In a previous chapter, we encountered the story of
the Tarbell boys, John and Zechariah, who were captured and adopted by
the Mohawks of Kahnawake, and as tradition has it, later helped to
“found” the community of Akwesasne. Today we look at another
person whose existence was owed to captivity and adoption, the nebulous
Eleazer Williams, the great grandson of Eunice Williams, the
famous “unredeemed captive” taken by Kahnawake Mohawks in the raid on
Deerfield, Massachusetts in 1704.
The Early Years of Eleazer Williams
When Eleazer was born is hard to determine, as his family was known to hunt far from Kahnawake at various times of the year, and no record of his baptism exists in old church records. He was the son of Thomas, or Tehorakwaneken, and Mary Ann Williams, or Konantewanteta, and was probably born around 1787. With the assistance of his relatives in New England, Eleazer and his brother John were sent to Massachusetts to be educated in 1800. In 1807 he was sent to Moors Charity School in New Hampshire, where he was to be educated along with other young natives, but only stayed a week. A modern biographer, Geoffrey Buerger, sees this as a time of disappointment for Eleazer, who aspired to a career in the Congregational ministry, but was more or less being told by his relatives that they only saw him as a mere “Indian” and not someone who could rise up through the ranks of New England society.
Several years later the young missionary was on his way home to Kahnawake, just in time for the War of 1812. Williams made many claims later in life about his experiences during this war, none of which have ever been substantiated by official documentation. By his account, he kept track of enemy troop movements, served in a ranger unit, commanded an artillery unit, and was given the title of Superintendent General of Indian Affairs by the United States government. Another claim was that he helped the Americans win the Battle of Plattsburgh by devising a clever ruse to foil the British forces. Not bad for someone who was only about 25 years old at the time…that is, if any of it was true.
Not long after the Battle of Plattsburgh, Eleazer travelled to Oneida Castle, where he broke his denominational ties to the church of his Puritan relatives and sponsors, and was confirmed into the Episcopal Church, the American counterpart of the Anglican Church or Church of England, in 1815. A fluent Mohawk speaker, Williams was able to communicate well with the Oneidas. The Oneidas were divided among two major factions, the Christian Party and the Pagan Party. With his persuasive oratorical skills, he was able to convince the Pagan Party to abandon their traditional ways and change their name to the Second Christian Party by 1817.
There was a lot of pressure on the Oneidas and the Stockbridge Indians (who lived with them at the time) to relocate from New York to Wisconsin. Eleazer eventually saw this as a wise move, due to the increasing pressures from their non-native neighbors, but it has been speculated that he saw it as an opportunity to create an “Indian Empire” in the Wisconsin wilderness that he would rule. By 1818 he was promoting the idea that the Oneidas, Stockbridges, Munsees, Brothertowns, Senecas of Sandusky, and tribes in Canada (including the people of Akwesasne) should move to a new reservation in Wisconsin where they could reorganize themselves into a grand confederacy. Negotiations resulted in a tract of land set aside for the New York Indians in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
By 1822, Eleazer Williams established a home there, followed the next year by about 150 Oneidas of the First Christian Party and an equal number of Stockbridge Indians. More came in later years. Williams married 14-year-old Madeleine Jourdain, daughter of a successful blacksmith and a woman of Indian descent. She came with 4,800 acres of land that would become known as the Williams Tract. Williams was ordained a deacon in 1826, but by 1832, the Oneidas dissolved their association with him, complaining that he neglected them. By 1842, the Bishop of the Episcopal Church forbade Williams from representing the Church in any capacity in Wisconsin.
Have We a Bourbon Among Us?
In 1841 Williams had a chance encounter with Prince de Joinville, third son of Louise Phillipe, the new King of France under the reestablished monarchy. The Prince was on a tour of America and was interested in the natives of the Green Bay area, and was thus introduced to Eleazer, who happened to be a passenger on the same steamer.
Eleazer claimed that the Prince had sought him out personally in order to inform him that he, Eleazer, was the Lost Dauphin of France, the son of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who was secreted out of France as a small child and given to the Indians of Kahnawake to raise as their own. He then presented him with a document that he asked him to sign, which would abdicate his claim to the throne in exchange for a wealth of compensation. Williams, who was shocked to learn of his royal ancestry, refused to sign the document.
Having lost his kingdom in Wisconsin, Eleazer sought to re-write his own history and gain another, this one in France. Although he avoided actually coming out and claiming royal blood, his story soon spread. His biographers suggest that Eleazer labored to create this impression, even to the point of forging documents and writing letters to newspapers under assumed names. He was able to parlay his fame and make a living off it for a time, particularly after an article about his story appeared in Putnam’s Magazine under the title, “Have we a Bourbon among us?” The author, Reverend John Hanson, later wrote the book The Lost Prince in which he presented the bulk of the “evidence” for Eleazer Williams’ royal heritage.
Eleazer eventually moved to Akwesasne, where his father had relocated years before. His supporters constructed an impressive chateau for him in Hogansburg, known to us today as the Lost Dauphin Cottage. He established a mission here but had little success among the predominantly Catholic Mohawks. The church itself ended up being used to store hay before eventually burning to the ground in disgust, never to be rebuilt. His role in the failed relocation of Akwesasne Mohawks to Wisconsin may have had something to do with the failure of his mission.
Eleazer’s notoriety as a contender to the throne of France was well-known in Akwesasne, where he had forged his mother’s name on a document in which she supposedly claimed that Eleazer was adopted, and not her natural son. When she was presented with this document in the presence of two other elderly women, “One and all vehemently denounced the tale as a lie, while the little old mother bursting into tears exclaimed that she knew Eleazer had been a bad man but she did not know before that he was bad enough to deny his own mother.”
Geoffrey Buerger wrote, “Only a biographer possessing either a sense of irony or extraordinary charity could introduce a life of Eleazer Williams by claiming he was not a charlatan of the first water.” Eleazer had his detractors while he lived, and they didn’t let up when he died in 1858. Yet as Buerger notes, to dismiss him as a crackpot robs us of an opportunity to learn about the frontiers of native and non-native society in a critical period of our shared history. It is hard for us today to envision someone so embarrassed by his own Mohawk heritage that he would deny his own mother…but would then return to the Mohawks to spend his final days.
Like the elegant A-frame where he lived out the rest of his life, Eleazer William’s fame (or infamy) outlived him into modern times. In next week’s chapter, we will see how the mercurial missionary made a final contribution to Mohawk history before passing on to his eternal reward…and how modern science was brought to bare on the question of whether or not we really had a Bourbon among us.
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