Son of the Forest: William Apess and the Fight for Indigenous Rights
from The Life of William Apess, Pequot O n April 10, 1839, Dr. J. S. Hurd, a New York City medical examiner, performed an autopsy on a man at William Garlick’s boardinghouse in lower Manhattan. Garlick’s boardinghouse stood at 31 Washington Street, two streets east of the Hudson River and bordered by Battery Place and Moore Street. Washington Street was one of several thoroughfares in a neighborhood that was home to crowds of low-paid workers, a population mirrored across the island along the East River, where eighteenthcentury Dutch and English inhabitants had built sturdy homes adjacent to flourishing slips, piers, and warehouses. As commerce increased, though, the “East Ward” had become overcrowded. Wealthier families moved uptown, as far north as Fourteenth Street along Broadway, into neighborhoods delineated by the “grid” plan that the city’s Streets Commission had instituted for more orderly development. Their previous homes then became boardinghouses for an ever-shifting population of clerks, craft apprentices, cart men, dockworkers, sailors, and various day laborers.
The deceased had lived at this address since January with his second wife, Elizabeth, to whom he had been married for at least two years. Within days of the inquest into his death, scores of newspapers in New York, New England, and down the East Coast were reporting his demise. But bespeaking the man’s obscurity, what publicity there was surrounding his death initially lay more in its circumstances, signaled by a notice in the Philadelphia North American, than in his identity. “lobelia again,” the column read, for the inquest had uncovered that a “botanic physician,” Dr. Asher Atkinson, had administered lobelia, a homeopathic drug, to his patient shortly before his death. Many people, particularly members of the established medical profession, regarded botanic medicine as quackery, and the headline implied that Atkinson’s ministrations had evidently contributed to another patient’s demise. In such cities as New York and Philadelphia, where tensions between botanic and allopathic physicians were especially great, many readers viewed this individual’s death as but another example of the failure of unregulated medical practice.
The inquest, however, concluded that he had died of “apoplexy,” a diagnosis commonly used to describe something akin to a stroke and whose symptoms were congruent with what Dr. Hurd had found in his examination. The inquest
absolved Dr. Atkinson of any blame and dampened further attempts to place the lack of effectiveness of botanic medicine at the center of the story of this individual’s death. Instead, reports shifted to who he was. A notice in the Philadelphia North American described him as “a Narragansett Indian . . . otherwise known about the country as Apes the Missionary Preacher.” “The deceased in his lifetime was an author,” the Albany Evening Journal noted, who “wrote the Life of ‘King Philip,’ several sermons, &c, which he sold for his own interest.” The same paper mentioned, albeit erroneously, that the man’s wife was a “good looking white woman,” a fact that, though titillating to some genteel readers, would not have made the couple unusual in lower Manhattan neighborhoods. Five Points, for example, was notoriously multiracial. No newspaper, however, mentioned that six years earlier the deceased had begun a meteoric rise as a spokesperson for Native American rights and liberties.
The deceased was forty-one-year-old William Apess. Two years earlier, he had been one of the country’s most important Native American intellectuals, having published more than any other indigenous writer before the twentieth century and attained fame and notoriety for championing his people’s tribal rights. In 1829, he had issued his autobiography, the first Native American to do so. He had led the successful challenge of the Mashpee Indians against the state of Massachusetts, through which the Mashpees sought to restore some measure of self-governance. Apess subsequently had embarked on a lecture career in New York, speaking on the history and culture of Native Americans.
Despite Apess’s extraordinary significance, today he is known almost exclusively among scholars of Native American studies, with excerpts from his writings taught in some surveys of American literature. But for both his historical importance and his foundational role as a Native American intellectual, Apess deserves the same widespread recognition as others in the antebellum period who questioned the sincerity of the nation’s ongoing commitment to democracy, a cohort of reformers that includes Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, champions of women’s rights; Frances Wright and Orestes Brownson, of the dignity of labor; and William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, David Walker, and Frederick Douglass, of African American freedom and equality. These were reformers who were unafraid to speak the truth about the emperor’s new clothes.
