In This Article Samson Occom and the Brotherton Indians

  • Introduction
  • Biographies and Accounts

American Literature Samson Occom and the Brotherton Indians
by
Ivy Schweitzer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 September 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0003

Introduction

Samson Occom (b. 1723–d. 1792), a member of the Mohegan tribe of east-central Connecticut, came of age at a time of tribal turmoil and the religious revivals of the Great Awakening. He was converted to Christianity at eighteen, and at nineteen he was appointed a tribal councilor. His father Joshua died the following year, and after attending hearings in a long-standing land dispute between the Mohegans and the colony of Connecticut and witnessing his tribe’s vulnerability to English law and language, Occom went to study with Congregational minister Eleazar Wheelock of Lebanon, Connecticut. Occom studied with Wheelock for four years and was a remarkable student, achieving proficiency in English as well as Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Poor health prevented him from enrolling in college; he went to live on Long Island with the Montauk tribe, where he married, started a family, and became an effective educator and missionary. He was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1759. Occom’s success encouraged Wheelock to start an Indian Charity School to educate Native youths to become missionaries, and he sent Occom to various tribes to finds recruits. In 1766, Wheelock chose Occom to undertake a transatlantic fund-raising mission to raise money for the school. A stirring orator, Occom preached across England and Scotland from 1766 to 1768, amazing audiences and raising more than £12,000, only to return to find the school relocated to New Hampshire, renamed Dartmouth College, and reorganized to educate Anglo-American students. After his long association with Wheelock ended, and the land dispute was finally settled against the Mohegans, Occom became an outspoken advocate for Indian rights and autonomy. Seeking refuge from land expropriation and colonial interference, he helped establish Brotherton, a pan-Indian Christian group that eventually moved to lands offered them by the Oneida nation in upstate New York. Occom died in the autonomous Brotherton settlement of New Stockbridge. He is the most important Indian writer in North America before the 19th century, with a large archive that includes diaries, letters, sermons, autobiographies, ethnographies, petitions, and hymns. He authored the first Indian bestseller, a popular execution sermon that was reprinted more than twenty times. Despite the richness of his life story and his intellectual achievements, Occom’s work only began appearing in anthologies of American literature and Native American literature in the late 20th century. In 2006, his Collected Writings appeared, allowing scholars and students to grasp and examine the full range of his achievement (see Brooks 2006, cited under Collected Writings).

Primary Sources

The two works Occom published during his lifetime, his collection of hymns and his execution sermon for Moses Paul, were both directly connected with his missionary work and religious vocation. They were extremely popular and brought him much recognition. Other people published some of his work—his account of the Montauk Indians and extracts from sermons he and Nathaniel Whitaker delivered in England during their fund-raising trip. Some of his unpublished work, such as the letters, his diary, a few sermons and hymns, and autobiographical narratives, appeared in collections and anthologies, but Joanna Brooks edited the most authoritative and complete source of his primary documents. A few sermons and hymns are online, and The Occom Circle project (cited under Collected Writings) has put all of the documents by Occom, and many about him and his circle, held by the Dartmouth Libraries online in a freely accessible, searchable form.

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