The impact of early European immigration on Native Americans in New England is examined through the story of Samson Occom, a brilliant Mohegan Indian from Eastern Connecticut who gains fame on two continents before his story takes a dramatic and unexpected turn.
GONZALEZ: This is Mosaic, a podcast about immigration from The Public’s Radio. Let’s start with a riddle.
NUNES: OK. What do Mr. Rogers, Dr. Seuss, Robert Frost, and Mindy Kaling have in common?
GONZALEZ: Stumped? Well, we’re not going to tell you the answer just yet. But we will give you a clue: It’s their connection to a charismatic, globe-trotting, 18th Century guy from New England, named Samson Occom.
KATHLEEN BROWN-PEREZ: “The people of England were astonished by him, to say the very least. He is received by King George the third, the archbishop of Canterbury. At this point in time, even George Washington knew Occom by name. So he’s becoming quite famous.”
GONZALEZ: Samson Occom isn’t famous anymore. But his legacy is still felt to this day—it’s just that many people don’t know it.
NUNES: And what makes his story so unique is how unlikely it was. Occom was a Mohegan Indian, born in a wigwam in Eastern Connecticut in 1723 to parents who scavenged and hunted for food. But he went on to rub elbows with England’s elite, and even dress like them. And all along, he was driven by the goal of helping Native Americans survive in colonial America.
GONZALEZ: Occom is this complex guy whose story illustrates in dramatic fashion the impact early immigration to America had on the people who were already here. In this episode we’ll tell his story—including what it all has to do with Mr. Rogers and —and we’ll do it with some help from one of Occom’s direct descendants.
GONZALEZ: Kathleen Brown-Perez is a lecturer at UMass Amherst’s Honors College and a lawyer specializing in American Indian law. She calls herself “first generation off the reservation.”
NUNES: She also calls herself 10 generations removed from Samson Occom. He’s her great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather.
BROWN-PEREZ: “I feel like I really know him—really like you would know any family member.”
GONZALEZ: One of the things Kathleen knows about her 10th great grandfather is just how hard life was for him and other Indians back then.
NUNES: By the early 18th Century, thousands of indigenous people had died from disease, famine and brutal, bloody wars with white colonists. The English are still rapidly expanding their settlements and looking for more and more Indian land. And this threatens every Indian in Southern New England.
BROWN-PEREZ: “What I saw in his writings was that from an early age he was looking at survival. First it was maybe personal survival and then later something larger when he saw Indians dying out in huge numbers.”
GONZALEZ: Native Americans took different approaches to survival. Some went to war with immigrant colonists. Some tried to build peaceful alliances. Nothing worked long-term. Occom’s strategy begins to take shape in his teenage years when white, Christian missionaries begin visiting the Mohegans to spread the gospel.
NUNES: Occom is fascinated by Christianity. He writes that it brings him “serenity and pleasure of soul.” He wants to learn to read, write and speak English. And he sees even at his young age how he can use all of this to help other American Indians.
GONZALEZ: We know this, again, because of Occom’s writings.
OCCOM: “I had a stronger desire still to learn to read the word of god, and at the same time had an uncommon pity and compassion to my poor brethren…I used to wish I was capable of instructing my poor kindred. I used to think if I could once learn to read I would instruct poor children in reading.”
GONZALEZ: He’s thinking about the future and survival when he’s 19 and he hears word of a colonial teacher named Eleazar Wheelock.
NUNES: Wheelock was a congregational minister who had already started teaching white students in Eastern Connecticut.
BROWN-PEREZ: “It’s generally thought that Samson Occom’s mother was probably a domestic servant to Wheelock’s family. And so Occom’s mother approached Wheelock and asked him to take on her son and he agreed.”
OCCOM: “And when she came back, she said Mr. Wheelock wanted to see me as soon as possible. So I went up, thinking I should be back again in a few days. When I got up there, he received me with kindness and compassion and instead of staying a fortnight or three weeks, I spent four years with him.”
GONZALEZ: Under Wheelock, Samson Occom vastly expands his ability to read, write and speak English. He also learns Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He begins dressing like an Englishman. He even looks like one.
NUNES: And Eleazar Wheelock is completely blown away by his star student’s academic success, and his Christian character. Wheelock begins thinking that maybe there’s something to this idea of educating Indians.
BROWN-PEREZ: “Samson Occom was the man who showed Eleazar Wheelock that American Indians could learn, that they were capable of this.”
GONZALEZ: But here’s an important point: Samson Occum sees education as a means to survival. When he leaves Wheelock after four years, he goes to Long Island and begins teaching the Montauk Indians. But Wheelock sees education as a tool that can be used to pacify the Indians.
NUNES: In other words, education is a means for colonists to control Indians and get more of their land. What Wheelock does now is he starts a whole school for Indians, Moor’s Indian Charity School, named for the man who donated the land and the building for the school.
