(continued from part III)
The woodlots of Mashpee were mostly probably near the Santuit River in the immediate vicinity of Reverend Fish’s parsonage which abutted Santuit less than a mile south of the Trout Mound grave. Given the need to haul the cordwood to Cotuit Bay for shipment to Nantucket, and the arrangement which permitted the Reverend Fish to lease logging rights to help defray his living expenses and the costs of the Indian Meetinghouse, one can assume the location of the woodlot at the center of this story of rebellion and nullification was somewhere near the current intersection of Routes 28 and 130 near the historical center of Wampanoag life near the nexus of the herring run and Santuit Pond. The lots were worked by two brothers, Joseph and William Sampson, sons of Squire Josiah Sampson, the landowner who built “Sampson’s Folly” on the Old Kings Road and owned the grist mill on the Santuit River near the site of Maushop Stables, a horse farm and equestrian center near greens and fairways of the modern Willowbend golf course. The Sampsons were Cotuit gentry, an old colonial family intermarried with the Crockers, perhaps the oldest and most venerable clan in colonial Santuit. They were landowners, and Sampson’s Island, the sand spit at the head of Cotuit Bay is named for them.
The Sampson brothers probably had a crew of men, perhaps even Wampanoags, to help them clear, cut, and stack the scrub oak and pine. Oxen were the preferred beast of burden on Cape Cod, so one can picture a group of men, in shirtsleeves on a humid early summer day, toiling in the shady woods with the back breaking task of loading chopped piles of wood onto wagons for the two mile trip down a sandy Main Street to the piers around Cotuit’s Hooper’s Landing. It would have been of no surprise to the Sampsons or any white man living in the area, that the tribe was agitated and looking for a confrontation. In fact, Apess wrote afterwards the Sampsons “were known to have vowed to disregard the Mashpee’s declarations” to stay out of Mashpee. The events of July 1, 1833, a deadline declared by Apess and the tribe in their grievances were foretold and to be expected: the Reverend Fish’s panicked missive to the Governor, the shrill attention paid to the affair in the Barnstable Patriot, and the fact that most of the congregation in the “Indian” meetinghouse were white parishioners from Santuit and Cotuit doubtlessly made the Wampanoag’s growing unrest a topic of hot discussion and the source of great fear. The events that took place that Monday morning had been set into motion months before.
It began when Apess went for a “walk” in the woods that morning. The Sampsons and two other men were loading wood onto a wagon. Doubtlessly they had been working the lot for sometime, the sounds of axes and saws and their labor announcing their intention for sometime, so while Apess’ account of the events makes it appear it was a chance encounter, on may assume he was out looking for trouble at a known location of white incursion.
Apess confronted the four whites, told them to unload the wagons and leave, and when they refused, he left to gather some support, returning soon thereafter with eight Wampanoag men.
No punches were thrown or weapons brandished. There is no record of a fight or assault of any kind and the confrontation ended with the departure of the whites from Mashpee back over the Santuit River to Cotuit. And so ended one of the first acts of peaceful civil disobedience by a native tribe in the history of the United States, an act made by one of the first tribes to be subjugated, defeated and assimilated by the whites, a precursor to decades of rebellion, atrocity and contempt between other tribes as the country expanded west to find its manifest destiny and uprooted one tribe after another. Wounded Knee, Little Big Horn, the Trail of Tears … what happened in the woods that morning was perhaps the first and most overlooked statement of independence and revolt by a native tribe in the two hundred year history of white/Indian relations.
As Apess and the Wampanoags made their stand, Governor Lincoln had been roused by the Reverend Fish’s panicked missive and sent a personal emissary, one Josiah Fiske, a member of the Governor’s Council, to Mashpee to investigate. Fiske arrived the following day, July 2, 1833 and spread the word that he wanted to meet with the tribe on Wednesday the 3rd. Fiske carried instructions from the Governor to “confine your actions to the application of the civil power…the Sheriff will, with your advice, call out the posse comitatus, and should there be reasons to fear the efficiency of this report, I will be present personally, to direct any military requisitions.”
