenth century, most Indian education was conducted under the auspices of religious organizations. In the twentieth century, many reservation schools were still run by churches; even the Indian schools conrolled by the government had a strong religious orientation.
Occom's narrative offers the opportunity to follow the stages of his movement from traditional Mohegan life to conversion and acculturation, his methods of teaching his Indian students and conducting church services, and resentment of being paid far less that white preachers because he was Indian.
In discussing "A Sermon Preached by Samson Occom," students should be given information about the structure and general content of execution sermons. All this is included in the text headnote and in the following section.
There are a number of issues that can help them see the significance of this sermon. I have had good discussins of why execution sermons were so popular during this period. I often relate these sermons and the confessions they contain to modern-day confessional talk shows.
Another issue is the delicate political task Occom faced in addressing both a white and Indian audience. See the discussion of style below.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
1. Identify the Mohegans as a tribe and give some sense of their background. A member of the Algonkian language family, the Mohegans originally were the northernmost branch of the Pequots, the fiercest of the New England tribes. During the 1637 war with the English, the Pequots were massacred near what is now Stonington, Connecticut. Led by their chief Uncas, the Mohegans, who sided with the English in the war, joined in the massacre. After the war, they remained at peace with the English but resumed hostilities with their old enemies, the Narragansetts. For a brief period, the Mohegans, then numbering 2,000, greatly expanded their territory. However, this had shrunk drastically by the end of the seventeenth century. English settlers, who regarded the nomadic Mohegans as idle thieves, issued orders to remove them from the towns. Uncas and his sons further decreased Mohegan territory by making large land transfers to the whites. By the end of the century, the Mohegans were no longer independent. The first successful attempt to gather them into Indian villages was made in 1717. Eight years later, the Mohegans numbered only 351 and were split into two opposing camps, located one-half mile apart on the west side of the Mohegan river between New London and Norwich, Connecticut.
2. "A Short Narrative of My Life"--Issues for dicussion include the status of New England Indians in 1768, the relationship of the document to the spiritual confessions so popular in this period, and Occom's concept of self as expressed in his narrative.
3, "A Sermon Preached by Samson Occom"--
a. Why were execution sermons so poular in this period? (see below)
b. Structure and general content of the execution sermons.
All this is included in the text headnote and in the following section.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
In "A Short Narrative of My Life," which was not written for publication, Occom uses a much more conversational style thatn he does in "A Sermon." Why?
The latter is a typical example of the popular genre of the execution sermon. The first publication in New England to combine the offender's "True Confession" with the "Dying Warning" was Increase Mather's The Wicked mans Portion [sic] (1675). His A Sermon Occasioned by the Execution of a Man found Guilty of Murder [sic] (1686) expanded the literary form by including the murderer's complete confession as allegedly taken down in shorthand. The 1687 second edition added a discourse between the prisoner and minister, designed to introduce realism. Lawrence Towner argues that the genre demonstrated that New Englanders committed crimes and were led to contrition. Because the listeners to the sermons and readers of the "True Confessions" and "Dying Warnings" were at worst minor sinners, it was necessary to trace the criminal's career back to its origins and to generalize about the nature of crime. As criminals increasingly became outsiders (blacks, Indians, Irishmen, or foreign pirates), the tone of the "True Confessions"and "Dying Warnings" changed from moral suasion to titillation. So popular became the genre that in 1773, the year after the publication of Occom's sermon, eleven separate publications dealing with the condemned prisoner Levi Ames were printed. Wayne C. Minnick suggests that the authors of execution sermons ranked among the "best educated, most influential men of their society" (78).
A particuarly important issue is the rhetorical strategies Occom uses to appeal to the church fathers, general white audience, Moses Paul, and Indian listeners. Having students pick out the phrases and comments that Occom makes to each group will help them see how skillful he was. Students need to realize what a politically delicate position Occom was in--he needed to educate his white audience without alienating them and to balance his presentation to the three groups that constitued the total audience. Another point to discuss is how Occom presents himself in the sermon.
It is important to get students to understand the religious milieu of the period, which responded to execution sermons as a form of spiritual confession. This can be compared with the confessions of the contemporary born-again fundamentalists. The sermon was sometimes delivered in church on the Sunday or Thursday before the execution, but most frequently just before the time appointed for the hanging. Audiences numbered between 550 and 850.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
"A Short Narrative"--The descriptions of Indian life can be compared with those by George Copway. Comparisons can also be made to the accounts of Indians in the "Literarure of Discovery and Exploration" section, the accounts of Indian relations in selections by John Smith and Thomas Morton, and the descriptions of Indian life in the captivity narratives of Mary Rowlandson and John Williams.
