Professional Indian: The American Odyssey of Eleazer Williams

Professional Indian: The American Odyssey of Eleazer Williams

Professional Indian: The American Odyssey of Eleazer Williams

Professional Indian: The American Odyssey of Eleazer Williams


Born in 1788, Eleazer Williams was raised in the Catholic Iroquois settlement of Kahnawake along the St. Lawrence River. According to some sources, he was the descendant of a Puritan minister whose daughter was taken by French and Mohawk raiders; in other tales he was the Lost Dauphin, second son to Louis XVI of France. Williams achieved regional renown as a missionary to the Oneida Indians in central New York; he was also instrumental in their removal, allying with white federal officials and the Ogden Land Company to persuade Oneidas to relocate to Wisconsin. Williams accompanied them himself, making plans to minister to the transplanted Oneidas, but he left the community and his young family for long stretches of time. A fabulist and sometime confidence man, Eleazer Williams is notoriously difficult to comprehend: his own record is complicated with stories he created for different audiences. But for author Michael Leroy Oberg, he is an icon of the self-fashioning and protean identity practiced by native peoples who lived or worked close to the centers of Anglo-American power.

Professional Indian follows Eleazer Williams on this odyssey across the early American republic and through the shifting spheres of the Iroquois in an era of dispossession. Oberg describes Williams as a "professional Indian," who cultivated many political interests and personas in order to survive during a time of shrinking options for native peoples. He was not alone: as Oberg shows, many Indians became missionaries and settlers and played a vital role in westward expansion. Through the larger-than-life biography of Eleazer Williams, Professional Indian uncovers how Indians fought for place and agency in a world that was rapidly trying to erase them.


This book is about Eleazer Williams, a descendant of an unredeemed Puritan captive carried away to the Catholic Mohawk town of Kahnawake early in the eighteenth century, a Mohawk missionary to the Oneida Indians in central New York and Wisconsin, and an active supporter of the effort beginning early in the nineteenth century to “remove” eastern Indians to new homes in the American West. It is also about the many worlds of the nineteenthcentury Iroquois that Williams traversed during his long public career, from the pressed-upon Indian towns in New York and Wisconsin to the centers of Anglo-American power in Albany, New York City, and Washington. It tells the story of the Iroquois in an era of culture change, dispossession, and relocation. By following Eleazer Williams on his American odyssey, it also presents a story of identity, of self-fashioning, in Indian America in the decades between the American Revolution and the Civil War, and the varied roles Indians might play in the white man’s republic. It is, finally, a story about getting by and making do, and the struggles one important, if underappreciated, native leader confronted as he attempted to do so.

There is a revealing anecdote about Williams. According to Albert Gallatin Ellis, who worked with him at the Oneida mission in New York beginning in 1820, and who continued to cross paths with him over the years that followed, Williams once looked into a mirror hanging on the wall at the mission station. Still early in his career, Williams studied closely his own reflection, and wondered aloud “is this the face of a savage” and if, “in time . . . the Indian or the white man prevails in this face.”

It’s an image I like very much. Who might Williams be, and who would decide? If we accept the accuracy of Ellis’s recollection, it seems that Williams himself was uncertain. Over the course of writing this book, I have often wondered what Williams was like when he was alone, with no audience watching him. It is easy to tell what he did with his time, where he went. He left a clearly marked paper trail. But Williams described more fully the events in which he participated than the sentiments he felt. There is much about . . .

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