Author of the first published American Indian autobiography, A Son of the Forest, and a leader in the Mashpee Revolt, William Apess (Pequot) was born in Colrain, Massachusetts, on January 31, 1798. His father, William, reportedly a descendent of the Wampanoag King Philip, was Pequot and white, and his mother, Candace, was perhaps African American and Pequot, and probably a slave.
Apess's Pequot ancestors had been nearly eliminated in 1637, when the Pilgrims, Puritans, and other tribes with which they had allied burned the Mystic River Pequot fort, killing seven hundred men, women, and children. Survivors were largely sold into slavery in the West Indies. A few, like Apess's family, persisted on the fringes in southeastern Connecticut, eking out livings as domestics and day laborers. Some report that Apess's father was a shoemaker; others suggest both of Apess's parents were basketmakers. What is certain is that Apess's world was one carved out of the leftovers of genocide and colonialism.
Apess's early years were spent in extreme poverty, hunger, and abuse at the hands of his alcoholic grandparents, with whom he and his siblings had been left. After being nearly beaten to death by his grandmother, Apess was "bound out" at the age of five. The Furmans, the white family with whom he was first indentured, allowed him an education for at least part of the year between the ages of six and eleven. This was the only formal education he received. He was subsequently sold to two wealthy families before running away in April of 1813, from the William Williamses of New York, who forbade his attending Methodist camp meetings. Apess had studied the teaching of John Calvin, repopularized during the Second Great Awakening—humans, all miserable sinners, could be saved only by God's grace. He was later drawn to the Methodists, who taught that Christ was the savior of all mankind, brethren in their belief and in His love.
Apess enlisted as a drummer in the War of 1812 and developed a problem with alcohol, later working for a while in Canada, trying to quit drinking. Around 1816–1817, Apess returned to Connecticut. Despite his lengthy separation from his people, Apess conceived of himself as Pequot. He was baptized in December 1818. In 1821, he married Mary Wood of Salem, Connecticut, a mixed-blood formerly bound servant and fellow Methodist. They had two daughters and a son. Apess was ordained as a Protestant Methodist minister between 1829 and 1830.
Published in 1829, his A Son of the Forest recounts his early life in a manner that might seem dispassionate to some readers given the circumstances. It is, in one sense, a Christian conversion narrative, making it appealing to a white audience marveling at the novelty of an Indian writer and giving faith to Natives and African Americans, who might be "saved" and "civilized." However, A Son of the Forest sharply indicts whites for colonialism and for bringing alcohol and poverty to his people and other tribes. Apess also published in 1831 The Increase of the Kingdom of Christ: A Sermon, along with an appendix entitled "The Indians: The Ten Lost Tribes." Apess followed this with the publication of his The Experiences of Five Christian Indians of the Pequot Tribe in 1833, the first edition of which included his "An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man," an essay denouncing white Christian hypocrisy.
As an itinerant preacher, Apess met the Mash-pee. His actions on their behalf, including serving jail time, were some of the earliest intertribal activist efforts on behalf of tribal sovereignty. During the Mashpee revolt, he wrote and published a list of Indian complaints regarding the whites entitled Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts, Relative to the Mashpee Tribe; or, the Pretended Riot Explained (1835). He gave his popular "Eulogy on King Philip" in Boston during 1836. Apess's death in 1839 may have been a result of his continuing struggle with alcohol.
Hirschfelder, Arlene, and Paulette Molin, eds. 2000. Encyclopedia of Native American Religions, updated ed. New York: Facts on File.; Malinowski, Sharon, and Simon Glickman, eds. 1996. Native North American Biography. Vol. 1. New York: UXL.; Malinowski, Sharon, ed. 1995. Notable Native Americans. Detroit, MI: Gale Research.; O'Connell, Barry. 1996. "Apess, William." In Encyclopedia of North American Indians: Native American History, Culture, and Life from Paleo-Indians to the Present. Edited by Frederick E. Hoxie, 30–31. Boston: HoughtonMifflin.