The Mohawk who would be king also envisioned an Indian empire.
Many an Indian, from the Minneconjou Sioux Red Horse to the Santee Sioux Walks Under the Ground, claimed to have killed 7th Cavalry Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer at the Little Bighorn. But only one Indian ever claimed to be the Lost Dauphin and heir to the throne of France—and had people take him seriously. That Indian, Eleazar Williams, wasn’t the only claimant to the title of Dauphin. Mark Twain ridiculed such Bourbon imposters in Huckleberry Finn, set in the same antebellum era when Williams’ adherents took him at his word, but written after Williams died without a coronation.
Williams began circulating the story he was the Lost Dauphin around 1839, when he was living in western New York after a long sojourn in the Green Bay area of Wisconsin. Two years later, when François d’Orléans, Prince de Joinville, younger son of King Louis Philippe I of France, visited Green Bay, he encountered Williams—they appear to have met on a steamboat on the Great Lakes— and they had an acknowledged conversation. Eleazar later claimed the prince had confirmed Williams was indeed Louis XVII, surviving son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and rightful heir to the French throne. The prince supposedly offered him a sizable amount of money to sign a quit-claim on the contested throne, but Williams refused to sign. The Prince de Joinville denied having made such an offer, insisting he had stopped off to see Williams only because he was curious to meet a Christian clergyman who was also an Indian. He saw no resemblance to Louis XVII, who, after all, had officially died in prison at age 10 in 1795 under the custody of abusive revolutionary and cobbler Antoine Simon and then been buried after an autopsy had established his identity.
Complicating matters, however, was a portrait painted of the Dauphin while he was in prison. It shows a feral-looking boy with black hair and fierce black eyes, not at all like the blond, blue-eyed boy in official portraits from happier times. The suspicion was that somebody stuck a fake Dauphin in prison and helped the real Dauphin escape—though the feral painting looks more like a preadolescent Williams than the royal portrait.
The Dauphin story had legs. In 1849 an anonymous article in The United States Magazine and Democratic Review asserted Eleazar Williams truly was the Dauphin, though prevailing opinion holds the anonymous author was Williams himself. The story found a staunch advocate in the Rev. John Hanson, whose 1854 book The Lost Prince supported Williams’ claim to royal blood. Hanson had met Williams on a train ride in 1851 and been struck by his unusual appearance: Williams had a full head of somewhat unruly black hair, but his features were classic and rather handsome. Williams told the Rev. Hanson that the first years of his life were a blank. He had always supposed he was a mixed-blood Indian, until he met the Prince de Joinville on the steamboat ride a decade before and was told of his true heritage and offered a bribe to abdicate. Hanson showed Williams a painting of the cobbler Simon, and Williams exclaimed, “Good God! I know that face. It has haunted me through life!” The Lost Prince was feted in New York City, where, according to The New York Times, “levees were held in his honor; his portrait was in all the galleries; and for a time he was extensively lionized.”
A year later Williams showed Franklin Hough, a local historian, “a dress of splendid brocade silk with a long trail, which he says he received from France as the dress of his mother the queen. It is really a most splendid quality of silk.” Williams offered to write out a history of the local Indians for Hough. He kept his word, and Hough made good use of the manuscripts. But Williams’ claim to be a full-blood French prince did not sit well with his Mohawk relatives. When he returned to Akwesasne territory in New York and tried to convince the Mohawks there to relocate to Green Bay, they met his proposal with scorn. That turned into outright indignation when the Mohawks were shown a document, supposedly signed by his Mohawk birth mother, avowing he had been adopted and was not an Indian at all. At that revelation the old mother burst into tears and wondered how Eleazar could be so bad as to “deny his own mother.”
Williams died among the St. Regis Mohawks on August 28, 1858, but according to white witnesses, not a single Mohawk attended the formal funeral, conducted with both Masonic and Episcopalian rights. A New York Times correspondent who attended the funeral reported that Williams had a collection of books about the French Revolution, which could explain how he knew Simon the cobbler jailer at first glance. Rumors persisted that Williams might have been telling the truth—his purported status as Dauphin was debated into the 1890s, and in 1901 author Mary H. Catherwood published a novel, Lazare, about the Lost Dauphin.
