|William Apess's ordination as a minister in the Protestant Methodist Church preceded by only a few months the publication of his A Son of the Forest (1829),
the first published autobiography -- and one of the earliest books of any genre wholly written -- by a Native American. In 1831 he was appointed a missionary
to his people, the Pequots, and eventually settled with the Mashpees (the name was spelled Marshpee in the early nineteenth century), the inhabitants of the
last remaining Indian town in Massachusetts. He quickly became a leader in their struggle to govern their town free of white guardians and to appoint a
minister of their own choosing for the local church.
The Mashpee Revolt broke out in 1833, and Apess's name became briefly known throughout the United States: he was, in effect, the
leader of one of the first Indian rights movements. In large part because of Apess's brilliance as a polemicist and a tactician, the
Mashpees achieved most of their demands by 1834. Apess was once more in the public eye in January 1836 when he delivered his
controversial Eulogy on King Philip in the largest hall in Boston. He died in New York City three years later.
William Apes -- he would change the spelling of his surname in his last publications and in a series of court cases brought against him
in 1836 for unpaid debts -- was born on 31 January 1798 in a tent in the woods near the town of Colrain in the northwestern corner of
Massachusetts. His father, also named William, was a shoemaker who moved back and forth throughout his life between Colrain and
Colchester, Connecticut, near the homelands of the Pequots in southeastern Connecticut. Apess's mother was probably named
Candace; if so, she was a bound servant or perhaps even a slave in the household of Capt. Joseph Taylor, also of Colchester.
Although she may have married Apess's father before Apess's birth -- no record of the marriage exists -- she was not formally freed by
her master until 1805. There is no evidence that either parent had any formal education, although Apess's father seems to have been
able to read and write. Apess refers in his autobiographical writings to two brothers and two sisters; two additional brothers were born
after Apess was no longer living with his parents.
Apess's parents' racial identities were mixed, a common situation among Native Americans in the northeast by the late eighteenth
century. By Apess's account in A Son of the Forest his father, the child of a Pequot woman and a white father, chose to affiliate with his
mother's people and to marry "a female of the tribe, in whose veins a single drop of the white man's blood never flowed." Despite this
claim, his mother's race is uncertain. In an inventory of Taylor's estate Candace is identified as "Negro," while in the 1820 federal
census schedule she is characterized as "a free white woman." This uncertainty shows how unreliable and in flux were categories of
racial identity, especially as applied to Native Americans, in this period. In any case, his parents identified themselves as Pequots and
were apparently accepted as such by their fellows.
By the time of Apess's birth native peoples in the northeast had been severely reduced in numbers by European diseases to which
they lacked immunity; by removals from their homelands to the West; and, ironically, by having joined white Americans in fighting the
Revolutionary War, in which many Native American men died. Those who remained in close proximity to white settlements had lost most
of their land in the eighteenth century through deeds that Indians understood as maintaining their rights to continue to use the land for
planting, hunting, and fishing but that European Americans enforced as giving themselves exclusive ownership; white guardians and
overseers who abused their positions to steal the land; and, when these tactics failed, the use or threat of force to compel Indian
removals or signatures on agreements that took the land away forever. What little land was left was insufficient to support the surviving
Native Americans, who eked a bare living from some of the older ways of trapping, hunting, and fishing; making brooms and baskets for
sale to whites; and working as day laborers for white farmers, who often cheated them out of their wages.
Many of the men went to sea on long whaling voyages; the women often worked in domestic service to white gentry households, to
which, not uncommonly, their children were bound out as indentured servants. Apess summarizes these conditions, some of their
causes, and their consequences at the beginning of The Experiences of Five Christian Indians of the Pequod Tribe (1833):
"The land of my fathers was gone; and their characters were not known as human beings but as beasts of prey. We were
represented as having no souls to save, or to lose, but as partridges upon the mountains. All these degrading titles were
heaped upon us. Thus, you see, we had to bear all this tide of degradation, while prejudice stung every white man, from
the oldest to the youngest, to the very center of the heart."