By challenging the treatment of those people impoverished and disenfranchised because of their race, gender, or class, these reformers risked vituperation, condemnation, and even imprisonment, not because they despised their country but because they loved it so much. In the 1820s and 1830s, Apess stood both with this cohort and yet apart and above, his voice raised in protest particularly against the plight of the Native Americans, who all too many white people wanted to believe were, by God’s fiat, doomed to extinction and, for the moment, increasingly forced out of sight. But how and why did Apess end up as he did, perishing not only from the face of the earth but also almost completely from historical memory?
No one could have predicted Apess’s success during his life. He was born into abject poverty in 1798 in rural Colrain, Massachusetts, of what the census reported as “colored”—probably mixed-race—parents who had moved there from southern Connecticut, near lands given in the eighteenth century to remnants of the Pequot Indians. His parents returned to Connecticut a few years later only to separate, but not before physically and psychologically abusing their young son, William. Subsequently, when his parents wandered away from the area, he lived with his grandmother but found little more stability there. She beat Apess so severely that the town’s overseers of the poor placed him with various white families before formally binding him out to a series of masters as an indentured servant. Given the general predilection for strong drink in that period and Apess’s own trying circumstances, in his teens he compounded his difficulties by becoming (as he later admitted) an alcoholic.
His life changed, however, when he experienced a powerful conversion as a result of Methodist preaching. Assuming control of his life for the first time, at the beginning of the War of 1812 he fled his indenture and enlisted among New York troops. Still only a teenager, he became a drummer and marched forthwith to the Canadian front, the most important theater of the war.
Before long, he was needed as a soldier. He traded his drum for a rifle and saw action in several battles around Lake Champlain and in expeditions against Quebec, the staccato of gunshots replacing the percussion of his drum. After the Treaty of Ghent ended the war, Apess remained in the north woods, spending time among the Haudenosaunees in upstate New York and eastern Ontario. When he returned to Connecticut months later, he formalized his commitment to Methodism through baptism and began to work as an exhorter. He also visited his mother, whom he had not seen in twenty years, and married Mary Wood, another Indian, with whom he had at least two daughters.
In 1825, the Methodist leadership assigned Apess to a circuit that took him to Long Island, the Hudson River Valley, New Bedford, Providence, Boston, and the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, where he ministered primarily to Native American and mixed-race congregations. He became more and more confident in his self-expression, and four years later he self-published A Son of the Forest (revised two years later), a spiritual autobiography that related the story of his life up to that time. He also preached and lectured in Boston and soon came to the attention of prominent reformers like William Lloyd Garrison, who in his influential journal, the Liberator, noted Apess’s speaking engagements along with those of the city’s abolitionists. In 1833, he published a well-received sermon and the Experiences of the Five Christian Indians; or, A Looking-glass for the White Man, in which he recounted the biographies of recent Indian converts and condemned the prejudice to which they and other Native Americans remained subject.
Apess’s commitment next brought him face-to-face with the Massachusetts
government. As part of his ministerial duties, in 1833—when the nation was increasingly exercised over the seizure of Cherokee lands and the tribe’s forced removal to west of the Mississippi River—he visited a Native American congregation on Cape Cod that was fighting on a smaller scale the same battles that the Cherokee tribe had fought against usurpation of its tribal rights and privileges. Apess thereupon assumed a leadership role in the Mashpee fight to regain control of tribal lands that white overseers were pilfering. He vociferously argued the tribe’s case for more self-government to the state legislature and subsequently was arrested and jailed for several months for his part in what became known as the “Mashpee Revolt.” He subsequently published an account of this struggle in his Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts (Boston, 1835), whose title signaled his awareness of recent public debates in national politics over the right of state nullification and in which he continued his autobiographical narrative, his life increasingly defined more by politics than by religion.
