restricted access The Life of William Apess, Pequot by Philip F. Gura (review)
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The Life of William Apess, Pequot. By Philip F. Gura. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015. Pp. 205. $26.00 cloth)

When Barry O’Connell published On Our Own Ground: The Complete Writings of William Apess, a Pequot in 1992, few scholars of American history and culture knew much about the groundbreaking work of this nineteenth-century Native American preacher, author, and activist. Although William Apess has become better known since in academic circles, his extraordinary life and work has not yet been widely appreciated. Philip F. Gura’s meticulously researched and engaging book—the first full-length biography of Apess—seeks to remedy that. Written for a broad public audience, Gura’s book chronicles Apess’s life from his impoverished childhood to his peripatetic adolescence and conversion to Methodism to his activism on behalf of Native Americans. While Gura gleans many of the facts about Apess’s life from his 1829 autobiography, A Son of the Forest, and other published works, he situates that life in several important contexts that illuminate Apess’s influences and innovations as a writer and thinker.

The first of these contexts is the history of his tribe, the Pequots, who by the early nineteenth century were reduced in number and [End Page 241] struggling to maintain traditional lifeways. Gura connects the destitution Apess experienced as a child (within his own family and with white families to whom he was indentured) to the loss of land and culture the Pequots experienced, as well as to the economic and social effects of racism. Furthermore, Gura provides ample evidence to support his assertion that “in Apess’s case any efforts to make him relinquish his Indian ways ultimately proved unsuccessful” (p. 11).

The rise of Methodism in the United States is another context Gura provides for understanding Apess’s development. Gura notes, “Apess’s discovery of Methodism coincided with this denomination’s remarkable growth through large-scale revival meetings, the most famous of which had been the interdenominational gathering of thousands at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in 1801. Within a few years, Methodism had spread to Western New York state and rural New England” (p. 17). Apess was drawn to the egalitarian spirit of Methodist doctrine, especially their willingness to embrace people of all backgrounds. Engaging with diverse congregations and communities, Apess found “a complex social world where prejudice, humiliation, and disenfranchisement reigned but also where there was a rapidly growing consciousness among people of color of the injustice of such prejudice” (p. 37).

An especially valuable contribution of this biography is Gura’s identification of the abolitionist movement as a context for understanding Apess and his career. While others have noted Apess’s references to slavery and his use of abolitionist rhetoric (and the book includes an excellent bibliography of secondary sources), Gura situates Apess in specific locations, particularly New York and Boston in the 1830s, and among abolitionist writers and activists whose work was prominently circulated there, including David Walker, Maria Stewart, and William Lloyd Garrison. For example, Gura states, “That Apess spoke and was mentioned positively in [Garrison’s] the Liberator indicates his growing connections to the city’s radical reformers. He even got caught up in the abolitionist tenor of the city, for in Franklin Hall he gave an ‘Address on the Subject of Slavery,’” as well [End Page 242] as lectures in other well-known halls and churches in Boston (p. 63). Nonetheless, Gura shows that although Apess’s views of race were radicalized due to his association with abolitionists, his agenda and politics were not identical with theirs. Passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830 and the forced removal of Cherokees from Georgia also influenced Apess’s ideas about racial identity and Native American sovereignty and informed his subsequent advocacy for the Mashpee tribe in their challenge against the commonwealth of Massachusetts for the right to self-governance.

The concluding chapters of Gura’s book emphasize Apess’s mounting critique of American history, beginning with the Puritans’ sense of divine mission, which led to King Philip’s War, and extending in his own time to slavery, the government’s dispossession of the Cherokees, and...