Betrayed by his mentor Eleazar Wheelock and wary of all colonists, Samson Occom forms a new American Indian tribe in the mid-1770s and leads his followers on a journey further west.
GONZALEZ: I’m Ana.
NUNES: I’m Alex.
GONZALEZ: And you’re listening to Mosaic, a podcast about immigration from The Public’s Radio. In this episode, we continue the story of Samson Occom.
NUNES: The most interesting guy no one knows about.
GONZALEZ: He’s the 18th Century Mohegan Indian we’ve been talking about, and his story says a lot about the impact of early European immigration on Native Americans.
NUNES: Here’s a quick recap on Samson Occom: he’s born in the 1720s in Eastern Connecticut, converts to Christianity early, hooks up with this white minister and teacher named Eleazar Wheelock, and he learns English and a few other languages under Wheelock’s tutelage.
GONZALEZ: Yes. Occom helps Wheelock start an Indian Charity School, and he goes off to England to raise tons of money for the school. Then, he comes back and watches as Wheelock uses the money to found... Dartmouth College.
NUNES: Which is focused primarily on educating white students.
GONZALEZ: Not what Occum had in mind at all.
NUNES: So after this whole episode, Occom is bitter. He feels betrayed. And it’s a major turning point in his life. Does that sum up the story so far, Ana?
GONZALEZ: Almost. Here’s an important point: Occum hasn’t just given up on Wheelock. He’s given up on colonists. He no longer thinks white people and Indians can live together. And he’s not alone.
NUNES: I’m standing on the banks of the Farmington River in Farmington, Connecticut, right at the point where the river bends and begins to go north to the Connecticut River. I’m here because this is right around the spot where Samson Occom called together Native Americans from around the region for this big, important meeting in March of 1773.
GONZALEZ: Occom called the meeting for a simple reason. He sees the writing on the wall. These Europeans that came over last century—they’re not going anywhere, and they’re going to keep taking more and more Indian land.
NUNES: And the colonists don’t care if that means they need to kill off all the Indians who are already here.
GONZALEZ: Exactly. So it’s mid-March. Late winter/early spring in Central Connecticut. You can imagine it’s still cold in Farmington, maybe it’s windy and there’s a fire going. They’re throwing around ideas and probably arguing a little. But they come to the same conclusion: Indians can make it if they stick together. But they can’t do it here in New England. They need to leave.
NUNES: Samson Occom’s idea is bold and there are no guarantees it’s gonna work. He wants a small group of people from these seven different tribes from Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Long Island to form an entirely new tribe, pack up, and head west.
GONZALEZ: The leaders gathered in Farmington are willing to give up their land and risk everything for a new beginning for their people. looking at the possibility of losing all of their land and even their lives. So this idea looks like the best bet. for them and other people in their tribes.
NUNES: So the meeting ends and this small group of Indians sets about laying the plans for the new tribe. They have this sense of urgency, because things in New England are dangerous for Native Americans. Thousand of them have already died at the hands of colonists.
JESSICA RYAN: The ability to sustain life was absolutely what I think was essential to the decision-making of the leaders at that time.
NUNES: Jessica Ryan is a Brothertown Indian. Brothertown is the name Samson Occom and his followers picked for their new tribe.
GONZALEZ: Occom and his inner circle go around recruiting a few dozen Indians from these seven different tribes in the region: the Narragansett in Rhode Island, the Mohegan, Niantic, Tunxis, and Pequot East and West in Connecticut, and the Montauk on Long Island. They’re looking for Christian Indians who are committed to the cause of building and maintaining an Indian community.
NUNES: They send a small group of scouts out to Central New York into territory held by the Oneida tribe.
GONZALEZ: Occom knows the Oneida from his work traveling around as a preacher and teacher to different Indian tribes. And he uses that connection to secure a large tract of land for his new tribe.
NUNES: The deal with the Oneida is made official in October of 1774, and the Brothertown are now ready to pack up and go.
GONZALEZ: There’s not much written down about the trip out to Central New York, so we don’t know exactly how it went down. But we do know they went out in groups soon after they had an agreement with the Oneida.
NUNES: Right. So that means a trip in winter, by foot, through these thick forests.
GONZALEZ: There are lakes and ponds they have to get around or over, and they have to cross the Hudson River.
NUNES: The first Brothertown arrive on their new land in March 1775…
NUNES...and they start building English style, clapboard houses like they had back in Southern New England.
JESSICA RYAN: Folks relocated from further south to New York and settled in and were guaranteed an ability to raise their families and live in a good way.
GONZALEZ: And does that happen?
NUNES: Not exactly. There are some other things going on in the colonies right now that are going to get in the way.
GONZALEZ: Yes. Namely this little thing called the American Revolution.
NUNES: The Brothertown start off the war neutral. But early on they decide it’s in their best interest to side with the colonists.
GONZALEZ: Which is interesting, because these are the people they want to get away from.
NUNES: Right. And it also gets them caught up in the war.
NUNES: These people who are allied with the British come through the settlement the Brothertown are just getting off the ground, and they torch the place.
GONZALEZ: Much of the new settlement is burned to the ground, and the Brothertown realize it’s too risky to stay in New York. So they make a trip back east to Western Massachusetts—another long hike in the woods; another trip across the Hudson—and they settle in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, with the Stockbridge Indians.
NUNES: And they just wait for the British and the Americans to settle their mess. For now the Brothertown experiment is on hold.
