According to his own autobiographical account William Apess was born in Colrain, Massachusetts on January 31, 1798. His Father, William Apes, was the son of a white man and a Pequot women while his mother, Candace, was most likely born into slavery on the estate of Captain Joseph Taylor of Colchester, Connecticut, although she too was connected to the Pequot tribe. When still an infant his parents relocated to a part of Colchester (today Salem, Connecticut) in the area of Gardner Lake. They lived in the domicile of Apess’s maternal grandparents and eked out a living making baskets and presumably other wares.
As was the case with many Native families of New England who lived under severe socio-economic restrictions imposed upon them by the dominant culture, the Apes’s could not make ends meet and the parents split up leaving Apess and a number of young cousins and siblings to shift for themselves under the roof of their grandparents. When he was just five years old, Apess’s grandmother returned one night from selling baskets, drunk on rum, and proceeded to beat Apess severely. He was rescued by an uncle (the records indicate a “Lemuel Ashbo” who briefly acted as Apess’s custodian), who removed the young child from danger and placed him under the protection of the township, but not before Apess endured great harm. Apess was soon placed with a white family headed by a David Ferman (Apess refers to them as the “Furman’s” in his memoir A Son of the Forest). He spent his formative years living in the Ferman household, received a small measure of schooling, but mostly labored for the Ferman’s as an indentured servant. The childhood traumas of being beaten by his grandmother and abandoned by his parents haunted Apess, however, and his physical and emotional setbacks proved too daunting for David Ferman who would often take a whip to the young boy in attempts to discipline him. Although Apess apparently regarded the Ferman’s as his adoptive parents, when Apess was roughly fourteen, they sold his indenture to William Hillhouse, a wealthy landowner and judge in the area who, among other things, had fought in the Revolutionary War and served as a Connecticut delegate to the Continental Congress. Apess describes laboring under slave-lke conditions on the Hillhouse estate, but he ultimately proved too unmanageable for the elderly man and so his indenture was transferred once more, this time to William Williams, another influential landowner in the area.
Apess first discovered religion during this time, finding comfort in the meetings of the “unruly” Methodists who suddenly appeared as a force in town. It may be that members of his extended Pequot family were also affiliated with the church, giving him another reason to feel connected to this movement. Mr. Williams, however, saw the Methodists as a subversive sect and forbid Apess from attending meetings. For this and other reasons, Apess ran away sometime in the Spring of 1813, and after a short visit with his father who lived nearby, he made his way south to New York City where he was soon conscripted into the United States Army, despite being well under enlistment age.
Apess became part of an artillery unit, trained on Governor’s Island in New York Harbor before being marched up to Plattsburgh, New York where the War of 1812 was in full throttle. Apess was engaged in a number of skirmishes and major battles, the most significant of which was the 1814 Battle of Plattsburgh–a seven day long ordeal in which the outnumbered U.S. forces managed to hold the city and beat back the British troops while also gaining control of the Lake Champlain corridor in the simultaneously fought Battle of Lake Champlain.
After the war, Apess crossed over into Canada and worked odd jobs for roughly two years, drifting aimlessly and finding himself drawn to communities of fellow Natives or “brethren” as he refers to them in his books. Living for a season among the Tyendinaga Mohawk on the Bay of Quinte in Ontario, Apess experienced aspects of indigenous culture and spirituality that he had been mostly sheltered from in his youth. He became inspired by the possibilities that intact indigenous communities of culture and belief presented to him and he returned home, after many years away, with a renewed sense of commitment to take hold of his wayward life and begin advocating for Native people.
Apess apprenticed under the tutorship of his Aunt Sally George, a charismatic medicine woman of his tribe, who taught Apess how to enfold elements of indigenous spiritual practice into the forum of the Christian camp meeting. Apess was brought into the political and spiritual center of the tribe and began to develop his own remarkable skills at preaching and organizing. He married a woman, Mary Wood, who was also part of this active circle of Pequot women, and he was soon filling the role of lay preacher himself.
