July 22: Mohegan Minister Samson Occom Preaches Up An Ivy League College

 

Samson Occom, one of the Mohegan tribe’s most famous members and a direct descendant of the great 17th-century tribal leader Uncas, was born in 1723 in southeastern Connecticut. As a teenager, he converted to Christianity after attending one of the many revivals held throughout Connecticut as part of the first Great Awakening. When he was 20, Occom moved to Columbia, Connecticut, and resided there for four years while learning English language and cultural norms, and studying theology under Reverend Eleazar Wheelock.

A young Samson Occom, painted by Nathaniel Smibert.

After completing his education under Wheelock, Occom traveled to Long Island, where he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. Meanwhile, based on Occom’s remarkable educational attainments, Wheelock established a formal Indian School in Columbia. Its mission was to “Christianize” Native Americans by providing them a western education and teaching them how to assimilate to European-colonial culture. At Wheelock’s request, his former pupil Samson traveled to England, where he embarked on a grueling preaching tour to raise funds to support, expand relocate the Indian School closer to the tribes targeted for conversion. Over the course of the 17-month tour, Occom preached over 300 sermons and raised over £12,000 for the Indian School — an extraordinary sum at the time.

On July 22, 1767, Occom completed his tour of England and headed home to Connecticut. He was dismayed to find his wife and children in financial straits, though Wheelock had promised to provide for them while Occom was overseas. Furthermore, after receiving the funds raised by Occom’s efforts, Wheelock reneged on his promise to use them for an expanded Indian School; instead, he used the money to establish Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire — a school built to educate the sons of wealthy English colonists.

Occom, bitterly disappointed in his former mentor/teacher but determined as ever to fulfill his ministerial calling, continued preaching and published numerous religious works. Among his most lasting contributions to American history is the founding of the Brothertown Indian community in upstate New York, a community of Christian Indians that, after having migrated westward to Wisconsin, still exists today.

Further Reading

Samson Occom,” ARDA online

Samson Occom,” Yale University Indian Papers Project

Walter W. Woodward, “A Little Town Begets a Big College,” Connecticut Explored