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In years past, Dartmouth seniors were required to hold forth from the stage at commencement as a means of proving beyond a shadow of doubt that they had become true gentlemen-scholars. In the early years of the College, these recitations often predicta...

In years past, Dartmouth seniors were required to hold forth from the stage at commencement as a means of proving beyond a shadow of doubt that they had become true gentlemen-scholars. In the early years of the College, these recitations often predictably followed neoclassical conventions, with the students engaging in debate while adopting the roles of characters named Sage, Epicurus, Zeno, and so forth. These mock debates typically were concerned with such weighty matters as the true nature of beauty, aesthetic principles, or the origins of democracy.

However, one graduation speech by two members of the class of 1797, William B. Banister and Edward Little, contains an interesting divergence from the usual abstract recitations. The two seniors argue whether women are the equal of men in all areas of life. Little presents the traditional stereotypical viewpoint of the patriarchy, claiming:

Men have strong intellectual powers, great penetration, and solid judgement, and consequently are most fit to provide and govern; women have not so strong intellectual powers; but having greater sensibility, and being more easily persuaded, they are very amiable and pleasing under good government.

Banister takes Little to task, however, and convinces him that women's abilities are equal to men's: the only difference is a lack of comparable education. Little finally capitulates, stating, "I confess I have been misguided by common opinion, blinded by prejudice, and tenacious in my errors."

One possible impetus for their interesting and novel debate may have been Mary Wollstonecraft's groundbreaking feminist text, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Published in 1792, Wollstonecraft's writing emphasized the necessity of a rational education for women, whom she argued were just as intellectually capable as men. The resonance between her and Banister's arguments is doubtless more than just coincidence: a first edition of Vindication, printed in Boston in 1792, was among the books available to Dartmouth students on the shelves of the United Fraternity's Library, one of their local lending institutions.

Still, although clearly drawing from Wollstonecraft's general premise, Little and Banister aren't quite ready to relinquish all power to the female sex. They both agree towards the end of the debate that it would be disastrous if women were to become lawyers, doctors, and politicians, irrationally making reference to women's constitutional "embarrassments" as a deciding factor. It would be another 175 years before Dartmouth implemented such a revolutionary concept by embracing co-education.

To see both the original manuscript and typescript versions of the commencement speech, ask for DA-43, Box 3112, Folder "1797."

To see Dartmouth's copy of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ask to see Red Room HQ1596 .W6 1792a.

In November 1959, Sinclair Weeks, former Secretary of Commerce under Eisenhower formalized a letter that he hoped would help his former colleague, Vice President Richard Nixon get elected in the 1960 presidential election. Weeks considered Nixon a frie...

In November 1959, Sinclair Weeks, former Secretary of Commerce under Eisenhower formalized a letter that he hoped would help his former colleague, Vice President Richard Nixon get elected in the 1960 presidential election. Weeks considered Nixon a friend and even though he had retired in 1958, Weeks remained influential in the Republican Party. The letter outlines Weeks' commitment to the cause of helping "to see to it that Dick Nixon is the next President of the United States." Tweaked by Nixon, the letter was sent to "people around the country who are or have been active in the political arena." Weeks had been active in Republican politics since the 1930s, first as the chairman of the Massachusetts Republican State Committee and its Finance Committee and later as the treasurer of the Republican National and Finance Committees. Nixon deeply appreciated Weeks' support and "loyal friendship." After Nixon's disastrous performance in the first ever televised presidential debates, Weeks sent a memo to Nixon outlining all the things he thought did not work in Nixon's favor:

First, and most importantly, whoever made you up did not, in my judgment, do a very good job. Personally, I would try someone else next time. Jack did better than I thought he would. He is very glib but, to one who thinks about it, he has not your depth nor poise.

He also counseled Nixon on not "agreeing" with Kennedy "too many times."

In the end, however, Nixon was not able beat the youthful and charismatic Kennedy who was elected with a lead of 112,827 votes, or 0.17% of the popular vote, giving him a victory of 303 to 219 in Electoral College, the closest since 1916. In a 1961 letter to Weeks, Nixon admits that:

Losing the closest election in history was not a pleasant experience from a personal standpoint. But My greatest disappointment was that my efforts could not have been just that extra bit more effective which would have brought victory for those who worked so hard for our cause.

