Sam Mohawk and the Wigton Massacre

Crime and Prejudice: The Sam Mohawk Story

Early on the morning of June 30, 1843, James Wigton arrived home from a brief errand at a relative's farm to find a gathering of people in his yard. As he dismounted his horse in a state of confusion, his neighbor Mrs. Davis ran towards him in hysterics. Between sobs she broke the news: John’s wife Peggy, and all five of their children had been brutally murdered. John later recalled. “The shock was so great and sudden that for four days after I did not remember anything."

It was soon discovered perpetrator of this gruesome crime was Sam Mohawk, an itinerant man and member of the Seneca nation who had been traveling back to his home in western New York. Ill and reportedly experiencing hallucinations and delirium, Mohawk early that morning had stumbled his way towards the light of the Wigton home like a manic moth towards a flame. At daybreak, Margaret, the mother, encountered Mohawk stumbling around her yard. Mohawk attacked the woman, and after taking a knife from her, forced his way into her home. Margaret tried to fight back, but Mohawk got her down to the ground, bludgeoned her with a stick and then proceeded to bash her skull in with a stone.

Mohawk then picked up the same oblong rock and continued through the house, attacking and murdering the five Wigton children. The death list is as follows, Margaret(34), Almira(8) Peninah Nancy (7), Perry ( 5), Amanda ( 3) and John Wallace ( 10 months). Witnesses to the horrific scene said, “ Margaret had pieces of her skull as long as her fingers in her hair” and that there was “ blood all over the walls and ceiling."

Sam Mohawk fled the bloody scene and shortly thereafter a neighbor discovered the murders and raised the alarm. The hunt for Mohawk began. Mohawk ended up on the farm of Philip Kiester, the Wigton’s nearest neighbors. Mohawk was completely unaware of the manhunt that was going on when he broke into the Kiester home. He climbed the stairs of the home and settled in Philip’s bedroom. A mob of 100 showed up to apprehend Mohawk. The mob had no trouble locating Mohawk as he was playing Philip’s fiddle. After a brief standoff and struggle, Mohawk was apprehended, tied to the bed of a wagon, and taken to the county jail to await sentencing and trial.

At the trial, Sam Mohawk pleaded not guilty for six counts of murder. Many testified against Mohawk and the gruesome details given about the crime scene were chilling. Several witnesses who had encounters with Mohawk in days before the murder also stated in their testimonies that he was “in sickened state” and muttered cryptic statements about being followed by threatening men, and being unable to sleep at night due to hearing "white men and Indians" speaking, and having "a great light around him."

Mohawk's queer behavior was likely the result of delirium tremens, a side effect of severe alcohol withdrawal which results in anxiety, confusion, insomnia, nausea, tremors and often acute auditory and visual hallucinations. Delirium tremens was embraced as a defense for murder by the end of the 1820s and had been a cause for the acquittal or lessening of many murder cases. Mohawk would have been suffering extreme hallucinations and would not have been fully cognizant of his actions. Despite the testimony of three medical doctors who believed his behavior indicated he was not in his right mind, the jury returned a verdict of "guilty" in only a few hours, and Mohawk was sentenced to be hanged March 22, 1844. He was converted to Christianity before his death, but even after this no cemetery would take his body.

The fact that Sam Mohawk was a Seneca Native American is part of the issue in this whole scenario. The underlying racism of the case is apparent even in 1843. “ The Butler County Song” published in 1843 by William Bryan before Mohawk's trial described Mohawk as "a Bloody Savage that passed through Butler Town” and declared that “the bloody horrid savage must be slain” all perpetrated the animosity towards Mohawk.  On Margaret Wigton and her children's’ gravestone, the epitaph reads “ Murdered by Seneca Indian Sam Mohawk," the addition of his race to this epitaph lets everyone for centuries to come know Sam was an outsider. 

While of course there is no excusing Sam Mohawk's murders of the Wigton family, it is important to be able to take a step back and be able to acknowledge the prejudice that occurred before and after the trial. Sam Mohawk becomes more of a disturbing propagandized image of a drunk Native throughout the years of this story being told, but the facts are as follows: Sam Mohawk, suffering from severe delirium, murdered a family of six and it is their memory that should be remain and not the “raging savage” story line that unfortunately became the focus of popular memory.

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