William Apess Essay - Critical Essays

Apess, William


William Apess 1798–1839

(Surname also rendered as Apes) Native American autobiographer, biographer, essayist, and historian.

An outspoken advocate of civil rights for Native Americans, Apess was the first Indian to publish an autobiography. This work, A Son of the Forest (1829), chronicles his childhood of poverty, abuse, and indentured servitude; his service as an infantryman in the War of 1812; his subsequent itinerant life of menial jobs and alcoholism; and his eventual religious conversion and work as an ordained Methodist minister. Apess's works, particularly his Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts, Relative to the Marshpee Tribe (1835), are also known for their depiction of the Mashpee (or Marshpee) Indians of Massachusetts. The Mashpees, who were Christians, lived in their own town. They sought to maintain their independence from governmental oversight, and wanted to replace their inattentive white minister with Apess. In 1833 Apess organized the tribe, issued a series of declarations, and succeeded in satisfying the Mashpees' demands. Known as the Mashpee Revolt, this incident is remembered as one of few such victories in Native American history, and Indian Nullification is considered one of the most brilliant examples of political writing in Native American literature.

Biographical Information

Apess was born January 31, 1798, near Colrain, Massachusetts. His father, of Pequot and white ancestry, was a shoemaker, and his mother, variously described as white, Negro, and Pequot, was either an indentured servant or a slave who was not formally freed until 1805. Apess's parents separated and reconciled a number of times before finally turning Apess over to his alcoholic maternal grandparents. After a near fatal beating from his grandmother, Apess was contracted out as an indentured servant to a series of white families. He began attending Methodist meetings, thereby antagonizing his Congregationalist and Baptist employers who disapproved of racial intermingling and the lower-class followers of Methodism. Apess found in the Methodist sermons, which emphasized the oppression of the righteous by non-Christians, a structure for understanding his experience. He was eventually forbidden to attend meetings, however,

and ran away. Learning that a reward had been offered for his recovery, Apess enlisted in the New York militia and fought in the War of 1812. After leaving the service, he worked a variety of jobs in New York and Canada, battling alcoholism all the while. He eventually settled in Connecticut, where he became a Methodist minister and published A Son of the Forest and The Experiences of Five Christian Indians of the Pequod Tribe (1833). In his role as preacher, Apess went to Mashpee, the only surviving Native American town in Massachusetts, and became immediately involved in its longstanding struggle against the overseers assigned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the neglectful and corrupt pastor appointed by Harvard College. At Apess's urging, and probably with his authorship, the community sent "The Indian Declaration of Independence" to the governor, who threatened to call out troops."An Indian's Appeal to the White Men of Massachusetts, " in all likelihood composed by Apess, was published in several newspapers, and in 1834 the state legislature granted the citizens of Mashpee the same rights of self-governance enjoyed by other citizens of the state. During the next eighteen months, however, Apess seems to have lost his position of leadership, and three debt actions were brought against him in the Barnstable court between 1836 and 1837. According to an obituary published in the New York Sun in May 1839, Apess died in New York City after having "lost the confidence of the best portions of the community."

Major Works

The central thematic concern in Apess's work is the failure of white men to see the irony and hypocrisy in denying Native Americans the "self-evident" rights guaranteed to "all men" by the Declaration of Independence and in condemning them as heathens while treating them in the most un-Christian manner imaginable. A Son of the Forest is modeled after Protestant conversion narratives, the earliest literary form, along with the sermon, published in New England. While apparently a pious and conventional account of Apess's life, A Son of the Forest is a subtly political work. Apess depicted himself as a Christian persecuted without mercy by white heathens, thus inverting a conventional perception pivotal to the rationale for colonial conquest. Although he was beaten almost to death by his grandmother, he placed this beating in the context of her economic desperation andracial self-hatred and made clear that she was under the influence of alcohol provided by white men. He also suggested in a lengthy appendix that Native Americans constitute one of the Lost Tribes of Israel, a theory also promulgated by Joseph Smith, leader of the Mormon Church. Apess's next work, The Experiences of Five Christian Indians of the Pequod Tribe, presents the stories of five Native Americans, including Apess's own, and their experiences of redemption through Christian faith. This work also includes a polemic against white racism in which Apess blames racism and racist government policies for reducing the Indians of New England to "the most mean and abject, miserable race of beings in the world." Apess's last published work, Eulogy on King Philip (1836), has been described as his "most powerful and sustained polemic." Originally delivered as a series of lectures, the Eulogy praises King Philip—a Wampanoag Indian who in the seventeenth century led a confederacy of tribes in battle against English colonists and who was subsequently portrayed as a savage character by whites—as a great man and one of the founding fathers of the country. In so doing, Apess chronicled the abuses suffered by the Indian and, in David Murray's words, effectively invoked "God to criticize those acting in His name."

