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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Mohawk Indian or French Prince?

Eleazar Williams (1787-1858) is surely one of the oddest characters in Wisconsin history.

He was born and raised among the Mohawk Indians and as a teenager attended the missionary school that would later become Dartmouth College. He became a Protestant missionary himself, and his intelligence and eloquence gave him entry into both Indian and white communities during the opening decades of the 19th century.

In his thirties Williams used these skills to help the Oneida and other nations who were being pushed off their lands in the East. With tribal leaders, he imagined a new homeland in the West for the Stockbridge, Munsee, Brotherton, Oneida, and other Christian Indians of New York and New England. In 1820 he led a delegation of them to Wisconsin to negotiate with the Menominee and Ho-Chunk for territory around Green Bay where they could take refuge from Eastern land speculators. These negotiations, described by Albert Ellis, dragged on for more than a decade. While they were underway, on March 3, 1823, Williams married a 14-year-old Menominee-French girl named Marie Madeline Jourdain, perhaps to gain influence with his negotiating partners (according to her descendants, the marriage was short-lived).

Williams had envisioned a great nation of Christian Indians growing up in the West with himself as their ruler. The Oneida and other so-called "New York" Indians had other ideas, however, and when they were finally granted land by the Menominee they repudiated his leadership and sent him packing. With his dream of ruling an Indian empire shattered, Williams became a roving missionary supported by Indian communities and white religious organizations in Wisconsin and New York.

But in middle age, he invented another way to become an emperor. He started to claim that he was the long-lost child of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette who had been spirited away to America for safe-keeping when they were beheaded during the French Revolution. Though his friends laughed at the idea, Williams convinced some European aristocrats that he really was the heir to the French throne -- enough to create a stream of transatlantic donations that helped support him in his final years. He may have convinced himself, too, because when he lay on his deathbed in 1858, his last words were about a dress in his possession having been worn by Marie Antoinette.

In 1918 Williams' surviving family members were interviewed in his old home above the Fox River near Green Bay. Read what they had to say about the Indian who claimed to be a French prince in our collection of Local History and Biography Articles, where you'll also find many more stories about the eccentric Eleazar Williams.
:: Posted in Odd Lives on March 9, 2009

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