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By Louise Harlow

Catalog 483 Lot 9. Apes, William. Louise Harlow spent some time giving us a really interesting overview of William Apes who fought for recognition of the rights of the Mashpee Indians in the 19th Century.

A tough early life.

William Apes was born on January 31, 1798, in Colrain, Massachusetts.

Town Seal of Colrain, MA

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. 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. Apes’ parents went to Colrain from Colchester, Connecticut, and Apes biographer Barry O’Connell speculates one reason for this was to elude Candace Apes’ slave master, who did not manumit her until 1805. Eventually, the family returned to its former home where, upon the parents’ separation, young William lived with his maternal grandparents.

Life with his grandparents was marked by abuse resulting in a severely broken arm, indenture to neighboring households, occasional friendships with local ruffians, and little formal schooling. Around 1809, at the height of the Second Great Awakening, an extremely sensitive religious disposition began to emerge. Apes sought to attend revivalist meetings and was impressionably receptive to the rhetorical conventions espoused by Calvinists. The youthful Apes 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.

Escape, Military and Ministry

The religious zeal of Apes contributed to his confused identity as an Indian. When berry-picking one afternoon with an adoptive white family, he encountered sun-tanned white women whom he thought were cruel Indians and fled. His interest in Christianity did not prevent a periodic flogging by various masters, who vacillated in permitting Apes to attend Methodist meetings. In early 1813, Apes finally ran away to New York City with another indentured youth and, prodded by unscrupulous drinking soldiers, enlisted in the Army as a drummer. Initially Apes 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.”Apes’ 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, Apes 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 in route to Connecticut.

William Apes

By the age of 19, Apes 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. Leaving the southeastern Connecticut home of maternal relatives to visit his father, who had resettled in Colrain, Apes 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, Apes 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. Only on a few occasions, such as one preaching tour in the Albany area, was his family able to be near him. Apes 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. Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts Relative to the Mashpee Tribe; or, The Pretended Riot Explained in 1835. Consists of his observations in addition to the reprinting of letters, depositions, and petitions to governing officials by the Wampanoag selectmen, and letters reprinted from regional newspapers. The Indian Nullification is one of the outstanding legal-related documents by a private individual in the nineteenth century.

William Apes and the Mashpee Indians

In 1763 the General Court incorporated Mashpee as a “plantation” or district belonging to the Native Americans residents.  Believing that Native people were incapable of running their own affairs, the lawmakers appointed white overseers.  During the Revolutionary years, when the call of freedom was heard throughout the land, the Indians repeatedly petitioned for self-government and were repeatedly turned down.  They fared no better with the legislature of the new state of Massachusetts.

In the early 1800’s, the Indians living in Mashpee became increasingly frustrated with the status quo.  As the population on the Cape grew, so did pressure on its resources; it became common practice for white residents form other towns to cut firewood in Mashpee’s woodlands and to take shellfish from Mashpee waters.

Although the Indians protested, the overseers took no action.  Even worse, the overseers allowed white farmers from other towns to lease grazing land in Mashpee.  When the Indians protested, their complaints were ignored.  The Indians were also distressed that the white minister assigned to Mashpee had little respect for the Native people that he discouraged them from attending services.

In 1833 the self-educated Methodist Preacher William Apes arrived in Mashpee.  A Pequot Indian, Apes was an itinerant missionary who moved about New England preaching to the scattered remnants of native communities.  He was horrified at what he saw in Mashpee.

On May 21, 1833, Apes helped the council draft a formal protest.  It drew on words written by the Founding Fathers.  The Mashpee demanded to be free of the overseers, whom they referred to as their “masters.” The document set forth their chief grievances.  Governance by white outsiders, who refused to consult the tribe about anything, as demeaning and intolerable.  The Mashpee asserted their right to rule themselves.  The overseers misused their authority to dispose of Native American Property as they pleased; meadows and woodlots were auctioned off, other land was rented out, and white farmers were permitted to let their cattle graze on Indian pastures and to take fish from Indian waters.  The Mashpee lived in poverty while the white men charged to oversee them, grew rich.

The document concluded with a resolution: As of July 1, 1833, the Indians of Mashpee would no longer tolerate encroachment on their lands. They would not “permit any white man to come upon our plantation to cut or carry our wood or hay . . . without our permission.” Almost 100 women and men signed the petition.

White residents of Massachusetts were alarmed, fearing violence. Stories about a potential “Woodlot War” ran in the press, and Governor Levi Lincoln promised to call out the state militia if necessary.

Gov. Levi Lincoln


On July 1st, in a test of the Indians’ resolve, two men from nearby Barnstable arrived in Mashpee and began to cut wood on Wampanoag property and load it into their wagons. The Indians objected and unloaded the wagons. “Very bitter language” was used, and the white men left. Soon after, court officers arrested William Apes and several other native men and charged them with “riot, assault, and trespass.” All were convicted and Apes sentenced to 30 days in jail.

But the confrontation brought change. A delegation sent from Boston to investigate the dispute produced a scathing report. By March of 1834, Boston abolitionist William Garrison had taken up the Mashpee’s’ cause. He helped pressure the legislature to create the Indian District of Mashpee. For the first time in nearly 200 years Indians living on Cape Cod gained the right to govern themselves. Mashpee was incorporated as a town in 1870.

The “Old Indian Meeting House”, built in 1684 at Mashpee, it is the oldest Native American church in the United States.

The Struggle Continues

In 1978, a trial began on Cape Cod to determine whether the Mashpee Indians met the legal definition of a tribe. If they did, they could sue for the return of land granted to them in 1685. With huge amounts of undeveloped land at stake, Mashpee’s non-Indian residents hired lawyers. The defense argued that the Mashpee Wampanoag had intermarried with so many different groups over the years that they were no longer genetically the same people as the original Mashpee. The lawyers also claimed that the Mashpee had not maintained their traditions. After a 40-day trial, the judge declared that the Mashpee Wampanoag did not meet the legal definition of a tribe and therefore had no standing to sue. The case was dismissed.

Lot 9. Apes, William can be found here.

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