Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Occom’s Manuscripts: Preserving Dartmouth History

Samson Occom
Though Eleazar Wheelock is well remembered as the founder of Dartmouth College, it’s largely thanks to the efforts of Mohegan Native American minister and intellectual Samson Occom that Wheelock’s dream was made reality. And while Occom’s role in the founding of Dartmouth was undoubtedly crucial, the Occom Circle Project intends to assert his rightful place as an important voice in early American history as well. With the help of Professor Ivy Scheweitzer, Rauner Library, Computing Services, the Digital Production Unit, Preservation Services, and many other departments and individuals, we are nearing the project's goal.

In 1743, Eleazar Wheelock met a young Mohegan named Samson Occom. Occom had been taught English by missionaries at a young age, and had already converted to Christianity. During the four years they initially spent together, Wheelock found Occom to be an excellent pupil, and he successfully prepared Occom to be ordained as a minister. Occom, for his part, encouraged Wheelock's goal of educating and enriching the lives of the Native American population. This bore fruit in 1755, when Wheelock founded Moor’s Charity School in Lebanon, Connecticut, which accepted both Native American and British students on charity.

Letter from Samson Occom to Eleazar Wheelock, regarding fundraising plans for Moor’s Charity School
By then Occom had already departed from Wheelock's instruction to seek his own fortune. In 1749 Occom was offered a position as the schoolmaster for the Montauk Native Americans on Long Island. It was there he met his wife, Mary Fowler, and started a family. In 1759 he was ordained. Occom spent the next several years traveling New England as an itinerant minister, first as a missionary to the Oneida Native Americans and eventually returning to the Mohegan tribe in 1764.

It was here that his path crossed yet again with Eleazar Wheelock; a meeting that would have a profound and lasting effect on the Upper Valley. At this time the Moor’s Charity School was financially troubled. Wheelock had had small success fundraising throughout New England, but it was not enough. What he proposed was a fundraising trip to England, to be undertaken by his most accomplished pupil. Occom agreed. He was joined by the Reverend Nathaniel Whitaker.

The pair left for England in 1766, and after two years they had raised over £12,000, a truly substantial sum at the time. As Francis Lane Childs wrote in the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine: "[A]n Indian preaching in the pulpits of English churches was naturally a sensation, and large throngs came to hear him and his colleague. The subscription papers which they carried were filled with all the way from small contributions... to ones of considerable amount from wealthy, pious-minded persons. In fact, they ranged all the way from 5 shillings given by an anonymous widow to two hundred pounds donated by King George III himself. One of the gentlemen who headed the list was William, Second Earl of Dartmouth. Another was a philanthropic and well-to-do merchant of London, John Thornton."

It is safe to say that without this fundraising on Occom’s part, the founding of Dartmouth would have taken substantially longer, or indeed, may not have been possible at all from Wheelock’s position. In 1769 the school charter was signed by Governor John Wentworth, and true to its roots in the Moor’s Charity School, it declared "that there be a college erected in the province of New Hampshire by the name of Dartmouth College for the education and instruction of youth of the Indian tribes in this land in reading, writing, and all parts of learning which shall appear necessary and expedient for civilizing and Christianizing children of pagans, as well as in all liberal arts and sciences, and also of English youth and others...[It shall not] exclude any person of any religious denomination whatsoever from any of the liberties and privileges or immunities of the said College on account of his or their speculative sentiments on religion."

In June of 2010 Dartmouth English Professor Ivy Schweitzer was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to establish an online archive of Occom's writings. Schweitzer's project began in 2005, when, teaching a first-year seminar, she had difficulty providing access to Occom's letters for her entire class. The solution of the online archive accomplishes this, as well as making the history of the college (and Occom’s role within it) accessible to a much wider audience. Schweitzer said: "This puts Occom at the center of a larger cultural movement in which you can see how important his work is."

The letters themselves are currently available in a beta website, with a finished version projected for 2014. The Occom collection presented some interesting challenges; first and foremost there is the lack of an actual collection, with the 500-plus letters and manuscripts culled from other areas of Rauner Library and assembled specifically for this project. It's up to College Archivist Peter Carini and his team at Rauner Library to make sure the articles are genuine and the information is up to date.

One of the Occom letters, torn along a fold
The letters then arrive at the Preservation Services department, where our Collections Conservator Deborah Howe does everything possible to conserve and keep these documents in optimal condition. Torn documents are mended with Zen Shofu paste, a wheat-based adhesive, as well as Japanese tissue, which is tinted in an acrylic bath to best match the original documents' hue. In some circumstances a very thin gossamer tissue is used in order to best preserve the fidelity of the text.

The same letter, after conservation treatment
After Preservation Services has repaired the documents they come to the Digital Production Unit, where they are scanned and added to the temporary online database. From there, Project Manager Dawn Dumpert, Professor Schweitzer, and a rotating cast of student workers transcribe and mark up the documents in TEI (Text Encoding Initiative). The document then goes to Cataloging and Metadata, where Text Markup Unit Manager Mina Rakhra's team creates a cataloging record and applies metadata to the newly-scanned documents. For the finished product, Paul Merchant in the Digital Library Technologies Group is working on the search features, and Susan Lee in Computing Services is working on the design of the website.

This project represents both a major step forward in early-American cultural history, and an example of how well the various library and faculty members can collaborate. It’s safe to say that without the exceptional work of Professor Ivy Schweitzer, Rauner Library, the Digital Production Unit, Cataloging and Metadata Services, the Digital Library Technologies Group, Computing Services, and the Preservation Services department, this project would not have been possible.

Written by Ryland Ianelli.

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