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William Apess and the Mashpee Revolt
Growing up in multiple homes and struggling with alcoholism would have dampened the spirit of any man, but William Apess used his misfortunes to strengthen his will to fight for what he believed in. His Pequot ancestry and their demise as an Indian nation, along with his Christian beliefs led him to unprecedented territory in the struggle for the proper treatment and equality of all people. His most notable accomplishment involving the Mashpee revolution places him at the top of the elite in oratory and literary protesting.
The Pequot tribe inhabited most of Southeastern Connecticut when the colonists arrived to the new world. The Pequot were among the most feared tribes in Southern New England in relation to the colonists. Actually, the name “Pequot” is of Algonquian descent and translates to mean “destroyers”. As the Pequot were migrating westward continuous altercations with the colonists arose. One incident in particular led to the murder of an English man believed to be a traitor by the Pequot. John Endicott, of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, organized an attack against the Pequot in retaliation for the murder of the alleged traitor, John Oldham. On May 26, 1637 the Pequot were attacked by some colonists as well as the Pequot former tribesmen the Mohegan and Uncas. Nearly all the Pequot villages were burned and nearly all of the Pequot were killed. Some small groups did escape but most were found and either murdered or sold into slavery to other Indian nations as well as residents of the West Indies. After the “Pequot War”, the Pequot name was all but eliminated giving way to the Mohegan. The pride of the Pequot people and their immense hatred of the Mohegan tribe were very prevalent then and are to this day among the very few who trace their ancestry back to the Pequot nation. There are only believed to be about fifty Pequot Indians left and their hatred for the Mohegan in present time gives some insight to the attitudes that Apess was introduced to during his short time among the tribe.
Although Apess only lived among the remaining Pequot for five years, he was undoubtedly influenced by their history and views of the white man. After his alcoholic grandmother beat him he was graciously taken in by the Furman family. Eventually he was legally an indentured servant of the Furmans. While living with the Furmans, Apess was introduced to the idea of Christianity for the first time. Apess was living among white people and began to think and act like white people, which proved to be detrimental to his stay with the Furmans. Apess states in “Son of the Forest”, his autobiography, that he regularly contemplated running away because that was common thought of young white boys at the time. Mr. Furman did not view Apess as an equal and preceded to sale his servitude to a prominent family known as the Hillhouses. Apess realizes he looked down upon by the whites when he is sold by Mr. Furman. Apess plainly states in “Son of the Forest” the shock and horror he felt when he was sold to the Hillhouses, and how he later “identified with the enslaved blacks”. After a short time with the Hillhouses he is again sold to a politically prominent family of New London named the Williames.
During this time in New London, the Methodist religion was becoming more prominent and influential. Apess was drawn to the Methodist believers mainly because of their acceptance of all people. Words like “brethren” and “brother” were used by the Methodists to refer to any man who shared in their faith no matter what their race was. This acceptance of everyone by the Methodists not only interested Apess but caused great persecution of the Methodist faith from the popular majority of whites. Apess buys into the act of accepting all people and believes that it is the right way to live. As he becomes more involved in the Methodist church, he begins to speak to a number of crowds despite the persecution and heckling he received by white people. Many of the people who listened to him were simply amused by an actual Indian preacher due to the fact that most of the tribes had already been forced out of their lands. Apess continues his ministry but begins to use it as a stepping stone to advocate not only Christianity but also the importance of human rights. Despite the persecution and prejudice against him, he fervently continues promoting equality, and begins to focus more specifically on the mistreatment of all Indian nations. Apess was an extremely talented speaker but his avocations of Native American’s civil rights through literature became a more successful avenue for him. He wrote several pieces of literature promoting civil rights directed at the American nation and government including “Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional laws of the Massachusetts Bay Colony”. His influence and dedication to the struggle for Native American rights is most prevalent in his involvement in the Mashpee Revolution.