Much of Apess's writing focuses on the conditions of Native Americans in the northeast in the first third of the nineteenth century and
on the racism against which they struggled. Apess was a historian, though he depended on the research of others, and in A Son of the
Forest and the Eulogy on King Philip his analysis of contemporary Native American life is embedded in a detailed reading of Indian-
European relations from the time of first contact.
It is Apess's evangelical Christianity that most immediately strikes many readers today, however, and, given still-dominant notions about
what constitutes Indian identity, baffles their expectations. Of his five publications, three largely concentrate on his conversion to
Methodism, his ordination as a minister, and his work as a preacher. Only his last two books, Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional
Laws of Massachusetts, Relative to the Marshpee Tribe; or, The Pretended Riot Explained (1835) and Eulogy on King Philip, shift
substantially away from this primary focus.
Yet any understanding of the complexities of Native American identities, and of Apess himself as a person and as a writer, requires a
grasp of the way in which his conversion to evangelical Christianity was integral to his capacity to affirm himself as a Pequot and as a
person of color. Only through his experience of Christianity was Apess able to overcome in some measure the psychic wounds of racial
and economic oppression and to create a public career dedicated to fighting the impact of this oppression on his fellow Indians. This
complex story shapes all of his writing. Apart from its rhetorical power, the writing claims attention by its ability to make comprehensible
how native peoples could adopt selected European or European American cultural modes as means of surviving and of maintaining a
sense of their own distinctive identities.
Some time after Apess's birth his mother and father returned to the area around Colchester, where "our little family lived for nearly
three years in comparative comfort." Then the parents quarreled and separated, and each, apparently, moved some distance away.
Apess and two brothers and two sisters were placed with their maternal grandparents. Both grandparents "would drink to excess"; the
house was cold and often bare of food; and the children lacked warm clothing. Kindly white neighbors, the Furmans, saw to it that the
children at least got milk. Apess contrasts their behavior to that of his own grandparents:
"Once in particular, I remember that when it rained very hard my grandmother put us all down cellar, and when we
complained of cold and hunger, she unfeelingly bid us dance and thereby warm ourselves -- but we had no food of any
kind; and one of my sisters almost died of hunger."
One day the grandmother returned home drunk after peddling baskets and brooms to white people and, without warning, turned on the
four-year-old Apess and began to beat him with a club. Had it not been for the intervention of an uncle, Apess believed, he would have
been beaten to death; even then, his grandfather took up a firebrand to try to prevent the uncle from stopping the beating. The next
day the uncle, realizing how badly his nephew was injured, went to the Furmans. Mr. Furman petitioned the town selectmen in
Colchester, and the children were removed from the house and bound out to nearby white families; Apess was placed with the
Furmans. It took Apess a year to recover from the beating.
One wonders why Apess, who was abandoned by his Pequot parents, nearly beaten to death by his Pequot grandmother, kindly
treated by white people, and was raised from the age of four entirely in white households came to think of himself as a Pequot -- let
alone to adopt a career as a writer and leader devoted to the cause of the Pequots and other northeastern native peoples.
It is possible that he regularly saw his Pequot relatives -- including his father, who returned to Colchester some time after Apess was
beaten -- but he does not say in his autobiography that he did so; he does say that after his parents separated he did not see his
mother again for twenty years. In his eyes, the Furmans seem to have become his parents. When Mrs. Furman's mother, who lived in
the household, died, Apess tells his readers:
"She had always been so kind to me that I missed her quite as much as her children, and I had been allowed to call her
Apess was especially close to Mrs. Furman, who brought him his first vivid awareness of Christianity. She was a Baptist and not only
"esteemed as a very pious woman" but, in a distinction Apess recurrently draws in describing European American Christians, she was
one who actually behaved like a Christian:
"Her whole course of conduct was upright and exemplary. "He makes special note of a conversation they had when he was
six about the importance of leading his life in such a way that he would go to heaven when he died. When he responded
that "only old people died," she took him to the graveyard to show him otherwise.
This experience produced his first spiritual crisis, and from this point onward his journey to Christian conversion, culminating in his
ordination as a Methodist minister, becomes the primary theme in his autobiographical writings.