Apess reunited with his father in Colrain, MA in 1820 and it was here that he began preaching in earnest, delivering his first “sermon” at the old Colrain school house on Catamount Hill. But when, after many years of teaching, proselytizing, and laboring under the banner of the Methodist Episcopal church, Apess was still denied proper ordination at the Albany conference in 1829, he decided to leave the organization and joined instead with the Protestant Methodists, a new branch that had also just made its departure from the main tree of the Methodist organization. Apess would become ordained by the Protestant Methodist church in July of 1831 at a conference held in Malden, MA.
It is directly after his split with the Methodist Episcopals that Apess first published his 1829 memoir A Son of the Forest. This remarkable book, is the first full-length memoir written by an indigenous person in North America and, in addition to detailing his life story up to this point, it presents a sharp critique of western culture, particularly zeroing in on the hypocrisy of white Christians who failed to follow through on their many promises to extend social and spiritual equality to Native peoples. Apess would go on to write a number of other books and pamphlets, his subject material becoming more political and more resistant as he grew in skill, confidence, and notoriety. His other publications include The Increase of the Kingdom of Christ: A Sermon and The Indians: The Ten Lost Tribes (1831); The Experiences of Five Christian Indians of the Pequot Tribe (1833), Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts Relative to the Marshpee Tribe, or, The Pretended Riot Explained (1835); Eulogy on King Philip As Pronounced at the Odeon Theater, in Federal Street, Boston (1836).
Apart from writing books, Apess became a very visible presence in the Northeast, filling up churches and meeting halls by offering fiery and inspired rhetoric to those who came to see the Indian preach. Apess involved himself with the Abolitionist movement, becoming well known to William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the Boston paper The Liberator. Apess was well known in other progressive circles as well and used his established contacts to begin a campaign for social justice for Native peoples in New England. Although he experienced many setbacks including violent threats to his life, spurious assaults on his character, and retaliation from the white power brokers whose claims he challenged, Apess was ultimately able to help spearhead an effective movement for civil rights for the Wampanoags in Mashpee, Massachusetts. This action, known as the Woodlot or Mashpee Revolt of 1833, was organized around principles of peaceful resistance to the long standing practice of the white Overseer system that, among other entrenched abuses, allowed white neighbors to plunder resources such as wood and grain from Mashpee lands without any recourse for retribution or compensation for the Mashpee themselves.
Such practices against Native peoples were rampant in the Northeast but Apess was able to shine a light on these abuses and through his sermons, writings, and community organizing, was able to turn public sentiment in favor of the Mashpee, much to the chagrin of the local white authorities.
For a time Apess settled with his family in Mashpee where he served as local minister of his own Free and United Church of Mashpee. He organized annual camp meetings that drew people from as far away as Connecticut and Rhode Island, and became briefly involved in local political campaigns. But his restless nature drove him onwards and he ended his life and career in New York City, where he continued to preach and lecture in large halls, but was felled quite suddenly in 1839 by an ailment that appears to have been appendicitis. He was 41 years old.
Apess’s contributions as a Native activist, writer, and minister were virtually unprecedented for his time. His remarkable energy and genius allowed him to not only affect meaningful reform, but left an imprint of indigenous community, concerns, and intellect in a time when so much of that spiritual and intellectual capital was suppressed by a violent settler colonial regime. Apess’s works are spirited and eloquent cries for social justice and equality in a time when both were in short supply. His strategy was often to hold a rhetorical mirror up to his oppressors, forcing them to face the hypocrisy of their own stated actions and designs. He used his station as a Christian minister to critique the church itself and bring to light its shortcomings. And yet, through it all, he maintained a spirit of goodwill and kindness, whether Christian or otherwise, and remained committed to a path of peace which he expertly integrated with traditional indigenous practices and customs.