William Apess (1798–1839) was a Native American writer, preacher and politician of the Pequot tribe.
Born to mixed-blood parents William and Candace (she may have been part African-American), Apess spent his life until the age of five living in the woods around Colrain, Massachusetts. He was then indentured to a series of white families, who, while employing him as a servant, also provided him with an education. Apess eventually ran away and joined a militia in New York, fighting in the War of 1812. Aged only sixteen, Apess had already acquired the severe alcoholism that would dog him for the rest of his life, ultimately killing him.
The years 1816 to 1818 were spent doing varied jobs in Canada, but wearied by drink dependency Apess decided to return home to his family and tribe. Within a short period he managed to re-establish his sense of himself as a Pequot tribal member, but also began to attend meetings of the local Methodist groups. He was baptised in December 1818.
In 1821, Apess married Mary Wood, and the couple went on to have three children. During this period he became ever more convinced of a vocation to preach, and in 1829 he was ordained as a Methodist minister. In the same year he published A Son of the Forest: The Experience of William Apess, A Native of the Forest, Comprising a Notice of the Pequod Tribe of Indians, Written by Himself, his autobiography. Written at least partly in reaction to President Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Act, this autobiography was the first wholly Native-authored book to be published. It uses the format of the spiritual confession to ironically comment on white prejudices about Natives.
As was the Methodist practice of the day, Apess and his family became itinerants, preaching in meetings all over New England to mixed congregations that would have included Native, Euro-American and African-American worshippers. In 1833, following a visit to the town of Mashpee, the largest Native town in Massachusetts, Apess became convinced that the State was acting illegally in denying the Mashpees self-government. This lead to the so-called Mashpee Revolt - in reality a peaceful protest by Natives lead by Apess, which was met with threats of military force by the State Governor Levi Lincoln, Jr.
During the period 1831-1836, Apess published several sermons, and became known as a powerful speaker. However, dogged by alcoholism and with an increasing sense of injustice at white treatment of Natives, he gradually lost the respect in which he had been held, with even Mashpee groups distancing themselves from him. After preaching and then publishing an excoriating eulogy for King Philip in 1836, Apess fell into obscurity.
Details of his later life are unknown, until his death from drink in 1839. In his obituary, a newspaper commented that "In New York, it appears that for some time past, his conduct had been quite irregular, and he had lost the confidence of the best portions of the community.... He has occasionally indulged much too freely in drink, and would take frolics that would continue for a week or two."