Increase and Cotton Mather and Edwards --the structure and general themes of their execution and other sermons--can be compared. These preachers emphasized dramatic conversion, which Edwards described as a three-stage process: (1) Fear, anxiety, and distress at one's sinfulness; (2) absolute dependence on the "sovereign mercy of God in Jesus Christ"; and (3) relief from distress under conviction of sin and joy at being accepted by God (Goen 14). This process, reflected in Occom's sermon, became the norm in the Great Awakening and in subsequent revivalism. Evangelists also used emotional extravagance in their sermons.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
"A Sermon"--Call attention to the structure and the concept of redemtion throught confession of sin. I do not assign a paper on this work. If I did, two possible topics would be Occom's use of distinct rhetorical strategies to appeal to the various groups in his audience and to Moses Paul; and the extent to which Occom follows the standard structure and basic content for such sermons (see text headnote).
Conkey, Laura E., Ethel Bolissevain, and Ives Goddard. "Indians of Southern New England and Long Island: Late Period." In The Northeas t, edited by Bruce G. Trigger, 177-89. Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 15. Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian, 1978. Valuable introduction to these tribes.
Goen, C. C. Revivalism and Separatism in New England, 1740-1800. Strict Congregationalists and Separate Baptists in the Great Awakening. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1962.
Heimert, Alan. Religion and the American Mind: From the Great Awakening to the Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1966.
Jennings, Francis. The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest. New York: Norton, 1976. Standard work on the subject, with lengthy bibliography.
Minnick, Wayne C. "The New England Execution Sermon, 1639- 1800." Speech Monographs 35 (1968): 77-89.
Salwen, Bert. "Indians of Southern New England and Long Island: Early Period." In The Northeast, edited by Bruce G. Trigger, 160-76. Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 15. Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian, 1978. Informative introduction to these tribes.
Sturtevant, William C., ed. Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 15. Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian, 1978.
Towner, Lawrence L. "True Confessions and Dying Warnings in Colonial New England." In Sibley's Heir. A Volume in Memory of Clifford Kenyon Shipton, 523-39. Boston: Colonial Soc. of Massachusetts and Univ. Press of Virginia, 1982. The articles on the execution sermon by Minnick and Towner are especially good.
Trigger, Bruce G., ed. The Northeast, vol. 15. Handbook of North American Indians, edited by William C. Sturtevant. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian, 1978.
Washburn, Wilcomb E. "Seventeenth-Century Indian Wars." In The Northeast, edited by Bruce G. Trigger, 89-100. Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 15. Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian, 1978.Good overview of these wars.
|Samson Occom's A Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, an Indian (1772) and A Choice Collection of Hymns and Spiritual |
Songs: Intended for the Edification of Sincere Christians, of All Denominations (1774) are believed to be the first two books published in
English by a Native American. Considered the first widely read Native American book, Occom's account of his own life was written in
1768. It is also the earliest autobiography written by a Native American.
Occom began teaching native students how to speak English using verses on chips of cedar chips. Julia Clark's publication in 1993 of
Occom's diaries makes available a forty-six-year record of observations about "Indian ways of everyday life, housing, travel,
communication, legal status, politics, and dress."
Occom, a Mohegan, was born in 1723 in a wigwam on the west side of the Thames River between New London and Norwich,
Connecticut, to Joshua and Sarah Ockham. By midcentury the Mohegans were impoverished by colonial encroachment, having been
denied access to fishing sites and hunting grounds that had extended in the time of Uncas -- from whom Occom was said to claim
matrilineal descent -- to the Rhode Island and Massachusetts borders.
The evangelistic preachers seemed to offer a mode of survival, and at seventeen Occom responded to James Davenport's call to the
"Great Awakening" and was converted. On 6 December 1743 he was admitted to a school kept in Lebanon in the home of Eleazar
Wheelock, Davenport's Yale classmate and brother-in-law. During his four years there Occom learned to read and write English and
studied Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, but he was prevented by poor health and severe eyestrain from going on to college. On 5 November
1766 Wheelock wrote of his gifted student: "Mr. Occum had been long confined by Sore Sickness before he came to me, and was then,
and all the time he was with me, [in] a low State of health."
Occom taught in New London in the fall of 1747; in 1749 he sought a position as schoolmaster. A group of about thirty-two families of
Montauk living at the tip of Long Island invited him to instruct them; unable to offer a salary, they promised to take turns feeding him.