Critical Reception

At the time of his writing, Apess was generally reviled as an agitator by white critics who wanted to believe he was solely responsible for the Mashpee Revolt. After he disappeared from the public record, he was neglected by literary critics and historians because his style and visionary political insights were difficult to place within any established genre. Some critics also claimed Apess, in adopting the rhetoric of Christian conversion narratives, "lost his voice" as a Native American and wrote in a derivative style. In the last decade, however, as interest in marginalized peoples, in the subversion of established discourses, and in cultural, ethnic, and racial identity has grown, Apess's works have been rescued from obscurity. Apess is now celebrated for his ability to combine the perspectives of Native Americans and European Americans and to manipulate the accepted modes of discourse to suit his subversive ends. Scholars have also described Apess's struggle to construct an identity as a Native American living among whites as strikingly contemporary. Some critics, though, have asserted that Apess deliberately downplayed differences between native peoples and European Americans in order to persuade readers that the rights of white citizens should be extended to people of color. Today, Apess is recognized as an impassioned and sensitive writer who was ahead of his time in his condemnation of European hegemony, of racial self-hatred, and of the political uses of discourse to marginalize Native Americans and rationalize their extinction.

Principal Works

A Son of the Forest: The Experience of William Apes, a Native of the Forest. Comprising a Notice of the Pequod Tribe of Indians (autobiography) 1829; revised edition, 1831

*The Increase of the Kingdom of Christ: A Sermon (sermon) 1831

The Experiences of Five Christian Indians of the Pequod Tribe (biography and essay) 1833; republished as Experiences of Five Christian Indians of the Pequot Tribe, 1837

Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts, Relative to the Marshpee Tribe; or, the Pretended Riot Explained (essay) 1835

Eulogy on King Philip, as Pronounced at the Odeon, in Federal Street, Boston (essay) 1836

On Our Own Ground: The Complete Writings of William Apess, a Pequot (autobiography, sermons, and essays) 1992

*This work includes "The Indians: The Ten Lost Tribes."


Kim McQuaid (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "William Apes, Pequot: An Indian Reformer in the Jackson Era, " in The New England Quarterly, Vol. 50, December, 1977, pp. 605-625.

[In the following excerpt from an essay on Apess 's life and the history of the Pequot in New England, McQuaid comments on Eulogy on King Philip.]

The Mashpees' successful struggle for added measures of self-government stood as one of the very few substantial victories for Indian Rights in the 1830's. Indian groups hung on to tribal territories in New England and New York, but, in the remainder of the nation, removal followed removal. The growing debate over the abolition of slavery relegated the plight of the American Indian to a...

(The entire section is 1165 words.)

Arnold Krupat (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Monologue and Dialogue in Native American Autobiography, " in The Voice in the Margin: Native American Literature and the Canon, University of California Press, 1989, pp. 132-201.

[In the following excerpt, Krupat examines Apess 's major works, particularly A Son of the Forest, concluding that in this volume Apess attempted to "subsume all voices to the single voice of Christian salvationism."]

Born in 1798 of a mixed blood father and a Pequot mother, William Apes suffered through a particularly brutal childhood. He learned Christian doctrine along with his letters from white foster parents—with whom, for all their kindnesses, he did not dwell long....

(The entire section is 3862 words.)

A. La Vonne Brown Ruoff (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Nineteenth-Century American Indian Autobiographers, " in Redefining American Literary History, edited by A. La Vonne Brown Rouff and Jerry Ward, Jr., The Modern Language Association of America, 1990, pp. 251-69.

