Skip to main content Skip to main content

American Passages: A Literary Survey

Spirit of Nationalism William Apess (1798-1839)

[2121] Anonymous, Goffe Rallying the Men of Hadley [in Defense of Indian Attack during King Philip’s War, Hadley, Mass., 1675-76] (1883), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-75122].

William Apess composed the first published autobiography by a Native American. Born in Massachusetts, Apess was part of the Pequot tribe and claimed to count Metacomet, the Wampanoag leader known of the English as “King Philip,” among his ancestors. Metacomet’s courageous but unsuccessful resistance of the English settlers during King Philip’s War (1675-78) probably made him an appealing historical figure to Apess, who devoted his own life to asserting and defending Indian rights.

Few details of Apess’s life are known beyond those recorded in his 1829 autobiography, A Son of the Forest. Left by his parents to be raised by alcoholic and abusive grandparents, he was bound out as an indentured servant when he was very young. Apess lived with a series of white masters, but a combination of their unreasonable expectations and his own rebelliousness ensured that he never found a tenable situation as an apprentice or laborer. At the age of fifteen, Apess was converted to Methodism, an evangelical and radically egalitarian strain of the Protestant religion. Religious studies scholars have speculated that Methodism appealed to Native American communities not only because of its emphasis on equality, but also because its enthusiastic style and theology were more in keeping with Native American religions. Methodism was a controversial movement among European Americans, and Apess’s involvement in ecstatic religious meetings did not sit well with his master. Encountering “persecution and affliction and sorrow” in his master’s home, Apess ran away. He then enlisted in the army and served during an invasion of Canada in the War of 1812. In 1817, he returned to the Pequot community, where he soon began serving as a lay preacher. By 1829, the Methodist society had ordained him as a regular minister.

A Son of the Forest was published in 1830 in the midst of the national controversy over the Indian Removal Bill, the congressional act that legalized the federal government’s decision to force Native Americans off their traditional homelands east of the Mississippi River. Apess’s memoir implicitly challenges this injustice toward Native Americans by asserting Indians’ humanity, worth, and potential, using his own life as an example. Conforming to some of the conventions of a spiritual conversion narrative, Apess’s text situates his experiences within a Christian tradition and demonstrates his dedication to Christian values.

After the publication of A Son of the Forest, Apess became an increasingly outspoken critic of the wrongs white society perpetrated against Native Americans. In 1833 he published “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man,” an impassioned exposè2121 of the disjunction between the rhetoric of white Christianity and the reality of whites’ harsh treatment of Native Americans. In the mid-1830s, Apess also became involved in the Mashpee Indians’ struggle for self-government and control over their own land and resources. (The Mashpee are one branch of Wampanoag Indians living in Massachusetts.) His efforts to publicize their case and to articulate their grievances helped them eventually win the right of self-governance from the Massachusetts State Legislature. Apess’s final published work, the text of a lecture on King Philip that he delivered to a Boston audience in 1836, is a moving study of the history of white-Indian relations in early New England from the perspective of a Native American. Apparently exhausted by his efforts to fight for Indian rights, Apess stopped writing and publishing. Obituaries in New York newspapers report that he died of alcoholism.

Teaching Tips

  • Review the history of King Philip’s War with your students (the author biography of Mary Rowlandson and the context on “English Settlers’ Views of Native Americans” in Unit 3 contain background on this topic). Ask them to consider why Apess might have been invested in claiming Metacomet as an ancestor. What qualities in Metacomet’s history probably appealed to Apess? Why? How would Apess’s perceptions of King Philip’s War differ from white histories of the same event?
  • Ask students to pay attention to Apess’s use of scripture in “An Indian’s Looking-Glass.” You might point out that he does not employ biblical quotations in the first half of his essay. Why does Apess use the Bible when he does? How does he use scripture to back up his arguments? What kinds of passages does he choose?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: In “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man” Apess claims that the Indians of New England are “the most mean, abject, miserable race of beings in the world.” Why, according to Apess, has Native American society reached such a low point? What reasons does he give for the Indians’ abjection?
  2. Context: In the opening paragraphs of his “Eulogy on King Philip,” Apess twice compares Metacomet to George Washington. Why do you think Apess would have been interested in likening his Native American ancestor to Washington? How does he compare the respective “American Revolutions” led by each man? What associations and sentiments might Apess have been trying to generate in his Boston audience?
  3. Context: How does Apess’s use of Christian values and biblical quotations in “An Indian’s Looking-Glass” compare to Phillis Wheatley’s use of Christian imagery and language in her poetry?
  4. Exploration: Like Samson Occom, Apess trained as a minister and adopted white Christian values only to become frustrated by the disparity between Christian teachings and the harsh realities of white treatment of Native Americans. How does Apess’s “An Indian’s Looking-Glass” compare to Samson Occom’s “A Short Narrative of My Life”? What experiences do they have in common? Do they use similar strategies to protest unfair treatment of Native Americans? How are their protests different? How do they characterize white prejudice?
  5. Exploration: Apess was greatly influenced by the early Cherokee writers and the Cherokee struggle for their lands and for autonomy. Compare Apess’s polemical works to the Cherokee Memorials. What rhetorical strategies do they share? What is the purpose of each work?

Selected Archive Items

[1236John Eliot, The Holy Bible Containing the Old Testament and the New. Translated into the Indian Language (1663),
courtesy of Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania.
Commonly known as “The Eliot Bible,” this was the first Bible published in New England and appeared over one hundred years before the first complete English edition of the Bible was published in the American colonies. It is written in the language of the Massachuset and Wampanoag Indians. John Eliot, the “Apostle to the Indians,” composed his text to serve the cause of Native American conversion to Puritan Christianity, putting his faith in Native American redemption through their direct exposure to God’s word.

[2121Anonymous, Goffe Rallying the Men of Hadley [in Defense of Indian Attack During King Philip’s War, Hadley, Mass., 1675-76] (1883),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-75122].
Villages in western Massachusetts were subject to attack by Indians during King Philip’s War, an event that challenged the viability of English settlement in New England and led many to question why they had fallen so far from God’s favor and to wonder at the potential coming of the apocalypse.

[2469John Foster, Woodcut map of New England (1677),
courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.
This map is from William Hubbard’s The Present State of New-England, Being a Narrative of the Troubles with the Indians, printed and published by Foster in Boston in 1677.

[8688Arch C. Gerlach, editor, Map of Early Indian Tribes, Culture Areas, and Linguistic Stocks, from The National Atlas of the United States, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Geological Survey (1970),
courtesy of the General Libraries, the University of Texas at Austin.
The Cherokee Nation originally lived in the southeastern part of what is now the United States, but after the unsuccessful petitions of the Cherokee Memorials, they were removed to present-day Oklahoma.

[9024Samuel Occom, A Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, an Indian (1772),
courtesy of T. & S. Green.
This was the first text written and published by a Native American in English. It went through ten editions in the ten years after it was published.

[9039] William Apess, Eulogy on King Philip (1837),
courtesy of the Reed College Library.
This eulogy defied the traditional white interpretation of King Philip and sought to highlight the wrongs perpetrated by the Pilgrims.

[9040Anonymous, Philip [sic] Alias Metacomet of the Pokanoket (between 1850 and 1900),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-96234].
This full-length portrait of Metacomet shows him holding a rifle, with other Indians and mountains in the background.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6