With the July 4th Declaration of Independence announced in Philadelphia, Mashpee saw the potential of freedom and independence. Some 64 people, mainly Wampanoags, from Mashpee joined this burst of freedom and went forth to fight in the American Revolution, with some 14 never returning, giving their lives for their new country.
Sadly—after fighting for American freedom and with independence won—many of the rights in Mashpee, including that of self-government achieved back in 1763, were taken away.
In 1789, an act by the General Court of the new Commonwealth of Massachusetts put Mashpee back under a board of overseers, selected without any input from the Wampanoags. This new board of five overseers had full power over the Wampanoags to establish rules and regulations, including the ability to indenture Wampanoag children.
Mashpee also had no control of the ministers sent here to administer to their spiritual needs. Harvard College had control and funded the Congregational ministers sent here.
It was during this time that Reverend Phineas Fish was settled here. Rev. Fish, who was paid through an endowment left to Harvard in 1711 for “the support of the blessed work of converting the poor Indians,” preached in English and his congregation consisted mainly of white families. He made little effort to connect with or assist the tribe. He also had control of the Meetinghouse.
Most of the Wampanoags preferred a local Baptist minister, the Reverend Joseph Amos, called “Blind Joe Amos.” The 25-year-old Mashpee minister, softspoken and self-taught, had a larger following than Rev. Fish. Because he didn’t have access to the Meetinghouse, Rev. Amos often preached outside, under the trees.
There was much discontent among Mashpee residents over the loss of their rights and over the failings of Rev. Fish. Whites from the nearby towns, meanwhile, were obtaining rights to the best woodlots and pastures for minimal fees, and the Mashpees’ standard of living was steadily worsening.
It was at this time that a charismatic Methodist minister would enter the Mashpee scene and set the course for a new Wampanoag Declaration of Independence. This Mashpee Thomas Jefferson was the Reverend William Apess. He was quickly adopted into the community and organized a small Methodist meeting and also joined in preaching with Blind Joe Amos.
By mid-June 1833, only six weeks after his arrival, the Mashpee community agreed to two petitions that were almost certainly written by Rev. Apess.
“The Indian Declaration of Independence,” addressed to the governor of Massachusetts and his council, proclaimed that after July 1, 1833 “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.”
The document specified that no white man would be permitted to take wood or cut hay in Mashpee after July 1 without the Indians’ explicit permission.
The declaration was signed by 102 of the Wampanoags and sent to the governor.
The second petition, to the Corporation of Harvard College, requested Rev. Fish’s dismissal. it also announced that they had chosen Rev. Apess for their minister and that they intended to take control of their meetinghouse.
This “Declaration of Independence” brought fear to many whites. With Rev. Fish spreading exaggerated reports of a violent Native American insurrection, Governor Levi Lincoln threatened to call out troops. In contrast, the Wampanoags believed their declaration was reasonable and constitutional.
On July 1, two whites came onto tribal lands and began to haul away a cartload of wood. Rev. Apess himself discovered them and ordered them to stop. When they refused to unload the wood, the natives themselves unloaded the wagon and sent the whites on their way. The incident was known as the “Woodland Revolt.”
The Wampanoags’ Declaration of Independence came to a head appropriately on July 4, 1833, with a meeting with Josiah Fiske, representative of the governor, who had been sent down to bring an end to the “revolt.” Approximately 100 local natives packed the Indian Meetinghouse to express their concerns, meeting with Fiske and the overseers. Fiske listened to their concerns, but Rev. Apess was arrested for his involvement and then released that night on bail. He later served 30 days in jail and paid a $100 fine —an enormous sum in 1833.
Rev. Apess and the Wampanoags were not to be silenced, however.
They directly petitioned the Legislature to abolish the overseers, to incorporate the town, and to repeal all laws affecting the Mashpees, “with the exception of the law preventing their selling their lands.” In March 1834, the Legislature granted the substance of the petition and Mashpee was established as a self-governing district, with many of its rights restored. Rev. Fish, however, would hang on as minister until 1840.
The Mashpees had won a victory, at least temporarily, in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.