[Ruoff is an American educator and critic who specializes in Native American literature. In the following excerpt, she discusses the narrative style and techniques Apess employed in his autobiography, A Son of the Forest.]

The first published, full-life history written by an Indian is William Apes's Son of the Forest: The Experience of William Apes, a Native of the Forest (1829). Published in the midst of the controversy over [the Indian Removal...

(The entire section is 1598 words.)

David Murray (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Christian Indians: Samson Occom and William Apess, " in Forked Tongues: Speech, Writing, and Representation in North American Indian Texts, Pinter Publishers, 1991, pp. 49-64.

[Murray is a British educator and critic who specializes in American Studies. Below, he analyzes the rhetorical strategies Apess employed in his major works.]

[Apes's autobiography A Son of the Forest] conforms to the overall pattern of the conversion narrative in which, after many lapses and tribulations, he is rescued from rum and degradation by Christianity, but in telling his story he has another agenda as well, a criticism of white attitudes, carried out in a whole series of...

(The entire section is 3616 words.)

Philip F. Gura (review date 1992)

SOURCE: A review of "On Our Own Ground: The Complete Writings of William Apess, A Pequot," in The New England Quarterly, Vol. LXV, No. 4, 1992, pp. 652-54.

[Gura is an American educator and critic. In the following review, he lauds Apess as "a writer of great importance and power. "]

As those who follow tempests in the academic teapot can testify, for a decade now, particularly after the publication of the much-discussed Heath Anthology of American Literature, the canon of nineteenth-century American literature has been radically altered. In college classrooms all over America Harriet Beecher Stowe and Catharine Maria Sedgwick jostle Hawthorne and Melville, and...

(The entire section is 865 words.)

Carl L. Bankston III (review date 1993)

SOURCE: A review of "On Our Own Ground: The Complete Writings of William Apess, A Pequot," in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 13, No. 3, May-June, 1993, p. 3.

[In the following review, Bankston discusses major themes in Apess's writing and assesses his effectiveness as a critic of American policy toward native peoples.]

In For Those Who Come After, a study of Native American autobiography, Arnold Krupat remarks that the Indian autobiography is not a traditional form of narration. It is an art whose performance entails crossing boundaries of mentality as well as those of craft. Indigenous autobiographers use a language that is not simply foreign but is inimical to...

(The entire section is 1358 words.)

Carolyn Haynes (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "'A Mark for Them All to … Hiss At': The Formation of Methodist and Pequot Identity in the Conversion Narrative of William Apess," in Early American Literature, Vol. 31, No. 1, 1996, pp. 25-44.

[In this essay, Haynes examines concepts of identity in Apess's autobiography and Christian conversion narrative, A Son of the Forest.]

Despite the fact that his literary output was among the most prolific of any Native American in the early nineteenth century and that he led the only successful Indian revolt in New England prior to 1850, the writings of William Apess, a Pequot Indian, have received relatively little critical attention. One possible reason for the...

(The entire section is 8653 words.)

Barry O'Connell (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: "'Once More Let Us Consider': William Apess in the Writing of New England Native American History," in After King Philip's War: Presence and Persistence in Indian New England, edited by Colin G. Calloway, University Press of New England, 1997, pp. 162-77.

[In the essay below, O'Connell examines Apess's role in the documentation of Native American history in New England, concluding that Apess was a part of "a dissenting intellectual culture about which historians yet know little."]

In what was once the conventional version of New England and much of American history, William Apess was a nobody. Born into poverty in 1798 in a tent in the woods in Colrain,...

(The entire section is 8043 words.)

Further Reading


Gustafson, Sandra. "Nations of Israelites: Prophecy and Cultural Autonomy in the Writings of William Apess." Religion and Literature 26, No. 1 (Spring 1994): 31-53.

Compares Apess with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Mormon leader Joseph Smith, tracing the evolution of Apess's idea that Native Americans are one of the "ten lost tribes of Israel."

Konkle, Maureen. "Indian Literacy, U. S. Colonialism, and Literary Criticism." American Literature 69, No. 3 (September 1997): 457-86.

Analysis of Eulogy on King Philip in which Konkle compares the work to other texts of...

(The entire section is 204 words.)