GONZALEZ: It’s six long years before they go back to Central New York.
NUNES: And when they return, they bring a bunch of Stockbridge Indians with them. And more people from the original tribes back in Southern New England start coming out too.
GONZALEZ: But life at this new settlement is hard. There’s so much they need to do to establish Brothertown and sustain themselves. And this is all complicated by the fact that the land they’re on is not easy to farm.
JESSICA RYAN: The land that was set aside for our relatives all those generations ago was initially deemed to be undesirable land.
GONZALEZ: On top of this, the Brothertown aren’t getting along very well, and they’re losing confidence in their leader, Samson Occom.
NUNES: Right. They’re struggling. They’re not in agreement about what they need to do to survive in New York. And they don’t know whether to listen to what Samson Occom is saying anymore.
GONZALEZ: Right. Remember: Brothertown is his baby. It was his vision. He’s also opinionated and stubborn. And he’s probably pretty self-confident in a way that rubs other people the wrong way.
NUNES: Yeah. He’s the guy who impressed all these colonists back east, got the attention of George Washington, and raised 12,000 pounds in Europe. So he probably thinks his take on things carries more weight than the average Brothertown.
GONZALEZ: There’s one argument between Samson Occom and his increasingly unhappy followers that stands out, right?
NUNES: Yeah. The controversy sounds boring and benign on the surface, but it’s actually really important and it gets tense. So, the Brothertown are desperately looking for ways to make a living and bring in income to support this settlement. And they have the opportunity to make money renting Brothertown reservation land to white settlers who keep moving in from the east.
GONZALEZ: Makes sense. Easy cash. Why not?
NUNES: Well, Samson Occom thinks it’s a terrible idea. Remember, he has been totally screwed by white people. Eleazar Wheelock sent him off to Europe for two-and-a-half years to raise money for an Indian Charity School, and then when Occom raised the money, Wheelock took off and founded Dartmouth College instead. And now Occom thinks all Europeans are the same.
GONZALEZ: He thinks letting the settlers rent land from the Brothertown is just going to set the Indians up to be cheated again.
NUNES: Right. If they lease to white settlers, these people are never going to leave. They’ll claim Brothertown land as their own, and that will be the end of Brothertown.
GONZALEZ: I guess you can see the logic on both sides of the argument. So how does this all get resolved?
NUNES: It doesn’t. Samson Occom just leaves the Brothertown community. The Stockbridge Indians, who followed the Brothertown out to Central New York, have their own settlement now in New Stockbridge, New York. So Samson Occom goes out there and lives with them.
NUNES: One day Samson Occom is out in the woods, collecting cedar, when he collapses and dies.
GONZALEZ: He dies alone in the woods?
NUNES: Yeah. This guy with this completely unlikely and incredible life just dies alone, exiled from his people, in the woods. The Brothertown go out to New Stockbridge, get Occom’s body and bring it back to Brothertown to bury it. It’s still there to this day. Most people think it’s in this unmarked grave, in someone’s backyard, fenced off from visitors.
GONZALEZ: So, Samson Occom dies in 1792. And, after that, all his fears about the Brothertown losing their land come true.
NUNES: Yes. Those settlers who were leasing land—they start doing exactly what Samson Occom said they would do.
JESSICA RYAN: They began to demand more access to that soil and land, and to be able to farm and have that space to live and build their own homes for their own families. That happened to our people and that happened to many other tribes as well.
NUNES: By the early 1800s the Brothertown have lost more than 60 percent of their reservation. And they find themselves in the exact same situation they were in a few decades earlier when Samson Occom called together that big meeting in Farmington, Connecticut.
GONZALEZ: Literarily, the exact same situation. So what do they do now?
NUNES: Well, the same thing they did before: they decide to move west again. They send out scouts looking at territories further west. They check out land in Indiana, but that doesn’t work out. Then they find out there’s land they can have in what’s now the State of Wisconsin, and they say: that works, let’s go.
JESSICA RYAN: Nowadays when we explore the distance traveling from New York over to Wisconsin, our Mapquest and our Google will tell us it’s just under a thousand miles. But the journey that our ancestors and our relatives took was a very arduous journey, and it took a very extended period of time for entire families to make that journey.
NUNES: The only options the Brothertown have are to move by foot or by water. And this time they’re paddling over Great Lakes.
GONZALEZ: It’s dangerous. It’s terrifying. And there are entire families doing this. Small children, elderly people. The route is risky, the conditions are brutal, and some people get terribly sick along the way.
JESSICA RYAN: A great many of our relatives did die, or pass on on that journey. Elders and young ones. We lost young ones on the way as well. There was sickness that came upon the people during that journey as well as just the elements of weather and the conditions under which they were traveling.
GONZALEZ: But hundreds of Brothertown do make it to Wisconsin to establish a new settlement. And many of their ancestors are still in Wisconsin today.
NUNES: In the next episode of Mosaic, we travel to Wisconsin to follow the Brothertown story though to the present.
GONZALEZ. It’s another story of survival and betrayal. But this time it’s about a legal battle between the Brothertown and the U.S. government over their tribal status that goes on for decades and continues to this day.
NUNES: That’s in the next episode of Mosaic, a podcast about immigration from The Public’s Radio.
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. Thanks to the Mohegan tribe for providing music for this episode and the BBC for the use of its sound effects. Our intern is Kylie Cooper. Torey Malatia is the general manager of The Public’s Radio. I’m Ana Gonzalez.
NUNES: 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.