William Apess

William Apess (1798-1839) was the first Native American to write and publish his own autobiography, A Son in the Forest, and was the most prolific nineteenth century Indian writer in the English language. He internalized the values of the conquering Americans, but utilized a religious zeal to construct a renewed sense of Native American identity and selfhood.

As a Pequot Indian, Apess inherited the legacy of defeat and nearly total annihilation of his people during the Pequot War of 1637. Survivors of this war were sold into slavery in the West Indies or were dispersed to live a hidden existence in southeastern Connecticut. By the late eighteenth century, the Pequots lived on two reservations, where they took care of their families through day labor and domestic work, and where a vanquished sense of tribal pride made them ripe victims for alcohol abuse and depression. Yet, Native Americans were among the general population that responded during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to evangelical Christianity. Apess was one of several Native Americans who became prominent as ministers, and he is remembered for his prolific literary talent.

Apess was born on January 31, 1798, in Colrain, Massachusetts. His father, William, a half-blooded descendant of King Philip, was a shoemaker by trade. His mother, Candace, was a Pequot who may have had part African ancestry. Nineteenth-century records show that the spelling of the surname was "Apes" with one "s" until son William inexplicably added the letter for his later publications. Apess' parents went to Colrain from Colchester, Connecticut, and Apess biographer Barry O'Connell speculates one reason for this was to elude Candace Apes' slave master, who did not manumit her until 1805. Eventually, the family returned to its former home where, upon the parents' separation, young William lived with his maternal grandparents.

Life with his grandparents was marked by abuse resulting in a severely broken arm, indenture to neighboring households, occasional friendships with local ruffians, and little formal schooling. Around 1809, at the height of the Second Great Awakening, an extremely sensitive religious disposition began to emerge. Apess sought to attend revivalist meetings and was impressionably receptive to the rhetorical conventions espoused by Calvinists. The youthful Apess found himself more inclined toward what he called the "noisy Methodists." Their fervor stimulated his growing personal convictions about the rightness of spontaneous expression in worship, the loving grace of Christ as the savior of mankind, and about Native Americans as one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.

The religious zeal of Apess contributed to his confused identity as an Indian. When berry-picking one afternoon with an adoptive white family, he encountered sun-tanned white women whom he thought were cruel Indians, and fled. His interest in Christianity did not prevent a periodic flogging by various masters, who vacillated in permitting Apess to attend Methodist meetings. In early 1813, Apess finally ran away to New York City with another indentured youth and, prodded by unscrupulous drinking soldiers, enlisted in the Army as a drummer. Initially Apess opposed their blasphemies, as he said in his autobiography, A Son of the Forest, "in little time I became almost as bad as any of them, could drink rum, play cards, and act as wickedly as any. I was at times tormented with the thoughts of death, but God had mercy on me and spared my life."

Apess' militia unit marched to Plattsburgh, New York, to prepare a siege of Montreal. Although he was officially a drummer as well as being under the legal age for Army service, Apess saw action in a few battles. After mustering out of his militia, he traveled and worked in southern Canada, socializing with several Native American families there. Eventually he worked his way southward, through Albany en route to Connecticut.

By the age of 19, Apess faced anew the ravages of sinful behavior and resumed earnestly attending religious meetings. One outstanding experience confirmed his religious faith more than previous conversion experiences. Leaving the southeastern Connecticut home of maternal relatives to visit his father, who had resettled in Colrain, Apess became lost one night in a swamp. This experience became profoundly significant for his convictions. He felt himself called to preach the Gospel and increasingly, even before his baptism in 1818, received opportunities to exhort congregations of Native Americans, whites, and blacks to repent and seek salvation. Although at this time he was legally forbidden to preach without a license, he proselytized throughout Connecticut and in the Albany area. In December 1821, Apess married Mary Wood, of Salem, Connecticut, a self-effacing woman ten years his senior. Religious exhorting and the need to support his wife and growing family forced him into lengthy separations from them. Only on a few occasions, such as one preaching tour in the Albany area, was his family able to be near him. Apess preached to worshippers on Long Island, in New York City, in the Albany-Troy region, in Utica, and in southern and coastal New England. In 1829, after the Methodist Episcopal church refused to ordain him, he was befriended by the Protestant Methodists who performed his ordination.


Writing, Preaching, and Activism

In 1829, the first edition of Apess' autobiography, A Son of the Forest, was published. This record of his life up to that time can best be described as a conversion narrative. Apess drew attention to how his childhood hardships and later behavioral excesses shaped his personality for baptism and his quest for heavenly reward. Conversion narratives, or testimonies, are a kind of spiritual memoir demonstrating to the reader how the author arrives at a state of grace. A Son of the Forest had no precedence as a published full-length persona narrative written by an Indian. Its very title creates a literary appeal for audiences who looked upon literacy among peoples of color in the United States as an exotic phenomenon and as proof that Native Americans and African Americans were capable of becoming civilized according to the white man's way.

