Published on January 14, 2012 by Carol
William Apess (1798–1839) was a Native American writer, preacher, and politician of the Pequot tribe.
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William Apess was born in 1798 to mixed-blood parents, William and Candace Apess. His mother may have also been part African-American. Until the age of five, Apess spent his life living in the woods near Colrain, Massachusetts. He was then indentured to a series of European-American families, who, while employing him as a servant, also provided him with an education. Apess eventually ran away and joined a militia in New York, fighting in the War of 1812. Aged only sixteen, Apess had already acquired the severe alcoholism that afflicted him for the rest of his life, ultimately killing him.
The years 1816 to 1818 were spent doing varied jobs in Canada, but troubled by dependency on alcohol, Apess decided to return home to his family and tribe. Within a short period he re-established his Pequot tribal identity. He also attended meetings of the local Methodist groups. He was baptised in December 1818.
In 1821, Apess married Mary Wood, and the couple had three children. During this period he became ever more convinced of a vocation to preach, and in 1829 he was ordained as a Methodist minister. In the same year he published A Son of the Forest: The Experience of William Apess, A Native of the Forest, Comprising a Notice of the Pequod Tribe of Indians, Written by Himself, his autobiography. Written at least partly in reaction to advocates of Indian Removal, including President-to-be Andrew Jackson, this autobiography was one of the earliest Native American books to be published. It uses the format of the spiritual confession to ironically comment on European-American prejudices about Natives.
As was the Methodist practice of the day, Apess and his family became itinerants, preaching in meetings all over New England to mixed congregations that would have included Native, Euro-American, and African-American worshippers. In 1833, following a visit to the town of Mashpee, the largest Native town in Massachusetts, Apess became convinced that the State was acting illegally in denying the Mashpees self-government. This led to the so-called Mashpee Revolt, which was in reality a peaceful protest by Natives led by Apess, which was met with threats of military force by the State Governor Levi Lincoln, Jr.
During the period 1831-1836, Apess published several sermons, and became known as a powerful speaker. However, dogged by alcoholism and with an increasing sense of injustice at white treatment of Natives, he gradually lost the respect in which he had been held, with even Mashpee groups distancing themselves from him. After preaching and then publishing an excoriating eulogy for King Philip in 1836, Apess fell into obscurity.
At the age of 41, William Apess died on April 10, 1839 at 31 Washington Street in New York City, where he had moved with his second wife.