William Apess – Minister, Writer, and Activist
William Apess (1798–1839), writer, minister and human rights advocate, was born in Colrain, Massachusetts, is memorialized with an historic marker at the site of the town’s Griswold Memorial Library just south of Brattleboro.
A unique character of mixed Native American, African American, and European descent, Apess wrote the first autobiography by a Native American in the U.S., the 1829 The Experience of William Apess, A Native of the Forest, Comprising a Notice of the Pequot Tribes of Indians, Written by Himself (whose title often shortened to Son of the Forest’ despite the fact that when Apess was alive much of the landscape had already been deforested). In a fresh and accessible style, Apess shared his early abuse, indentured servitude, extensive travels and battle with alcoholism and discrimination as a soldier in the War of 1812 and his path to religion and activism. He was ordained a Protestant Methodist Preacher the same year the autobiography was published.
Apess’ unique and considerable contributions have only begun to be appreciated more widely thanks to scholars such as Lisa Brooks (whose The Common Pot: The Recorvery of Native Space in the Northeast and Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Phillips War have greatly informed and influenced the Words Project’s work on Apess and all indigenous issues and sites), Barry O’Connell, Philip F. Gura and Drew Lopenzina. Lopenzina’s Through an Indian’s Looking Glass: A Cultural Biography of William Apess, Pequot provides an excellent lens through which to comprehend the complex dynamics of indigenous survival and resistance in the era of America’s early nationhood.
In a 2016 article entitled “Letter from Barnstable Jail: William Apess and the “Memorial of the Mashpee Indians”, Lopenzina provides insight into William Apess’ leadership in organizing the 1833-34 Mashpee riot in Cape Cod. He was put in jail for 30 days and, while in prison, he drafted a petition which was discussed and approved by the tribe, known as the “Memorial of the Marshpee Indians,” which he would later submit to the Boston Legislature. Apess concluded the “Memorial” with the urgent call:,“Oh, White man! white man! the blood of our fathers, spilt in the Revolutionary War, cries from the ground of our native soil, to break the chains of oppression, and let our children go free.”
In 1833, he published a well-received sermon and the Experiences of the Five Christian Indians; or, A Looking-Glass for the White Man, in which he recounted the biographies of recent Indian converts and condemned the prejudice to which they and other Native Americans remained subject.
He published an account of the Mashapee struggle in his Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts (Boston, 1835). According to Gura, its title signaled Apess’ growing awareness of national policies and how to influence them, and the book itself continued an autobiographical narrative increasingly defined more by politics than by religion.
Apess’ 1836 ‘Eulogy on King Phillip’ is often compared to Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” and is, as Gura notes, “one of the most searching indictments of the nation’s institutional racism.”
Apess died a few years later, in 1839, in New York City, at the age of 41.
The Pequot Indians lived in the region that became Connecticut. They were part of the Algonquian-speaking Indians of southern New England. In the 1600s there population was estimated to be about 2,200 people. For a period of time the Pequots and the European settlers lived in relative peace, but gradually pequot resentment grew as the settlers enroached more and more into the territory. The Puritans encouraged violence towards the Pequots for they saw them as infidels, and after a series of incidents the colonizers took up arms against them. The Pequot war was waged for eleven months.
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Griswold Memorial Library, Colrain, MA
About the Research sites
The Brattleboro Words Project is working with the community to identify specific sites and themes significant to the study of words in Brattleboro and surrounding towns. Research Teams – classrooms/teachers, amateur historians, veterans, writers, artists and other community members — will produce audio segments and other work to be incorporated into audio walking, biking and driving tours tours.
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