The papers of Sinclair Weeks have recently been reprocessed and the access to all of his correspondence has been improved. The papers chronicle Weeks' life as Mayor of Newton, Mass, Secretary of Commerce and businessman. You can access the collection via our electronic finding aid.

This weekend's canonization ceremonies in Rome are a timely reminder of all of the amazing depictions of saints in our collection. Since Saint George's Day was earlier this week, we thought you might appreciate this image of George taking aim at an uns...

This weekend's canonization ceremonies in Rome are a timely reminder of all of the amazing depictions of saints in our collection. Since Saint George's Day was earlier this week, we thought you might appreciate this image of George taking aim at an unsuspecting two-headed dragon nibbling on some grapes. It hardly seems a fair fight in this depiction from a book of hours produced in France around 1450. The scene surrounds an image of a David in prayer that introduces the penitential psalms.

This particular book of hours has many whimsical characters inhabiting its borders that provide a kind of comic response to the piety of the texts and images they frame.

To see it yourself, ask for Codex MS 003133.

On March 28, 1979, one of the two nuclear reactors at the Three Mile Island facility in Pennsylvania suffered a partial meltdown. Radioactive material was released into the atmosphere in the form of hazardous gas and iodine. Due to the severity of the ...

On March 28, 1979, one of the two nuclear reactors at the Three Mile Island facility in Pennsylvania suffered a partial meltdown. Radioactive material was released into the atmosphere in the form of hazardous gas and iodine. Due to the severity of the accident and the initial confusion following it, a presidential commission was established to investigate the cause and report on the actions of the various entities involved.

Dartmouth President John Kemeny was chosen to lead the commission, which eventually established that the plant had suffered a loss of coolant. A faulty valve and a failure of the operators to correctly diagnose the problem in the initial stages of the accident also contributed to the severity of the event.

John Kemeny's papers contain many items related to his work on the commission, including several drafts of his acceptance. One starts:

Mr. President:

This is an awesome responsibility! I have tried to think of every reason why I should not accept. But when the President of the United States asks... the only possible answers is "yes".

The Thayer School of Engineering and the Dickey Center are sponsoring a symposium on nuclear energy with a focus on the 35th anniversary of the Three Mile Island event this Friday, March 28. The event is free and open to the public.

John Kenemy's papers are available by asking for MS-988. A guide to the collection is available.

With April Fools' around the corner, let us not forget that Dartmouth students of years past did not wait for one day of the year for their pranks.  Often much more dangerous than modern pranks, one prank in 1836 involved large weapons, broken glass, some wet boots, and ended in a expulsion from the school!

In a letter dated July 14, 1836, Solomon Laws (class of 1836) of Peterborough, NH wrote home to his brother, Nathaniel Laws. He tells him of the most recent prank by the sophomore class – firing a cannon into a tutor's window – all because some members of the sophomore class were suspended for refusing to be quiet and insulting a tutor! Solomon writes:
"At this some of the class were much offended, and on the night following some individuals took a large cannon from the gunhouse in this village, drew it up near the college building, about under the offending tutors window, and fired it with such a tremendous charge so to break about three hundred and twenty squares of glass from the college buildings. It jarred the houses in most distant parts of the village, was heard several miles distant and supposed to be an earthquake."
By the time faculty arrived, the perpetrators had vanished. Since it had been a wet night, the faculty tried to find those students with wet shoes and compared the tracks with those left in the mud by the cannon. One student was found guilty and expelled. This caused further outrage among the sophomore class. One student who spoke out in defense of the expelled student must have said something truly "outrageous," and was similarly dismissed for a year. It was only after he apologized that he was allowed back.


Interested in reading the whole letter? Ask for Manuscript 863414 at the reference desk.

Do you remember any pranks from your time at Dartmouth? Let us know about them in the comments below.

