by Tamera Lynn Kraft
Samson Occom was born in a wigwam in 1723, part of the the Mohegan tribe near New London, Connecticut. His parents were Joshua and Sarah Ockham. He was a direct descendant of Uncas, a famous Mohegan chief. The Mohegan lived as nomads and traveled often.
At the age of 16, Occom heard his first sermon during the Great Awakening. His mother Sarah was one of the first Mohegan converts. Samson was stirred by what he heard and began to study English so he could read the Bible for himself. A year later he became a Christian under the preaching of James Davenport. He started going to a school for Indians and white boys started by evangelist Eleazar Wheelock. He spent four years at Wheelock’s school and was a gifted student, but poor eyesight prevented him from going to college.
He taught school and ministered to the Montauk Indians for eleven years. He used many creative methods including singing and card games as teaching devices. When Azariah Horton, the white Presbyterian minister to the Montauk, retired, Samson took his place as pastor. Samson married Mary Fowler in 1751, and they had ten children.
Samson was paid by the church but received a much smaller salary than the white men doing the same job. To make ends meet, he bound books and carved spoons, pails, and gunstocks for his white neighbors. Despite the prejudice he faced, Samson was ordained in 1759 by the Presbyterian Church, one of the first Native Americans to be ordained.
His passion was to share the Gospel with other Native Americans and was commission by the Scotch Society of Missions to preach to the Cherokee in Georgia and Tennessee. Fighting among the Cherokee and white settles put those plans on hold, so instead Samson went to New York to preach among the Oneida.
In 1765 Samson traveled with George Whitefield, Great Awakening preacher, during his sixth preaching tour in the colonies. Later that year, he traveled to England with Nathaniel Whitaker to raise money for Wheelock’s Indian Charity School. Over the next two years, he preached over 200 sermons in England and was well received. He raised over 11,000 pounds, the most ever raised for a ministry in the colonies. While in England Samson visited with John Newton, writer of Amazing Grace, and received an honorary degree from the University of Edinburgh which he politely declined.
When he returned to America in 1768, Samson found that Wheelock had failed to care for his wife and children as Wheelock had promised. Samson’s family was living in poverty. The rift widened when he learned Wheelock had used the money he’d raised to move the school to New Hampshire and decided to exclude Indians. Wheelock renamed the school Dartmouth.
Samson was a prolific writer throughout his lifetime. He kept a diary from 1743 to 1790 about his work that became an historic document. In 1772, Samson preached a temperance sermon at the execution of a Native American who murdered a man while he was drunk. That sermon became a best seller. He also wrote and published hymns. He is recognized as the first Native American to become published.
When Samson became a defender of land claims of the Montauk and Oneida against speculators, false rumors were spread that he was a heavy drinker and not even a Mohegan. Although these reports were untrue, he lost the support of his denomination and several missionary societies. He wrote an autobiography to defend himself, but it did little good.
Throughout the 1770s and 1780s, Samson preached among the Mohegan and other tribes in new England. After the Revolutionary War, he settled in Brothertown, New York on a reservation for New England Indians where he establish the first Indian Presbyterian Church. In 1791, he died while gathering wood to finish the new church building.
His legacy continued after his death through his children, students, and converts who also ministered to Native Americans. Two of his students also became authors. Besides being the first Native American who was published, Samson fought for Native American rights, spread the Gospel to New England tribes, and promoted education for Native Americans.