After the Mashpees won the right to self-government, Apess returned to Boston, where his influence and notoriety grew. In 1836, he delivered a remarkable “Eulogy on King Philip,” in which, overturning the filiopietism through which his contemporaries celebrated the achievements of the Pilgrim Fathers, he touted the seventeenth-century New England Indian leader during King Philip’s War (1675–76) as one who was as great a patriot as George Washington.
He first delivered the “Eulogy” in January at the Odeon (formally known as the Boston Theater), an elegant and spacious venue designed for musical entertainments and other public events, and where Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered his series on “Representative Men.” Coming when commemorations of the bravery and wisdom of the Pilgrim Fathers and the Massachusetts Bay Puritans were commonplace as many Massachusetts communities celebrated their bicentennials, and just a few months after the golden-tongued orator Edward Everett’s 160th anniversary “Commemoration of the Fall of the ‘Flower of Essex,’ at [Bloody Brook], in King Philip’s War,” a battle in South Deerfield, Massachusetts, in which many militia men from Essex County on the Massachusetts North Shore were killed, Apess’s oration drew much attention.
The proximity of the “Eulogy” in time to Everett’s “Bloody Brook” speech and Apess’s virtually immediate publication of his effort suggests that he intended a corrective if not a direct challenge to the way most New Englanders understood their history and Native American history in general. One of Everett’s rhetorical ploys, for example, also used in many of such commemorative speeches, was to excuse whites’ past behavior toward and current treatment of Native Americans by proclaiming the superiority of Christian civilization and its eventual and inevitable triumph over that of the sons and daughters of the forest. Unlike in Spanish-controlled Mexico, he wrote, where millions of the population still “subsist in a miserable vassalage,” in the United States treaties with the Natives “will be entered into, mutual rights [will be] acknowledged; [and] the artificial
relations of independent and allied states will be established.” And, because God has so ordained it, “as the civilized race rapidly multiplies, the native tribes will recede, sink into the wilderness, and disappear.”
Or at least that was the white citizens’ wish or, perhaps better, rationalization for their behavior. Oblivious, like so many New Englanders, to any sense of the importance of the land to Native Americans, Everett thought their removal from ancestral territory would be relatively painless. For the Pequots and Narragansetts, and the Wampanoags and the Nipmucks “who live by hunting and fishing, with scarce any thing that can be called agriculture, and wholly without arts, the removal from one tract of country to another is comparatively easy,” he said, and a “change of abode implies no great sacrifice of private interest or social prosperity.”
To his credit, Everett acknowledged that both sides were to blame for the level of violence in King Philip’s War. “However justly we may defend the memory of our fathers against the charge of wantonly pursuing a policy of extermination,” he explained, “it is not the less certain that the march of events was well calculated to excite the jealousy of the native tribes.” Everett even repeated the apocryphal tale of King Philip sitting down and weeping, when he was told that one of the Natives had been shot, because he realized that retaliation then was inevitable, in this case, against the town of Swansea. But neither did Everett avoid mentioning the Puritans’ remanding of King Philip’s wife and young son into West Indian slavery. They allowed “an Indian princess and her child [to be] sold from the cool breezes of Mount Hope, from the wild freedom of a New England forest, to gasp under the lash beneath the blazing sun of the tropics.”
Everett insisted, though, that despite such barbarity the Puritans had made “as near an approach to the spirit of the gospel, in their dealings with the Indians, as the frailty of our nature admits, under the circumstances in which they were placed.” “The grand design with which America was colonized, and the success with which, under Providence,” that design had been “crowned” in the century and a half since the fighting at Bloody Brook mattered more. For all Philip’s intelligence and bravery as a leader and warrior, from the day the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth his destiny and that of his people was assured. Everett’s commemoration of this signal event, in which scores of white settlers had been killed, was meant for one thing: to make Americans realize that God’s hand directed whatever had been and was being done to Native Americans.
