When our ancestors left their original homelands to re-organize themselves into a new Tribe in New York, they carried very few possessions with them. Besides themselves and their families, some of the most important things they did carry were their faith in God and their practice of communal hymn singing (hymnody). The type of hymn singing they engaged in was very distinctive and unique to the New England area. By 1801, this general type of singing would come to be known as “shape note singing” although the New England Indians had their own unique version of it and particularly excelled at its practice. Not only did their own version of shape note singing travel with our ancestors from New England to New York, but it was still with them when they relocated to Wisconsin (still Michigan Territory) in the early part of the 1800’s.
Part One: Occom’s Hymnal and Brothertown, New York
Samson Occom, the famous Native American minister, led an extremely productive and influential life. One of his noteable achievements was the 1774 publication of a hymn book (words only) with many reprinted songs and a couple of Occom’s own (available at http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/evans/N10659.0001.001?rgn=main;view=fulltext). This has earned him the distinctive honor of being “the first American writer of Presbyterian hymns.”(1) This hymn book, no doubt, accompanied him 13 years later on his journey to Oneida County New York and the political formation of Brothertown.
We read in Occom’s journal concerning the night he arrived in New York at his brother in law’s (David Fowler’s) house on October 24, 1785 that, “as we approach’d the House I heard a Melodious Singing, a number were together Singing Psalms hymns and Spiritual Songs”(2). They sang a bit more before retiring for the night. The next day, October 25th, he noted, “In the evening Singers Came in again, and they Sang till near ten o: c.”
On Wednesday, he wrote of more singing; as well as on Friday where they sang at “Abraham Simons” house. On Saturday, the “huskers Sung Hymns Psalms and Spiritual Songs the bigest part of the Time, finishd in the evening,— and after Supper the Singers Sung a while”. On Sunday it went on longer. To say that they sang a lot may be an understatement.
It was not just our early years there in New York that we pursued hymnody, but it continued throughout our time there. In a letter dated December 26, 1791, Occom wrote, “one Jo–Quinney is… our Singing Master too, and he is Instructing the People in Singing Constantly, two or three Evenings every week.”(3)
While Occom tells us that they sang “hymns Psalms and Spiritual Songs”, he doesn’t mention much more besides noting their frequency. Yet, there was something special to be said about Brothertown singing; something that set our ancestors apart. Partial clarity on this matter can be gained through a review of historical Native America in the New England area as well as by reviewing the education that our founders, including Occom, had received at Moor’s Charity School.
…..to be continued
(2) October 4, 1785 Journal p12r & following https://collections.dartmouth.edu/occom/html/diplomatic/785554-diplomatic.html