Published on March 20, 2012 by Amy
The Reverend Samson Occom (1723 – 1792) (also misspelled as Occum) was a Native American Presbyterian clergyman and a member of the Mohegan nation near New London, Connecticut. He has the distinction of being the first Native American person to ever publish documents and pamphlets in English.
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Born to Joshua Tomacham and his wife, Occom is believed to be a direct descendant of the famous Mohegan chief, Uncas. In 1743, at the age of sixteen, Occom was exposed to the teachings of Christian evangelical preachers in the Great Awakening. He began to study theology at the “Lattin School” of Eleazar Wheelock in 1743 and stayed for four years until leaving to begin his own career.
Occom served as a missionary to Native American people in New England and Montauk, Long Island, where he married a local woman. It was also on Long Island where he was officially ordained a minister on August 30, 1759, by the presbytery of Suffolk. Although promised otherwise by the church leaders, Occom was never paid the same salary as white preachers, and he lived in deep poverty for much of his life.
Wheelock established an Indian charity school with a benefaction from Joshua Moor in 1754, and he persuaded Occom to go to England in 1766 to raise money for the school, along with the Rev. Nathaniel Whitaker. Occom preached his way across the country from February 16, 1766, to July 22, 1767. He delivered in total between three and four hundred sermons, drawing large crowds wherever he went. By the end of his tour he had raised over twelve thousand pounds for Wheelock’s project. King George III himself donated 200 pounds, and William Legge, Earl of Dartmouth subscribed 50 guineas. The friendship between Occom and Wheelock dissolved when Occom learned that Wheelock had neglected to care for Occom’s wife and children while he was away. Occom also took issue with the fact that Wheelock put the funds toward establishing Dartmouth College for the education of Englishmen rather than of Native Americans.
Upon his return from England, Occom lived at Mohegan, then moved in 1786 with some New England and Long Island Indians to Oneida territory in what is known today as New York. He then helped to found Brothertown, and lived among the Brothertown Indians. Later Stockbridge (Mohicans) people moved to the area. In 1768, Occom wrote the 10-page A Short Narrative of My Life, which was kept in Dartmouth College’s archive collection until publication in 1982. He also published Sermon at the Execution of Moses Paul and A Choice Collection of Hymns and Spiritual Songs in 1774.
Occom died on July 14, 1792, in New Stockbridge, New York. He is buried just off of Bogusville Hill Road outside of Deansboro, New York (formerly known as Brothertown).
In the first half of the 1800s many Brothertown Indians people moved to what is now known as the Town of Brothertown in Calumet County, Wisconsin. The Brothertown Indians are currently petitioning the federal government to be federally recognized – in effect, re-recognized. Federal recognition was initially stripped from the Brothertown people when they accepted United States citizenship in an effort to avoid being displaced yet again. Since then, United States policy has changed and Native American people are, quite obviously, both American citizens – as well as citizens of their respective Nations. However the policy as implemented among the Brothertown Indians, the first Native Americans granted US citizenship, at the time stripped them of what today is called tribal sovereignty.
In World War II, the United States liberty ship SS Samson Occom was named in his honor.
Several locations around Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, are named after him. Occom Pond and Occom Ridge are located on the northern edge of the college campus. At Dartmouth, historian Colin Calloway is the Samson Occom Professor of Native American Studies. The Occom Commons community space is part of Goldstein Hall, in the recently opened McLauglin Residential Cluster. Elsewhere, an upperclassmen residence hall named after Occom is located on the campus of Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic, Connecticut.
Occom is honored with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) on July 14.