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