Occom, Samson

views updated May 17 2018

Occom, Samson


New London, Connecticut


Stockbridge, New York

Mohegan preacher, diarist, and hymn lyricist

" . . . I began to think about the Christian Religion, and was under great trouble of Mind for Some Time."

Samson Occom.

Samson Occom was a significant figure in the religious life of eighteenth-century America. He began his career as a Mohegan (a Native American tribe) minister and missionary in the late colonial period, during a time when many Native Americans and colonists were converted to Christianity known as the Great Awakening. Later, Occom became the first Native American to publish a text—a sermon—in the English language. Through his writings—which also included diaries, letters, and hymn lyrics—he defended his Native American culture. As a preacher he solicited funds for Eleazer Wheelock's charity school, which was dedicated to the education and conversion of young Native Americans (see box). Money raised by Occom in England also led indirectly to Wheelock's establishment of Dartmouth College. In spite of his achievements, however, Occom and his family lived in poverty. Historians have confirmed Occom's claim that he was subjected to racist treatment by church authorities, who refused to pay him a salary equal to that of an English minister.

"I was Born a Heathen"

Occom reported being born in a wigwam in 1723 to Sarah, a descendant of the legendary Mohegan leader Uncas, and Joshua, "a great Hunter" and one of three sons of Tomockham (also called Ashneon). He wrote: "I was Born a Heathen in Mmoyouheeunnuck alias Mohegan in N[ew] London—North America. my [sic] Parents were altogether Heathens, and I was Educated by them in their Heathenish Notions. . . . [They] in particular Were very Strong in the Customs of their fore Fathers." When he reached age sixteen, he said, "there was a great Stir of Religion in these parts of the World both amongst the Indians as Well as the English, and about this Time I began to think about the Christian Religion, and was under great trouble of Mind for Some Time."

Becomes a Christian

By "great Stir of Religion" Occom meant the Great Awakening and its widespread impact on communities throughout the colonies (see Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield entries). At that time he was one of twelve councillors to sachem (chief) Ben Uncas. However, Occom's mother Sarah, who was a Christian convert (one who leaves one religion to join another), wanted him also to adopt the European religion. In 1743 she convinced Eleazer Wheelock, a famous Calvinist minister in Lebanon, Connecticut, to accept her son as a pupil. (Calvinism is a Protestant branch of Christianity that places strong emphasis on the supreme power of God, the sinfulness of mankind, and the doctrine of predestination, which states that all human events are controlled by God.) Although Occom's health was fragile and he was susceptible to eyestrain, he entered a life that required extensive reading and frequent preaching tours. After he began studying with Wheelock, he was driven by the desire to learn how to read so he could study the Bible (the holy book of the Christian religion). His stay with Wheelock eventually extended into the late 1740s. Before Occom had completed his studies, Wheelock sent him to preach to the Montauks, who lived on the eastern tip of Long Island. The prior minister of the Montauk people had decided to move west and preach to the Shinnecocks.

Ministry brings hardship

The Montauks encouraged Occom to extend his stay with them. In 1751, against the objections of Wheelock, Occom married one of his students, Mary Fowler. The Occoms had ten children, and the marriage lasted until Occom's death. Despite his being a loving husband and father, the family was never financially secure. The annual salary Occom received from the Boston Commissioners, who oversaw religious affairs, was only fifteen pounds (a pound is a British monetary unit). Occom received none of the assistance generally given to English clergymen and teachers. As a result he soon had a debt of more than fifty pounds. The Occoms had to purchase their own wood and raise their own corn, but they were not allowed to keep sheep. When Samson was away preaching, Mary often had to beg for money from Wheelock and others in order to buy food and necessities. Church leaders claimed, however, that the Occoms were poor simply because they did not know how to budget their money.