The Liberator reported that Harriet Martineau, a feisty Englishwoman then visiting the United States, had “boxed [Everett’s] ears soundly” for what she took as “his electioneering oration,” but her response was mild compared to that of Apess. He did not equivocate about who was to blame for what and assured his audience that he did not “arise to spread before [them] the fame of a noted warrior” like Philip of Greece or Alexander the Great or George Washington, “whose virtues and patriotism [were] graven on the hearts” of his audience. Rather, it was to recall an individual they were not used to considering,
someone who was “made by the God of Nature,” a warrior and leader without the benefits of what the white settlers deemed “civilization.” Apess wanted them to remember someone who was among “the mighty of the earth,” a “rude yet accomplished son of the forest, that died a martyr to his cause . . . as glorious as the American Revolution.”
Apess’s goal was to “melt the prejudice” that existed in the hearts of those who possessed “this soil,” and only by the supposed “right of conquest.” Sarcastically noting that in the “wisdom of their civilized legislation” whites thought it no crime “to wreak their vengeance upon whole nations and communities, until the fields are covered with blood,” he observed that they also found ways to shut their ears to the voices of “the ten thousand Indian children and orphans, who are left to mourn the honorable acts of a few—civilized men.” Whites had to realize that the Indians’ violent defense was nothing but the same that had been dealt them, a fact that erased any meaningful difference between what the settlers defined as the actions of “civilized” as opposed to “natural” men. “My image is of God,” Apess declared; “I am not a beast.” He unveiled the violence and hypocrisy that resulted from the whites’ belief that they did God’s work in “civilizing” the nation, dismissing the Natives’ lifestyle as bestial and claiming that all men who were “governed by animal passions” were “void of the true principles of God.” He too conveniently forgot that the settlers had been so governed when they massacred women and children and forced families and nations from their lands.
Apess then schooled his audience in some undeniable though littlementioned facts of American history—how, for example, from the New England settlers’ first encounter with the Native peoples in the early seventeenth century, they had shown themselves to be nothing but “hypocritical Christians,” drunk on their purported superiority over the tribes. Such power, however, had not been given “to abuse each other,” he declared, but was only delegated by God as “a weapon of defense against error and evil.” “When abused,” it would “turn to [the whites’] destruction.”
Starting from this premise, Apess piled example upon example (some drawn from Samuel Drake’s book) of the colonists’ treachery until he reached the time of King Philip of the Wampanoags, he “of cursed memory” in Puritan Increase Mather’s account but whose dedication to the defense of his land and people Apess claimed was as admirable and worthy of remembrance and celebration as that of the Revolutionary patriots. Admittedly, from Washington Irving’s account of Philip in his Sketch Book and John Augustus Stone’s Metamora to such scarcely veiled fictional accounts as those of novelists Catharine Maria Sedgwick in her Hope Leslie (1827) and James Fenimore Cooper in The Wept of Wish-ton-wish (1829), whites had granted Philip some admirable virtues, but they always were ones that they presented as identifying a race destined to pass from the newly “civilized” landscape. Now Apess reminded his audience that King Philip’s blood still ran in people like him, which thus gave the lie to the white attempt to write this warrior into oblivion.
Philip F. Gura
Asking his audience to consider a different version of the past, Apess spared no sacred cows. “Perhaps if Doctor [Increase Mather] was present,” he observed, the good man would realize that “the memory of Philip was as far before his [that is, more famous than he], in the view of sound, judicious men, as the sun is before the stars at noonday.” And as for the militia captain Miles Standish, he was “a vile and malicious fellow” who, at the head of a band of “lewd Pilgrims,” delighted in massacring Natives—women and children—at midnight. “Do you believe,” Apess asked his auditors, “that Indians cannot feel and see, as well as white people”?
Apess also castigated those who praised the settlers for bringing the light of Christianity to the supposedly benighted Indians, reminding them that with the Bible their ancestors also brought “rum and powder and ball, together with all the diseases” to which the Native population succumbed. Apess even suggested that these epidemics, which swept off “thousands and tens of thousands,” were “carried among them on purpose to destroy them.” In regard to July 4 and December 22 (recognized as the date when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth), he counseled each auditor on these dates to “wrap himself in mourning,” not in celebratory colors, for to Natives these never could be days of joy.