Occom wrote to the Boston Board of Correspondents for Propagating Christian Knowledge for permission, thinking that the board
would provide financial support for him; but it was not until 1751, after his marriage to one of his students, Mary Fowler, that he was
paid the inadequate sum of fifteen pounds a year.
The retirement of the local minister, Azariah Horton, in 1757 meant that Occom had to add pastoral duties to his teaching
responsibilities, but he was not paid for the extra work. As his family grew, his debts accumulated, so he resorted to farming, fishing,
hunting, selling objects he made of cedar (such as churns, buckets, mortars and pestles, and ladles), and rebinding the books in the
library of Samuel Buell of Easthampton.
On 12 November 1756 Occom was ordained by the New Light Calvinist sect of Connecticut. He passed the rigorous examination for
ordination by the Presbytery of Suffolk, Long Island, on 13 July 1757 and was ordained on 29 August 1759. He was to be sent to
minister to the Cherokee under the auspices of the Scotch Society of Missions at the substantial salary of seventy pounds a year.
Occom was prevented from carrying out the proposed venture by fighting between the Cherokee and settlers who were trying to take
over their land; instead, he was sent west to recruit Oneida students for Wheelock's school. With his brother-in-law, David Fowler, he
left Connecticut on 10 June 1760 to teach the Oneida in what is now New York and to bring back promising youths. The Oneida chiefs
gave Occom and Fowler a wampum belt to bind their friendship when they departed on 19 September 1760. That winter Occom taught
himself to speak Oneida so that he would not need an interpreter when he returned in 1762. His third mission was aborted by the
Pontiac war of 1763.
On 3 April 1764 Occom moved his family to the village of his birth, which by then was called Mohegan; they lost their household goods
in a storm during their crossing of Long Island Sound. On the ancestral land where his mother, his sister Lucy, and his brother
Jonathan still lived he constructed a two-story house that later became a historic landmark. By this time he and his wife had had seven
children: Mary, born in 1752; Aaron, born in 1753; Tabitha, born in 1754; Olive, born in 1755; Christiana, born in 1757; Talitha, born in
1761; and Benoni, born in 1763.
In the spring of 1765, after Occom had accompanied him on his sixth tour of the colonies, George Whitefield, the greatest preacher and
missionary of his age, considered taking Occom back to England with him; later he suggested that Wheelock bring Occom. On 23
December 1765 Occom and another clergyman, Nathaniel Whitaker, set sail from Boston to raise funds for Wheelock's Indian Charity
School; they arrived in England on 3 February 1766.
Occom's charismatic preaching elicited donations far in excess of those given to any other colonial institution: he raised £9,497 from
2,169 people in 305 churches in England; and in Scotland, where he displayed the Oneida wampum belt, he raised an additional
£2,529. Occom's charm transcended sectarian rivalries, making him a truly ecumenical figure; his tact and diplomacy earned him
esteem wherever he spoke. London's leading Baptist, Andrew Gifford, became a friend, and William Warburton, bishop of Gloucester,
made "overtures of Episcopal ordination" to him. He was the guest of John Newton, the composer of the hymn "Amazing Grace," at
Olney. In Edinburgh Occom modestly declined an honorary doctorate.
Occom returned to Mohegan in the fall of 1768 and soon became bitter about his treatment at the hands of whites. He found his wife
and children living in poverty, even though Wheelock had promised that they would be cared for while he was in Britain. Also, because
Occom had spoken out in favor of a lawsuit to regain Mohegan land that had been fraudulently taken by white colonists (the suit had
been decided in the colonists' favor in 1766), a rumor campaign had been started against him.
It was to correct these misrepresentations -- that he was not really a Mohegan, that he had not been converted until just before his trip
to Britain, and that he was an alcoholic -- that he wrote his ten-page autobiography of 17 September 1768. Furthermore, Wheelock's
school, for which Occom had raised so much money, was moved in 1769, over Occom's objections, to Hanover, New Hampshire; as
Occom had feared, it ceased to be an Indian school and later became Dartmouth College. Finally, Occom was left without income after
a rupture with the Boston board.
In his biography, Samson Occom (1935), Harold Blodgett says that rumors that "he had fallen into intemperance" were started because
Occom was dizzy from "having been all day without food." According to Leon Burr Richardson, who edited Occom's letters (1933),
Occom was so poor that he "drank only cold water."