Eleazar Wheelock

Best known today as the founder of Dartmouth College, Eleazar Wheelock was Native American preacher Samson Occom's instructor. Born in New Haven, Connecticut, he graduated from Yale College in 1733. Two years later he was appointed pastor of a Congregational church in Lebanon, Connecticut. While living in Lebanon, Wheelock became interested in the education of Native Americans, and in 1754 he opened a school that relied on the charity of Europeans and the church to educate Native American students. One of his first students was Occom, who proved to be an enthusiastic learner and a devout Christian. Wheelock sent Occom to England to solicit funds to support the mission of educating and converting Native Americans. After accumulating 50,000 dollars, Wheelock moved the charity school to present-day Hanover, New Hampshire, and reopened it as Dartmouth College in 1770. This development, among other incidents, caused Occom to question the depth of Wheelock's commitment to Native Americans. Wheelock was the first president of Dartmouth, and he helped the institution survive the difficult years of the Revolutionary War (1775–83), in which the American colonies won their independence from Great Britain.

Poverty plagued Occom all his life. He felt he was being treated differently because of his race—particularly after he was ordained (officially appointed with ministerial or priestly authority) in 1759 and learned that another young minister was granted 180 pounds annually. That year Occum was considered for a ministry among the Cherokees in the South, but he was prevented from taking the position when the Cherokees illegally invaded English settlers' territory. Occom's physical labors, meanwhile, further affected his health. During this time, for instance, he suffered from bleeding ulcers (open sores) of the thigh. Yet he continued visiting the Montauks and other tribes, preaching as opportunities arose. Occom once ventured into New York City and Yonkers, but he was appalled at the loose moral standards among the colonists. After preaching to the Oneidas in 1761, he was given a wampum (beads used by Native Americans as money, ceremonial pledges, and ornaments) belt signifying a bond of friendship. Over the next three decades Occum frequently returned to minister to the Oneidas.

Joins Wheelock's charity school

In 1754 Wheelock established his Indian charity school. His mission was to prepare young Native Americans for a life of "light in pure truth," the central doctrine of Calvinism. Relations between Occum and Wheelock had always fluctuated—primarily because Occum was considered a spendthrift—yet for many years Occom was an effective fund-raiser for the school. By 1764 Iroquois and white charity students had enlarged the student body. The following year Wheelock conceived the idea of sending Occom and the Reverend Daniel Whitaker to England and Scotland on a fund-raising campaign. The circumstances of this journey and Wheelock's intentions regarding the future of the school ultimately eroded Occom's faith in his old teacher. During the tour Occom, who preferred to proceed cautiously, had an uneasy relationship with Whitaker, who was more aggressive and caught up in grand visions. Occum never forgot his Native American identity, and his hosts in England and Scotland showered him with flattery and admiration. Nevertheless, Whitaker reported in a letter to Wheelock that Occom spent money extravagantly and conducted himself in a manner unworthy of a Christian minister.

Involved in Mohegan Land Case

Occom returned from the tour in 1767. Over 50,000 dollars had been collected to support Wheelock's mission of educating and converting young Native Americans. At this time, however, Occum learned that Wheelock planned to change the charity school to Dartmouth College and move it to present-day Hanover, New Hampshire. Occum objected strenuously to the idea as a "fraudulent diversion of the endowment from the Indians to the whites," and he protested relocating the school in New Hampshire. In addition, Occom came to realize that Wheelock had been patronizing him—considering him as a successful "creature" rather than a devoted Christian human being. While Occum tried to remain politically independent in affairs affecting Native Americans, he was often drawn into situations and forced to take a position. An example was the Mohegan Land Case, also known as the Mason Controversy. This drawn-out legal conflict resulted from an agreement drafted in 1640. Under the agreement, Major John Mason a commander in the Pequot War and a political leader in Connecticut, granted land to the Mohegans. Nevertheless the Colony of Connecticut sought to claim the land. While the Mohegans trusted Mason and his heirs, the tribe accused the colony of fraud.