With April Fools' around the corner, let us not forget that Dartmouth students of years past did not wait for one day of the year for their pranks.  Often much more dangerous than modern pranks, one prank in 1836 involved large weapons, broken glass, some wet boots, and ended in a expulsion from the school!

In a letter dated July 14, 1836, Solomon Laws (class of 1836) of Peterborough, NH wrote home to his brother, Nathaniel Laws. He tells him of the most recent prank by the sophomore class – firing a cannon into a tutor's window – all because some members of the sophomore class were suspended for refusing to be quiet and insulting a tutor! Solomon writes:

"At this some of the class were much offended, and on the night following some individuals took a large cannon from the gunhouse in this village, drew it up near the college building, about under the offending tutors window, and fired it with such a tremendous charge so to break about three hundred and twenty squares of glass from the college buildings. It jarred the houses in most distant parts of the village, was heard several miles distant and supposed to be an earthquake."

By the time faculty arrived, the perpetrators had vanished. Since it had been a wet night, the faculty tried to find those students with wet shoes and compared the tracks with those left in the mud by the cannon. One student was found guilty and expelled. This caused further outrage among the sophomore class. One student who spoke out in defense of the expelled student must have said something truly "outrageous," and was similarly dismissed for a year. It was only after he apologized that he was allowed back.

Interested in reading the whole letter? Ask for Manuscript 863414 at the reference desk.

Do you remember any pranks from your time at Dartmouth? Let us know about them in the comments below.

For those of you who dread getting up in the morning, or have ever had to endure lengthy speeches about days of trudging to school in the snow "uphill both ways," we have an item that just may make you feel a bit better about your daily commute. Imagin...

For those of you who dread getting up in the morning, or have ever had to endure lengthy speeches about days of trudging to school in the snow "uphill both ways," we have an item that just may make you feel a bit better about your daily commute. Imagine leaving home by yourself and traveling hundreds of miles on foot, just for the promise of an education. For the Indian students of the Moor's Indian Charity School founded by Eleazar Wheelock in 1754, this was a reality.

This passport, discovered among the effects of William Allen, D.D., President of Dartmouth and of Bowdoin Colleges, whose wife, Maria Malleville Wheelock, was the granddaughter of President Eleazar Wheelock, documents the travels of Wheelock's Indian students on their journey from Bethel, N.J., to Lebanon, Connecticut. The passport is a sheet 15 inches long and 12 inches wide, folded into fourths and stitched together at each crease.

Two of Eleazar Wheelock's students, Delaware Indian boys John Pumshire aged 14 and Jacob Woolley, aged 11, were the first to make the long trip to Moor's. John and Jacob "left all their Relations & Acquaintances, and came alone, on foot, above 200 miles, and thro' a Country, in which they knew not one Mortal, and where they had never pass'd before" all to receive education and missionary training from a stranger they had never seen or heard of themselves.

On the top left corner of the passport reads an introduction from Aaron Burr, second President of the College of New Jersey, and John Brainerd, brother of David Brainerd, who lived at Bethel, N.J., where the Indian boys started on their journey to Lebanon, Connecticut:

Gentlemen and Christian Friends,
These Indian Boys, the Bearers of this, are upon a Journey from Bethel the Indian Town in New Jersey, to Lebanon in Connecticut, in order to be put to Learning under the Inspection of the Reverend Mr. Wheelock, with a View to prepare them for the Gospel Ministry, and a design to propagate Christian Knowledge among the Native Indians in this Land: and therefore are recommended to the Charity of Christian People as they pass through the Country.

The passport combines, on a single sheet of paper, a letter and diagonally placed travel directions. The left side of the itinerary has twenty-seven place names, beginning with Bethel at the bottom of the page and Lebanon at the top. Each place name is complemented on the right side by a name of reference, where the boys could ask for assistance, food, and shelter. Of the 28 places listed on the itinerary, all but two (Bethel and Horseneck) can be easily identified on a map today. The presence of a diagonal line between entries indicates the point at which the boys would need to cross a major river - those of which included the Raritan, Hudson, Housatonic, and Connecticut.

