William Apess was the perfect person to lead the Mashpee Revolt of 1833, an uprising against the Massachusetts government that had controlled the tribe’s lands.
Apess (who occasionally spelled his name Apes) was born in 1798 in Colrain, Massachusetts. He was of Pequot descent. His family life was tumultuous. At the age of five he was being raised by his abusive grandmother when he was removed from the home and placed with the Furman family. Apess was an indentured servant working for the head of the household as a cooper. The Furman family saw to it he attended school and was given an education of six years schooling.
Despite his kind treatment by the Furman’s, Apess childhood was a mixed bag. He moved on from the Furman family to live with a Connecticut judge and later a retired general, where he worked as a household servant. The Furmans' were Baptists, his later homes Presbyterian, and Apess chafed at the rote repetition of prayers.
Frustrated by his indentureship, Furman ran off and joined the army at 15. Later he would work as a laborer in upstate New York. All the while, he grew closer to Methodism. He attended Camp Revivals and was inspired by the spontaneity and the fervor of the services. The Methodist meetings were open to all races, an additional appeal.
Apess also wrestled with his own demons. He had a mischievous side and was fond of drinking, a weakness he worked to control. With the encouragement of friends, he took up public speaking and began “exhorting” at church services. He grew into a full blown preacher, much in demand.
In 1829, now a young man, Apess published his autobiography: A Son of the Forest. It paints a picture of a matured preacher, and one sensitive to injustice. He talks about the elders in the church hierarchy who placed barriers in his way. And he takes umbrage that the army never paid bonuses promised to soldiers, himself included. And he also shows an analytical nature about even his own upbringing. About his abusive grandparents he writes:
I suppose that the reader will say, “What savage creatures my grandparents were to treat unoffending or helpless children in this manner.” But this treatment was the effect of some cause. I attribute it in part to the whites, because they introduced among my countrymen ardent spirits; seduced them into a love for it, and when under its baleful influence, wronged them out of their lawful possessions — that land where reposed the ashes of their sires — and not only so, but they committed violence of the most revolting and basest kind upon the persons of the female portion of the tribe, who until the arts, and vices, and debauchery of the whites were introduced among them, were happy, and peaceable, and cheerful, as they roamed over their goodly possessions, as any people on whom the sun of heaven hath ever shone. The consequence was that they were scattered abroad. Now, many them are seen reeling about intoxicated with liquor, failing to provide for themselves or families, who before were assiduously engaged in supplying the necessities of those depending upon them.
By 1829, Apess was ripe for a confrontation, and in the Mashpees reservation, he found his perfect battleground.
Apess had heard rumor that the Mashpees, who numbered several hundred, were in difficult straits and that the tribe was unhappy with the way the state was administering its reservation. As he worked his way through Massachusetts, preaching, he began forming a plan. He would go investigate the circumstances of the Mashpees himself. While his background was a Pequot, he felt kinship with the Mashpees.
Upon arriving in Mashpee, he quickly learned that the rumors were true. The state overseers were letting neighbors steal from tribal lands. The overseers were collaborating with local sea captains and others to cheat the Indians out of pay. The overseers reached agreement with white families who took in Indians that the children would not be educated.
And the Congregational minister assigned to the town, funded and overseen by Harvard College, was neglecting the Indians and preaching, instead, to the small group of white people who attended his church. Rev. Phineas Fish was taking hundreds of dollars in aid intended for the Mashpee and keeping it.
An Indian Methodist minister who could read and write, was well schooled in the ways of the government and held a jaded view of the way whites had treated American Indians was the perfect match to put fire to the Mashpee controversy.
Apess offered to assist the Mashpee if they wished, but he noted they would have to vote to accept him into their tribe to give him standing. The tribe accepted him.
Apess then helped the tribe shape its demands and drafted what amounted to a declaration of independence for the Mashpee. To the government, the tribe sent three resolutions:
Resolved, That we, as a tribe, will rule ourselves, and have the Constitution; for all men are born free and equal, says the Constitution of the country.
Resolved, That we will not permit any white man to come upon our plantation, to cut or carry off wood or hay, or any other article, without our permission, after the 1st of July next.
Resolved, That we will put said resolutions in force after that date, (July next,) with the penalty of binding and throwing them from the plantation, if they will not stay away without.
To Harvard, the tribe sent three additional resolutions:
Resolved, That we will rule our own tribe and make choice of whom we please for our preacher.
Resolved, That we will have our own meeting house, and place in the pulpit whom we please to preach to us.
Resolved, That we will publish this to the world; if the above reasons and resolutions are not adhered to, and the Rev. Mr. Fish discharged.
When July rolled around, the Tribe put its plans into action. William Sampson approached tribal lands and was loading a cart with wood when Apess and six others – Joseph, Jacob and Nicholas Pocknett, Aaron Keater, Charles D. Grasse and Abraham Jackson – approached him. They informed him that he could not take any wood, they unloaded his cart and sent him home.
News of this development spread quickly and enemies of the Mashpee characterized it as a threat of violent uprising. The governor sent a contingent of negotiators to Mashpee to meet with the Indians.
Apess explained their grievances. The governor’s men urged the Mashpees to have patience. They would present their case to the government. Apess and the six men who assisted him in preventing the theft of wood were arrested and charged with riot, assault, and trespass.
Apess was offended at the suggestion that he and the Mashpee would use violence against the government.
The plight of the Mashpee received a sympathetic airing in Massachusetts’ newspapers, and for a time it appeared real change was coming. The state did release some of its control over the Indian lands and returned self-governance to the tribe. But laws designed to protect Indian property from neighboring towns were rarely enforced.
Harvard remained steadfast in its support of Rev. Phineas Fish and he continued preaching to the white congregation he had assembled.
As for Apess, he did a short stint in jail for his part in the protest and his sense of anger at the treatment of the Indians grew. In his account of the protest: Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts, he wrote:
“Many and many a red man has been butchered for a less wrong than the Marshpees complain of.”
In 1836, Apess growing fervor for the Indian cause took center stage when he delivered a Eulogy of King Philip in which he praised the Indian leader, likening him to George Washington.
Apess personal demons, however, were continuing to plague him. His struggles with alcohol contributed to the breakup of his family and debts cost him his Massachusetts’ property. His frequent drunkenness cost him the support of his friends. By 1839 he had relocated to New York City and he died there that year.