PLATTSBURGH — Eleazer Williams’ straddled worlds, native and non-native, in Lower Canada and the United States during the colonial era.
He was the son of Chief Thomas and Mary Ann (Rice) Williams of Kahnawake. He was a descendant of Eunice Williams, a Puritan girl, who along with others, including her father, the Rev. John Williams, was taken into captivity during the French and Indian raid on Deerfield, Mass., in February 1704.
Williams (1788-1858) became a chief, Congregational and Episcopalian minister and posed as the Lost Dauphin, heir to the French throne after the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution.
He is the subject of Dr. Michael Leroy Oberg’s lecture, “The Indian Confidence Man: Eleazer Williams’ American Odyssey, “ at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Krinovitz Recital Hall, Hawkins Hall, SUNY Plattsburgh. The lecture is presented by the McLellan Distinguished Visiting Professor Lecture Series.
‘CAREER SHEDS LIGHT’
The lecture’s title is derived from Oberg’s forthcoming book, “The Professional Indian: Eleazar Williams’ American Odyssey,” published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.
Oberg learned about Williams while researching Indian land claims at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
“From that correspondence, I became interested in this Mohawk missionary that spent most of his time with the Oneidas,” said Oberg, who is a professor of history at Geneseo and spent a decade researching Williams.
“I became interested in the role he played in Iroquois history in the first half of the 19th century, which is still a very understudied area of Iroquois history. What strikes me about him is his long career sheds light on the many different worlds of the Iroquois in the 19th century. I think that’s the critical part of it.”
William’s life offers a glimpse of the nature of Christianity in Iroquoian communities.
“We can get a sense of the process through which Native people became pioneers,” Oberg said. “He had a role in leading the first group of Oneidas to Wisconsin to establish that community there in the 1820s. He was active in so many facets in Native American life at that time.”
BECAME AN OUTCAST
Williams’ father sent him and his younger brother, John, to be educated by Puritans in New England.
“He stayed from 1800 to 1812,” Oberg said. “These Puritans, with which he stayed, they were interested in him. They wanted to get someone back from the Williams family. This was the first opportunity they had. In 1803, his brother was taken home by the parents. He was left alone in New England.”
Williams married Madeleine Jourdain in Green Bay, Wis., on March 4, 1823.
“She was mixed race, a Metis,” Oberg said. “He had one son. One child died in infancy. He claimed there was a second child who died young. He had little to do with his wife the last 30 years of his life.”
Like his father, Williams became an outcast.
“He did what he could,” Oberg said. “He worked as a professional Indian for the U.S. government and business interests that wanted to acquire land for the Episcopal Church. When they didn’t need him anymore, he was cast about.”
THE LOST DAUPHIN
Toward the end of his life, Williams was, essentially, set apart from many of these communities and did what he could to get by, including operating as a con man.
Posturing as the Lost Dauphin was one such con. His false claim was noteworthy news in its day. In the Buffalo Express, Mark Twain made references to the Dauphin and used him for the basis of a character in “Huckleberry Finn.”
“(Williams) was a well-known figure for a brief time in the 1850s,” Oberg said.
He lived at Fort Covington, Hogansburg and died at St. Regis.
Williams’ second con was an attempt to secure a pension from the U.S. government for alleged service during the War of 1812.
“He claimed he participated in the Battle of Plattsburgh and some of the campaigns that preceded the battle in ways that are simply not true,” Oberg said. “He told a tale to justify getting a pension that he hoped to be able to live on at the end of his life. He actually never got it. Both of these endeavors are an attempt to make a living. As the Dauphin, he toured from church to church and gave talks, usually trying to get support for a mission. He collected the money and did fairly well for a time.”
‘OPPORTUNITY TO EXPLORE’
At SUNY Plattsburgh, Oberg will teach a mini-course, “North Country Lives.”
“It’s an opportunity to explore with the students issues that have bothered me and interested me in writing biography and in writing the life histories of ordinary people, of non-elites,” Oberg said.
“This is a big issue in early American history in general. How do we write the stories of ordinary people’s lives? How do we get inside the heads of non-elite people? What role did the lives of ordinary people play in early American history? This is what we talk about over the course of this week I’m meeting with the students.”
The mini course will focus on the Williams family. Students will conduct research at Feinberg Library’s Special Collections.
“It’s always sort of an experiment,” Oberg said. “It’s a chance to talk to some bright, young people about this and work through some of these questions.”
Email Robin Caudell: firstname.lastname@example.orgTwitter: @RobinCaudellIF YOU GO WHAT: "The Indian Confidence Man: Eleazer Williams' American Odyssey," presented by Dr. Michael Leroy Oberg, a professor of history at SUNY Geneseo. WHEN: 7 p.m. Wednesday. WHERE: Krinovitz Recital Hall, Hawkins Hall, SUNY Plattsburgh. ADMISSION: Free.