GONZALEZ: All along, Occom stays in contact with his mentor Eleazar Wheelock. In fact, he’s very invested in the success of the Indian charity school. Occom goes out to different tribes and looks for Indians he can send to Wheelock.
NUNES: But keep in mind, Wheelock and Occom have different motivations. Occom wants to use education to elevate and save American Indians. But Wheelock see Occom as essentially a pawn in a larger scheme of manipulating Indians. And we know this because of Wheelock’s own writing.
WHEELOCK: “We believe he has been the greatest instrument under God of discrediting a false religion and rectifying their mistaken notions. And he seems to be growing much in the esteem of his nation, and his influence is increasing, which we can’t but think he improves to good purpose.”
GONZALEZ: Throughout the 1750s and 60s, dozens of Indian students attend Moor’s Indian School. And Wheelock’s ambitions grow. He wants to build a bigger and better school and admit more students.
NUNES: But first he needs to raise the money. So he turns to Samson Occom for help.
BROWN-PEREZ: “It’s an interesting endeavor, because, while there was some possibility of raising funds in the colonies, it was thought that, if Occom were to go to England, that people would be so impressed with him over there that he would be able to raise a great deal more money.”
GONZALEZ: It’s an unprecedented idea. Other American Indians traveled to England before, but often as novelty attractions for the English. Samson Occom will no doubt be the first who will go dressed like an Englishman to preach and solicit money from Britain’s uppercrust.
NUNES: But this isn’t an easy decision for Occom to make. By now, he and his wife have 10 kids, and they’ve already been struggling to get by.
GONZALEZ: There’s also the fact that lots of other colonists oppose the idea entirely. They fear and despise Indians. They don’t want to build a school for people they blame for burning their towns and killing colonists.
NUNES: And this is a big reason why they need to go to England to raise money in the first place. Colonists aren’t going to finance the thing. And there are all sorts of rumors going around about Samson Occom. Colonists say Eleazar Wheelock made up the whole story about Occom’s conversion and education. Others doubt Occom is a true Indian.
GONZALEZ: Occom acknowledges all this in a letter sent from Boston not long before his ship is scheduled to depart for England.
OCCOM: “They think it is nothing but a shame to send me over the great water. They say it is to impose upon the good people. They further affirm I was brought up regularly and a Christian all my days. Some say, I can’t talk Indian. Others say I can’t read. In short, I believe the old devil is in Boston to oppose our design, but I am in hopes. I don’t think he is worth a minding.”
NUNES: The controversy doesn’t stop Samson Occom. He sails out of Boston two days before Christmas in 1765. In his journal, he describes the winds as mostly favorable and the weather remarkably warm. Worship continues daily aboard the ship and the sabbath is marked each week with a sermon.
GONZALEZ: Samson Occom finally arrives in England on February 3, 1766. And soon after he’s rubbing elbows with the highest echelons of English society—really, the absolute highest.
OCCOM: “We were conducted to see the king’s horses, carriages and horsemen—and then we went to the house and went in the robing room and saw the king. Had ye pleasure of seeing him put on his royal robes and crown. He is quite a comely man. His crown is richly adorned with diamonds. How grand and dazzling is it to our eyes.”
NUNES: Samson Occom writes that he gets a look at the king’s lions, tigers, wolf, and leopards. He’s struck by the opulence of London, but he’s also taken aback by the city’s poverty. He describes the home where he’s staying as surrounded by the poor, blind, lame, and maimed. Growing up on Mohegan land, no one would have starved while others wore dazzling jewelry.
GONZALEZ: Meanwhile, Occom stays completely focused on his mission, traveling regularly and preaching to huge crowds in England and Scotland. One audience is as large as 3,000 people.
NUNES: The English like him so much that one theater group stages a play with an actor depicting the role of Samson Occom.
BROWN-PEREZ: “The people of England were astonished by him, to say the very least. He is received by King George the third, the archbishop of Canterbury. He has lunch regularly with the Anglican bishop of London. At this point in time, even George Washington knew Occom by name. So he’s becoming quite famous.”
GONZALEZ: The fanfare continues for two-and-a-half years, and in that time Samson Occom delivers more than 300 speeches. And he raises a lot of money.
NUNES: Twelve-thousand British pounds to be exact. That’s about 2-million U.S. dollars today. And it was a record sum for a colonial charity.
GONZALEZ: It’s a mind-boggling amount of money. And Samson Occum must be thinking: this money is going to do so much for Indians back home. It will literally be the difference between survival and death.
NUNES: Exactly. So, the story should go from here that Occom sails home, he and Eleazar Wheelock start the Harvard of Indian schools, and everything goes as planned.
BROWN-PEREZ: “Ummm, that’s not the case.”
