Thursday, February 18, 2010

William Apes, The American Indian Frederick Douglass?

While recently reading Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America I ran across an individual I had never heard of. That was not so surprising to me, considering my lack of Native American history knowledge. But what was surprising to me was learning that there was an Indian voice in the 1830s that evoked much of what Frederick Douglass would later say on behalf of African Americans.

William Apes (also spelled Apess) was born in 1798. His father was a mixed race Euro-Indian and his mother was, he said, a Pequot Indian, but may have been of mixed race Indian-African ancestry. He was left to his abusive grandparents when he was a child and then when he was five he was apprenticed to a white family, through which he received a partial education.

He enlisted in a New York regiment as a drummer and fought in the War of 1812 in Canadian actions. After the war he wandered the New York-Canadian border and developed an addiction to alcohol that would plague him the rest of his life. In 1818, he "found religion" and became a licensed Methodist exhorter. I suppose that was just a step down from a preacher in those days.

In 1829 he wrote his autobiography, A Son of the Forest. He put out two more books in 1831, The Increase of the Kingdom of Christ: A Sermon, and The Indians: The Ten Lost Tribes. In 1833 he wrote, The Experiences of Five Christian Indians of the Pequot Tribe; or An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man.

Apes seemingly kept an eye on national politics, and particularly President Andrew Jackson's evolving plan of Indian removal. In 1836 he delivered a speech titled "Eulogy on King Philip." In this lecture he explained his perspective on how Indians had been treated over the years. King Philip, or Metacom (his Indian name), you might recall was a Wampanoag leader who lead a revolt against the English in Massachusetts in 1675 when diplomatic efforts broke down between the two belligerents. King Philip was killed in 1676 by an Indian that was a soldier for the English forces and that basically ended the fighting but not the ill will between the colonists and the indigenous population.

As I read through Apes' "Eulogy on King Philip" it struck me as sounding very familiar. It finally dawned on me that it reminded me a lot of Frederick Douglass' "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?," which was given on July 5, 1852 (see my July 2, 2009 post). Instead of emphasizing the irony of the Fourth of July to enslaved African Americans as Douglass did, Apes highlighted the incongruity of celebrating the Mayflower landing (and Fourth of July) to the Indians. The following is that quote:

"Let the children of the pilgrims blush, while the son of the forest drops a tear, and groans over the fate of his murdered and departed fathers. He would say to the sons of the pilgrims, (as Job said about his birthday), let the day be dark, the 22d day of December, 1620; let it be forgotten in your celebration, in your speeches, and by the burying of the Rock that your fathers first put their foot upon. For be it remembered, although the gospel is said to be glad tidings to all people, yet we poor Indians never have found those who brought it as messengers of mercy, but contrawise. We say, therefore, let every man of color wrap himself in mourning, for the 22nd of December and the 4th of July are days of mourning and not of joy."

I don't know if Douglass had read Apes' "Eulogy on King Philip" and drew inspiration for his speech in 1852, but I would not be surprised to find that he did.


  1. Hi Tim! Just wondering if you ever found a connection between William Apes and Fredrick Douglass? I'd love to know if you did. You can email me personally at mirandapaulbooks [at] gmail [dot] com (without the brackets, of course). Thanks for posting this. I was glad to read about it.

  2. Hi Miranda,
    No, unfortunately I have not found any link between Apes and Douglass. But, that doesn't mean that the abolitionist wasn't at least aware of this influential American Indian.

    If I do turn up something I will certainly let you know.

  3. Maybe you did't read Frederick Douglas's rebuttal to going to Africa, Liberia? He clearly said we not African! I know people who were took to Africa as an alternative to emancipation, so this is very serious to us & offensive to Americans who know we are not African! His wife was German, he indian, now his kids African American; silly & foolish!