This passport, donated by Rev. Henry Goodwin Smith, along with other items from the Moor's Charity School is currently on exhibit in the Class of 1965 Galleries until February 28th. Afterward, feel free to come in and request the passport by asking for Mss D.C. Hist. 754900.

John Wingate Weeks began his campaign in 1904 to represent Massachusetts in the United States House of Representatives. A retired Army captain and veteran of the Spanish-American War, Weeks began his political career as an alderman in Newton, Massachus...

John Wingate Weeks began his campaign in 1904 to represent Massachusetts in the United States House of Representatives. A retired Army captain and veteran of the Spanish-American War, Weeks began his political career as an alderman in Newton, Massachusetts, in 1899 and became mayor of the city in 1903.

Having made a fortune as a banker, co-founding the Boston financial firm of Hornblower and Weeks in 1888, Weeks had all the money he needed to run for higher office. In the days before direct primaries, a candidate had to be nominated in a district convention. Weeks seemed like the right candidate for the job.

Almost immediately an active working group of his devoted friends formed to support his election. The group met regularly and became known as the "Faithful Ten" after the title "The John W. Weeks Campaign Luncheon Club" was found to be lacking in conviction. The group was comprised of William F. Garcelon, Jesse S. Wiley, George S. Bullard, Eben D. Bancroft, William M. Flanders, Henry N. Sweet, Seward W. Jones, Edward W. Baker, Charles E. Hatfield and James E. Shaw and was instrumental in Weeks's election to the House with an overwhelming majority.

John Weeks served four terms in the House before moving on to the Senate in 1913. During his time in Congress, Weeks pushed key banking and conservation legislation including the Weeks Bill (which allowed for the creation of National Forests) and the Forestry Bill (which insured federal protection for migratory birds). After failing to win re-election in 1918, Weeks retired to his house in Mt. Prospect, New Hampshire. In 1921 he was asked back to Washington to serve as the Secretary of War under Presidents Harding and Coolidge.

To learn more about John Wingate Weeks ask for ML-1, The Papers of John Wingate Weeks and The Life of John Weeks by George C. Washburn.

Preparing for a class this week, we came across a tantalizing manuscript that we know little about: a Sufi devotional text created in the mid to late 18th century. It takes the same form as most Islamic manuscript prayer books of the time. It is in a w...

Preparing for a class this week, we came across a tantalizing manuscript that we know little about: a Sufi devotional text created in the mid to late 18th century. It takes the same form as most Islamic manuscript prayer books of the time. It is in a wallet binding with the text framed in gold. Glossed instructions and comments radiate away from the text at angles defined by blind pressed grid lines. Decorative floral patterns luxuriously fill the empty spaces to create a surprising and satisfying page layout.

But this text has something special. About a third of the way through the prayers, there is a two-page illuminated spread. Two images of a rose set into an intricate border mirror each other.  When the book is closed, they come together as a single rose, complete only when not seen. The opening, so different from the rest of the book, offers a moment to ponder Sufi mysticism: it encompasses light/illumination, unity/division, and a completeness that cannot be seen--only experienced in the mind.

To see it, ask for Codex MS 001883.

In January of 1776, in the midst of the Revolutionary War, Eleazar Wheelock, the founder and first president of Dartmouth College wrote to Captain Asa Foot regarding the purchase of a cheese and a Negro. Lest there be any doubt about Wheelock's intent, he states "as to the Negro, I don't know when I shall be able to pay for him…"

While it should come as no surprise that Dartmouth College was founded, in part, on the backs of slaves, it is not something that gets discussed on a regular basis. Nor is Dartmouth alone. Craig Wilder's new book Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities brings out the role that American colleges and universities have played in aiding and abetting the institution of slavery. Wilder's research specifically mentions Dartmouth and it is important to note that Wheelock owned at least eight or nine slaves. When he came to Hanover to carve the College out of the wilderness, he brought some of these slaves with him and it seems likely that they performed much of the hard labor needed to clear the land and establish the College.

Dartmouth's complex relationship with slavery does not end with Wheelock. In the 1830s Dartmouth had both an Abolitionist Society and a Colonization Society, while at the same time sporting a pro-slavery president, Nathan Lord.

