- Professional Indian: The American Odyssey of Eleazer Williams by Michael L. Oberg
MICHAEL L. OBERG
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015
The New York State historical marker indicating the site of Eleazer Williams’s grave on the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation refers to him as “Episcopal Clergyman, Missionary to Indians, Reputed the ‘Lost Dauphin’ Son of Louis XVI.” While the marker’s failure to mention Williams’s native ancestry contributes to the broader project of New York’s official effacement of indigenous people from its historical landscape, historian Michael Oberg’s excellent new biography addresses all aspects of Williams’s much debated heritage and situates him in the complex circumstances of Native American history during the first half of the nineteenth century. Oberg’s study demonstrates both the ample opportunities for performative self-fashioning exploited by Williams, a Mohawk Iroquois man of mixed heritage, during the period between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars and ultimately the steep price that Williams paid for turning “professional,” which in Oberg’s construction amounted to Williams’s near exclusive reliance on powerful white men in church and government for income.
Williams is easy to dislike as a historical figure. Oberg details his complicity in the dispossession and removal of a number of Iroquois people from New York State, his efforts to convert native people to Protestant Christianity, his largely fraudulent representation of his military service during the War of 1812, and his failings as a husband and father. Yet Oberg is not without sympathy for Williams, noting the degree to which the pressures of early national American settler colonialism constrained Williams’s options and forced him to make difficult choices as an educated and largely acculturated adult Indian male who lacked strong ties to any particular Iroquois community. As a cultural broker, he made himself useful to settler authorities by facilitating land transactions and promoting the removal of Iroquois people from ancestral homelands in what is now New York to Indian Territory. As an Episcopal missionary, he ministered to the spiritual needs of native people while answering to nonnative patrons who sought to transform the underpinnings of native culture. As a family man, Williams left much to be desired given his peripatetic habits and his decision [End Page 812] to invent a new persona for himself that lacked any connection to his past or present circumstances.
A lineal descendant of the famous eighteenth-century New England captive Eunice Williams, Eleazer Williams was not without particular talents. An impressive orator in the pulpit, Williams also published several linguistic and religious tracts, including a version of the Book of Common Prayer (1867) in the Mohawk language. Unfortunately for many of the Iroquois people who came into contact with Williams, he used his literary and performative talents exclusively for his own benefit. If that meant misrepresenting the interests of people on whose behalf he claimed to speak, or collecting annuity payments he was not entitled to, or drafting fraudulent documents to support a false claim of military service, it mattered not to Williams.
Williams attracted much attention in his own lifetime, and Oberg’s study tracks earlier biographical writings by John Holloway Hanson, who admired Williams and promoted his narrative of descent from French royalty, and Albert Gallatin Ellis, a missionary associate of Williams who came to despise him as an opportunistic schemer. Oberg treats the perspectives of these two acquaintances of Williams serially, noting the difficulty of reconciling their diametrically opposed perspectives on Williams even as his own conclusions are closer to those of Ellis. Oberg’s careful research illuminates aspects of Williams’s experience hitherto obscured or unknown and, notwithstanding the “huge gaps” (21) in the record, provides a compelling narrative of an individual who moved across vast distances and multiple social contexts.
Eleazer Williams drew on a long-standing Iroquois cultural tradition of mobility to support his complex pattern of self-fashioning as a mixed-race, part native person in nineteenth-century America. By never staying in one place for too long, Williams remained one step ahead of those skeptical of his motives or aggrieved by his actions. He repeatedly...