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Yale researchers identify Mohegan figure who wrote 1776 journal

In a discovery being hailed by academics and members of the Mohegan Tribe, researchers at Yale University have linked a 238-year-old account of a young Mohegan woman’s deathbed utterances to two of the most revered figures in the tribe’s history — Samson Occom and Fidelia Fielding.

Paul Grant-Costa, executive editor of the Yale Indian Papers Project, and Tobias Glaza, assistant executive editor, have concluded that Occom, a Mohegan minister, penned the manuscript, dated Dec. 24, 1776, and that Fielding, the last fluent speaker of the Mohegan-Pequot language, added notations more than 60 years later.

Grant-Costa and Glaza, who went public with the discovery in an interview with The Day, have completed a transcription of the document that they plan to make available online as part of the project’s New England Indian Papers Series.

“It’s a great discovery, a treasure,” said Faith Davison, a retired Mohegan archivist who serves on the Yale project’s board of advisers. “It’s a piece of Occom we didn’t know existed.”

The mere fact that the document has survived attests to its importance, Grant-Costa said. Long in the possession of the Leffingwell House Museum in Norwich, which became a repository for artifacts in the 1950s, it may have previously been held in a private collection or by descendants of Occom or the family of the dying woman Occom was writing about.

In Occom’s account, the dying woman, whose name the researchers were unable to determine, refers to her father, whom the researchers believe to be Robert Ashbow, and “Uncle Sam,” who they believe to be Samuel Ashbow Sr., an Occom mentor and role model.

Samuel Ashbow Jr., who would be the dying woman’s cousin, was the first Native American killed in the Revolutionary War at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

In the account, the dying woman has returned to her Mohegan home after some time away. She concedes she’s not likely to see her father again until they meet in heaven, describes visions of angels and tells her mother, “I have made up, with god, or We are reconcild — and Said further, no Drunkards and frollickers Shall ever enter into Heaven.”

Occom (sometimes spelled Occum) appears to have written parts of the journal at different times and seems to be trying to assure the woman’s father and uncle that she died “a true Christian.”

The road to the discovery began months ago when Richard Guidebeck, the Leffingwell’s archivist, called the Yale researchers’ attention to Mohegan materials at the museum. The items included a partial transcription of an unsigned journal whose author had never been identified.

Intrigued, the researchers asked to see the document.

Grant-Costa, initially impressed by the small size of what may be part of a journal — seven “notebook” pages, each 3½-by-4½ inches, with writing on both sides — recognized the handwriting as that of Occom (1723-92), some of whose works he’d studied at the New London County Historical Society and the Connecticut Historical Society.

“We were familiar with his handwriting, with the way he wrote certain words, like ‘mother,’ ‘brother,’ ‘father’ and ‘God,’” Grant-Costa said. “This looked to be the same.”

Colleagues at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library confirmed the researchers’ finding.

After Occom’s narrative ends, a series of notations appear in the journal in a different hand. Glaza recognized them as the handiwork of Fielding (1827-1908), whose only other surviving writings — diaries written in her native language — reside at Cornell University. A trove of other Fielding material was lost in an early 20th century fire.

“This would have been done when she was young, between the ages of 10 and 20,” Glaza said of the Fielding entries. “(Mohegan) elders said this was the earliest known example of Fielding’s writings.”

The notations are a record of family and tribal events — “And My father Saled out of New London in the year of our Lord christ 1837 …” — and might seem, at first glance, to have little or no connection to the description of the dying woman’s final hours. Paper was scarce at the time and people wrote on anything they could find, Glaza said, noting that one of Fielding’s journals was written on the back of an almanac.

But the notations’ existence are anything but random, given that Fielding was genealogically connected to both Occom and the Ashbows. The Rev. Samuel Ashbow Sr. was Fielding’s great-grandfather.

The Yale researchers’ discovery helps fill a gap in the Occom legacy, according to Davison, who said many Occom documents from the Revolutionary War years are missing.

One of the first Indians ordained as a Christian minister, Occom looms large in the cultural history of the Mohegans and other Northeast tribes. An ardent missionary, he sought to spread Christianity throughout New England, upstate New York and beyond.

Occom’s description of the dying woman’s utterances mark something of a departure.

“Though these types of deathbed statements were common in an earlier time period, this is the first example of them at this time,” Grant-Costa said. “From 1776 onward, people were having important discussions. It was a renaissance, a period in which people were looking at things in new ways. Indians were looking at law books, literature, and learning about whites and Christians. Occom and Ashbow were part of it.”

Teresa Berger, a Yale Divinity School professor, shared Occom’s journal with a class she taught in the fall called “In the Face of Death.”

“I suggested that the description of the Mohegan woman’s dying contains several elements that image a ‘good death’ (as Christians conceived of it then),” Berger wrote to Grant-Costa and forwarded in an email. “… No doubt if the account was written for her absent father, that indeed would be a main point: to assure the father that his daughter died a ‘good’ death. … The father will have read this account, I think, and been able to pick out the cues: his daughter died a good, Christian death and now rests ‘in the merciful arms of Jesus.’”

Davison is hopeful the Yale researchers’ discovery will lead to the surfacing of more Occom documents.

“I think there are other things out there,” she said. “People don’t know about them because they’re in little collections like the Leffingwell’s that haven’t been catalogued yet — or that are misfiled in large collections.

“That’s the goal, to find the stuff and put it out there.”

Twitter: @bjhallenbeck


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