| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Samson Occom (Mohegan)
Born in a wigwam in 1723, Samson Occom was the son of Joshua
Tomacham and Sarah, reputed to be a descendant of the famous Mohegan chief,
Uncas. In an autobiographical sketch, dated September 17, 1768, Occom described
the nomadic life led by his parents and their fellow Mohegans during his youth.
At sixteen, Samson was
aroused to religious fervor by missionaries, and he began to study English in
order to read the scriptures. His conversion to Christianity a year later
increased his desire to read. In 1743, twenty-year-old Occom went to study
for four years with the Reverend Eleazar Wheelock in Lebanon, Connecticut. Ill
health and eyestrain prevented him from studying longer. He accepted in 1749
the invitation of the Montauk Indians of Long Island to become their
schoolmaster. In 1751, he married Mary Fowler (a Montauk), who subsequently
bore him ten children. To support his rapidly growing family, Occom
supplemented his stipend by working as a farmer, fisherman, cooper, and
bookbinder. Desperate financial circumstances throughout his life haunted him.
After his ordination
in 1759, Occom spent the next year as an itinerant minister in southern New
England. In 1761, he became a missionary to the Oneida Indians. Determined to
work among his own people, Occom moved his family in 1764 to Mohegan and
assisted the Reverend George Whitefield in raising money for Wheelock’s Indian
Charity School, which became present-day Dartmouth College. Because of his
success as a preacher and fund-raiser, Whitefield sent him to Great Britain to
raise money for the school. During his two years there, Occom preached over
three hundred sermons and raised over £12,000.
After his return,
Occom devoted his energies to preaching and working on behalf of Native
Americans. Prior to his tour of Great Britain, he had helped the Mohegans try
to settle their land claims. Now he became an enthusiastic supporter of a plan
formulated by his son-in-law, Joseph Johnson (a Mohegan), to remove the
Christian Indians of New England to lands offered by the Oneida in western New
York. The Revolutionary War halted this move. In an address, Occom described
the dangers of this war to his people. Although he pointed out that the
English sought to enslave the colonists, Occom urged Indians not to become
embroiled in the quarrels of white people because he felt the war was the work
of the devil.
throughout New England in 1784 to preach and raise funds for resettlement of
the Christian Indians onto Oneida lands, a cause that absorbed him for the next
six years. In 1789, he moved his own family. He spent his last years in
continued service to his people, now beset by controversies over land
claims. Through his efforts, the Christian Indians withstood Oneida efforts to
reclaim their land and white plots to lease the Christian Indians’ land for far
less than its worth. When he died in 1792 at age sixty-nine, more than three
hundred Indians attended his funeral. His dream of a secure settlement for New
England Indians was destined to fail, as were all subsequent resettlements of
Indians. After the War of 1812, white encroachment caused the Brothertown and
Stockbridge Indians to purchase land from the Hochunk (Winnebago) and Menominee
Indians in the Green Bay area of what is now Wisconsin.
Occom published only
two works: A Sermon Preached by Samson Occom,...at the Execution of Moses
Paul (1772), the first Indian bestseller, and Collection of Hymns and
Spiritual Songs (1774). Undoubtedly, the success of the sermon inspired
Occom, a fine singer, to publish the collection.
For the first time after
his English tour, Occom stepped into the public limelight in 1771 when he
preached the execution sermon for Moses Paul, a fellow Christian Mohegan.
Ejected from a Bethany tavern for drunkenness, Paul killed the next person to
leave—Moses Cook, a prominent citizen of Waterbury, Connecticut. Granted a
three-month reprieve by the General Assembly of Connecticut, Paul wrote Occom
on July 16, 1771, to ask that he preach at the execution. Held on September 2,
1771, the execution drew a large crowd. It was New Haven’s first hanging in
twenty years, and it offered a unique opportunity to hear a famous Indian
minister preach at the execution of a fellow tribesman. Whites and Native
Americans flocked to the event. Occom’s forceful and emotional sermon so moved his
audience that he was immediately urged to publish it. One of the few
temperance sermons published during that period, it achieved particular
popularity because of its application to Indians whose drunkenness whites
A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff|
University of Illinois at Chicago
In the Heath Anthology
A Short Narrative of My Life
A Sermon Preached by Samson Occom
A Sermon Preached by Samson Occom, Minister of the Gospel, and Missionary to the Indians; at the Execution of Moses Paul an Indian
Collection of Hymns and Spiritual Songs
Portrait of Samson Occom
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Native American Authors Project
A profile of Occom with online resources and a list of primary texts.
Samson Occom Papers
A guide to the extensive Samson Occom Collection at the Connecticut Historical Society.