July 4, 1833
On this day in 1833 the Mashpee Wampanoags took back their church. The church had originally been built in 1684 to promote Christian edification among the Mashpees, but the white people in the vicinity soon determined it would better suit their own purposes and so excluded the Mashpees from using the facilities. The Mashpees, with a helpful assist from William Apess, determined to reclaim the use of their rightful lands and resources and so spent the earlier part of the summer petitioning the Massachusetts government, getting their story out to the press, and devising strategies of non-violent resistance to bring attention to their plight. For decades the Mashpees (as with other Natives of the Northeast) had lived under a ruthless system of state-appointed overseers who used their power to break up Mashpee families, exploit Mashpee labor, and harvest Mashpee resources like wood and grain as though it were their own proper spoil. But on July 1 a group led by Apess forced white neighbors to unload a wagon full of wood being hauled from Mashpee lands. This set off a firestorm with local whites who were outraged that the Indians dared assert propriety over their own resources. The event became known throughout the Northeast as the “Mashpee Revolt” although, from start to finish, it was a peaceful assertion of lawful rights. Governor Lincoln nearly called out the militia, but instead sent a representative to assess the situation. They met in the church, even though the Mashpees had to break into it to gain access, and there, on the 4th of July, Apess delivered a fiery speech eloquently outlining the present and historic grievances of the Native community. He emphasized how Mashpee children had been denied an education, forced into the service of white families and used “like dogs,” and were effectively robbed of their inheritance. He concluded by stating “the Indians ought to keep the twenty-fifth of December and the fourth of July as days of fasting and lamentation . . . for surely there is no joy in those days for the man of color.” Following the speech, Apess was promptly arrested for “trespassing and inciting a riot.” Authorities had to protect him from the angry mob that pursued him to the nearby jail in Cotuit seeking vigilante “justice.” Nevertheless, this became a catalyst for change in Mashpee as Apess and others continued to lobby and gain support for increased civil rights.
April 1, 1849,
David Firmon died on this day at 83 years of age. On a recent return trip to Saelm, CT, I was able to locate the Firman family graveyard. The Furman’s (as Apess spelled their name in his 1829 memoir A Son of the Forest) were the family that took him in as a bond servant after he had been severely beaten by his grandmother at five years of age. He writes of David Fruman and his family, “they had become very fond of me, and as I could not be satisfied to leave them, as I loved them with the strength of filial love, he at last concluded to keep me until I was of age.” But Apess also had a troubled relationship with the Furman’s and describes how one time Mr. Furman “came to the place where I was working and began to whip me severely. I could not tell for what. I told him I had done no harm, to which he replied, ‘I will learn you, you Indian dog.’” These sort of encounters led to Apess’s frequent attempts at running away and, ultimately, to his being sold out in bondage to another master, William Hillhouse.
Apess’s feelings toward Mrs. Firman were, perhaps, more complex and for the most part he speaks of her fondly. He writes, “I well remember the conversation that took place between Mrs. Furman and myself when I was about six years of age . . . she spoke to me respecting a future state of existence, and told me that I might die, and enter upon it, to which I replied that I was too young- that old people only died. But she assured me that I was not too young, and in order to convince me of the truth of the observation, she referred me to the grave yard, where many younger and smaller persons than myself were laid to moulder in the earth.”
The discovery of this small graveyard reveals that the younger children to which Sally Firman referred were likely her own. There are four small stones before the graves of Sally and David, bearing no inscription save for the initials, each one ending in “F.” Apess never mentions if the Furman had children of their own, but it is likely that at least four of Sally and David Furman’s children died in infancy and it was these to which she referred young William, suggesting an added layer of human sentiment upon her stern efforts to instruct him in Christian religion.
Mar. 24 2018
Protesters Clay Zuba in Phoenix, AZ and Drew Lopenzina in Norfolk, VA wear their “What Would Apess Do” T-shirts at the March For Our Lives rallies to promote gun reform in the U.S. As one spectator observed, “Apess would deliver a jeremiad on the intersections between settler colonial violence and gun violence and use the NRA’s freedom rhetoric against them.” That sounds about right. He would also congratulate the amazing efforts of the Marjory Stoneman Douglass students for taking matters into their own hands to enact change in a country that has abandoned its moral authority and failed to live up to its stated ideals to promote life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness free of violence and fear.
March 5, 1836
The Hartford Times advertises that William Apess will perform his Eulogy on King Philip on this night, March 5, 1836, at Union Hall in Hartford, CT. It was previously thought that Apess only performed the Eulogy twice in Boston, but new research suggests he took this unique performance on the road, using it as a platform for advancing awareness of Native rights and historical perspectives. The Times graciously wished him success in his endeavor.
Union Hall was a prominent Hartford storefront and meeting place in the 1830’s, located at the corner of Main and Pearl. Originally called Allyn’s Hall, it was a three story brick building, erected by Nathan Allyn in 1827, with the large meeting place on the third floor. In Apess’s day, Union Hall was known as a venue for functions of the local democratic party. It also housed the Hartford police force for some time. The building was disassembled in the 1870’s and then rebuilt from the same materials to form the new Union Hall Hotel (pictured above).