Silverman on Gura, 'The Life of William Apess, Pequot'

Philip F. Gura. The Life of William Apess, Pequot. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015. 216 pp. $26.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-1998-9.

Reviewed by David Silverman (George Washington University)
Published on H-SHEAR (June, 2016)
Commissioned by Robert P. Murray

More than twenty years ago, Barry O’Connell introduced the scholarly world to the writings of William Apess, a Pequot Methodist preacher and writer, who in print and politics demanded the white people of Jacksonian America to confront their racism and extend Christian dignity to peoples of all hues, including Native Americans. Since then, O’Connell’s introductory essay to Apess’s collected writings has served as the basic biography of this long-overlooked figure, but Philip F. Gura’s new book, the Life of William Apess, is set to become the standard. Its succinctness, chronological organization, and clear, engaging prose is ideal for classroom audiences. It also makes a significant interpretive contribution by grounding Apess’s experience and writings in the racial politics of the antebellum era.[1]

Gura makes a strong case for Apess’s significance to the history of American letters. He contends that 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” (p. xiv). Apess stands out from this group, of course, in that he was an Indian writing during a period in which Americans were at once fiercely debating the policy of Indian Removal, while, ironically, insisting that Indians were on the brink of disappearing as part of Manifest Destiny. Apess spent his brief adult life within this charged political context, striving “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 new nation” (p. xvi).

During his childhood in Colrain, Massachusetts, and Colchester, Connecticut, Apess endured hunger, physical abuse, and racism. His mother abandoned Apess and his siblings, and soon his father did too, leaving them in the care of his maternal grandmother, who neglected and beat them, sometimes mercilessly. When town officials removed Apess from this situation and placed him in the care of white families, the worst beatings ended, but the psychological abuse of racist treatment began. To the extent that there were some silver linings in this misery, it was that, in Colchester, a young Apess received three years of formal education from Prince Saunders, an African American educator known for organizing black schools in Boston and then Haiti. This experience, Gura points out, was the beginning of Apess’s lifetime spent engaged with black activists and their white supporters. These years also saw Apess find inspiration in evangelical Christianity, particularly its emphasis on the equality of all believers in the sight of God, which enabled him to resist the self-loathing inherent in his ordeal. Poignantly, it was not the Baptist faith of Apess’s white caretakers which attracted him, but rather the evangelical egalitarianism of itinerant Methodists. Protest was part of the appeal.

Yet it would take Apess several years of service in the military during the War of 1812, followed by wide-ranging journeying throughout the Northeast, before he discovered a sense of purpose in itinerant preaching and writing. Gura argues that this phase of Apess’s life gave him a keener sense of the racial injustice at the heart of American society. Later, Apess would write movingly of the abuse he suffered at the hands of fellow soldiers just because he was an Indian. He also had the opportunity to contrast the communitarian fellowship of the Haudenosaunees (or Iroquois) with the crass individualism and Christian hypocrisy of white Americans, who used every underhanded means they could conjure up to force the Haudenosunees off what little remained of their land. Apess could clearly see the parallels between their trials and those of his Pequot people and other southern New England Indians.

In 1818, when he was twenty years old, Apess built on a growing sense of religious conviction and responsibility to his new family to begin advancing toward his literary career. Temporary residence with his aunt, the Pequot Sally George, rekindled his interest in evangelical Christianity, prompting a conversion experience, baptism by immersion, and his first attempts at religious exhortation. This period also saw him wed Mary Wood and relocate to Providence, Rhode Island. The marriage made him determined to earn a living, while the move exposed him both to a thriving Methodist community of color and vicious urban racism, particularly in the wake of the Hard Scrabble race riot.