To learn more about Wheelock and the College's early relationship to slavery, come to Rauner and request any of the manuscripts listed below:
  • 757157 Bill of sale, William Clark to Eleazar Wheelock; for "Ishmael, being a servant for life"
  • 760276 Bill of sale, Peter Spenser to Eleazar Wheelock; for "Negro manservant named Brister"
  • 761477 Bill of sale, Timothy Kimbal to Eleazar Wheelock; for "a certain Negro man named Sippy" [name mis-transcribed, but unclear]
  • 762313 Bill of sale, Ann Morrison to Eleazar Wheelock; for "a Negro man named Exeter…a Negro woman named Chloe…and a Negro male child named Hercules.
  • 765554.2 Occom to Wheelock; re: needs use of Negro and oxen
  • 768675 Benjamin Bill to Exeter; re: complaint that Exeter abuses his wife
  • 768675.1 Benjamin Bill to Wheelock; re: complaint against Exeter
  • 769240.1 Theodora Phelps to Wheelock; re: lending one of his slaves
  • 769365 Jacob Johnson to Wheelock; re: death of his Negro
  • 769474.2 Eleazar Wheelock to John Wheelock; is going to Albany for his health and taking Brister along to wait on him
  • 772167 Buckingham to Wheelock; re sale of slaves Nando and Hagar
  • 773306 Wheelock to Captain Moses Little; will buy slave Ceasar for £20
  • 775157 Wheelock to John Hubbard; agrees to pay Thomas Devine's debt and obtain release from imprisonment. Devine to be indentured to Wheelock. [likely white indentured servant, but not clear]
  • 775673 Wheelock to Gideon Buckingham; Owes the one hundred pounds expected from the addressee and is in difficulty because he cannot pay the money. Offers to give Nando 20 acres of land and his freedom if heirs agree to send him and Hagar to writer who thinks God is displeased at the heirs for allowing Nando to treat his wife as he has.
  • 776128 Eleazar Wheelock to Asa Foot; "procure the cheese and send it along with the Negro if that may be done with safety"…"and as to the Negro, I don’t know when I shall be able to pay for him"
  • 779252.6 Wheelock will; which leaves all interest in his servants to his son John; to his servant boy Archilaus his freedom when he reaches the age of 25 years and if he is judged to be of good moral character, and also gives him 50 acres of land in Landaff or some other of his outland
  • 786424 "Chloe, Negro of Hanover;" issues a complaint that Andrew Boynton has stolen a shirt off her fence

In January of 1776, in the midst of the Revolutionary War, Eleazar Wheelock, the founder and first president of Dartmouth College wrote to Captain Asa Foot regarding the purchase of a cheese and a Negro. Lest there be any doubt about Wheelock's intent, he states "as to the Negro, I don't know when I shall be able to pay for him…"

While it should come as no surprise that Dartmouth College was founded, in part, on the backs of slaves, it is not something that gets discussed on a regular basis. Nor is Dartmouth alone. Craig Wilder's new book Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities brings out the role that American colleges and universities have played in aiding and abetting the institution of slavery. Wilder's research specifically mentions Dartmouth and it is important to note that Wheelock owned at least eight or nine slaves. When he came to Hanover to carve the College out of the wilderness, he brought some of these slaves with him and it seems likely that they performed much of the hard labor needed to clear the land and establish the College.

Dartmouth's complex relationship with slavery does not end with Wheelock. In the 1830s Dartmouth had both an Abolitionist Society and a Colonization Society, while at the same time sporting a pro-slavery president, Nathan Lord.