Governor Lincoln was on the verge of sending in the militia to quell the Wampanoag rebellion.
Governor Levi Lincoln
No one showed up to Fiske’s meeting. In a classic power play, the tribe refused to acknowledge Fiske and instead, the president of the tribe, Daniel Amos,delivered to Fiske an invitation to meet the tribe at the meetinghouse. Ironically, the tribe, so alienated from the historic building given to them by Richard Bourne, a church that had turned its back on them and become a place of worship for Cotuit’s whites, didn’t have a key to their own meetinghouse and had to break in to open the door.
Fiske arrived at the meeting with the sheriff of Barnstable County, John Reed, in a display of legal force. Reed told the tribe they were breaking the law and Apess indignantly replied: “…the laws ought to be altered without delay, that it was perfectly manifest they were unconstitutional; and that, even if they were not so, there was nothing in them to authorize the white inhabitants to act as they had done.”
What Apess declared was the very contemporary concept of “nullification” that had been sweeping the political debate in the nation’s capital. Students of early American History know a central issue was the definition of federal versus state rights and striking a balance between local and central rule. In South Carolina, perhaps the most fervent hotbed of states rights, the US Senator John C. Calhoun had lobbied vigorously in Congress to shift power from the federal government back to the states, and the South Carolina legislature has passed an “Ordinance of Nullification” declaring some pernicious and unpopular federal tariffs to be unconstitutional. Apess seized on this political concept of “nullification” and afterwards, in his account of the Woodlot Revolt, referred to it as an act of nullification by the Wampanoags, essentially a rejection of the concept that Mashpee and its natives were subject to the laws of the United States of America and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Nullification, in the context of the events of 1833, was a statement of sovereign status, in essence declaring the “plantation of Marshpee” to be its own political entity, an “island” ruled by its people, and not the laws of those towns and counties and state that surrounded it like an ocean of American regulations.
Nullification for the Wampanoags was nothing less than a declaration that they rejected the paternal overseer system, rejected the authority of Harvard College to select its minister, and that they were going to revert to the intentions of Richard Bourne in declaring Mashpee to be an autonomous place owned by Wampanoags, governed by Wampanoags, and free from the rule of American law.
Whatever the eloquent Pequot activist said on July 4, 1833 to Fiske and Sheriff Reed, it didn’t matter. Apess was arrested on the spot by Reed and hauled off to jail in Barnstable village where he was arraigned on charges of inciting a riot and trespassing. Fiske immediately wrote the Governor that the arrest “had the desired effect” and that the rebellion was crushed. He described Apess’ arrest: “The Indians seemed to have forgotten for a moment that they had muskets with them, and looked with perfect amazement at the sheriff when he had taken their champion from the Moderator’s seat in the meetinghouse and conducted him with great dignity to a seat in his carriage at the door.”
Apess was released on bail after a few nights in jail and returned to Mashpee. The whites in Cotuit and throughout the Cape were not pleased that he was free. Apess wrote: ”
Apess on the white reaction: “They bellowed like mad bulls and spouted like whales mortally gored by the harpoon, I do not think the figure of speech would be too strong. There was a great deal of loose talk and a pretty considerable uproar.”
No one expected that Apess would be able to keep up his agitation for long, and certainly no one expected a white man to come to his defense. But one brilliantly did, a Cape Cod native and attorney, Benjamin F. Hallett. Born in Barnstable, educated at Brown, Hallet studied the law and began a career as a liberal journalist in Providence, the progressive traditional refuge of liberalism and tolerance founded by Roger William in reaction to the tyrannical strictures of the old witch burning Puritans. Hallett went on to be editor of the Boston Advocate and the Boston Daily Advertiser – this was the golden age of very politically biased newspapers and Hallett’s were definitely far to the left, presaging the abolitionist movement blossoming among the intellectual Brahmins of Boston and Concord. An active Democrat, Hallett was anti-Masonic and very outspoken. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress later in his career, and eventually was appointed the United Stated District Attorney for Massachusetts by President Franklin Pierce.