Gura is at his finest in speculating how the political activism and racial critiques of African American evangelical activists influenced Apess’s ideas. In this, he builds on a historiography less on intellectual exchange and more on how labor, intermarriage, and racial oppression linked indigenous and African American peoples.[2] Gura notes the possibility that Apess encountered the Reverend Nathaniel Paul, an associate of Prince Saunders, a leader of Providence’s ecumenical African Union Church. Likewise, he speculates that Apess encountered Hosea Easton, a black Boston preacher, abolitionist, and booster of the Freedom’s Journal newspaper. Easton gave a famous thanksgiving address in Providence in 1828, castigating whites for degrading free blacks, including ministers, in ways large and small. When white Methodists refused to ordinate Apess as an itinerant preacher, Apess joined the breakaway Methodist Society of New York, an organization founded in protest of the growing conservatism, including racialism, of the Methodist movement. Later in life, Apess likely developed a relationship with the New Bedford African American merchant and antislavery activist Richard Johnson, and possibly also with the Afro-Indian merchant and “Back to Africa” proponent Paul Cuffee. Apess never said whether or how these radicals shaped his views, but Gura’s exploration of the possibilities takes the reader on a rich journey through the political and cultural milieus of the era.

In the late 1820s and 1830s, Apess began to come into his own as a writer and preacher. He wrote and published his autobiography to edify troubled souls, and, not the least of all, to sell copies to white readership interested in examples of civilized, Christian Indians. Gura sees Apess reaching the “increasing realization of how Christianity provided Native Americans a set of arguments through which to criticize American society,” something he would continue to develop in his future writings (p. 47). At the same time, Apess’s itinerant preaching, particularly in Boston, drew him deeper into a community of African American and white activists opposed to slavery and Indian Removal as part of their goal to make American a more just, Christian nation. Gura imagines Apess engaged with the leading figures and political debates of Boston’s African Society and the African Masonic Lodge. He cannot imagine Apess escaping the influence of the black abolitionist David Walker, whose Appeal ... to the Coloured Citizens of the World, published in 1829, called for African Americans to unite in resistance to white oppression, violently if necessary. Nor could Apess have possibly ignored the arguments of William Lloyd Garrison and his Liberator. The evidence is in the radical egalitarianism of Apess’s later writings. It also appears, Gura submits, in the Liberator’s positive coverage of one of Apess’s speeches on the Cherokee removal crisis.

This period saw Apess produce one of his most poignant writings, “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man” in which, Gura suggests, Apess “began to realize more fully that the physical and psychological oppression he knew linked him to all Native Americans, to the Cherokee, say, so much in the news. But even more, he realized that racial discrimination was part of an extensive, interconnected ideological system through which whites rationalized and justified their cupidity toward other peoples, including African Americans, whose paths he crossed in Boston” (p. 71). This is a fresh and convincing perspective, grounded both in textual analysis and in Gura’s careful prospographical research.

Apess’s maturation as an activist thinker, Gura demonstrates, contributed toward his leadership among the Mashpee Wampanoags of Cape Cod as they sought to remove a longstanding, Harvard-funded missionary who spent more time preaching and teaching to whites than to them, even within a meeting house located squarely in their territory. Apess felt a twofold connection to the Mashpees: as a fellow Indian struggling for justice in face of white racial oppression, and as a fellow Christian seeking to reform a corrupt world. He took a leading role in their fight by virtue of his principles and the Mashpees’ need for someone with his education and connections to white powerbrokers. He also paid for it, suffering jail time and financial ruin for standing up to white power. Nevertheless, his suffering as a conscientious objector enabled Mashpee to win state approval for the community to become a self-governing district.

Gura contributes important details to Apess biography by tracing his activities during the last few years of his life, 1837-39, after he had had left Mashpee and published his now-famous Eulogy to King Philip, comparing the historic Wampanoag war leader favorably to George Washington. Gura’s use (it would appear) of recently developed online newspaper databases allows him to track down Apess’s speaking engagements in Boston, Washington, DC, and New York City, and to place Apess once again within the broader network antebellum activists, such as the Tappan family, and the lecture-going audiences of New York’s Mercantile Library. The effect is to bring Apess closer to three-dimensional form in the last days before he died in New York’s downtrodden River Ward neighborhood.

