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  • Eulogy on William Apess:Speculations on His New York Death
  • Robert Warrior (bio)

"And while you ask yourselves, 'What do they, the Indians, want?' you have only to look at the unjust laws made for them and say, 'They want what I want.' "1 These words, spoken on two occasions in the Odeon Theatre in Boston in January 1836, are among the last history records of Pequot intellectual, William Apess, speaking in public. They come at the end of what is surely the pinnacle of Apess's intellectual career, his Eulogy on King Philip, a stunning revision of American history in which Apess condemns the historical and contemporary practices by which Natives lost and were losing their lands to invading Euroamerican. Apess delivered the eulogy on January 8, then again in what was apparently a sort of command performance encore on January 26 (O'Connell, On Our Own Ground275).

The Eulogy, published in two editions after it was delivered, is the last of Apess's five books, all of which are nonfiction. He also published an autobiography, A Son of the Forest, in two separate editions (1829 and 1831); The Increase of the Kingdom of Christ: A Sermon (1831); The Experiences of Five Christian Indians of the Pequot Tribe (1833); and Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts Relative to the Marshpee Tribe; or, The Pretended Riot Explained (1835) (O'Connell, On Our Own Ground lxxx-lxxxi). Each of these books is remarkable in its own way, especially given the extremely modest background of their author. "Apess's work," according to Jace Weaver, "must be viewed as resistance literature, affirming Indian cultural and political identity over against the dominant culture" (55).

Apess is among a number of Native intellectuals from the eighteenth [End Page 1] and nineteenth centuries to whom scholars have paid increasing attention over the past decade and more. Others include Samson Occom, Joseph Johnson, Peter Jones, Elias Boudinot, and George Copway. These scholars have produced a range of work that includes extremely helpful and illuminating anthologies and articles built around recovered writings to full-length archival and textual studies of multiple and single authors.2 The purpose of this paper, though, is not so much to add to what we know of Apess's texts, but to examine the circumstances surrounding his death in 1839, not in New England, but in New York City.

A New York Mystery

What happened to Apess after he departed the stage at the Odeon is shrouded in mystery; the contemporary realities of the 1830s and the attendant problem of Native invisibility in the northeastern United States surround his story outside of his published work. A year after his orations at the Odeon, Apess published second editions of both The Experiences of Five Christian Indians and Eulogy on King Philip, but has yet to show up in the historical record as having continued his life in the public eye. Indeed, the only public mentions of Apess are in court in debt actions. Even there, an inventory of his household goods appears while he does not.

For years, that was all that seemed possible to know after 1836. One early critic speculated that his political activities had made him violent enemies and that he had been murdered like his African American New England nationalist contemporary, David Walker (O'Connell, On Our Own Ground xxxviii-xxxix). Others assumed he fell into dissipation and died anonymously.3 Eventually, 1839 obituaries from New York City papers emerged in archival research, followed by transcripts of an inquest into Apess's death.4 Up to the point of the discovery of the New York obituaries, Apess seemed every bit a product of New England and every inch a New England writer. Then, somehow, Apess had moved from New England to New York City and had died there.5

The inquest, a document handwritten in script, offers no ironclad answers to the circumstances of Apess's death. In attendance were three witnesses: a wife named Elizabeth, the daughter of the owner of the [End Page 2] boarding house where Apess and his wife were living, and a fellow boarder. Apparently, Apess sought medical attention due to pain...


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