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  • "Philip, King of the Pequots":The History of an Error
  • Roumiana Velikova (bio)

The 1831 edition of A Son of the Forest opens with a family genealogy, in which William Apess describes his paternal grandmother as "a female attached to the royal family of Philip, king of the Pequot tribe of Indians, so well known in that part of American history which relates to the wars between the whites and the natives." Apess insists that his claim to royal ancestry is motivated by holy "truth as I have received it," but as his twentieth-century editor Barry O'Connell is quick to notice, Apess has in fact confused the "well-known" historical facts: The Indian leader whom the English called King Philip belonged to the Wampanoag tribe and was, therefore, not a Pequot (O'Connell 4).1 The two tribes were involved in the two largest wars between Indians and colonists in Puritan New England—the Pequot War of 1637–38 and King Philip's War of 1675–76. In the latter, the Pequots sided with the English against the Wampanoags. Evidence of the enmity between Pequots and Wampanoags is available in even earlier annals of American history. The very first known mention of the Pequots, recorded from the observations of Dutch sailors in 1613–14, lists them as "Pequatoos . . . the enemies of the Wapanoos" (Starna 34). In short, Apess claims as his ancestor the chief of a tribe that had been traditionally inimical to his own.

Apess's self-representation as a Pequot descendant of King Philip has received mostly passing, but nevertheless highly significant, critical attention, beginning with O'Connell's suggestion that Apess may have either "deliberately" elided the Pequot and King Philip's wars or may have "just confused them" (4). Bernd C. Peyer prefers to see intentionality in Apess's error on the grounds that Native American autobiographers frequently claimed royal descent, and the early nineteenth-century Romantic rehabilitation of King Philip made him a highly visible cultural hero (Peyer 129). While Peyer's explanations are reasonable, they do not necessarily prove Apess's intentional misidentification of King Philip, especially since [End Page 311] Apess appears to have been misled by Elias Boudinot, one of his principal sources for the appendix to A Son of the Forest, who also misidentifies King Philip as a Pequot. Because in the appendix Apess relied heavily on the writings of white historians and so "repeated the anthropology and history of the colonists," including their errors (Sayre 8), critics generally have not treated Apess's family claim on King Philip as more than a result of confusion.

The fifth edition of the Norton Anthology goes beyond the question of intentional or unintentional error by silently correcting the misidentification of King Philip as a Pequot and introducing Apess as a descendant of a Wampanoag grandmother, herself the granddaughter of King Philip ("William Apess" 1045). Peyer is also inclined to give credence to Apess's genealogy by accentuating the ambiguity of Apess's ancestry as a possible mixture of Pequot and Wampanoag in addition to the Indian, white, and black that O'Connell has suggested (Peyer 129; O'Connell xxvii n.17). While the proposition of a possible Wampanoag blood connection may right the factual error as far as King Philip is concerned, it is not directly supported by any of Apess's texts, which insist on his descent from "one of the principal chiefs of the Pequot tribe" (O'Connell 314) and never once acknowledge awareness of a relation to the Wampanoags. Based on matrilineal descent, Apess was a Pequot because his mother was a full-blood member of the tribe. Apess's father, who was a mixed-blood, born of a white father and a Native American mother, "joined the Pequot tribe, to which he was maternally connected" (4). If Apess's paternal grandmother was Wampanoag, as the Norton Anthology proposes, it needs to be ascertained how she and her son gained admission into the Pequot tribe, and why the Wampanoags, with the exception of King Philip, are so curiously missing from all of Apess's writings.

The appointment of King Philip as Apess's Pequot ancestor occurs between the...


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