Published on August 30, 2013 by Amy
William Apess (1798–1839), also known as William Apes before 1836-1837, was an ordained Methodist minister, writer, and activist of the Pequot Nation who was a leader in Massachusetts. After becoming ordained as a Methodist minister in 1829, he published his autobiography the same year. It is one of the first autobiographies by a Native American writer.
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The scholar Patricia Bizzell described him as “perhaps the most successful activist on behalf of Native American rights in the antebellum United States.”
An itinerant preacher in New England, Apess visited the Mashpee on Cape Cod in 1833. Hearing their grievances, he helped organize what was called the Mashpee Revolt of 1833-34. Their attempt to regain civil rights was covered sympathetically by the Boston Advocate. Apess published a book about the experience in 1835, which he summarized as “Indian Nullification”. Apess alienated many of his supporters before dying in New York City, New York at age 41.
William Apess was born in 1798 in Colrain in northwestern Massachusetts to William and Candace Apess of the Pequot tribe.
According to his autobiography, Apess’ paternal grandfather was white and married a Pequot woman. He claimed descent from King Philip through his mother, who was also of European-American and African ancestry. Until the age of five, Apess lived with his family, including two brother and two sisters, near Colrain.
After his parents separated, the children were cared for by their maternal grandparents, who were abusive and suffered from alcoholism. After continued abuse, a neighbor intervened with the town selectmen on behalf of the children. They were taken for their safety and indentured to European-American families. The then five-year-old Apess was cared for by his neighbor, Mr. Furman, for a year until recovered from injuries sustained while living with his grandparents. Apess was sent to school during the winter for six years to gain an education, while also assisting Furman at work. As a child he was taken to Methodist gatherings and became faithful to the religion.
Apess ran away at age fifteen and joined a militia in New York, fighting in the War of 1812. By the age of 16, he became an alcoholic and struggled with alcoholism for the rest of his life. From the years 1816 to 1818, he worked at various jobs in Canada.
Troubled by his alcoholism, Apess decided to return home to the Pequot and his family. Within a short period of time, he reclaimed his Pequot identity. He attended meetings of local Methodist groups and was baptized in December 1818.
In 1821, Apess married Mary Wood, also of mixed ancestry, and the couple had one son and three daughters together. After Mary died, Apess later remarried. He and his second wife settled in New York City in the late 1830s.
After his marriage to Mary, Apess felt a calling to a vocation to preach. In 1829 he was ordained as a Protestant Methodist minister. In the same year he published his autobiography, A Son of the Forest: The Experience of William Apess, A Native of the Forest, Comprising a Notice of the Pequot Tribe of Indians, Written by Himself. Apess’ work was one of the first autobiographies published by a Native American and was published partly in reaction to advocates of Indian Removal, including Andrew Jackson. He used the common format of the time of the spiritual conversion to comment also on European-American prejudices against Native Americans.
As was the Methodist practice of the day, Apess became an itinerant preacher; he preached in meetings throughout New England to mixed congregations including Native American, European-American, and African-American audiences. While preaching in the Wampanoag dialect of the Algonquian language family, he used English language and cultural precepts to raise issues of Indian rights to European-American audiences and “to serve Indian political ends.” In 1833, following a visit to the town of Mashpee, the largest Native American town in Massachusetts, Apess became convinced the State was acting illegally in denying self-government to the Mashpee Wampanoag.
He participated in the so-called Mashpee Revolt of 1833-34, in which the Mashpee took action to restore their self-government: they wrote to the state government announcing their intention to rule themselves, according to their constitutional rights, and to prevent whites from taking away their wood (a recurring problem). In May 1833 the Mashpee tribe wrote to Harvard College, which administered the Williams Fund: this paid for a minister to them, although they had never been consulted in his appointment. They objected to Rev. Mr. Fish, who had long been appointed to them, they did not like his preaching, and said that he had enriched himself by appropriating hundreds of acres of woodland at the tribe’s expense. Lastly, they prevented a settler, William Sampson, from taking wood away from their property and unloaded his wagon. Three Indians were indicted for riot and Apess was jailed for a month as a result. An attorney assisted them in successfully appealing to the legislature, but initially their actions were responded to by Governor Levi Lincoln, Jr., threatened the group of military force.
The issues were reported sympathetically by the Boston Advocate through June and July. The Mashpee protest followed the Nullification Crisis of 1832 on the national level, and the historian Barry O’Connell suggests that Apess intended to highlight the Mashpee attempt to nullify Massachusetts laws discriminating against Native peoples.
During the period 1831-1836, Apess published several of his sermons and public lectures, and became known as a powerful speaker. But, struggling with alcoholism and increasing resentment of white treatment of Natives, he gradually lost the respect in which he had been held; both white and Mashpee groups distanced themselves from him. In 1836, he gave a public lecture in the form of a memorial eulogy for King Philip, who had inflicted many fatalities while seeking to push the European colonists out of New England in the seventeenth century; he also attacked white treatment of Native Americans. After publishing his lecture, Apess disappeared from New England public life. He moved to New York City, where he sought work.
At the age of 41, William Apess died of a cerebral hemorrhage (stroke) on April 10, 1839 at 31 Washington Street in New York City. He lived there with his second wife.