His father, William, a half-blooded descendant of King Philip, was a shoemaker by trade. His mother, Candace, was a Pequot who may have had part African ancestry.
William apess was born on the 31st of Janyary, 1798 in Colrain in northwestern Massachusetts to William and Candace Apess of the Pequot tribe.
Nineteenth-century records show that the spelling of the surname was "Apes" with one "s" until son William inexplicably added the letter for his later publications.
Apess' parents went to Colrain from Colchester, Connecticut, one reason for this was to elude Candace Apes' slave master, who did not manumit her until 1805. Until the age of five, Apess lived with his family, including two brother and two sisters, near Colrain. Then the family returned to its former home where, upon the parents' separation, young William lived with his maternal grandparents, who were abusive and suffered from alcoholism. After continued abuse, a neighbor intervened with the town selectmen on behalf of the children. They were taken for their safety and indentured to European-American families. The then five-year-old Apess was cared for by his neighbor, Mr. Furman, for a year until recovered from injuries sustained while living with his grandparents. As a child he was taken to Methodist gatherings and became faithful to the religion.
In early 1813, at age fifteen Apess finally ran away to New York City with another indentured youth and joined a militia. He fighted in the War of 1812. By the age of 16 he became addicted to drink. In the Army he was enlisted as a drummer. Initially Apess opposed their blasphemies, as he said in his autobiography, A Son of the Forest, "in little time I became almost as bad as any of them, could drink rum, play cards, and act as wickedly as any. I was at times tormented with the thoughts of death, but God had mercy on me and spared my life."
Apess' militia unit marched to Plattsburgh, New York, to prepare a siege of Montreal. Although he was officially a drummer as well as being under the legal age for Army service, Apess saw action in a few battles. After mustering out of his militia, he traveled and worked in southern Canada, socializing with several Native American families there. Eventually he worked his way southward, through Albany en route to Connecticut.
Leaving the southeastern Connecticut home of maternal relatives to visit his father, who had resettled in Colrain, Apess became lost one night in a swamp. This experience became profoundly significant for his convictions. He felt himself called to preach the Gospel and increasingly, even before his baptism in 1818, received opportunities to exhort congregations of Native Americans, whites, and blacks to repent and seek salvation. Although at this time he was legally forbidden to preach without a license, he proselytized throughout Connecticut and in the Albany area.
In December 1821, Apess married Mary Wood, of Salem, Connecticut, a self-effacing woman ten years his senior. Religious exhorting and the need to support his wife and growing family forced him into lengthy separations from them. Apess preached to worshippers on Long Island, in New York City, in the Albany-Troy region, in Utica, and in southern and coastal New England. In 1829, after the Methodist Episcopal church refused to ordain him, he was befriended by the Protestant Methodists who performed his ordination.
After Mary died, Apess later remarried. He and his second wife settled in New York City in the late 1830s.
At the age of 41, William Apess died of a cerebral hemorrhage (stroke) on April 10, 1839 at 31 Washington Street in New York City. He lived there with his second wife.