While it is plausible to read A Son of the Forest and "The Experience of the Missionary" in The Experiences of Five Christian Indians of
the Pequod Tribe as conventional Protestant narratives of conversion, to do so is to miss the subtlety of Apess's autobiographical
narrative. Here is an Indian whose conversion to Christianity was not a form of acquiescence or an acknowledgment of the superiority
of European American culture or a sign of assimilation; the closer he moves to conversion the more he affirms his identity as an Indian
and as a Pequot -- precisely the reverse of the effect that European Americans expected when they used Christianity as a major tool in
the colonizing enterprise. Each moment the autobiographical protagonist moves toward Christianity seems to remind him either of his
irrevocable "Indianness" in white peoples' eyes or of their commitment to seeing native people as murderous and savage.
Perhaps only a shock akin to being beaten by his grandmother could have given Apess sufficient motive to reject white culture and
assume an identity as a Pequot. Apess lived with the Furmans for six years, the only time he received any formal schooling. He
mentions being "flogged" twice by Mr. Furman and called "an Indian dog," but these experiences did not provide the decisive shock; it
occurred when, as a boyish fantasy, he made plans to run away that were discovered by Mr. Furman.
Though the boy assured him that he did not actually wish to leave the family, Furman sold his indenture to the elderly Judge James
Hillhouse, one of the most prominent and powerful members of the Connecticut elite. Apess says little in his narratives about this
incident, but he says enough to make clear his shock at being expelled from a family he had come to regard as his own.
He emphasizes that he was "sold " like a piece of property, an object; in the eyes of the Furmans he was, perhaps, a person, but he
was one who would always be of less value than a white:
"I was alone in the world, fatherless, motherless, and helpless ... and none to speak for the poor little Indian boy. Had my
skin been white, with the same abilities and the same parentage, there could not have been found a place good enough
for me. But such is the case with depraved nature, that their judgment for fancy only sets upon the eye, skin, nose, lips,
cheeks, chin, or teeth and, sometimes, the forehead and hair; without any further examination, the mind is made up and
the price set."
Apess's stay with Hillhouse was brief; he was soon "sold" to William Williams, another well-placed and prosperous Connecticut
gentleman. Although he spent four years under Williams's supervision, the autobiographies never suggest that Apess felt any
emotional attachment to his master. Christianity takes the central place in the narratives and functions literally to subordinate those
who, in secular terms, could claim to be his masters and racial superiors.
The Methodists, then a "lowly" sect whose class meetings and open-air revivals no respectable person would attend, began holding
meetings in the area. Apess began to attend the meetings:
"The stories circulated about them were bad enough to deter people of 'character'.... But it had no effect on me. I thought I
had no character to lose in the estimation of those who were accounted great."
At the meetings he found poor white, African American, Native American, and mixed-race men and women, united by their awareness of
themselves as among the despised of their society. In contrast to the stiff, formal, rote preaching and prayers and insistent
reinforcement of the social and economic hierarchy in his masters' church, he discovered a community in which he was recognized as
countenance was heavenly, their songs were like sweetest music -- in their manners they were plain. Their language was
not fashioned after the wisdom of men.... The exercises were accompanied by the power of God."
Hillhouse and Williams were antievangelical Congregationalists, and their church membership reinforced their power and status.
Apess's representation of these men is unabashedly sardonic:
"For what cared they for me? They had possession of the red man's inheritance and had deprived me of liberty."
In Apess's portrayal their hypocrisy, their wealth and social standing, and their hostility to evangelical religion stand for white power
itself. In the fervent egalitarianism of early Methodism, its informality of ritual, and its commitment to spontaneous preaching and prayer,
Apess experienced a powerful affirmation of his human worth:
"I felt convinced that Christ died for all mankind -- that age, sect, color, country, or situation made no difference. I felt an
assurance that I was included in the plan of redemption with all my brethren."
Becoming an evangelical Christian became the means for him to affirm his identity as an Indian.
Williams eventually prohibited Apess from attending Methodist meetings. After being flogged several times, Apess ran away to New
York with another boy in the early spring of 1813. Discovering that Williams had advertised a reward for his recovery, Apess enlisted in
a New York militia unit bound for the Canadian campaign in the War of 1812. The two years in the military interrupted his journey to
conversion: he took up the habits of the men around him, including swearing and drinking, and he would struggle with alcoholism for
the rest of his life.