GONZALEZ: So a little more background on Mr. Eleazar Wheelock: Before Wheelock starts Moor’s Indian Charity School, he dreamed of someday founding his very own college. At this point in colonial history Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia and several other colleges have already been established. And Eleazar Wheelock knows having a college comes with a lot of status too. So now he’s thinking: “Hmm, is 12,000 pounds really worth spending on a bunch of Indians?”
NUNES: So what does Wheelock do?
GONZALEZ: Well, he takes a lot of the money. And he makes his way up to New Hampshire. The town of Hanover to be specific. And he founds a nice quaint school in the woods. And that school is Dartmouth College.
NUNES: That’s the Dartmouth College.
GONZALEZ: Yes. Ivy League school Dartmouth College. Ninth oldest college in America Dartmouth College. And while Wheelock writes in his college’s charter that the mission of the school includes educating American Indians, his real focus now shifts to educating Anglo youth.
NUNES: So now, let’s get back to that riddle at the beginning of the story.
GONZALEZ: Yes. Here it is again: What do Mr. Rogers, Dr. Seuss, Robert Frost, and Mindy Kaling have in common?
NUNES: As you might be guessing by now, they all went to Dartmouth. The school started with the money Samson Occom raised in Europe.
GONZALEZ: So after Wheelock founded Dartmouth College in 1769, the fallout got pretty nasty. Donors in Europe hear about the scandal and start asking questions. And as you might expect, Samson Occom is furious about the whole situation.
BROWN-PEREZ: “Occom is so angry, because he tried so hard to be exactly what his mentor wanted, so to be taken advantage of by this mentor, I imagine him being quite heartbroken.
GONZALEZ: And Occom doesn’t back down. In July 1771, he writes to his old teacher and tells him exactly what he thinks of the situation at Dartmouth.
OCCOM: “Your having so many white scholars and so few or no Indian scholars, gives me great discouragement. I cheerfully ventured my body and soul, left my country, my poor young family, all my friends and relations, to sail over the boisterous seas to England to help forward your school, hoping that it may be a lasting benefit to my poor Tawnee brethren. With this view, I went a volunteer. I was quite willing to become a gazing stock, yea even a laughing stock, in strange countries to promote your cause. But when we got home: behold all the glory had decayed, and now I am afraid we shall be deemed as liars and deceivers in Europe.”
GONZALEZ: But Wheelock also gives no ground to Occom. He writes back, completely dismissing his last letter.
WHEELOCK: “It much savors of pride, arrogance and a want of proper concern to heal the bleeding wounds of our glorious redeemer. You discover very great ignorance of my plan, my object, my reasons and motives, my views and prospects, and as great a degree of uncharitableness as of ignorance. You show no degree of brotherly and Christian sympathy towards me. My dear man, I think you much dishonor God.”
BROWN-PEREZ: “Wheelock never apologized. He saw what he was doing, in terms of taking the money and founding Dartmouth College, as something that was permitted, that the Indian people, including Occom, really had no right to tell the English colonists what to do.”
GONZALEZ: This is a turning point for Samson Occom. For so long, Occom saw his identity as linked to his relationship with Wheelock. He doesn’t anymore. Their falling out shatters the foundation of Occom’s belief that Indians and colonists can co-exist.
NUNES: So now, at about 50 years old, Samson Occom is starting over. But remember: this is the guy who went to England, hung out with the King, dined with dignitaries, and preached to thousands. So when he decides it’s time to take a new direction, it’s going to be something big.
GONZALEZ: That story in our next episode. But we’ll tell you this: it’s a whole new chapter for Samson Occum. And it has everything to do with immigration. Because in the next part of this story, Occum and his Native American followers become immigrants themselves, refugees in their own land.
NUNES: So, in case you’re wondering, we did reach out to Dartmouth College a couple of times for an interview for this podcast episode. The school sent us a statement.
GONZALEZ: It acknowledges that Dartmouth College at times in its history fell very short of the goal of educating American Indians. But the statement says that changed in the 1970s. The schools says Dartmouth now has the highest number of Native American or Alaskan Native undergraduate students in the Ivy League and has awarded more undergraduate degrees to indigenous Americans than any other Ivy League school.
NUNES: The statement also avoids any mention of Samson Occom, or Eleazar Wheelock.
GONZALEZ: Mosaic is a production of the Public’s Radio, edited by Sally Eisele with production help from James Baumgartner and Aaron Selbig. Our original music is by Bryn Bliska. Our intern is Kylie Cooper. Torey Malatia is the general manager of The Public’s Radio. The letters and journals of Samson Occom were read by Bruce Two Dogs Bozsum, former chairman of the Mohegan Tribal Council and a current tribe elder and justice. The voice of Eleazar Wheelock was performed by Ted Benttinen. I’m Ana Gonzalez.
NUNES: And I’m Alex Nunes. Thanks for listening.
Support for this podcast comes from Carnegie Corporation of New York, supporting innovations in education, democratic engagement, and the advancement of international peace and security at Carnegie.org.
Sound effects in this episode come from the BBC Sound Effects library