What Would William Apess Do? (3/09/2018)

Engraving made from 1830 John Paradise portrait of William Apess, which appears in the 1831 edition of Apess’s A Son of the Forest.
What Would William Apess Do? (3/09/2018)

I want to thank those of you who have donated to the Historical Marker commemorating William Apess’ 1798 birth in the town of Colrain, Massachusetts. I want to briefly explain how I first came upon the idea for this marker and why I think it is so important.

I first came to Colrain in the summer of 2013 to begin research on a biography of Apess I was planning to write. The project was still somewhat shapeless and wide open before me, but I thought any effort to understand his life might begin by going to the place where, according to his own memoir (the 1829 A Son of the Forest), he was born. I make this qualification, “according to his memoir,” because, at least as far as I can find in the extensive archival research I have conducted since, there is no other record of William Apess’ birth. Anishinaabe historian Jean O’Brien points out that, by the close of the eighteenth century, neither minister nor town clerk “took care to record the beginnings and ends of Indian lives.” This negligence contributed to the overall sense that Native people were somehow vanishing, fading from the landscape “like snow in springtime” as many historians of the era liked to say. Still, I thought that in the place of Apess’ birth I might find some trace of his existence.

So began a diligent search, scanning the names on cracked and moss covered tombstones, checking old property maps and deeds, combing through every book and document in the town library. I was surprised at the energy and enthusiasm with which this tiny little town of about 2,000 souls had curated its own history. There are two long shelves in the library devoted to both published and unpublished works recalling in florid prose Colrain’s progress from a backwoods settlement on the frontier of colonial expansion to the rustic, small scale, agricultural/mill hamlet it remains today.

These histories, in the timbre of the times, glorified the spirit of the hearty settler while painting indigenous identity as an ever-present “savage” threat, skulking about the shadows of Colrain’s cleared perimeter. Such representations pretty much foreclosed on the possibility of Native people living within the town itself as participating members of the community. And yet this was clearly the case. The Apess’ were neither invaders nor intruders. Like many Native families of the time, they were simply a young couple in 1798 looking for a way to eke out a living in an economic and cultural environment that did not much welcome their presence.

When I finally did come across a reference to the Apes name (as it was spelled then), it was not in any of the town histories or promotional materials. Among the final entries of a frayed old record book in the Town Clerk’s office, labeled Buckland, Colrain, Montague Vital Records, is a brief section set aside for NEGROES. Here is recorded the death of a son born to one “William Apes (an Indian),” a victim of the dysentery epidemic that swept through the town in 1803. This would have been a younger half-brother to Apess, born most likely after Apess’ parents parted ways sometime around 1802.

It was clear to me that William Apess was Colrain’s most famous and historically significant native son. And yet there was no indication that he had ever lived there, no trace of his birth, and certainly no mention of how he began his ministry here, two decades later, as an ambitious young proselytizer for the Methodist church. As is often the case when dealing with indigenous presence in the U.S., Apess’ memory has been scoured from the landscape, replaced with cigar store Indian type representations that still stand watch today over Route 2 (referred to by the state highway system as “The Mohawk Trail), a stone’s throw from the place of Apess’ birth.

Colrain, itself, has been eager to correct this erasure and when I went there to speak about Apess a few years back, I was roundly welcomed for my efforts. Last July I approached the town selectmen about putting up a marker and they voted unanimously in favor. Placing an Historic Marker to honor Apess’ life and contributions is a small but significant step towards locating Native presence on the landscape, in a manner respectful of the complexity and purpose of those lives that history, up until this point, has relegated to its shadows.

So thank you all for your generous contributions and please continue to spread the word. Check the Image Gallery tab on this page for a photo-documentary of some of my findings here, and keep asking of yourself and others, What Would Apess Do?



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