The Unquiet Rest of Eleazer Williams

by Darren Bonaparte

(Originally published in The People's Voice, May 6, 2005)

    Franklin B. Hough came to Akwesasne in May and June of 1852 while researching his book, A History of St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties, New York. After spending time in the village of St. Regis, learning as much as he could from the Roman Catholic Priest and several elders, he paid a visit to the home of another elder who lived in a tall A-frame in the village of Hogansburg, a short walk from the St. Regis River.
    Hough’s journal entry for June 17, 1852, preserved among his papers in the New York State Library in Albany, describes his encounter:

    Called a short time on the Rev Eleazer Williams an Episcopalian minister of Indian parentage, (commonly so believed) who is teaching a little school in the edge of the town of Fort Covington.  He is 65 years of age and very intelligent.  I [seldom] meet with a man who has a more ready flow of language or who is more interesting in conversation.
    There is a strange story reported that he is a Bourbon by descent.  And as near as I can get hold of the story it is as follows.  His earliest recollections is that of his being at the head of Lake George when a child.  He was brought up among the Indians and has [always] been considered a descendent of the Rev Mr Williams who was taken a prisoner at Deerfield.
    In 1839(?) when Prince de Joinville was travelling in the country he made inquiries for a person whom he understood had been brought up among the Cognawagas having been conveyed thither and given to the indians to save his life from the hands of the terrorists of the French Revolution
    This child was said to be the legitimate son of Louis XVI. Who is or was at the time reported to have died in prison. Having learned of this Williams the prince from some reason was led to suspect that he was the one and having expressed a desire to see him some pains was taken to obtain an interview which was effected on a steamer on Lake Michigan.  The prince spent a long time with him in private conversation and it is aid expressed his conviction that he was the man.  He is said to have been led to this from certain marks or scars upon his face.
    Mr. Williams showed me a dress of splendid Brocade silk with a long trail, which he says he received from France as the dress of his mother the Queen.  It is really a most splendid quality of silk as far as I can judge, whatever may have been its history.  Mr Williams promised to write out at length all he knew of the Indians which will be at my service

Eleazer Williams: Historian
    Eleazer was good to his word, and furnished Dr. Hough with biographies of three major figures in Akwesasne history: his father, Thomas Williams, or Tehorakwaneken; Colonel Louis Cook, or Atiatonharonkwen; and William Gray, the interpreter.  These three men, along with a man named Goodstream, or Ohnawiio, signed the Seven Nations of Canada Treaty of 1796, which is viewed in Akwesasne today as either our Magna Charta or the world’s biggest swindle, depending on who you talk to.
    Although Williams certainly has his credibility problems, his manuscripts are nevertheless worthy of our attention as historical documents. Hough used them extensively for the chapter on St. Regis, and later published a book of the Thomas Williams biography.  Life of Te-Ho-Ra-Gwa-Ne-Gen, alias Thomas Williams, a Chief of the Caughnawaga Tribe of Indians in Canada, came out a year after the death of Eleazer Williams on August 28, 1858.  In his introduction, Hough describes his impression of the place we’ve come to know as the Lost Dauphin Cottage when Eleazer Williams was its sole occupant:

For a few years before his death he resided at Hogansburgh, mostly alone, near the edge of a grove, in a neat cottage erected by friends subsequent to the publications which excited so general an interest in 1853.  His habits of domestic economy were such as might, under the circumstances, be alike expected in one reared as a prince or a savage; and his household presented an aspect of cheerless desolation, without a mitigating ray of comfort, or a genial spark of homelight.  His neatly finished rooms had neither carpets, curtains nor furniture, save a scanty supply of broken chairs and invalid tables; boxes filled with books, the gifts of friends, lay stowed away in corners; his dining table, unmoved from week to week, and covered with the broken remains of former repasts, and his pantry and sleeping room disordered and filthy, left upon the visitor an oppressive feeling of homeless solitude that it was impossible to efface from the memory.

    As I noted in the previous chapter, the hostile rejection of Eleazer Williams’ royal pretensions continued long after his death.  Mark Twain lampooned him (and forever immortalized him) by featuring a self-described “Lost Dauphin” character in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1884.  In 1937, MGM produced a short feature about Williams’claim called King Without a Crown, which premiered in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where Eleazer Williams and his pretensions became something of a cottage industry since his departure. (There is even a Lost Dauphin State Park in the area.)  
    In 1947, Eleazer Williams’ grave in Hogansburg was exhumed and his remains reburied on the grounds of the Episcopalian Church of the Holy Apostles in Freedom, Wisconsin…but not after being carefully measured and photographed as part of an effort to determine if he really was a Native American, and not a French prince after all.  This “scientific” examination of the bones apparently determined that they were indeed that of a person of Native American descent.
    The late Shirley Aldrich once told me that she remembered the day they exhumed the remains of Eleazer Williams…or at least what was thought to be his remains.  Children had often knocked tombstones down in that cemetery, and she had her doubts that they had even dug up the right grave!
    Eleazer Williams made news again in the 1980’s when a local Mohawk businessman, Phil Tarbell, purchased the Lost Dauphin Cottage and completely remodeled it to a modern style and appearance.  His “before” photographs show the cottage had not lost any of its “cheerless desolation” and “homeless solitude” since the days when Eleazer Williams called it home, but its present form is much more agreeable to the visitor.  If the spirit of Eleazer Williams makes its presence known there in modern times, it has to compete for attention with the football game on Phil’s TV.

Science Gets to the “Heart” of the Matter

    In the year 2000, Eleazer Williams was in the news once again, when modern science was brought to bare on the question of the whether or not the Dauphin was ever “lost.”  
    Two years after his parents were killed in the French Revolution, Louis-Charles XVII died a sad and pitiful death in Temple Prison.  The doctor who conducted his autopsy wrapped his heart in a handkerchief and tucked it in his pocket unseen.  He then preserved it in alcohol in a glass case on his bookshelf until the alcohol dried up.  It was then stolen by a visiting student, who confessed to the crime on his deathbed.  His wife returned the heart to the doctor.  In 1828, the doctor gave it to the archbishop of Paris, who kept it until the Revolution of 1830, when a mob raided his residence in search of it, and accidentally smashed the glass case during a struggle.  The heart was later found with broken glass shards in a pile of sand in the archbishop’s courtyard.  It was presented to the Bourbon heirs of France, who kept it until it was placed among the royal relics in the basillica of St. Denis in 1979.
    Tests were done by separate labs to compare the heart’s DNA to the hair samples of Marie Antoinette and two of her sisters, as well as to two of the living descendents of the sisters.  While not able to completely solve the mystery of the child’s exact identity, they did confirm that the heart came from a relative of Marie Antoinette and her family.
    Chief scientist Jean-Jacques Cassiman was quoted as saying, “It is up to historians to determine whether it is [that of] Louis XVII.”
    It can probably be said that only thing Eleazer Williams had in common with the Louis-Charles XVII was the “cheerless desolation” and “homeless solitude” of their last days on earth. May both of them finally rest in peace.

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