In 1947 Williams’ remains were exhumed for shipment to Wisconsin and burial among his Western descendents. Scientific measurements at the time reportedly confirmed the skeleton was that of an American Indian. The final blow came in 2000. Dr. Philippe-Jean Pelletan had preserved the heart of the Dauphin in alcohol after his autopsy of the boy in 1795, and it survived the centuries. Modern-day tests for mitochondrial DNA measured the heart tissue against hair samples from Marie Antoinette and other Hapsburg relatives. The tests confirmed the heart was of Hapsburg lineage—which meant the real Dauphin did die in Paris in 1795.
Who, then, was Eleazar Williams? Records show he was the son of Thomas (Tehorakwaneken) and Mary Anne (Konwatewanteta)Williams, born about 1788 in Caughnawaga (present-day Kahnawake Mohawk Territory, Quebec). The family had adopted its surname from Eunice Williams, a 7-year-old white girl taken captive by Mohawks in 1704 during the French and Indian wars who later married a Mohawk warrior from Caughnawaga. The Williams name was handed down, along with a modicum of white blood, and in 1800 Deacon Nathaniel Ely of Longmeadow, Mass., whose wife was a white Williams, sponsored the education of brothers John and Eleazar Williams. John dropped out, but Eleazar struck it out and learned to read and write. Brought up in Ely’s Congregational Church, Eleazar ultimately switched to the Episcopal Church and, as a fluent Mohawk speaker, became a missionary to his people.
In 1820 New York land speculator Thomas Ludlow Ogden approached Williams with a grand scheme to create a Christian Indian nation of many tribes somewhere in the unsettled West, with Williams as its leader. Secretary of War John Calhoun, eager to remove the Indians from New York, sent a commissioner to investigate sites in the Fox River Valley (in what would become Wisconsin). Meanwhile, Williams, with money from Ogden, led a group of Oneida Indians west to investigate buying land. Williams met with Winnebago and Menominee chiefs in the Fox River region and then, with the support of Michigan Territorial Governor Lewis Cass, persuaded the chiefs to sell the New York tribes a four-mile strip of land for $3,950 in trade goods. The first group of Oneida and Stockbridge Indians established a settlement at Duck Creek in 1822. Williams appears to have planned a Christian Indian empire expanding west from his base in Green Bay, where in 1823 he married Madeleine Jordan, the 14-year-old daughter of a prosperous French blacksmith and a Menominee woman. Madeleine came with a generous dowry of land, but the marriage was not a happy one, as Williams spent much of his time rallying Iroquoian and Delaware Indians for his fantasized “Indian empire” in the West.
Governor Cass betrayed Williams by negotiating a treaty that transferred most of the Fox River valley from the Winnebagos, the Menominees and Williams’ transplanted Iroquois and Delaware followers to the U.S. government. Williams, still dreaming of an Indian empire with himself as emperor, traveled around the Midwest trying to persuade Indians to move into the territory of the formidable Plains tribes—but they knew better. In 1830 Williams went to Washington, D.C., seeking to interest Congress in his grandiose scheme, but at that point the Indian Removal Act had been promulgated, and tribes from all over the South were being force marched to Indian Territory. Most of the Indians themselves wrote off Williams as an eccentric or a crook, and he headed back to western New York, minus Madeleine and their three children. He reportedly visited her only once in the last seven years of his life, which ended in August 1858. Madeleine died in 1886 and was buried, “very homely at her death and very corpulent,” in the dress Williams had claimed once belonged to Marie Antoinette.
It was only after Williams had failed as a new Napoléon of an Indian empire sponsored by Congress that he seems to have settled for being a Lost Prince of an actual kingdom that wasn’t really his. The mysterious discoveries of his purported European heritage seem to have taken hold of his personality only after the Episcopal Church and the Western Indians had dismissed him as a nobody. This is known in psychology as a “delusion of grandeur”—but amazingly, Williams had persuaded some educated white people to fall for it.
Originally published in the October 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.