Apess could not have asked for a better defender than Hallett. Not only was Hallett a Cape Codder, he was a skilled and excellent litigator backed by the power of his own newspaper. Hallett made Apess famous among the abolitionists of Boston, rallying to the Pequot minister’s defense the sympathies of what would become the most disruptive political force in the mid-1800s. Hallett defended Apess on the charges, had them dismissed, but promptly took the case further by filing legislation on Beacon Hill to resolve the status of the tribe once and for all. He argued:
- The Mashpee Wampanoags never consented to the white’s “guardian” system that took control of their finances and affairs via the board of overseers.
- The actions of the whites towards the Wampanoags, beginning with the formation of the plantation by Bourne, and then thereafter, respected the Wampanoag’s superior title to the land. This was key in that the English legal system cherished the concept of private property and deeds, something utterly foreign to the Wampanoags but which they were blessed with by the foresight of Bourne in creating and deeding to them the lands of Mashpee for their own use and not the use or sale to the whites.
- Finally, Hallett seized on the fact that there was no treaty in place between the whites and the Wampanoags as was the case with other tribes in the mid- and far-western parts of the country. Because there was no treaty defining their status, the Wampanoags — Hallett argued — they remained a sovereign nation subject to no white laws or taxation.
Accompanied by Apess, Joseph Amos and Issac Combs, Hallett went to the state house in Boston to make his case for Wampanoag independence. The legislature agreed and in March 1834, the legislature abolished the board of overseers, appointed a one-person “commissioner” to act at the State’s liason with the tribe, and refused to intervene with the religious issues defined by the situation concerning Phineas Fish and his “employer:” Harvard College. Harvard’s President Josiah Quincy dispatched the Reverend James Walker to travel to Mashpee and report on the spiritual situation. Apess, for reasons unknown, renounced his Methodist ordination and started his own “Free and United Church” while Blind Joe Amos continued to lead the popular Baptist Congregation and Phineas Fish muddled along with his all white Congregationalists who raised the funds to build him a church of his own in Santuit (it isn’t clear if Fish ever preached another sermon after the July 4, 1833 meeting in the Indian Meetinghouse that resulted in Apess’ arrest, but he eventually moved into his own church within Santuit proper.
Harvard’s emissary, Reverend Walker, wrote in a report entitled “Facts in Regard to the Difficulties at Marshpee” that Apess was “now understood to be rapidly losing the Indians’ confidence and not without good reason.”
While all but forgotten until Apess’ memoirs were republished in the 1990s, the Mashpee Woodlot Revolt stands as a significant milestone in native-white relations in America. The Wampanoags enjoyed a period of self-rule until 1870 when the tribe eventually petitioned the Commonwealth to incorporate Mashpee as a town, a controversial move sought by non-Wampanoag spouses who wanted the same rights they had enjoyed outside of the plantation such as the vote. Harvard stopped the practice of sending ministers to Mashpee. Fish moved out of town and continued to minister to his flock in his new church in Santuit.
Apess? Well he did indeed fall out of favor in Mashpee — he was an outsider and while part-Pequot was not a Wampanoag. In 1838 all he owned in Mashpee was sold for debts in a bankruptcy action. In 1839 he died suddenly in a boarding house in New York City and was buried with little to no fanfare.
When he writings were rediscovered by historians it was a revelation that such an eloquent, literate, passionate voice had once spoken so passionately for Indian rights at a time when slavery was still the law of the land and Indians, blacks and other dispossessed members of society were completely dismissed and subjugated by 19th Century America. Apess’ actions in Mashpeen in 1833 displayed an activism and passion for civil disobedience that presaged Henry David Thoreau’s famous essay on Civil Disobedience sixteen years later. Apess and the cause of the Wampanoags ignited abolitionist sympathies in Boston, helping coalesce a movement that was to drive the country to war within three decades.
As the historian Barry O’Connell wrote of Apess:
“In him, from a more tempered perspective, might be recognized a masterful polemicist and a canny strategist in leading a small minority to persuade a dominant majority to treat the minority with some respect.”
[Presented to the Cotuit Historical Society in October 2013]