A Man Named Apes

Continuing on with this series of stories that didn't quite make it into Cape Cod Harvest, the following tale on William Apes was cut from Chapter 3 because we had a similar story about Apes in our first book, Cape Cod Companion. The chapter, entitled "Whigs, Tories, and Road Tax Collectors" focused on interesting Cape Codders from the past.

A Man Named Apes

During the 17th century, the territory of Mashpee was set aside for the local Native Americans with the understanding that no land "shall be granted to or purchased by any English whatsoever, by the court's allowance, without the consent of all the said Indians." The General Court then assigned white overseers to manage Mashpee's affairs, commencing a two-century struggle for home rule.

Eighteenth century petitions to Boston produced few results, prompting the local Wampanoags to send one of their own - Reuben Cognehew - across to England to speak directly to King George III about the plight of the Mashpee Indians. Though the King granted them some degree of autonomy, Mashpee's right to self-government was rescinded with the American Revolutionary War.

apes_307.With the 19th century, Mashpee Natives were again seeking home rule. Into this environment stepped a Pequot Indian named William Apes (in old woodcut on right). Born in 1798 at Colrain, Massachusetts into a broken family, he was raised by a white family (though his position in this household was perhaps less as a family member and more as a servant). Apes ran away, later serving during the War of 1812. Afterwards, he landed in Connecticut where he became baptized -- existing somewhere between the worlds of the whites and the Native Indians, yet not quite belonging to either. He studied religion and eventually became a Methodist preacher.

Apes preached equality, putting his message in print in 1831 with his first book, A Son of the Forest. Considered the first autobiography written by a Native American, its pages document "the experiences of William Apes, a native of the forest, comprising a notice of the Pequot tribe of Indians." His message appealed to both Natives and compassionate whites, opening many eyes to the lifestyle and plight of the Indians.

Two years later Apes arrived at Mashpee - one of the last Native American communities in New England. He was intrigued by their struggle for self-government. Teaming with Reverend "Blind" Joe Amos, minister of the Mashpee Baptist Church and a gifted orator, the two drew up a resolution that was signed by nearly 300 residents declaring that Mashpee's lands and shellfish areas were off-limits to white settlers. The first resolution stated: "That we, as a tribe, will rule ourselves, and have the right to do so; for all men are born free and equal, as says the Constitution of our country." A second resolution addressed immediate events impacting the Natives, stating that they would not permit anyone from outside the territory "to come upon our Plantation, to cut, or to carry off, wood, or hay, or any other article, without our permission."

White settlers forced the issue by trespassing on the territory, while Natives who tried to prevent them from taking their wood and hay were subsequently arrested. Among those arrested was Apes. In their defense, a Boston lawyer argued that the Natives' actions were "as justifiable ... as were our fathers' in throwing British tea into Boston Harbor." In 1834, Massachusetts ruled to allow the Mashpee Indians some form of home rule. It was a struggle that went on throughout much of the 19th century. (Mashpee residents eventually became citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1869, and on May 28, 1870 the town was incorporated "with all the powers, privileges, rights and immunities ... to which other towns are entitled.")

William Apes wrote more books, including The Experiences of Five Christian Indians of the Pequot Tribe (or The Indians' Looking-Glass for the White Men); Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts Relative to the Marshpee Tribe; and Eulogy on King Philip. In 1836, for reasons not completely understood, Apes changed the spelling of his name to "Apess." Perhaps he made this change due to the symbolic nature of the spelling of his name - Apes - which may have led whites to consider him "subhuman" and, thus, inferior. (It is of interest to note that during this period Charles Darwin published his Origin of the Species, proposing that humanity descended from the ape - or rather, that we share a similar early branch in our respective family trees.)

The events surrounding the remainder of Apes' life are largely unknown. He may have lived into the 1850s, though other sources suggest he died around 1839, spending some of his final years in Mashpee. Regardless of the accuracy of the dates, Reverend William Apes was clearly an early participant in the struggle for human rights - not only for Native American people, but for all people.

Jack Sheedy

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