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William Apess Edit Profile


Methodist minister , missionary , political activist , writer

William Apess was the first Native American to write and publish his own autobiography, A Son in the Forest (1829), and was the most prolific nineteenth century Indian writer in the English language. He internalized the values of the conquering Americans, but utilized a religious zeal to construct a renewed sense of Native American identity and selfhood.


Ethnicity: 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.


Apess was sent to school during the winter for six years.


The literary style of Apess is similar to that of his religious and political contemporaries. Its maturity and clarity are remarkable for someone who could only attend school during the winter months for only six years.


  • appendix to the book

    • The Indians: The Ten Lost Tribes (1831)

  • authobiography

    • A Son of the Forest: The Experience of William Apess, A Native of the Forest, Comprising a Notice of the Pequot Tribe of Indians, Written by Himself (first edition 1829, second edition 1831)

  • book

    • The Increase of the Kingdom of Christ, a Sermon (1831)

    • The Experiences of Five Christian Indians of the Pequod Tribe; or An Indians's Looking-Glass for the White Man (1833)

    • The Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts, Relative to the Marshpee Tribe: or, The Pretended Riot Explained (1835)

    • Eulogy on King Philip, as Pronounced at the Odeon, in Federal Street, Boston, by the Rev. William Apes, an Indian (1836)


Around 1809, at the height of the Second Great Awakening, an extremely sensitive religious disposition began to emerge. Apess sought to attend revivalist meetings and was impressionably receptive to the rhetorical conventions espoused by Calvinists. The youthful Apess found himself more inclined toward what he called the "noisy Methodists." Their fervor stimulated his growing personal convictions about the rightness of spontaneous expression in worship, the loving grace of Christ as the savior of mankind, and about Native Americans as one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.

The religious zeal of Apess contributed to his confused identity as an Indian. His interest in Christianity did not prevent a periodic flogging by various masters, who vacillated in permitting Apess to attend Methodist meetings.

By the age of 19, Apess faced anew the ravages of sinful behavior and resumed earnestly attending religious meetings. One outstanding experience confirmed his religious faith more than previous conversion experiences.

Apess was baptized in December 1818.