For over a century, the Masons, the Mohegans, and the Colony of Connecticut were caught up in complex litigation (contesting the law). By the time Occom returned from preaching to the Montauks in 1764, the Mohegans had broken into factions (separate groups). Occum sympathized with the larger pro-Mason group, who were claiming the land for the Mohegans. Occom's role in the controversy infuriated the Reverend David Jewett, whose church was on Mohegan lands. Jewett issued charges of misconduct, public clamor, and heresy (opinions contrary to the church) against Occom before the Connecticut Board of Correspondence. At a hearing on March 12, 1765, the Board exonerated (cleared from accusation or blame) Occom except for his actual participation in the Mason issue. Heavily influenced by Wheelock, Occum submitted a humble apology for trying to protect his tribe's land claim. Such English cunning against Native Americans distressed Occom, adding to his personal difficulties and causing him to have problems with alcohol.

Gives famous sermon

Throughout his life Occom kept an extensive diary and maintained a written record of his sermons. He delivered his most famous sermon at the execution of Moses Paul, a Native American who was a former soldier and sailor. On a December night in 1771 in Waterbury, Connecticut, Paul was thrown out of a tavern because he was drunk and rowdy. Seeking revenge, he attacked and killed Moses Cook, the first patron to come out of the tavern. After being tried and sentenced to be hanged, Paul gained a three-month reprieve (delay of punishment). He requested that Occom preach a sermon at his execution. Numerous Native Americans were among the clergymen, lawyers, and judges attending the event on a stormy September 2, 1772. All came to witness the execution—the first in New Haven since 1759—and to hear the Native American preacher. Occum found himself in a difficult position: he was expected to urge Native Americans to refrain from drinking alcohol, yet he realized the English used strong drink to weaken the spirit of his people.

Occom began the sermon with quotes from the Bible, warning that humans are sinful by nature. He then addressed Paul, who stood on the gallows (frame where hanging takes place), before speaking to the whites in the audience. He ended with a lengthy speech to Native Americans about the sins of drunkenness. The sermon had an equally lengthy title: A Sermon, Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, an Indian; Who Was Executed at New Haven, on the Second of September, 1772; For the Murder of Mr. Moses Cook, Late of Waterbury, on the 7th of December, 1771. Preached at the Desire of Said Paul. By Samson Occom. Minister of the Gospel, and Missionary to the Indians. Occum's sermon has since become a classic in American "gallows literature." First published on October 31, 1772, in New Haven, it was reissued from New London two weeks later. The tenth edition appeared in 1780, and there were several subsequent printings. Later editions reportedly contained an introduction with a faked dialogue between Occum and Paul on the eve of the execution.

Writes hymns

Occom is also known as a writer of hymns. He began to appreciate hymns while studying with Wheelock, and in England he met several hymn writers with whom he carried on a correspondence. The actual number of Occum's compositions is unknown, but many are included in his Collection of Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1774). One hymn widely considered to be by Occum is "Awaked by Sinai's Awful Sound," which was published after his death.

Toward the end of his life Occom and his wife settled in the Stockbridge Oneida community in New York. (The Stockbridge Oneida were tribes from the Hudson Valley and westward who became Christian converts and were referred to as "Praying Indians"; see John Eliot entry). On July 14, 1792, Occom collapsed while walking back to his house after completing an article. He was found dead by his wife. More than three hundred Native Americans attended his funeral.

For further research

Blodgett, Harold. Samson Occom. Hanover, N.H.: Dartmouth College Publications, 1935.

Encyclopedia of North American Indians. New York: Houghton, 1996, pp. 434–36.

Occom, Samson (1723-1792)

views updated May 14 2018

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 mans 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 Wheelocks 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. Occoms 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 Wheelocks school. Failing health and poor eyesight conspired to prevent him from going to college.

The Lords 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 teachers 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 Wheelocks 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 Wheelocks Indian Charity School. By all accounts British officials were taken by Occoms 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, Londons 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 Occoms 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. Occoms 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):208217.