To learn more about Wheelock and the College's early relationship to slavery, come to Rauner and request any of the manuscripts listed below:

  • 757157 Bill of sale, William Clark to Eleazar Wheelock; for "Ishmael, being a servant for life"
  • 760276 Bill of sale, Peter Spenser to Eleazar Wheelock; for "Negro manservant named Brister"
  • 761477 Bill of sale, Timothy Kimbal to Eleazar Wheelock; for "a certain Negro man named Sippy" [name mis-transcribed, but unclear]
  • 762313 Bill of sale, Ann Morrison to Eleazar Wheelock; for "a Negro man named Exeter…a Negro woman named Chloe…and a Negro male child named Hercules.
  • 765554.2 Occom to Wheelock; re: needs use of Negro and oxen
  • 768675 Benjamin Bill to Exeter; re: complaint that Exeter abuses his wife
  • 768675.1 Benjamin Bill to Wheelock; re: complaint against Exeter
  • 769240.1 Theodora Phelps to Wheelock; re: lending one of his slaves
  • 769365 Jacob Johnson to Wheelock; re: death of his Negro
  • 769474.2 Eleazar Wheelock to John Wheelock; is going to Albany for his health and taking Brister along to wait on him
  • 772167 Buckingham to Wheelock; re sale of slaves Nando and Hagar
  • 773306 Wheelock to Captain Moses Little; will buy slave Ceasar for £20
  • 775157 Wheelock to John Hubbard; agrees to pay Thomas Devine's debt and obtain release from imprisonment. Devine to be indentured to Wheelock. [likely white indentured servant, but not clear]
  • 775673 Wheelock to Gideon Buckingham; Owes the one hundred pounds expected from the addressee and is in difficulty because he cannot pay the money. Offers to give Nando 20 acres of land and his freedom if heirs agree to send him and Hagar to writer who thinks God is displeased at the heirs for allowing Nando to treat his wife as he has.
  • 776128 Eleazar Wheelock to Asa Foot; "procure the cheese and send it along with the Negro if that may be done with safety"…"and as to the Negro, I don’t know when I shall be able to pay for him"
  • 779252.6 Wheelock will; which leaves all interest in his servants to his son John; to his servant boy Archilaus his freedom when he reaches the age of 25 years and if he is judged to be of good moral character, and also gives him 50 acres of land in Landaff or some other of his outland
  • 786424 "Chloe, Negro of Hanover;" issues a complaint that Andrew Boynton has stolen a shirt off her fence

In 1765, Samson Occom, a minister and Mohegan Indian who figured largely in the founding of Dartmouth, traveled to Great Britain to solicit funds for the Indian Charity School run by Eleazar Wheelock. Occom kept a detailed journal during his tour, and in its back pages, he lists the letters he sent to America. Occom records that, in March of 1766, he wrote to "Mrs. Wheatley in Boston," noting directly underneath that he has also sent a letter "to a Negro Girl Boston." There can be little doubt that the girl to whom Occom refers is Phillis Wheatley, a slave who would have been about 12 years old at the time.

Phillis was a young girl, not even 10, when she arrived on a ship from Africa (named the Phillis) and was purchased by Susanna Wheatley, matriarch of a wealthy Boston family. Taught to read and write by a Wheatley daughter, precocious Phillis soon proved she had a taste and talent for poetry, and her work was first published, in a newspaper, in 1767. Four years later, Phillis took her own trip to Great Britain, where, accompanied by Wheatley son Nathaniel, she and her poetry were introduced to London nobility to great acclaim. Upon her return, Phillis was forced to defend the publication of her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral to a group of Boston bluebloods (including John Hancock), enduring what amounted to an oral and written exam to prove that she was indeed its author. But Occom would have been perfectly acquainted with her talents by then, for as the line in his journal indicates, he and Phillis had already been pen pals for years.

Although none of the letters between Occom and Wheatley reside at Dartmouth, if they still exist at all, Dartmouth’s Occom collection is sprinkled with tantalizing references to what must have been an incredible correspondence. In 1773, writing to Susanna Wheatley, he says "I want Much to hear from your Dear Son and Phillis," while two years before, in a truly amazing postscript, he asks "Pray madam, what harm woud it be to Send Phillis to her Native Country as a Female Preacher to her kindred…." This from a man who only six years earlier asks Wheelock to borrow "one of your Negroes."