Apess mustered out of the militia in the spring of 1815 and spent the next year working at a variety of jobs in northern New York and
Canada, including farm laborer, bartender, and galley cook on a Great Lakes boat. During that time he became acquainted with
several communities of Native Americans, probably members of the Mississauga Ojibwa nation, in eastern Ontario. These encounters
seem to have strengthened his self-identification as an Indian.
After the year of moving from job to job, a period punctuated by bouts of heavy drinking, Apess decided to return to Connecticut.
Traveling on foot because he had no money, he was finally reunited with his family in April 1817:
"At last I arrived in safety at the home of my childhood. At first my people looked upon me as one risen from the dead....
They were rejoiced to see me once more in the land of the living, and I was equally rejoiced to find all my folks alive."
He began attending Methodist meetings again, although his family rejected his urgings to join him. He supported himself again with a
variety of jobs, including agricultural labor, keeping a tavern, and selling books. He lived for a time with his aunt, Sally George, a
revered elder among the Pequots and one of those who seems to have held the nation together in the midst of poverty and white
hostility. She and Apess held outdoor meetings that were attended by Native Americans from the surrounding area. George preached
and Apess led prayers in a manner that seems to have combined customary Pequot spiritual practices with compatible ones from
Apess was baptized in December 1818, and by the next spring he began to feel called to preach the Gospel. It was in the hill country of
western Massachusetts, where he had gone to visit his reunited parents, that Apess began his preaching -- provoking hostility from
whites who opposed the idea of an Indian preaching Christianity. He obtained from the Methodist Conference a license to exhort, the
first stage in gaining ordination as a regular preacher. In late 1820 or early 1821 he met Mary Wood of Salem, Connecticut, at a camp
meeting; they were married in Salem on 16 December 1821.
Apess's autobiographies do not mention the names or number of his children, but it is known that he and his wife had a son named
William Elisha and two daughters; there may have been other children. During the eight years between his marriage and his ordination
as a preacher in the Protestant Methodist Church in New York in 1829, he continued to work at a variety of laboring jobs. He and his
family lived for a while in Providence, Rhode Island, where Apess was a class leader in a local Methodist society and was again licensed
to exhort. Probably between 1827 and 1829 he traveled as an itinerant Methodist exhorter around Long Island; up the Hudson River
valley as far as Albany and Troy; to Boston, New Bedford, and Martha's Vineyard; and north of Boston. His auditors appear to have
been mostly African Americans and Native Americans.
Somehow in those years Apess, who had had only six winter terms of schooling when he lived with the Furmans, acquired impressive
skills as a reader and writer. In one of his indictments of Hillhouse, Apess remembers the judge asking him to read:
"I could make out to spell a few words, and the judge said, 'You are a good reader.'" Alive to the condescension of that
long-ago moment, Apess adds, "I hope he was a better judge at law."
them would have been difficult. He did work as a book peddler, and one might assume that he read the works in his stock. And he
would not be the first writer in English or American literature who came to impressive performance primarily from immersion in the Bible.
His authorship of the books published in his name is virtually certain, although W. G. Snelling contributed some pages and perhaps
editorial assistance to Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts. If he had an amanuensis or an editor, it could
only been one of the few white men and women who were then involved in reform and who had a special interest in Native Americans,
such as Snelling and Lydia Maria Child -- neither of whom ever wrote anything like Apess's works in style or sentiment.
Only among other writers of color can one find similar critiques of white forms of domination and such clarity about racism and the
hypocrisy of using Christianity as a means of humiliating and colonizing nonwhite peoples. Apess and the African American writer David
Walker have much in common, but Walker's Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World (1829), though it resembles Apess's The
Experiences of Five Christian Indians of the Pequod Tribe in ideas and militancy, is distinctly different in style.
One must assume, however, that Apess had patrons: the printing of his first book was probably subsidized, and the rest may have
been. Also, his writing shows enough care to suggest that he was able in the midst of his other labors enough to devote a good deal of
time to it. His knowledge of American literature and of a large body of writing on Native Americans may show that he had access to the
library of a person of some wealth and learning, such as Samuel Gardner Drake of Boston.