On 2 September 1772 Occom preached a temperance sermon at the execution of Moses Paul, a Christianized Indian who had
committed murder while intoxicated and had been sentenced to hang. The sermon attracted a massive audience of people who had
heard of the charismatic preacher. It was published the same year.
In 1773 Occom and his former pupil Joseph Johnson, who had married Occom's daughter Tabitha, began to plan a migration of the
converted New England Indians to land in New York offered to them by the Oneida. Occom's final child, Andrew Gifford, was born in
1774. That same year his collection of hymns, an interdenominational compilation Occom had put together during and after his trip to
England, was published. Johnson left for New York first -- the project had really been his idea -- but was killed in the Revolutionary War
Occom left his family in Connecticut and traveled back and forth to the new settlement in Brothertown, New York, acting as an itinerant
preacher along the way. In 1784 he toured New England to raise funds for the settlement, and he collected donations for it for six
years. He moved his family to Brothertown in 1789. The migration was impeded by war, by lack of funds, and by extensive litigation over
the land, which the Oneida ceded to New York.
Occom had befriended legislators in Albany on his many fund-raising trips, and they finally deeded the land to him -- one of the few
instances of whites living up to an agreement with Indians. About 250 Indians migrated to Brothertown in 1791. Occom established the
first Indian Presbyterian church in Brothertown in 1792; shortly thereafter, on 14 July, he died suddenly while gathering cedar wood with
which to complete a churn.
Much of the scholarship on Occom has focused on the execution sermon, but the diary he kept from 1743 to 1790 deserves at least
equal attention. Among the educational innovations he describes are sets of cards containing Bible verses that he would deal out to
children; he would then comment on how each card was appropriate to the child who had drawn it. He also describes how, carrying a
copy of his own hymnal in his pocket on his travels, he would lead the singing in the frontier cabins he visited.
From his patrons he requested only songbooks. In the introduction to her edition of the diary, Clark says that the work shows the
process of Occom's acquisition of English: the early entries are "short, clumsy, inexpressive," while later ones show an expanded
vocabulary and improved phrasing. Abbreviated though the entries are, they offer many insights into the narrative gift that made
Occom's sermons so memorable; he was noted for his compelling stories. Blodgett quotes one anecdote that remained vivid even after
the lapse of seventy-seven years: "An old Indian, he said, had a knife which he kept till he wore the blade out; and then his son took it
and put a new blade to the handle, and kept it till he had worn the handle out"; but it remained the same knife. The story serves as an
analogy for the resiliency of Indian culture.
Occom could wring every possible nuance out of a repeated phrase, as is evident in a letter to Robert Cleveland that is quoted by
Blodgett: "You turned yourself out of our School, and You turn'd yourself out of the Church, and you are turning yourself out of the
Favour of every Body . . . take Care that you don't turn your Self out of Heaven." Though Blodgett asserts that "there is not a hint of
lightheartedness in all his writings, Occom's first biographer, William DeLoss Love, claims that "there was a dry humor in his sayings, at
which he never laughed himself, but which must have amused his listeners."
Today various groups of indigenous people are basing claims for federal recognition of tribal status on Occom's writings. Among the
communities that have cited him in court are the Mohegans of southeastern Connecticut; the Narraganset of Charlestown, Rhode
Island; the Pequots of Stonington and Groton, Connecticut; the Niatic of Lyme, Connecticut; the Tunxis, Quinnipiacs, and Wangunks of
Farmington, Connecticut; and the Montauks of Long Island, New York.
The Mohegan Tribal Council, under the leadership of Courtland Fowler, a descendent of Occom, petitioned for federal recognition in
1984 on the basis of the "Sociocultural Authority" of Occom. Citing the fifty-two roots with healing properties Occom learned of from
Ocus, a tribal herbalist and medicine man, in 1761, the Montauk invoke Occom as one who inspired them to preserve their cultural
heritage, including their "green medicine," or ethnobotanical knowledge. Thus, more than two hundred years after his death, Samson
Occom continues to help his people.
American poetry : the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 2007.
Love, W. D. Samson Occom and the Christian Indians of New England. 1899.
Roemer, K. M. Native American writers of the United States. 1997.
Occom, S. A Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, an Indian. 1772.
Occom, S. A Choice Collection of Hymns and Spiritual Songs: Intended for the Edification of Sincere Christians, of All Denominations.
Occom, Samson. A Short Narrative of my life. 1768.
|Letter Writter by Samson Occom |
A Sermon Preached at the
Execution of Moses Paul, an Indian