Article abstract: William Apess (also known as William Apes), a nineteenth century political protest writer, produced the first published autobiography by an American Indian.
Little is known of William Apess outside his own account in his autobiography, A Son of the Forest (1829), which recounts his youth and early adulthood. He spent his first four years with intemperate grandparents, who reportedly often beat him and his siblings. While growing up, he recalled, his indenture was sold several times to different families in Connecticut. He had only six years of formal education, took part in the War of 1812, had bouts with drinking, and was reformed by his introduction to Christianity. In 1829, he was ordained as a Methodist minister.
In May, 1833, he traveled to the Massachusetts community of Mashpee, where he immediately took part in a revolt against the Massachusetts Commonwealth. In the context of organizing and leading this revolt, he published an account of Indians’ grievances against whites in Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts, Relative to the Mashpee Tribe (1835). Like the earlier “An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man” (1833), this book turns on his political astuteness and sense of fairness. At the Odeon in Boston in 1836, Apess preached Eulogy on King Philip, a political and historical account of the Indian wars of the previous century; it was published the same year. Apes returned to autobiography in The Experiences of Five Christian Indians (1837), in which he accuses whites of racism. After about 1838, Apess disappeared from the public eye, and nothing is known of his later life.
Apess, William. A Son of the Forest and Other Writings. Edited and introduced by Barry O’Connell. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.
Apess, William. On Our Own Ground: The Complete Writings of William Apess. Edited by Barry O’Connell. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.
Walker, Cheryl. Indian Nation: Native American Literature and Nineteenth-century Nationalisms. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997.