Samson Occom (Mohegan) (1723-1792)

    Contributing Editor:
    A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    "A Short Narrative of My Life" (dated September 17, 1768) is one of the earliest life histories written by an American Indian. Shortly after he returned from England in the spring of 1768, Occom began his "Short, Plain, and Honest Account of my Self" in order to refute false reports that he was a Mohawk, that Wheelock received large sums for his support, and that he had been converted just before the English tour in order to become a special exhibit (Blodgett 27). An important topic both in his narrative and sermon, as well as in the selections from Apess and Copway, is religious conversion. Students, who generally cannot understand why Indians became devout Christian converts, need to know that for Indians and slaves, Christianity offered the possibility of being regarded by whites as equals under God. Indian authors, like slave narrators, frequently contrasted whites' professed Christianity with their mistreatment of minorities. Students also need to understand that until at least the late nineteenth century, most Indian education was conducted under the auspices of religious organizations. In the twentieth century, many reservation schools were still run by churches; even the Indian schools conrolled by the government had a strong religious orientation.

    Occom's narrative offers the opportunity to follow the stages of his movement from traditional Mohegan life to conversion and acculturation, his methods of teaching his Indian students and conducting church services, and resentment of being paid far less that white preachers because he was Indian.

    In discussing "A Sermon Preached by Samson Occom," students should be given information about the structure and general content of execution sermons. All this is included in the text headnote and in the following section.

    There are a number of issues that can help them see the significance of this sermon. I have had good discussins of why execution sermons were so popular during this period. I often relate these sermons and the confessions they contain to modern-day confessional talk shows.

    Another issue is the delicate political task Occom faced in addressing both a white and Indian audience. See the discussion of style below.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    1. Identify the Mohegans as a tribe and give some sense of their background. A member of the Algonkian language family, the Mohegans originally were the northernmost branch of the Pequots, the fiercest of the New England tribes. During the 1637 war with the English, the Pequots were massacred near what is now Stonington, Connecticut. Led by their chief Uncas, the Mohegans, who sided with the English in the war, joined in the massacre. After the war, they remained at peace with the English but resumed hostilities with their old enemies, the Narragansetts. For a brief period, the Mohegans, then numbering 2,000, greatly expanded their territory. However, this had shrunk drastically by the end of the seventeenth century. English settlers, who regarded the nomadic Mohegans as idle thieves, issued orders to remove them from the towns. Uncas and his sons further decreased Mohegan territory by making large land transfers to the whites. By the end of the century, the Mohegans were no longer independent. The first successful attempt to gather them into Indian villages was made in 1717. Eight years later, the Mohegans numbered only 351 and were split into two opposing camps, located one-half mile apart on the west side of the Mohegan river between New London and Norwich, Connecticut.

    2. "A Short Narrative of My Life"--Issues for dicussion include the status of New England Indians in 1768, the relationship of the document to the spiritual confessions so popular in this period, and Occom's concept of self as expressed in his narrative.

    3, "A Sermon Preached by Samson Occom"--

    a. Why were execution sermons so poular in this period? (see below)

    b. Structure and general content of the execution sermons.

    All this is included in the text headnote and in the following section.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    In "A Short Narrative of My Life," which was not written for publication, Occom uses a much more conversational style thatn he does in "A Sermon." Why?

    The latter is a typical example of the popular genre of the execution sermon. The first publication in New England to combine the offender's "True Confession" with the "Dying Warning" was Increase Mather's The Wicked mans Portion [sic] (1675). His A Sermon Occasioned by the Execution of a Man found Guilty of Murder [sic] (1686) expanded the literary form by including the murderer's complete confession as allegedly taken down in shorthand. The 1687 second edition added a discourse between the prisoner and minister, designed to introduce realism. Lawrence Towner argues that the genre demonstrated that New Englanders committed crimes and were led to contrition. Because the listeners to the sermons and readers of the "True Confessions" and "Dying Warnings" were at worst minor sinners, it was necessary to trace the criminal's career back to its origins and to generalize about the nature of crime. As criminals increasingly became outsiders (blacks, Indians, Irishmen, or foreign pirates), the tone of the "True Confessions"and "Dying Warnings" changed from moral suasion to titillation. So popular became the genre that in 1773, the year after the publication of Occom's sermon, eleven separate publications dealing with the condemned prisoner Levi Ames were printed. Wayne C. Minnick suggests that the authors of execution sermons ranked among the "best educated, most influential men of their society" (78).

