Mashpee “Declaration of Independence”

May 21, 1833 - March 31, 1834 | Mashpee
Map of Mashpee (Marshpee) circa 1831 by John G. Hales

When William Apes, a traveling Pequot preacher, arrived at the Mashpee meetinghouse to preach to the Mashpee people in May 1833, he found that the congregation was overwhelmingly white, with only a few Native congregants. This was no accident; Phineas Fish, the white preacher whom Harvard had appointed as missionary to the Mashpee, used the meetinghouse and the congregation’s funding to serve the local white community, while the majority of the Mashpee met elsewhere to worship with their own preacher, “Blind Joe” Amos. (1)

On May 21st, Apes and a large group of Mashpee gathered at the schoolhouse for a meeting that lasted most of the day. The Mashpee shared their grievances. Local whites stole from Mashpee land, cutting wood, gathering hay and shellfish, and allowing their livestock to graze in Mashpee fields. The white overseers, who were officially responsible for safeguarding Mashpee interests, participated in the theft, as well. They shut down Mashpee complaints, effectively cutting off their only legal means of seeking justice.

By the end of the day, the Mashpee had officially adopted Apes into their tribe and established an external facing government to interact with the state and other institutions. More importantly, they had drafted a memorial, or petition, addressed to the governor of Massachusetts. It laid out their grievances with the current, unconstitutional system of overseer rule and ended with three resolutions:

“Resolved, That we, as a tribe, will rule ourselves, and have the right to do so ; for all men are born free and equal, says the Constitution of the country.

Resolved, That we will not permit any white man to come upon our plantation, to cut or carry off wood or hay, or any other article, without our permission, after the 1st of July next.

Resolved, That we will put said resolutions in force after that date, (July next,) with the penalty of binding and throwing them from the plantation, if they will not stay away without.”

Mashpee Revolt

Apes and other members of the tribe spent June spreading the word about the changes that would take effect on July 1st; in addition to posting their resolution locally, they also presented it to the Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, and Apes had it published in William Lloyd Garrison’s paper The Liberator, the official paper of the American Anti-Slavery Society. (2)

As the Mashpee expected, they had an opportunity to peacefully enforce their resolution on the day it went into effect. On July 1st, two white brothers from a neighboring community arrived in the Mashpee woods to take lumber. Apes and a small group of Mashpee repeatedly told the brothers to unload the wood from their wagon; when they refused, the Mashpee unloaded it for them. (1) The event was completely nonviolent; however, it was reported in the white press as “the Wood-Lot Riot."

The next day, the governor’s envoy, J.J. Fiske, arrived to investigate and suppress the Mashpee resolutions. He called a meeting for July 3rd at a local establishment owned by a white man. Daniel Amos, who had been elected president of the tribe, responded that they would meet the next day, in their meetinghouse, which they had finally taken back into their control. (3)

On July 4th, a large group of Mashpee, including Apes and Amos, met with Fiske and the overseers in the Mashpee meetinghouse. The Mashpee refused to back down. After Apes gave a speech in which he compared the Mashpee struggle to the American revolution and called for the immediate dismissal of the overseers, he was arrested, along Jacob Pocknett and Charles de Grasse. They would later serve a 30-day sentence in Barnstable County jail. [2] Rather than stopping the Mashpees’ fight for self-governance, the events of the 4th – Independence Day, a date strategically chosen by the Mashpee – helped the Mashpee garner more support for their cause.

Petition to the Massachusetts Legislature

After his release from jail, Apes traveled across New England, giving speeches and working to further the Mashpee cause. In January 1834, he and the Mashpee published another, more expansive, petition. Signed by 171 men and women and including the names of 116 presumed supporters who were likely aboard whaling ships at the time, the petition was addressed to the Massachusetts Senate and House of Representatives and asked, "...for liberty to manage their own property, for the abolition of overseership, for the incorporation of the Town of Mashpee, with liberty to form a municipal code of laws, for the appointment of one or more magistrates among them, and generally for a repeal of the existing laws placing them under guardianship, with the exception of the law preventing them from selling their lands, which they pray may be retained, and for redress of grievances. (4)

The petition, which Apes began drafting when he was jailed for the Mashpee Revolt (2), was strategically written to appeal to the Massachusetts legislature. It referred to the Constitution and evoked the American Revolution, both directly and indirectly. It laid out the Mashpee grievances against the system of overseer rule in great detail, ending with this eloquent plea: “...the blood of our fathers spilt in the Revolutionary War cries from the grounds of our native soil to [break] the chains of oppression and let our children go free.”

The petition was published in full in The Liberator, and Apes, tribe president Daniel Amos, and another Mashpee, Deacon Coombs, presented it to the Massachusetts legislature. A special legislative committee was called. Apes, Amos, Coombs, Ebenezer Attaquin, and others testified to the abuses of the overseers, while their lawyer argued that the Mashpees’ Constitutional rights were being violated. (5)

On March 31st, 1834, the committee ruled in favor of the Mashpee. (2) Mashpee regained its status as a district, and the government acknowledged the tribe’s right to elect its own leaders and selectmen. (6)


1. Apess, WIlliam; Snelling, William Joseph. "The Indian Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts, Relative to the Marshpee Tribe: or, The Pretended Riot Explained "(1835). The Internet Archive. ( https://archive.org/details/indiannullificat00apesuoft )

2. Lopenzina, Drew. “Letter from Barnstable Jail: William Apess and the “Memorial of the Mashpee Indians.”” Native American and Indigenous Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2 (2016), pp. 105-127 ( https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.gc.cuny.edu/stable/10.5749/natiindistudj.3.2.0105 )

3. Melissane Parm Schrems, « ‘We…Will Rule Ourselves’ : The Mashpee-Wampanoag Indians Claim Independence, 1776-1834 », Cercles 19 (2009), 37-54 (http://www.cercles.com/n19/schrems.pdf)

4. "Petition of the Mashpee Indians to the Senate and House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts." Native Northeast Portal.( https://nativenortheastportal.com/annotated-transcription/digcoll1834012900 )

5. Kleber, Michaela, ""The Pretended Riot Explained": Citizen Sovereignty and the Mashpee Revolt" (2015). Dissertations, Theses, and Masters Projects. William & Mary. Paper 1539626798.( https://dx.doi.org/doi:10.21220/s2-xdws-6j71 )

6. Nielsen, Donald M. “The Mashpee Indian Revolt of 1833” The New England Quarterly, Vol. 58, No. 3 (Sep., 1985), pp. 400-420 (https://www.jstor.org/stable/365039 )

Image: 1831 Plan of Mashpee by John G. Hales (Massachusetts Archives. https://ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/25152n36v)


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Mashpee Temperance Society

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William Apes

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Solomon Attaquin

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"Blind" Joe Amos

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