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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

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.

Occom traveled 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, 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 feared.

A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff
University of Illinois at Chicago

In the Heath Anthology
A Short Narrative of My Life (1768)
A Sermon Preached by Samson Occom (1772)

Other Works
A Sermon Preached by Samson Occom, Minister of the Gospel, and Missionary to the Indians; at the Execution of Moses Paul an Indian (1772)
Collection of Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1774)

Cultural Objects
Image filePortrait 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.

Secondary Sources