    A particuarly important issue is the rhetorical strategies Occom uses to appeal to the church fathers, general white audience, Moses Paul, and Indian listeners. Having students pick out the phrases and comments that Occom makes to each group will help them see how skillful he was. Students need to realize what a politically delicate position Occom was in--he needed to educate his white audience without alienating them and to balance his presentation to the three groups that constitued the total audience. Another point to discuss is how Occom presents himself in the sermon.

    Original Audience

    It is important to get students to understand the religious milieu of the period, which responded to execution sermons as a form of spiritual confession. This can be compared with the confessions of the contemporary born-again fundamentalists. The sermon was sometimes delivered in church on the Sunday or Thursday before the execution, but most frequently just before the time appointed for the hanging. Audiences numbered between 550 and 850.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    "A Short Narrative"--The descriptions of Indian life can be compared with those by George Copway. Comparisons can also be made to the accounts of Indians in the "Literarure of Discovery and Exploration" section, the accounts of Indian relations in selections by John Smith and Thomas Morton, and the descriptions of Indian life in the captivity narratives of Mary Rowlandson and John Williams.

    Increase and Cotton Mather and Edwards --the structure and general themes of their execution and other sermons--can be compared. These preachers emphasized dramatic conversion, which Edwards described as a three-stage process: (1) Fear, anxiety, and distress at one's sinfulness; (2) absolute dependence on the "sovereign mercy of God in Jesus Christ"; and (3) relief from distress under conviction of sin and joy at being accepted by God (Goen 14). This process, reflected in Occom's sermon, became the norm in the Great Awakening and in subsequent revivalism. Evangelists also used emotional extravagance in their sermons.

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing

    "A Sermon"--Call attention to the structure and the concept of redemtion throught confession of sin. I do not assign a paper on this work. If I did, two possible topics would be Occom's use of distinct rhetorical strategies to appeal to the various groups in his audience and to Moses Paul; and the extent to which Occom follows the standard structure and basic content for such sermons (see text headnote).


    Conkey, Laura E., Ethel Bolissevain, and Ives Goddard. "Indians of Southern New England and Long Island: Late Period." In The Northeas t, edited by Bruce G. Trigger, 177-89. Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 15. Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian, 1978. Valuable introduction to these tribes.

    Goen, C. C. Revivalism and Separatism in New England, 1740-1800. Strict Congregationalists and Separate Baptists in the Great Awakening. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1962.

    Heimert, Alan. Religion and the American Mind: From the Great Awakening to the Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1966.

    Jennings, Francis. The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest. New York: Norton, 1976. Standard work on the subject, with lengthy bibliography.

    Minnick, Wayne C. "The New England Execution Sermon, 1639- 1800." Speech Monographs 35 (1968): 77-89.

    Salwen, Bert. "Indians of Southern New England and Long Island: Early Period." In The Northeast, edited by Bruce G. Trigger, 160-76. Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 15. Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian, 1978. Informative introduction to these tribes.

    Sturtevant, William C., ed. Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 15. Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian, 1978.

    Towner, Lawrence L. "True Confessions and Dying Warnings in Colonial New England." In Sibley's Heir. A Volume in Memory of Clifford Kenyon Shipton, 523-39. Boston: Colonial Soc. of Massachusetts and Univ. Press of Virginia, 1982. The articles on the execution sermon by Minnick and Towner are especially good.

    Trigger, Bruce G., ed. The Northeast, vol. 15. Handbook of North American Indians, edited by William C. Sturtevant. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian, 1978.

    Washburn, Wilcomb E. "Seventeenth-Century Indian Wars." In The Northeast, edited by Bruce G. Trigger, 89-100. Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 15. Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian, 1978.Good overview of these wars.