Celebrating a native son — Pequot, soldier, writer


Staff Writer
Published: 10/7/2018 3:49:12 PM

COLRAIN — Born in Colrain in 1798, William Apess was a Pequot Indian, an American soldier in the War of 1812, a Methodist minister and the first Native American to publish a book-length narrative about his life. He also fought for tribal rights and was jailed for an act of civil disobedience, on behalf of the Mashpee Wampanoags.

Yet, few people in his historically rich hometown have ever heard of him. 

“William Apess (rhymes with A-press) may be Colrain’s most famous native son,” says Drew Lopenzina, author of a book about Apess and the colonial world he lived in.

On Saturday, Oct. 13, Griswold Memorial Library and the Colrain Historical Society will unveil a historic marker to commemorate Apess, at a celebration set for 11 a.m. in front of the library on Main Road.

Lopenzina, author of  “Through an Indian’s Looking-Glass: The Cultural Biography of William Apess, Pequot,” will be among four speakers present at the dedication. ​​​​​​Lopenzina is also an associate professor of early American and Native American literature at Old Dominion University in Virginia.

Apess wrote about own his life as a paper for his ordination as a minister. But he later expanded it into a book, “A Son of the Forest,” published in 1829 and written in English.

“My book is about William Apess trying to understand the lives of Native people, using his own life as a lens to look at what Native people were living through,” as Europeans moved through New England, says Lopenzina. 

Apess had a hard childhood: after his family left Colrain, and he and his siblings were taken from abusive grandparents in Connecticut and assigned to live with white families, as indentured servants until age 21. Apess, who was 5, was treated like family in the first household, where he was taught to read and write and learned about Christianity. But then he was traded to a new “master” who did not treat him well. He ran away at 15, fought in the U.S. Army during the War of 1812 and was stationed near the Canadian border, where some of the toughest battles were staged.

“Serving in the Army was a very common fate for native men,” Lopenzina explained. “It was a livelihood, and an expectation. So was being an indentured servant. And to become Christian was a common experience for Natives in the Northeast.”

“The unusual thing was that he learned to read and write, and had the ability to promote himself,” Lopenzina said. 

When Lopenzina set out to write his book about Apess in 2014, Colrain was his starting point. “Colrain was such a small town, but they’ve really done a good job of curating their own history.”

But Lopenzina could not find William Apess, or any of his relatives in the town records. Finally, in an 1802 book of records, under “negroes,” there was an entry for a brother of William Apess, who had died of dysentery.

When asked if Apess was black, Lopenzina said “William Apess was very circumspect about it. There was so much racial baggage, to be accused of being black and Indian was probably more weight than he could carry.”

Lopenzina said there is almost no mention of native people in local history books, except for King Phillip’s War. “The only mention is that Natives are the enemy, always on the perimeter (of society), ” he said.

Colrain, says Lopenzina, is where Apess was born and where he started his ministry. He gave his first sermon at a schoolhouse that was once on Catamount Hill, according to Lopenzina.

Later in his life, Apess participated in an act of civil disobedience, which Apess wrote about in his book: “Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts Relative to the Mashpee Tribe; or, The Pretended Riot Explained.”

At the time, said Lopenzina, this was a fight for self-determination and a rebellion from having corrupt overseers that kept the tribes under control. “It was a peaceful resistance against all the political systems that oppressed Native People,” said Lopenzina. The “revolt” was a refusal by the Mashpees to allow a government-appointed overseer from taking  a cartload of wood plundered from Mashpee land. When the overseer refused to unload his cart, the tribal people unloaded it and refused him the wood. For his involvement, Apess was sentenced to 30 days in jail.

Lopenzina wanted Colrain to have a bronze marker for Apess, to help make local people aware that Native Americans have had a history here. Donations for the bronze marker came from students of Native American studies, American Indian organizations and the Colrain Historical Society.

Other speakers at Saturday’s event will include Lisa Brooks, an Abenaki scholar who teaches Native American studies at Amherst College, Marge Bruchac, an anthropology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Rhonda Anderson of Colrain, a member of the Inupiaq/Athabaskan tribe.

The event is sponsored by the Nolumbeka Project, the library, Colrain Historical Society, and the University of Massachusetts Certificate Program in Native American and Indigenous Studies. 

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