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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Utopian Promise Samson Occom (1723-1792)

[6747] John Warner Barber, Sketch of Samson Occom’s house (1836), courtesy of the Connecticut Historical Society.

Samson Occom was born in 1723 in a Mohegan Indian community in Connecticut. At the age of sixteen he was “awakened and converted” to Christianity under the guidance of white itinerant ministers. Shortly thereafter, Occom began learning English and studying scripture under the tutelage of Eleazar Wheelock, a prominent missionary interested in training young Native American men to act as Christian ministers to their own people. In 1749, Occom left Wheelock to embark on such a mission. While teaching and preaching in Long Island, he met and married Mary Fowler, a Montauk Indian, with whom he had ten children. Occom was officially ordained as a minister in 1759.

Maintaining a close relationship with his mentor, Occom dedicated much of his early life to promoting Wheelock’s missions and projects. In 1765, at Wheelock’s behest, he embarked on an ambitious two-year speaking tour of England to raise money for a charity school for Indians in New England. The mission was a financial and public relations success, in large part because of Occom’s popularity among the English. The novelty of a Christianized American Indian attracted a great deal of attention, and Occom’s dedication to the project brought in large returns. While in England, he preached three hundred sermons and raised nearly twelve thousand pounds in contributions.

Upon his return to America, Occom was outraged to find his family living in poverty despite Wheelock’s promise to provide for them during Occom’s absence. His resentment toward Wheelock grew when he learned that the minister had decided to use the funds Occom had raised in England to turn the Indian school into Dartmouth College, an institution that quickly abandoned its focus on Native American students. Occom also complained that he was underpaid, for he had a large family to support and his wages never approached the salaries commanded by many white ministers. Finding himself in dire financial straits and feeling betrayed, Occom bitterly ended his long relationship with Wheelock. He devoted much of the rest of his life to preaching and raising funds for the resettlement of Christian Indians on lands belonging to the Oneida Indians in western New York. Though he eventually moved his family there and held the position of pastor within the settlement, the scheme was never entirely successful because of legal struggles and controversies over land claims. Occom died in New York in 1792.

During his lifetime Occom wrote extensively and published two works, making him one of the few Native Americans of the period to leave a written record of his life and thought. While his best-known piece is probably the “Sermon at the Execution of Moses Paul,” a transcription of the speech he delivered in 1772 before the execution of a fellow Christian Mohegan for the crime of murder, recent critical attention has also focused on Occom’s brief autobiography. Occom wrote “A Short Narrative of My Life” in 1768 as a defense against the criticisms and personal attacks he withstood after his quarrel with Wheelock. In it, he seeks to prove the authenticity of both his spirituality and his Indian identity, as well as to expose the injustices he suffered at the hands of whites. The document remained in the Dartmouth archives, unpublished, until 1982. It is one of the first autobiographical pieces in English by a Native American writer and thus offers a unique and important perspective on eighteenth-century American spiritual and social life.

Teaching Tips

  • You might provide students with some historical background on the Mohegan tribe so that they can situate Occom’s experience within the broader context of Indian/white relations in the colonial period in New England. A member of the Algonquian language family, the Mohegans constituted the northernmost branch of the Pequot tribe. During the devastating Pequot War (chronicled from the English perspective in Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation), the Mohegans sided with the English. This decision ensured a brief period of peace with European settlers following the war, but by the end of the seventeenth century, the tribe had been decimated by disease and by the colonists’ continual encroachment on its lands. At the time of Occom’s birth, the Mohegans numbered only about 350 and were confined to villages set aside for them in Connecticut.
  • Students may be unable to comprehend why seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Native Americans would have been interested in giving up their traditional beliefs in order to convert to Christianity. In fact, many Native Americans and African Americans embraced Christianity because it afforded them the same status as whites, as spiritual equals in the eyes of God. Of course, European colonists did not always respect this principle of spiritual equality. You might highlight the pointed contrasts Occom draws in his narrative between the Christian ideals espoused by whites and the actual treatment minority converts experienced at their hands.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: When does Occom feel that he is being treated unfairly? What is his concept of justice? How does he deal with the prejudice and mistreatment he experiences? What rhetorical strategies does he use to present his complaints in his narrative?
  2. Context: Compare Occom’s description of Indian life and Indian identity with the perspectives on Indians offered by other writers in this unit (Bradford, Morton, Rowlandson, or Knight, for example). How does Occom’s narrative of Native American life complicate or challenge the perspectives of the English writers? Does his account of Indian culture have anything in common with their accounts?
  3. Exploration: In his life, Occom managed to inhabit what often seemed to be two very separate cultures: he wrote and preached in English and committed himself to the Christian theology taught by white people, yet never lost his commitment to his identity as an Indian. How does Occom’s narrative provide evidence of the strategies he adopted in order to live in two separate cultures at the same time? What tensions does this hybrid or dual identity produce in the narrative? This problem of hybridity or duality is a major theme in many works by later American writers. You might compare Occom’s piece to William Apess’s “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man,” John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks, or W. E. B. Du Bois’s concept of double consciousness in The Souls of Black Folk.

Selected Archive Items

[1236] John Eliot, The Holy Bible Containing the Old Testament and the New Translated into the Indian Language (1663),
courtesy of Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania.
Commonly known as the “Eliot Bible,” this book was the first Bible published in New England and appeared over a hundred years before the first complete English edition of the Bible was published in the American colonies. It is written in Massachuset, the language of the Massachuset and Wampanoag Indians. John Eliot, the “Apostle to the Indians,” composed his text to serve the cause of Native American conversion to Puritan Christianity.

[2850] Brass medal given to Christian Indians as a reward for service,
courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, N38319/N38320. Photo by Carmelo Guadagno.
Christianized Indians fought on both the Native and the British sides in King Philip’s War, which led to confusion on the part of colonists as to who was a “good” and who was a “bad” Indian. Brass medals were awarded to those who served the British.

[6747] John Warner Barber, Sketch of Samson Occom’s house (1836),
courtesy of the Connecticut Historical Society.
This illustration from Barber’s Historical Collections of Connecticut is one of the few depictions of a private dwelling in the book. This house in Mohegan (present-day Montville, Connecticut) belonged to Occom. British-style housing, fenced yards, and individual property ownership were perceived by missionaries to be signs of a successful conversion to Christianity.

[6748] Anonymous, Rev. Samson Occom, the Indian Preacher (1802),
courtesy of the Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania.
Between 1750 and 1766, Occom sat for at least three different portraits. This one emphasizes Occom’s identity as a minister, rather than his Native American heritage. Others show him in Native American dress that resembles a Roman toga.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey

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Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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