Occom, Samson (1723-1792)
Samson Occom (1723-1792)
Native american schoolmaster and preacher
Two Worlds. Samson Occom, a Mohegan Indian born and raised near New London, Connecticut, was something of a novelty. A Native American who could write and speak English with grace and style, Occom has been called the father of Native American literature. He was also a preacher and schoolteacher who devoted his life to serving God and helping his people. Occom also knew the liabilities of being an Indian. His mentor, Eleazar Wheelock, abused his trust, and his own denomination lessened its support as he pushed harder to protect Indian lands, thus making clear the liabilities of being an Indian in a white man’s world.
Early Life. Occom was the grandson of Tomockham and the son of Joshua Ockham. His mother, “Widow Sarah” Occom, was one of the first Mohegan converts of the Great Awakening. Samson, at sixteen years old, became a second-generation Christian. He converted to Christianity under the preaching of James Davenport, a friend and colleague of another evangelist, Eleazar Wheelock, who was beginning his school for young white and Indian males. Thanks to his mother and Davenport, Occom got enrolled in Wheelock’s school at Lebanon, Connecticut. He had already begun to teach himself English and soon excelled at the difficult tasks of learning Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. Occom was a gifted student whose facility with languages allowed him to learn the Oneida tongue and later teach it among that Iroquois nation. Occom’s progress as a student was said to have inspired Wheelock to found his famous Indian Charity School for educating Native American missionaries. Occom spent four years studying at Wheelock’s school. Failing health and poor eyesight conspired to prevent him from going to college.
The Lord’s Work. Occom began his teaching career near his home of New London and then transferred to Long Island, where he taught school and ministered to the Montauk Indians for eleven years. Supported by the Boston Board of Correspondents for Propagating Christian Knowledge, Occom was a popular and well-received teacher. Indicative of his creative pedagogy, he used singing and constructed card games as teaching devices for his students. Following the retirement of Azariah Horton, the white Presbyterian minister to the Montauk, Occom assumed his pastoral duties without any additional pay. While teaching at Long Island Occom met and married Mary Fowler in 1751; together they had ten children. To supplement his meager teacher’s salary he bound books and carved spoons, pails, and gunstocks for his white neighbors.
Overseas. An eloquent preacher, Occom, despite some opposition because of his race, was ordained by the Long Island Presbytery in 1759. Under the auspices of the Scotch Society of Missions, arrangements were made for him to preach among the Cherokee in Georgia and Tennessee. However, fighting between the Cherokee and white settlers ended those plans. Instead Occom was sent to preach among the Oneida in New York, where he recruited young men to Wheelock’s school. In 1765 Occom traveled with George Whitefield, regarded as the greatest preacher and missionary of the age, on his sixth preaching tour of the colonies. In late 1765 Occom sailed for England with the Reverend Nathaniel Whitaker to raise money for Wheelock’s Indian Charity School. By all accounts British officials were taken by Occom’s charismatic preaching. Over the next two years he delivered more than three hundred sermons through the British Isles. His preaching was the major reason he and Whitaker were able to raise more than £11,000, the most ever raised for an institution in British America. Truly ecumenical in his Christianity, Occom made friends with Andrew Gifford, London’s leading Baptist; he also charmed the bishop of Gloucester, William Warburton, who approached him about Anglican ordination. Occom also spent several days visiting with John Newton, the composer of “Amazing Grace” and other hymns. The University of Edinburgh offered him an honorary degree, but the modest Occom gracefully declined.
Turmoil. Returning to America in the fall of 1768, Occom discovered that Wheelock had failed to live up to his promise of caring for Occom’s wife and seven children; they were living in abject poverty. The relationship between Occom and his old mentor began to deteriorate. The breach was widened when Wheelock, using the money Occom had been so instrumental in raising, moved his Indian school to New Hampshire, began to exclude Indians, and renamed it Dartmouth. “I am very jealous,” Occom told Wheelock, “that instead of your Semenary Becoming alma Mater, she will be too alba mater [white mother] to Suckle the Twanee, for She is already adorned up too much like the Popish Virgin Mary.” With regard to Dartmouth, Occom bluntly told Wheelock “your present Plan is not calculated to benefit the poor Indians.”
Writings. Throughout his career Occom was a writer, and his skills improved with time and experience. From 6 December 1743 to 6 March 1790 he kept a diary recording his work and activities, and it remains a remarkable historical document. On 2 September 1772 a Christian Indian was hanged for committing a murder while intoxicated. Occom preached a temperance sermon at the execution. It was subsequently published and became a best-selling book. He also published a collection of hymns, including some he wrote. Occom is generally recognized as the first Native American whose writings were published and widely known.
Decline. Ironically, Occom himself had been victimized by rumors that he was a heavy drinker, and some even claimed he was not a Mohegan. His biographer, Harold Blodgett, makes clear that both charges were patently false. They were started apparently by those who resented Occom for defending the land claims of the Montauk and Oneida against speculators. But he lost the support of his denomination and the several missionary societies who had underwritten his work. He wrote a short biography of his life defending himself against those baneful charges. Throughout the 1770s and into the 1780s Occom preached among the Mohegan and other remnant tribes of New England. His life during this period was hard and impoverished. After the American Revolution he began making plans for the settlement of Brothertown, New York, on lands deeded him and others by the Oneida as a reserve for New England Indians. The move to New York was made in 1791. The next year he established the first Indian Presbyterian church in Brothertown. Occom died soon afterward as he gathered cedar wood with which to finish the church building.
Impact. Occom’s influence lived on through his children, converts, and students. Two of the latter became writers themselves, both of them Mahican Indians. Hendrick Aupaumut wrote a travelogue and a description of Mahican life. The other student, Joseph Johnson, wrote several letters that were published in New England newspapers.
Harold Blodgett, Samson Occom (Hanover, N.H.: Dartmouth College Publications, 1935);
Michael Elliott, “‘This Indian Bait’: Samson Occom and the Voice of Liminality,” Early American Literature,29 (1994): 233-253;
Samson Occom, A Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, an Indian; Who Was Executed at New-Haven, on the Second of September, 1722; for the murder of Mr. Moses Cook, Later of Waterbury, on the 7 th of December, 1771. Preached at the Desire of Said Paul (New Haven, Conn.: Printed & sold by Thomas & Samuel Green, 1772);
Bernd Peyer, “Samson Occom: Mohegan Missionary and Writer of the Eighteenth Century,” American Indian Quarterly,6 (Fall/Winter 1982):208–217.
"Occom, Samson (1723-1792)." American Eras. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/occom-samson-1723-1792
"Occom, Samson (1723-1792)." American Eras. . Retrieved July 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/occom-samson-1723-1792
Samson Occom (both: ŏk´əm), 1723–92, Native American clergyman, b. near Norwich, Conn. He became one of the first pupils of Eleazer Wheelock, and in 1749 he went to Long Island, N.Y., to serve the Montauk as pastor and schoolmaster. Occom was ordained in 1759, and later he went (1766) to England to help raise the funds used to establish Dartmouth College.
"Occom, Samson." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/occom-samson
"Occom, Samson." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved July 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/occom-samson