When Apess turned to contemporary missionaries to the “heathen,” he was no less severe. Why must Natives be driven from their lands before they can hear the word of God, he asked, for “if God wants the red men converted,” He should be able do it “as well in one place as in another.” Moreover, he wanted missionaries to “use the colored people they already have around them like human beings, before they go to convert any more,” and urged those in attendance to withhold any donations to missionary societies until their representatives treated Indian converts with the dignity they deserved.
Halfway through his oration, having traveled much historical ground, Apess finally rose to his chief subject, “his Majesty, King Philip,” whom he termed the “greatest man that ever lived upon the American shores.” After Philip had attempted to hold off violence as long as he could, when he finally had to defend his lands and people, he uttered these noble words:
Brothers, you see here this vast country before us, which the Great Spirit gave to our fathers and us; you see the buffalo and deer that now are our support. Brothers, you see these little ones, our wives and children, who are looking to us for food and raiment; and now you see the foe before you, that they have grown insolent and bold; that all our ancient customs are disregarded; the treaties made by our fathers and us are broken, and all of us insulted; our council fires disregarded, and all the ancient customs of our fathers; our brothers murdered before our eyes, and their spirits cry to us for revenge. Brothers, these people from the unknown world will cut down our groves, spoil our hunting and planting grounds, and drive us and our children from the graves of our fathers, and our council fires, and enslave our women and children.
This was his moving call to arms, and the result was two years of King Philip’s War.
Apess graphically described the last days of that conflict. In swampy lands near Pocasset (Bourne), Massachusetts, where Philip and his men had hidden after a ferocious battle, he managed to escape through the only outlet and retreated to the Connecticut River, a strategic move that Apess claimed to be “equal, if not superior, to that of Washington crossing the Delaware.” By such actions, Philip showed himself “as active as the wind, as dexterous as a giant, firm as the pillars of heaven, and fierce as a lion.”
Apess did not avoid sensitive points. In his discussion of those taken captive by the Indians, like Mary Rowlandson, for example, whose ordeal many contemporary orators invoked, Apess observed that not only had her captors treated her fairly well, all things considered, but all such female captives had been “completely safe, and none of them were violated, as they acknowledged themselves.” But was it so, he asked rhetorically, “when the Indian women fell into the hands of the Pilgrims?” No, he answered categorically, connecting such rape to the by-then common stories of what female slaves suffered at the hands of their masters.
Nor did the Natives often get the opportunity (as whites did) to rescue their own people from captivity, for whites usually imprisoned them, sold them into slavery, or simply killed them. Here Apess mentioned how Philip’s son was sent into slavery in the West Indies, just as after the Pequot War people from Apess’s own tribe had been, in this case to the Spanish in Bermuda. “With shame,” Apess said, “I have to notice so much corruption of a people calling themselves Christians.”
However uneasy the audience was at this point, it soon had even more reason to squirm. Up to this point, Apess had spoken mainly of history, but what of the present? The result of “all the slavery and degradation in the American colonies toward colored people” had led to the current virulent prejudice against Native Americans, which he knew firsthand. He cited several examples from his own experience of white peoples’ callousness when he or another Native needed assistance. “Look at the disgraceful laws,” he told those in the Odeon, “disenfranchising us as citizens.” “Look at the treaties made by Congress,” he continued, “all broken.” Look at “the deep-rooted plans laid, when a territory becomes a state, that after so many years the laws shall be extended over the Indians that live within their boundaries,” a reference to the ongoing experience of the Iroquois in New York.