Drake collected extensive documents on New England Indians and published several historical accounts; his Biography and History of
the Indians of North America (1832) went through many editions under several titles, and, because of it, he was considered by his
contemporaries the premier authority on eastern Indians. He knew Apess, and he mentions the Eulogy on King Philip in one of the later
editions of the Biography and History of the Indians of North America; but his tone is not especially sympathetic or warm.
New York City, rather than Boston, may be where Apess studied, wrote, and most consistently found support: his autobiography was
registered for copyright there; he preached in and around the city with some frequency; and he returned there toward the end of his
life. Future scholarship may turn up further information on these matters.
Apess visited Mashpee in May 1833. He reports that some people had told him that the Mashpees were well cared for by a decent
minister and were vigilant against whites who wished to take their land, but that "Others asserted that they were much abused," and he
apparently decided to see for himself.
The inhabitants of Mashpee had long struggled against paternalistic institutions imposed on them by whites: the white overseers had
unchecked power over land rentals and leases, woodlot rights, the conditions of labor, and who could enter and who could stay in the
township. Although the townspeople had built their own church, Harvard College had control over who ministered to them. Periodically
the Mashpees had gained greater control over their own affairs, only to lose it again. The community prospered when the Mashpees
governed themselves and went into decline when forced to submit to white oversight.
Apess found Phineas Fish, the minister, to be an orthodox Old Light Calvinist whose congregation was almost entirely made up of
whites from nearby towns; the whites were assigned the privileged pews, while the few Native Americans were seated behind them. Fish
expressed no interest in learning Wampanoag, the first language of many of the Mashpees, and he was open about his conviction of
the Mashpees' racial inferiority.
A dull and patronizing preacher, Fish enraged the Mashpees by refusing access to the Old Indian Meeting House, which they had built,
to the many Mashpees who worshiped with the Mashpee Baptist preacher Blind Joe Amos. The Indians had other grievances as well:
whites from the nearby towns were obtaining rights to the best woodlots and pastures for minimal fees; men were leaving the community
rather than submit to the overseers' dictates; and the people's standard of living was steadily worsening.
From the rapidity with which the community gathered around him one can get an idea of how charismatic Apess must have been, as
well as for how aggrieved the Mashpees were. He was adopted into the community and promised a home along with fishing, farming,
and wood rights. He organized a small Methodist meeting and also joined Amos in starting a temperance organization.
By mid June, only six weeks after his arrival, the community agreed to two petitions that were almost certainly written by Apess. "The
Indian Declaration of Independence," addressed to the governor of Massachusetts and his council, proclaimed that after 1 July 1833
"we, as a tribe, will rule ourselves, and have the right to do so; for all men are born free and equal, says the Constitution of the country."
The document specified that no white man would be permitted to take wood or cut hay in Mashpee after 1 July without the Indians'
explicit permission. The second petition, to the Corporation of Harvard College, requested Fish's dismissal, pointing out that the
Mashpees had never been consulted about his appointment; it also announced that they had chosen Apess for their minister and that
they intended to take control of their meetinghouse.
So unexpected was this assertion of Native American determination that many whites in Massachusetts and much of the rest of New
England initially responded with hysteria, as though a new Indian war was about to break out; Levi Lincoln, the governor of
Massachusetts, threatened to call out troops to put down what he believed was an insurrection. More-sensible temperaments, however,
finally ruled the day. Apess was singled out as the outside agitator responsible for misleading an otherwise well-contented group of
Native Americans, and the white strategy focused on removing his influence.
On 1 July a group of whites entered Mashpee and loaded their carts with wood. Apess and several Mashpees confronted them,
ordered them to leave without the wood, and, when they refused, unloaded the carts. The men had probably been sent to test the
Indians' seriousness and possibly to justify the arrest of Apess, which followed on 4 July in the middle of a community meeting. He was
charged with "riot, assault, and trespass," for which he served thirty days in jail, paid a $100 fine -- an enormous sum in 1833 -- and
had to post bond for another $100 to guarantee that he would "keep the peace for six months."