The literary style of Apess is similar to that of his religious and political contemporaries. Its maturity and clarity are remarkable for someone who could only attend school during the winter months for only six years. That he slightly revised the 1831 edition of A Son of the Forest and the second editions of his other writings attests to his concern for detail and a desire to represent himself as literarily and humanly respectable. Apess came to preaching and writing in an era when white politicians, educators, and religious leaders intensely debated the fate of the Indian and the slave. He lived amidst schemes for Indian removal from the South and the repatriation of slaves to Africa. Apess was acutely aware that his congregations included as many repentant sinners as curious onlookers who simply wanted to witness an Indian preacher.

A Son of the Forest includes a lengthy Appendix in which Apess rearranged and paraphrased much of the text of a book entitled A Star in the West, published in 1816 by Elias Boudinot (not the Cherokee writer-editor of the same name). The argument advanced concerns about the similarities between the biblical Hebrews and Native Americans according to customs and character traits, and Apess used this text because he agreed with its Ten Lost Tribes thesis.

In the 1830s, Apess wrote prolifically about religious, historical, and political issues. The Increase of the Kingdom of Christ: A Sermon was printed in 1831 with an appendix, The Indians: The Ten Lost Tribes. John the Baptist, the preacher in the wilderness and forerunner of Christ, is the model for The Increase as Apess presents a detailed and cogently organized statement on the theme of the Native American as among God's chosen people.

Another book, The Experiences of Five Christian Indians of the Pequot Tribe, was published in 1833. It revealed Apess' skills as a writer, life historian, and editor. Its five testimonies confront the legacy of degradation imposed on Pequots as a people and as tribal individuals. Apess' personal statement, opening this collection, condenses what he wrote in A Son of the Forest while forcefully challenging whites about their racism. In the second testimony, his wife Mary describes her parents and presents her own observations about the advantages of piety. In the third, Apess rendered the statement of a Hannah Caleb. The remaining two testimonies are remarkable in singular ways. "The Experience of Sally George," about a woman who was related to Apess, may have been written prior to A Son of the Forest, and it is written partly in her voice and partly from an objective point of view. In "The Experience of Ann Wampy," he describes the title character's life and includes a passage approximating her speech patterns. It is an early example of oral history, a method of historical inquiry that faithfully presents a record of the spoken word. The first edition of Experiences also includes Apess' militant essay, "An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man." Here Apess attacks the racial hypocrisy of white Christians who live in a world overwhelmingly populated by peoples of color and proceeds to remind Christians of the non-white identity of Jesus. The acuity of his remarks in this daring essay recalls David Walker's Appeal (1829) and the statements of Malcolm X in the twentieth century.

Apess responded to disparate rumors about conditions affecting the Mashpee Wampanoag Indians on Cape Cod by visiting their community in 1833. He quickly became embroiled in the "Mashpee Revolt" against the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and its energetic efforts to deny the right of this tribe any form of self-government and representation while it tacitly encouraged corruption and greed by white landowners and squatters. Apess served a 30-day jail sentence for leading a group of Indian men in removing timber from a trespassing white man's wagon. In his annotations to On Our Own Ground: The Complete Writings of William Apess, A Pequot, Barry O'Connell describes Apess as playing a catalytic role to advance Indian rights rather than being the revolt's architect. After a peaceful solution was achieved, Apess published a documentary history and exposé of the incident, Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts Relative to the Marshpee Tribe; or, The Pretended Riot Explained in 1835. It consisted of his observations in addition to the reprinting of letters, depositions, and petitions to governing officials by the Wampanoag selectmen, and letters reprinted from regional newspapers. The Indian Nullification is one of the outstanding legal-related documents by a private individual in the nineteenth century.

The final extant writing by Apess, Eulogy on King Philip, as Pronounced at the Odeon, in Federal Street, Boston, was initially printed in 1836. By this time, he began to use the additional 's' in documents for his name: the 1837 edition of Experiences (which happens to exclude the "Looking-Glass" essay), also carries this unexplained alteration. The Eulogy is a long speech attributing to the seventeenth-century Wampanoag leader the qualities befitting a martyred American patriot slain in the process of defending his country from invaders.

For many years, Apess scholars could only speculate about his fate after 1838, for which an inventory of his household goods survives as the result of a debt action in Barnstable, not far from the Mashpee community. However, in recent years a published obituary came to light describing Apess' death in late April 1839 in New York City from "apoplexy." Details of his autopsy suggest a head injury possibly related to alcohol, which he managed to avoid for two decades. Whatever the circumstances, William Apess in his last years gained little consolation that Native Americans would receive justice in their lost country.


Further Reading on William Apess

A Biobibliography of Native American Writers, 1772-1924 (Native American Bibliography Series, No. 2), compiled by Daniel F. Littlefield, Jr., and James W. Parins, Scarecrow Press, 1981.

Dictionary of American Biography, Volume 1, edited by Allen Johnson, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1928.

Redefining American Literary History, edited by A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff and Jerry W. Ward, Modern Language Association, 1990.

Wiget, Andrew, Native American Literature, Twayne, 1985.

Algonkians of New England: Past and Present (Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife Annual Proceedings 1991), edited by Peter Benes, Boston University, 1992, pp. 89-100.

Gazette & Mercury (Greenfield, Massachusetts), May 7, 1839.

New England Quarterly, 50, 1977, pp. 605-625.

Studies In American Indian Literatures, 5, winter 1993, pp. 45-54.