The Lost Mohawk
(Originally published in The People’s Voice, April 29, 2005)
Written by Darren Bonaparte
Have We a Bourbon Among Us?
In 1841 Williams had a chance encounter with Prince de Joinville, third son of Louise Phillipe, the new King of France under the reestablished monarchy. The Prince was on a tour of America and was interested in the natives of the Green Bay area, and was thus introduced to Eleazer, who happened to be a passenger on the same steamer.
Eleazer claimed that the Prince had sought him out personally in order to inform him that he, Eleazer, was the Lost Dauphin of France, the son of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who was secreted out of France as a small child and given to the Indians of Kahnawake to raise as their own. He then presented him with a document that he asked him to sign, which would abdicate his claim to the throne in exchange for a wealth of compensation. Williams, who was shocked to learn of his royal ancestry, refused to sign the document.
Having lost his kingdom in Wisconsin, Eleazer sought to re-write his own history and gain another, this one in France. Although he avoided actually coming out and claiming royal blood, his story soon spread. His biographers suggest that Eleazer labored to create this impression, even to the point of forging documents and writing letters to newspapers under assumed names. He was able to parlay his fame and make a living off it for a time, particularly after an article about his story appeared in Putnam’s Magazine under the title, “Have we a Bourbon among us?” The author, Reverend John Hanson, later wrote the book The Lost Prince in which he presented the bulk of the “evidence” for Eleazer Williams’ royal heritage.
Eleazer eventually moved to Akwesasne, where his father had relocated years before. His supporters constructed an impressive chateau for him in Hogansburg, known to us today as the Lost Dauphin Cottage. He established a mission here but had little success among the predominantly Catholic Mohawks. The church itself ended up being used to store hay before eventually burning to the ground in disgust, never to be rebuilt. His role in the failed relocation of Akwesasne Mohawks to Wisconsin may have had something to do with the failure of his mission.
Eleazer’s notoriety as a contender to the throne of France was well-known in Akwesasne, where he had forged his mother’s name on a document in which she supposedly claimed that Eleazer was adopted, and not her natural son. When she was presented with this document in the presence of two other elderly women, “One and all vehemently denounced the tale as a lie, while the little old mother bursting into tears exclaimed that she knew Eleazer had been a bad man but she did not know before that he was bad enough to deny his own mother.”
Geoffrey Buerger wrote, “Only a biographer possessing either a sense of irony or extraordinary charity could introduce a life of Eleazer Williams by claiming he was not a charlatan of the first water.” Eleazer had his detractors while he lived, and they didn’t let up when he died in 1858. Yet as Buerger notes, to dismiss him as a crackpot robs us of an opportunity to learn about the frontiers of native and non-native society in a critical period of our shared history. It is hard for us today to envision someone so embarrassed by his own Mohawk heritage that he would deny his own mother…but would then return to the Mohawks to spend his final days.
Like the elegant A-frame where he lived out the rest of his life, Eleazer William’s fame (or infamy) outlived him into modern times. In next week’s chapter, we will see how the mercurial missionary made a final contribution to Mohawk history before passing on to his eternal reward…and how modern science was brought to bare on the question of whether or not we really had a Bourbon among us.
Next in series: 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.