Apess was not to be silenced so easily, nor were the Mashpees to prove simple creatures of what whites imagined as a demagogue in
their midst. They made an appeal, probably written by Apess, through newspapers to the whole state and then directly petitioned the
legislature to abolish the overseership, to incorporate the town, and to repeal all laws affecting the Mashpees, "with the exception of the
law preventing their selling their lands." Apess and two Mashpees addressed the Massachusetts House in speeches that were,
according to a contemporary newspaper account, "fearless, comprehensive and eloquent."
In March 1834 the legislature granted the substance of the petition. Fish remained, as intransigent as his Harvard College patrons (he
would be removed by force in 1840, after Apess's death). These events and documents and Apess's reflections form the matter of
Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts.
The Mashpees had won an impressive victory, thanks in good measure to Apess's polemical and tactical skills. His ability to appropriate
the rhetoric of the age, formulating the Mashpees' demands as democratic ones in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and
the Constitution, indicate how thoroughly he had mastered contemporary politics. Nevertheless, after the crisis passed, Apess
continued to be attacked in the press as an outsider.
His last major public act was to deliver twice, in January 1836 in the largest hall in Boston, the Eulogy on King Philip , his principal
exposition of his political thought. The eulogy proposes a fundamental revision of the conventional patriotic narrative of the creation of
the United States. Apess maintains that there were two "fathers" of the country:
His insistence on dual and symbolically antagonistic founders shows Apess's rejection of any notion of the inevitable demise of the
Indian. American history, in his argument, is inescapably shaped by the conflict between Europeans and Native Americans. Instead of a
sanitized, harmonious, and homogeneous myth of origin and progress, he spoke for a concept of nationhood founded on struggle,
contradiction, and the presence of many nations with different and often irreconcilable interests.
Apess lost his house in Mashpee and all his possessions in a series of debt actions in 1836 and 1837. His next mention in print is his
obituary in the New York Sun in May 1839. According to the obituary he died in New York City, where he had resided for some time
after having "lost the confidence of the best portions of the community" because of frequent public bouts of drunkenness. The obituary
suggests that he died from the effects of alcoholism, but the inquest report indicates that he died of complications from the medical
treatment for a routine stomach ailment.
One might be tempted to pity Apess and other Indians for being victims of white oppression and of their own vulnerabilities, especially
to alcohol. Apess's voice, represented powerfully in his writings, might warn off such a response. He was unsparing, tough-minded, and
lucid about the many deceits and forms of domination practiced by whites, but he was equally clear and harsh about his own failings
and those of his people.
Apess did not want to make escape from responsibility easy for whites or Indians. His indictments of European American culture are,
perhaps, as valid today as when he wrote them. His own story will always, one hopes, make people wonder how anyone so injured
could survive and achieve so much. But it may be that Apess's most valuable contribution is to offer his fellow Americans a strain of
political thought that contests the image of the New World as a paradisiacal and innocent new beginning.
Instead, he asked his readers to accept the picture of a nation formed in conflict among separate but also inextricably related peoples.
In such a history Native Americans have pride of place not only as the original inhabitants of the land but also as living people, shapers
of the emerging nation and shaped by it, not as an "aboriginal" people but one as complexly modern and diverse as any other.
Roemer, K. M. Native American writers of the United States. 1997.
Stromberg, E. American Indian rhetorics of survivance : word medicine, word magic. 2006.
Warrior, R. A. The people and the word : reading native nonfiction. 2005.
Writings of Apess
Apess, W. A Son of the Forest: The Experience of William Apes, a Native of the Forest. Comprising a Notice of the Pequod Tribe of
Apess, W. The Increase of the Kingdom of Christ: A Sermon. 1831.
Apess, W. The Experiences of Five Christian Indians of the Pequod Tribe. 1833.
Apess, W. Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts, Relative to the Marshpee Tribe; or, The Pretended Riot
Apess, W. Eulogy on King Philip, as Pronounced at the Odeon, in Federal Street, Boston. 1836.
Apess, W. Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts, Relative to the Marshpee Tribe. 1979.
Apess, W. Eulogy on King Philip, as Pronounced at the Odeon, in Federal Street, Boston. 1985.
Apess, W. On Our Own Ground: The Complete Writings of William Apess, a Pequot. 1992.
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