Yet if Gura succeeds admirably on that front, he falls a bit short in considering how Apess was shaped by similar debates over Christianity and justice within the ranks of New England Indians. In so many respects, Apess’s critique of American society echoed that of the Mohegan preachers, Samson Occom and Joseph Johnson, a generation earlier. Their legacies must have remained a topic of conversation in Apess’s indigenous network, and formed an influence on his decision to preach and write. After all, Occom’s role, not only as a minister, but as the first published Native American autobiographer, sermonizer, and psalmist, had set the groundwork for Apess’s career as lecturer and writer.[3] 

It is also likely that Apess was influenced by the political activism of Christian Indian community of Brothertown, which Occom and Johnson had helped to create. Made up of Christian Indians from throughout Long Island Sound, including Pequots, by the 1820s and 30s the Brothertown community had relocated to Wisconsin, where it was fighting desperately to preserve its lands from ongoing white encroachment. In the end, its people decided to petition for US citizenship, which they called “becoming white,” though in the hopes of defending their status as a distinct Indian town. Neighboring groups of Christian Indians, including the Stockbridge Mohicans and Duck Creek Oneidas, faced similar dilemmas, with the Stockbridges going so far as to write a new constitution for the community modeled on the US frame of government, a measure reflecting the legal activism of the Cherokees and Creeks in the face of the 1830 Removal Act. Apess would have known about these struggles, as people from Brothertown commonly returned to southern New England to visit relatives and pursue legal battles, just as New England Indians occasionally ventured to Brothertown. He also would have known of how these people, like him, interpreted the racial injustice perpetrated by white society as Christian hypocrisy. Christianity and race were deeply intertwined on multiple fronts in antebellum America, more than even Gura’s fine work acknowledges.[4]

This shortcoming aside, Gura has produced an accessible, deeply researched, and learned account of the life of William Apess and his times.  It deserves to be widely read, assigned, and considered. 


[1]. Barry O’Connell, ed., On Our Own Ground: The Complete Writings of William Apess, a Pequot (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992).

[2]. Daniel R. Mandell, Tribe, Race, History:  Native Americans in Southern New England, 1780-1880 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), and “Shifting Boundaries of Race and Ethnicity: Indian-Black Intermarriage in Southern New England, 1760-1880,” Journal of American History 85, no. 2 (1998-99): 466-501; Russel Lawrence Barsh, “‘Colored’ Seamen in the New England Whaling Industry: An Afro-Indian Consortium,” in The Indian-Black Experience in North America, ed. James F. Brooks (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002), 76-107; Jason R. Mancini, “Beyond Reservation: Indians, Maritime Labor, and Communities of Color from Eastern Long Island Sound,” in Perspectives on Gender, Race, Ethnicity, and Power in Maritime America, edGlenn S. Gordinier (Mystic, CT, Mystic Seaport Museum, 2006), 23-44; and Nancy Shoemaker, Native American Whalemen and the World: Indigenous Encounters and the Contingency of Race (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

[3]. Among many works on these figures, see Joanna Brooks, ed., The Collected Writings of Samson Occom, Mohegan: Leadership and Literature in Eighteenth-Century Native America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Laura J. Murray, ed., To Do Good to My Indian Brethren: The Writings of Joseph Johnson, 1751-1776 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998); and Hilary Wyss, English Letters and English Literacies: Reading, Writing, and New England Missionary Schools, 1750-1830 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

[4]. David J. Silverman, Red Brethren: The Brothertown and Stockbridge Indians and the Problem of Race in Early America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010); and Brad D.E. Jarvis, The Brothertown Nation of Indians: Land Ownership and Nationalism in Early America, 1740-1840 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010).

Printable Version:

Citation: David Silverman. Review of Gura, Philip F., The Life of William Apess, Pequot. H-SHEAR, H-Net Reviews. June, 2016.

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