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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

William Apess (Pequot)

The earliest major Indian writer of the nineteenth century, William Apess was born in 1798 near Colrain, Massachusetts. Apess’s mother may, however, have been Candace Apes, who was owned as a slave and listed as a “Negro” woman by Captain Joseph Taylor of Colchester until he freed her in 1805 at age twenty-eight. The author’s father, whose name was probably William A. Apes, was half white. His paternal grandmother was a full-blooded Pequot, who Apess claimed was descended from Metacomet (Wampanoag; c. 1639–1676, given the name King Philip by the English). After his parents separated when Apess was around three, he was reared by his maternal grandparents. Badly beaten by his alcoholic grandmother, Apess was subsequently bound out to whites at age four or five—a common practice for dealing with homeless children. Apess’s pranks and strong will resulted in his being transferred to a series of masters. During his service to his last master, Apess was converted to Methodism in March, 1813, at age fifteen. Forbidden by his master to attend any more Methodist revivals, Apess ran away. He subsequently enlisted in the army during the War of 1812 and served during the 1814 invasions of Canada and defense of Plattsburgh, New York. In 1817, Apess returned to Connecticut, where he was reunited with Pequot relatives. He began serving as a lay preacher to mixed audiences although his preaching was opposed by both his father and the local Methodist circuit rider, who forbade him to preach. In 1821, Apess married Mary Wood, a woman “nearly the same color as himself” (A Son of the Forest, 98), and supported his wife and growing family with a variety of jobs. After Apess moved to Providence, Rhode Island, he was regularly ordained in 1829 as a minister by the Methodist Society.

Apess’s A Son of the Forest (1829) is the first published autobiography written by an Indian. It appeared during the controversy over the Indian Removal Act (1830), which authorized the federal government to remove Indians from lands east of the Mississippi to Indian Territory and other areas deemed suitable. The autobiography is a testament both to the essential humanity of Indian people and to their potential for adapting to white concepts of civilization. A Son of the Forest follows the basic structure of the spiritual confession, popular at that time. Apess’s account of his experiences is especially interesting because he was primarily raised by whites. He describes how he was terrified of his own people because whites filled him with stereotypical stories about Indian cruelty but never told him how cruelly they treated Indians.

Apess published a briefer life history in The Experiences of Five Christian Indians of the Pequod Tribe (1833). Probably written before A Son of the Forest, this account is more critical of whites than the autobiography; the first edition of this book contained the essay “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man.” This essay illustrates the themes present in Apess’s work and the forceful style which made him a persuasive speaker. Apess contrasts whites’ savage treatment of non-whites with their professed Christianity—a frequent theme in nineteenth-century slave narratives and life histories of Indian converts. Here, as in A Son of the Forest and The Experiences of Five Christian Indians, Apess blames whites for the alcoholism that has decimated Indian families. His criticism of Indian agents is another theme common in Indian life histories. Apess effectively focuses the essay on the equality of people of color with whites. This concept of equality of all people under God made Christianity very appealing to Indian converts and to slaves.

Apess’s last two books grew out of his commitment to the fight for Indian rights. He describes the Mashpee struggle to retain self government in Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts, Relative to the Marshpee [sic] Tribe (1835), one of the most powerful pieces of Indian protest literature of the first half of the nineteenth century. A mixture of Indian, white, and black, the Mashpees were subjected to considerable white prejudice. Apess’s contact with them and their fight for civil and political rights turned Apess into a dedicated social reformer. Apess organized a council to draw up grievances, moved his family to Mashpee, became a spokesman for the tribe, and publicized their case in the Boston press. By 1834, his efforts gained success, as evidenced by the large audience that heard his Boston speech on the subject. The same year William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist editor, took up the cause of the Mashpee in The Liberator. Apess’s efforts helped the Mashpees regain their rights, one of the few such Indian victories in the 1830s. However, the nation’s attention was increasingly drawn away from the plight of the American Indian to the debate over the abolition of slavery. To remind whites of what New England Indians had endured, Apess wrote his final work, the eloquent Eulogy on King Philip (1836). Originally delivered as a series of lectures at the Odeon in Boston, the Eulogy on King Philip is a study of white-Indian relations in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century New England. After this work was published, Apess disappeared from public view and the details of his later life are unknown.
A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff
University of Illinois at Chicago

In the Heath Anthology
An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man (1833)

Other Works

Cultural Objects
Image/Text fileImage/Text fileWilliam Apess' Appeal to Whites
Text fileThe Indian Removal Act

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American Authors
Links to primary and secondary materials and a scan of Apess' 1831 book.

Native American Authors Project
Biography and an annotated selection of web links.

Perspectives in American Literature
Paul Reuben's site providing a list of primary and secondary materials and a frontmatter scan of Apess's A Native of the Forest.

Secondary Sources

Handbook of Native American Literature, 1996

Arnold Krupat, The Voice in the Margin: Native American Literature and the Canon, 1989

Kim McQuaid, "William Apess, Pequot, An Indian Reformer in the Jackson Era," New England Quarterly 50 (1977): 605-25

David Murray, Forked Tongues: Speech, Writing and Representation in North American Indian Texts, 1991

Barry O'Connell, Introduction, On Our Own Ground, 1992

A. Lavonne Brown Ruoff, "Three Nineteenth Century American Indian Autobiographers," Redefining American Literary History, eds., A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff and Jerry W. Ward. Jr., 1990