Channeling President Jackson’s supporters, Apess explained to the nation’s “red children” that whites “have a right to do with you what we please,” for “we claim to be your fathers.” In this patronizing falsetto, he continued: “We think we do you a great favor, my dear sons and daughters . . . to drive you out, to get you away out of the reach of our civilized people, who are cheating you, for we have no law to reach them.” So “it is no use, you need not cry, you must go even if the lions devour you, for we promised the land you have to somebody else long ago, perhaps twenty or thirty years; and we did it without your consent, it is true,” but this has been the way “our fathers first brought us up, and it is hard
to depart from it.” Apess’s hard-hitting sarcasm was unrelenting.
Sadly, the prejudice he detailed seemed to have no end, for even as Apess spoke, new offensives against Native peoples were breaking out upon the frontiers. Why? Because “the same spirit reigns there that reigned here in New England; and wherever there are any Indians that spirit still reigns.” So what were enlightened New Englanders to do? “Let every friend of the Indians now seize the mantle of Liberty,” Apess urged, and, honoring the courage and spirit of King Philip, “the greatest man that was ever in America,” throw it over “those burning elements that has [sic ] spread with such fearful rapidity, and extinguish them forever.” Apess then ended his oration dramatically, surprising the crowd with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in “[Philip’s] language,” that is, in Massachusett, something very few (if any) in the audiences had ever heard.
Apess then asked his auditors to forgive his “bold and unpolished statements,” for he trusted that they now understood that what he had related of white behavior could hardly be excused as “religious.” This truth did not merit “any polishing whatsoever”; it was as it was—sinful. Sadly, when one had been deceived as much as Native Americans had—and here Apess referred to his own example—“it spoil[ed] all confidence” in white people. He had had some “dear, good friends among white people,” he admitted; but always he “eye[d] them with a jealous eye,” for fear that they would “betray” him. “Having been so much deceived by them,” he asked plaintively, how could he ever behave otherwise.
The only way to end such prejudice on both sides, Apess concluded, was to have all men “operate under one general law,” for whites and Natives. When the audience asked itself, “‘ What do they, the Indians want?’” they had only to consider the unjust laws made against Natives and say, “‘They want what I want,’ in order to make men of them, good and wholesome citizens.” The nation’s racism would end when the Golden Rule became prevalent. Given the history lesson that he offered his audience, Apess trusted them now to understand this.
By request, he repeated the speech later that January in Boston’s Boylston Hall, an equally commodious venue with eight hundred seats, and again a month and a half later in the Hartford area, in Farmington at Union Hall. In its call for white Christians to acknowledge that God embraces people of all colors and its refiguring of how one should rewrite New England history, the published “Eulogy” stands with Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” as one of the most searching indictments of the nation’s institutional racism. This address marked Apess’s full emergence as a public intellectual. But as happened for so many others caught in the growing financial depression, the Panic of 1837, Apess’s luck then turned. By 1836, he had left the Methodist ministry. Without regular income, he also became embroiled in lawsuits on Cape Cod and had his goods attached for debt. Eventually, he mortgaged all
his property in an attempt to remain solvent. To escape this new turmoil—and perhaps his creditors—he moved to New York with his new wife, Elizabeth, where he appeared in the city’s lecture halls as a speaker on Native American history and culture. In that city, in a crowded boardinghouse on Washington Street, a lifetime of hardship caught up with this brilliant casuist for Native American rights.
Apess was not some sport or relic—another example of the nation’s vanishing “Indians”—but someone who strove to understand himself as a member of an indigenous nation within the United States of America, and so to claim for himself, his tribe, and Native peoples in general a place in the new nation. Thus, unlike, say, Frederick Douglass, who dreamed that African Americans might participate fully as American citizens and so urged his people to grasp the still-unfulfilled promise of democracy, Apess’s loyalties were to tribe and people, not to the United States per se. He left a legacy whose recovery has only recently begun to have its full effect. Native American activist and intellectual Robert Warrior puts it best. Apess, he writes, is “the Native writer before the twentieth century who most demands the attention of contemporary Native intellectuals,” and, I add, of contemporary Americans. Dr. Hurd’s examination at 31 Washington Street, dispiriting as it appears, thankfully marked the end of only the first phase of Apess’s influence.