William Apees

Published on January 25, 2011 by Carol

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William Apes or William Apess (Pequot) (1798-1839): A Brief Biography

William Apess began his life on the 31st of January 1798 in the small town of Colrain, Massachusetts. His father, William Apes, was a shoemaker and a laborer while his mother, Candace, was thought to have been a slave or an indentured servant. His parents were both part Pequot Indian while his father was also part Anglo-American and there are indications that his mother was possibly part African-American. In his autobiographical writings he refers to having two brothers, two sisters and two additional brothers after he no longer resided with his parents.

At the age of three, William’s parents split up and left him and his four siblings to be taken care of by their grandparents. They were extremely abusive towards the children and the level of violence was surpassed only by their excessive drinking. William, along with his brothers and sisters were bound out to white families after being petitioned for by the family next door. This came only after William was severely beaten with a club by his grandmother. He now resided with the next-door neighbors and was introduced to Christianity by Mrs. Furman. He was to live with the Furmans for the next six years; during this time William was able to attain his only formal schooling. At the end of the six years, Mrs. Furman passed away and William was sold after Mr. Furman discovered his plans to run away.

He met the same fate with his next family, the Hillmans, and at the age of eleven, was promptly sold again. The Williamses, a wealthy New London Congregational family, were the next to attain William in defiance of his new family, began attending Methodist meetings where he found his new surrogate family. He then took flight with another indentured servant after being flogged several times for attending these meetings

At the age of fifteen, William enlisted in the army, and became a drummer in the spring of 1812. He was released from the military in 1815 and for the next few years took on many odd jobs. In 1817, he moved back to Connecticut where he was reunited with his family. An aunt, Sally George, was a influential religious icon for William and this awakening led to his Baptism in 1818. Two years later he married Mary Wood on 16th of December 1821. From this marriage resulted one son and three daughters, but is thought that there could have been more.

In 1829 William acquired his ordination as a Protestant Minister and traveled around the northeast preaching to a mostly African and Native American audience. The following years consisted of trying to put an end to slavery and fighting for the land rights of Native Americans through his position in the church. Throughout his life he fought the same addiction to alcohol that plagued his grandparents and was said to have attributed to his death in 1839. The battles he waged may have induced a premature death but his writings remind us of what he lived for.

William Apess’s first work “Son of The Forest” (1829) is the Native American equivalent to Equianos’ “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano”, as they are both firsts for their own cultures, due to each being a literary autobiography from non Anglo-Saxon writers. This book tells of his confrontation of the whites and their racist views, while finding how his childhood and the “quest for heavenly reward” have given him grace. His next writings came in the 1830′s, concentrating on religious, political and historical topics. In 1831, “The Increase of the Kingdom of Christ: A Sermon” with the appendix, “The Indians: The Ten Lost Tribes” was written to explain the Indians’ place in the world of Christianity. After which came, “The Experiences of Five Christian Indians of the Pequot Tribe” written in 1833 detailing the wrong doings of the white man against the Pequot people.

He then wrote a documentary on the Marshpee Tribe. The “Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts Relative to the Marshpee Tribe” which was printed in 1835 gave accounts of the governmental abuse of their jurisdiction over the Marshpee’s natural resources. His final notable work was the “Eulogy to King Philip” which was delivered at the Odeon in Boston in 1836 and was printed by 1837. The “Eulogy” was written to point out the puritan’s condoning of, and support for, the extermination of the Native Americans. This piece also pointed out that Methodism was shying away from its initial policy of anti-slavery and siding with members of the church who wanted the Native American’s land for monetary reasons.

Within all of Apess’s works you can find one driving motivation: his pursuit for equality. Throughout his childhood he was raised by those with a value system he was to adopt and make his own. But as he began to know the white man’s god, his writing began to mimic the prose of his oppressors. This was seen by William Snelling who said, “If he writes, it is in the character of a white man.” But in contrast, there were others not as appreciative; Rev. James Walker was quoted as saying, “Apes? What has he done? What is he doing now & with what success?” showing his indifference for Apess’s writings.

This adaptation shows that while writing in a form conducive to another culture, he was still able to keep his own cultural identity intact. He shows that by acquiring the ways of your oppressors, you can understand their value system. With this insight you can “articulate native rights in terms whites would not be able to dismiss so easily.”This may have been why he changed his name from Apes, with one s, to Apess with two ss, avoiding the inference of him being less than human or a primate. His writings influenced those who might not have seen the errors of their ways, fought for the rights of Native Americans and showed that the puritan belief of manifest destiny was not a law of god but a limitation instituted by man.


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