It’s intriguing to wonder how much of themselves Samson Occom and Phillis Wheatley saw in the other. Despite their vastly different origins, both Occom and Wheatley were drawn into the world of white men from far outside it, even celebrated in that world. Yet both would find that celebrity to be of little benefit in the end — after a bitter break with Wheelock, and repeated snubs and reversals from white clergy and lawmakers, Occom turned towards advancing Indian causes from within Indian communities; while Phillis, though eventually freed, died young, destitute and alone after enduring public indifference, an unhappy marriage and the deaths of her children. At the very least, it appears the two were mutually inspiring. Occom scholar Joanna Brooks speculates that Occom paraphrases Wheatley's poetry in a 1784 letter to one John Bailey and, in a more illustrative example, a well-known letter from Wheatley to Occom was reprinted in The Connecticut Gazette in 1774. It's a glowing response to a letter of Occom's, now missing, in which he apparently professes his belief in the "natural rights" of her people. "How well the Cry of Liberty, and the reverse Disposition for the exercise of oppressive Powers over others agree," she writes in return, "I humbly think it does not require the Penetration of a Philosopher to determine." One can only imagine Occom would have agreed completely.

Posted for Dawn Dumpert: The Occom Circle Project

     

In 1765, Samson Occom, a minister and Mohegan Indian who figured largely in the founding of Dartmouth, traveled to Great Britain to solicit funds for the Indian Charity School run by Eleazar Wheelock. Occom kept a detailed journal during his tour, and in its back pages, he lists the letters he sent to America. Occom records that, in March of 1766, he wrote to "Mrs. Wheatley in Boston," noting directly underneath that he has also sent a letter "to a Negro Girl Boston." There can be little doubt that the girl to whom Occom refers is Phillis Wheatley, a slave who would have been about 12 years old at the time.

Phillis was a young girl, not even 10, when she arrived on a ship from Africa (named the Phillis) and was purchased by Susanna Wheatley, matriarch of a wealthy Boston family. Taught to read and write by a Wheatley daughter, precocious Phillis soon proved she had a taste and talent for poetry, and her work was first published, in a newspaper, in 1767. Four years later, Phillis took her own trip to Great Britain, where, accompanied by Wheatley son Nathaniel, she and her poetry were introduced to London nobility to great acclaim. Upon her return, Phillis was forced to defend the publication of her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral to a group of Boston bluebloods (including John Hancock), enduring what amounted to an oral and written exam to prove that she was indeed its author. But Occom would have been perfectly acquainted with her talents by then, for as the line in his journal indicates, he and Phillis had already been pen pals for years.

Although none of the letters between Occom and Wheatley reside at Dartmouth, if they still exist at all, Dartmouth’s Occom collection is sprinkled with tantalizing references to what must have been an incredible correspondence. In 1773, writing to Susanna Wheatley, he says "I want Much to hear from your Dear Son and Phillis," while two years before, in a truly amazing postscript, he asks "Pray madam, what harm woud it be to Send Phillis to her Native Country as a Female Preacher to her kindred…." This from a man who only six years earlier asks Wheelock to borrow "one of your Negroes."

It’s intriguing to wonder how much of themselves Samson Occom and Phillis Wheatley saw in the other. Despite their vastly different origins, both Occom and Wheatley were drawn into the world of white men from far outside it, even celebrated in that world. Yet both would find that celebrity to be of little benefit in the end — after a bitter break with Wheelock, and repeated snubs and reversals from white clergy and lawmakers, Occom turned towards advancing Indian causes from within Indian communities; while Phillis, though eventually freed, died young, destitute and alone after enduring public indifference, an unhappy marriage and the deaths of her children. At the very least, it appears the two were mutually inspiring. Occom scholar Joanna Brooks speculates that Occom paraphrases Wheatley's poetry in a 1784 letter to one John Bailey and, in a more illustrative example, a well-known letter from Wheatley to Occom was reprinted in The Connecticut Gazette in 1774. It's a glowing response to a letter of Occom's, now missing, in which he apparently professes his belief in the "natural rights" of her people. "How well the Cry of Liberty, and the reverse Disposition for the exercise of oppressive Powers over others agree," she writes in return, "I humbly think it does not require the Penetration of a Philosopher to determine." One can only imagine Occom would have agreed completely.

Posted for Dawn Dumpert: The Occom Circle Project