Editor’s note: What follows is the first of three articles by Nicholas Chapman on Fr. Samuel Domien, the first Orthodox priest known to have set foot in the Western Hemisphere. Domien was fascinated with electricity and became friends with Benjamin Franklin, who mentions Domien in his letters. To read Nicholas’ original article on Domien, click here.
In a recent article on this website I introduced Fr. Samuel Domien as the first Orthodox priest in the Americas. I acknowledged that this statement contradicts the only known published research about Domien found in two articles by Demetrius Dvoichenko-Markov:
1. A Rumanian Priest in Colonial America, (published in the October 1955 issue of The American Slavic and East European Review.)
2.Benjamin Franklin and the first American Romanian-Relations (Cahiers roumains d’etudes litteraires 1/1977 – The Romanian Book of Literary Studies, a French language publication of the University of Bucharest.) I am indebted to Matthew Namee for finding this second work.
In both of these essays, Markov takes the view that Domien was not an Orthodox priest, but rather a Greek Catholic (Uniate) clergyman. I believe that all of his arguments for reaching this conclusion are weak and do not stand up to serious examination. I hope that I can retain the interest of the reader whilst showing in some detail why I reach the opposite conclusion to Markov. I will do this by introducing a substantial amount of recently unearthed materials that further evidence the level of awareness of Orthodoxy in eighteenth century America.
Was Domien a Tartar?
Markov states that Benjamin Franklin made a mistake in identifying Domien as being of Tartar descent. He observes that Domien himself, in his advertisements for his electricity experiments in the South Carolina Gazette, does not claim Tartar descent, but only that he is a native of Transylvania. This is essentially an argument from silence. Why should Domien use up precious column space in a newspaper advertisement to mention his Tartar descent?
Markov also believes that Franklin would not have understood who the Tartars were and would simply identify any inhabitant of the Russian Empire as a Tartar. He suggests that John Ledyard, the Connecticut Yankee explorer who travelled across the Russian Empire in 1787-1788, makes such a misidentification. My own reading of Ledyard’s journals suggests the exact opposite. For example, when Ledyard is in Siberia he dines with a Mr. Karamyscherff. Ledyard writes of this name It is a Tartar name and he is of Tartarian extraction. Why would Ledyard write this if Tartar and Russian were synonymous?
What is much more commonly the case is to the wider use of the word “Tartar” in eighteenth century English to refer to any native, non Caucasian people group of Europe, Asia and the Americas. But this wider usuage does not preclude a more specific one. An American source much close to the time of Domien’s meeting with Franklin in Philadelphia in 1747/48 evinces such an understanding. In the Boston Weekly Newsletter of December 20, 1750 O.S. the following news is reported from Petersburg, the capital of the Russian Empire:
Sept. 8 – The Synod (i.e. The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church.) has received letters from the college established for the Propagation of the Gospel among the people of Asia, whereby it appears, that during the first six months of the present year they have brought into the Pale of the Greek Church 5182 men, and 2532 women; all which converts have been made among the Tartarian Nations inhabiting the Kingdom of Kazan and the Government of Orenbourg…
Even today the Kazan Republic in Russia is the principal center of Tartar peoples. The Tartars were subjugated by the Mongols in the thirteenth century and are often thought of as being synonymous with them. As the Mongols also overran Transylvania at that time I cannot see why people of Tartar descent in Transylvania should not have existed some four/five hundred years later.
In this regard I was particularly intrigued to learn of a village called Tartaria in the Săliştea region of Transylvania. In the 1750’s this area became the center of Orthodox resistance to the attempts by the Austro-Hungarian empire to force union with Rome upon the Orthodox.
Nicholas Chapman, Herkimer NY, May 21 2012