The Mashpee Indians were legal residents of Massachusetts and were struggling against the majority to keep their land and uphold their right to live and rule as a free people. The Mashpee were Christians and were very aware of the influence and talent of Apess. Apess frequently traveled to different churches to speak or attend services. In May 1837, Apess attended a service at the house of Phineas Fish, who had retained control of the Indian Meeting House and Meeting House funds for nearly 30 years. Apess was astounded about the mistreatment of the Mashpee people and improper delegation of funds that were intended to support a minister for the Mashpee people. The Mashpee people were so needful of Apess’ involvement and influence that they urged him to stay and aid in there struggles. Apess felt so strongly about the situation that he decided to stay and began immediately transforming the Mashpee’s grievances into an organized revolt against the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. After delivering a speech at a Mashpee meeting where he read a piece of literature he had written about the mistreatment of Indian nations in New England, he began drafting the Mashpee’s Declaration of Independence. “On May 21, 1833, only a few days after arriving in Mashpee, William Apess called a second meeting. Gathering in the tiny schoolhouse because Fish controlled their Meeting House, one hundred and two Mashpee residents signed a statement which Resolved: That we as a tribe will rule ourselves, and have the right to do 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 any wood or hay or any other article without our permission after the first day of July next” (Hutchins). At the same meeting another statement directed to the Harvard College, who provided the funds that were being allocated incorrectly, Resolved: That we will have our own Meeting House, and place in our pulpit whom we please to preach to us.” Although there had been some leaders of the Mashpee people who contested the injustices done to the Mashpee, Apess assumed leadership and took action in the revolt in a most constructive and successful manner by forming an organization, publicly expressing the Mashpee problems in the Boston press, and formalized their grievances on a more legal basis. According to the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s decision of Baker v. Fales in 1820, “The residents of a certain parish could determine for themselves who would enjoy their ancient endowments and preach in their meeting houses”. This ruling was upheld in many communities but Mashpee was an unfortunate exception. The genius of Apess was shown as he argued the Mashpee case by making reference to Calhoun’s state nullification proposal. He also justifies the Mashpee position by quoting Thomas Jefferson saying “a revolution in every generation might be necessary to keep the spirit of liberty alive” (Hutchison).
On June 25, 1833 the Mashpee tribe formerly stated they were enforcing tribal law and informed Mr. Fish he would no longer be in control. A few days later Mr. Fish attended a meeting of the proprietors and was met by nearly one hundred Mashpee residents, and some of them had guns. Initially Fish complied, but soon after had Apess and two other men convicted of carrying off wood illegally and Apess ended up serving thirty days in jail. Through the persistent efforts of Apess and the Mashpee people, the general courts passed an act stating that the Mashpee were recognized as an individual district and gave them the power to elect most of their own officials on March 31, 1834. Unfortunately, the ruling was ignored except for the fact that the Mashpee did control the church. Justice was finally completely served in 1840 when the courts gave complete control to the Mashpee tribe. Largely because of Apess’ influence, the most progressive court decision involving the rights of Native Americans was levied.
Looking back on the life of William Apess, and reviewing his influence in the struggle for equality, suggests he was far ahead of his time in taking an active role in the advancement of civil rights for colored people. The successful protesting and reformation by Apess concerning the Mashpee Revolt may never be matched by any single man. Although he may not be formally accredited as such, Apess is arguably the most influential oratory and literary objector to the mistreatment of minorities, and specifically Native Americans.
Hutchins, F. G. Mashpee: The Story of the Cape Cod Indian Town. New Hampshire:
Amarta Press, 1979
Cave, A. Alfred. The Pequot War. Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts press,
Connell, Barry O'., Dictionary of Literary Biography, Native American Writers of the United States. Ed. Kenneth M. Roemer. Vol. 175. Detroit. Gale Research Co., 1997.
Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 3: William Apess " PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. WWW URL: 04-10-2008
Tiro, Karim M., "Denominated "Savage" :Methodism, Writing and Identity in the Works of William Apess, A Pequot." American Quarterly. American Studies Association, 1996.
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"William Apess And The Mashpee Revolt." 123HelpMe.com. 02 Sep 2014