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Dartmouth College to return historic Samson Occom papers to the Mohegan Tribe

A page from the back of Samson Occom’s Hebrew primer, written by Occom in the Mohegan language (left) and a portrait of Samson Occom (both photographs courtesy of Dartmouth Library)
Dartmouth Library
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Dartmouth Library
A page from the back of Samson Occom’s Hebrew primer, written by Occom in the Mohegan language (left) and a portrait of Samson Occom (both photographs courtesy of Dartmouth Library)

Samson Occom was the first Native American student of Eleazar Wheelock, a white minister and educator. A gifted scholar born in 1723, Occom became a Presbyterian minister. At Wheelock’s urging, he traveled to Europe in the 1760s to raise funds for what he believed would be a school in Connecticut for Native American students.

But not long after his return, he learned that Wheelock had diverted the funds toward a college in New Hampshire meant for white settlers. It would later become Dartmouth College. Occum made his displeasure known in a letter to Wheelock.

“Your having so many white scholars and so few or no Indian scholars, gives me great discouragement,” Occom wrote to Wheelock in a 1771 letter included in the collection. He continued, “Now I am afraid we shall be deemed as liars and deceivers in Europe.”

That letter is among the papers being returned to the Mohegan Tribe by Dartmouth College.

“There’s a famous letter among the Occom papers that are being returned to the Mohegans in which he lays out his dismay and sense of betrayal at Wheelock’s essentially a bait and switch,” said Bruce Duthu, Dartmouth’s Samson Occom Professor of Native American and Indigenous Studies.

The documents to be repatriated include letters, diaries, sermons and a page of indigenous herbal remedies. Occom wrote in five languages: English, Greek, Latin Hebrew and Mohegan. Dartmouth experts said the papers contain what is believed to be the earliest example of written Mohegan language.

Diane Orson is a special correspondent with Connecticut Public. She is a longtime reporter and contributor to National Public Radio. Her stories have been heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Here And Now. Diane spent seven years as CT Public Radio's local host for Morning Edition.

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