The Unquiet Rest of Eleazer Williams
(Originally published in The People’s Voice, May 6, 2005)
Written by Darren Bonaparte
Eleazer Williams: Historian
Eleazer was good to his word, and furnished Dr. Hough with biographies of three major figures in Akwesasne history: his father, Thomas Williams, or Tehorakwaneken; Colonel Louis Cook, or Atiatonharonkwen; and William Gray, the interpreter. These three men, along with a man named Goodstream, or Ohnawiio, signed the Seven Nations of Canada Treaty of 1796, which is viewed in Akwesasne today as either our Magna Charta or the world’s biggest swindle, depending on who you talk to.
Although Williams certainly has his credibility problems, his manuscripts are nevertheless worthy of our attention as historical documents. Hough used them extensively for the chapter on St. Regis, and later published a book of the Thomas Williams biography. Life of Te-Ho-Ra-Gwa-Ne-Gen, alias Thomas Williams, a Chief of the Caughnawaga Tribe of Indians in Canada, came out a year after the death of Eleazer Williams on August 28, 1858. In his introduction, Hough describes his impression of the place we’ve come to know as the Lost Dauphin Cottage when Eleazer Williams was its sole occupant:
For a few years before his death he resided at Hogansburgh, mostly alone, near the edge of a grove, in a neat cottage erected by friends subsequent to the publications which excited so general an interest in 1853. His habits of domestic economy were such as might, under the circumstances, be alike expected in one reared as a prince or a savage; and his household presented an aspect of cheerless desolation, without a mitigating ray of comfort, or a genial spark of homelight. His neatly finished rooms had neither carpets, curtains nor furniture, save a scanty supply of broken chairs and invalid tables; boxes filled with books, the gifts of friends, lay stowed away in corners; his dining table, unmoved from week to week, and covered with the broken remains of former repasts, and his pantry and sleeping room disordered and filthy, left upon the visitor an oppressive feeling of homeless solitude that it was impossible to efface from the memory.
As I noted in the previous chapter, the hostile rejection of Eleazer Williams’ royal pretensions continued long after his death. Mark Twain lampooned him (and forever immortalized him) by featuring a self-described “Lost Dauphin” character in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1884. In 1937, MGM produced a short feature about Williams’claim called King Without a Crown, which premiered in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where Eleazer Williams and his pretensions became something of a cottage industry since his departure. (There is even a Lost Dauphin State Park in the area.)
In 1947, Eleazer Williams’ grave in Hogansburg was exhumed and his remains reburied on the grounds of the Episcopalian Church of the Holy Apostles in Freedom, Wisconsin…but not after being carefully measured and photographed as part of an effort to determine if he really was a Native American, and not a French prince after all. This “scientific” examination of the bones apparently determined that they were indeed that of a person of Native American descent.
The late Shirley Aldrich once told me that she remembered the day they exhumed the remains of Eleazer Williams…or at least what was thought to be his remains. Children had often knocked tombstones down in that cemetery, and she had her doubts that they had even dug up the right grave!
Eleazer Williams made news again in the 1980’s when a local Mohawk businessman, Phil Tarbell, purchased the Lost Dauphin Cottage and completely remodeled it to a modern style and appearance. His “before” photographs show the cottage had not lost any of its “cheerless desolation” and “homeless solitude” since the days when Eleazer Williams called it home, but its present form is much more agreeable to the visitor. If the spirit of Eleazer Williams makes its presence known there in modern times, it has to compete for attention with the football game on Phil’s TV.
Next in series: Science Gets to the “Heart” of the Matter, The Unquiet Rest of Eleazer Williams
By Darren Bonaparte, historian and author of The Wampum Chronicles. Reprinted with permission.
Darren Bonaparte is a cultural historian from the Akwesasne First Nation. He is a frequent lecturer at schools, universities, museums, and historical sites in the United States and Canada. He has written four books, several articles, and the libretto for the McGill Chamber Orchestra’s Aboriginal Visions and Voices. Darren is a former chief of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne. He is the creator of The Wampum Chronicles and historical advisor to film and television. He currently serves as the Director of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe.