Commonly (mis)attributed to William Apess: The Indian's Prayer (ca. 1835)

Commonly (mis)attributed to William Apess: The Indian's Prayer (ca. 1835)

[Thomas Daniel Cowdell (1769-1833)], Hymn: The Indian's Prayer . . . [caption title]. [Boston]: Shepley & Wright, Printers, Congress Street, [1835 or 1836?]. Broadside, approx. 8.625 x 5.25 inches. With five printed staves of three-part music. First separate edition. A fine copy.

     A once popular Methodist hymn, “In de dark wood, no Indian nigh” has been attributed to the Pequot author William Apess (1798- 1839) since the nineteenth century, though it was in fact by Cowdell, a British emigrant to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

     The misattribution is largely due to the printing of the the hymn at the end of the second edition (1831) of Apess's autobiography, A Son of the Forest. Ordained as a Methodist minister in 1829, Apess, who was of mixed ancestry, was one of the principal leaders of the Mashpee Revolt of 1833-1834, and an articulate advocate of Native rights. Though it is undeniable that the Muses do sometimes lead writers in strange directions, it is hard to reconcile the political sentiments and eloquence of Apess's own works with the broken dialect of the "untutored Indian" of the hymn. The literary historian Drew Lopenzina links the misinformation to a larger systematic process that elides the oppositional politics of Indigenous populations by recasting their legacies into terms more acceptable to their colonizers.

      Although printed versions generally credit Apess or an unknown Native author, the hymn was in fact written by Thomas Daniel Cowdell. Born in London, Cowdell converted to Methodism in 1784. In 1789, he emigrated to Halifax, where he opened a dry good shop on Duke Street near the Theatre Royal and practiced as a lay preacher, crossing swords with Rev. William Black (1760-1834), the founder of the Methodist movement in the Maritimes. "An Indian Hymn" appeared first in the 1811 edition of his book, The Nova Scotia minstrel, which he called “the first Fruit of a distant Colony offered to its Parent Isle.” Cowdell attributed the "sentiment and air" of the hymn to "an American Indian." The piece was reprinted in an 1814 issue of The Youth's Magazine, and it was likely from there that it entered the hymnodic canon, appearing in dozens of compilations in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The hymn is frequently referenced in personal accounts of missionary endeavors in Canada. The Scottish missionary Cunningham Geike (1824-1906) recalled hearing it during his excursions into the "Canadian Bush." The hymn was reprinted in the journal of the Carlisle School, which sought to assimilate Native pupils into the dominant White culture. In the 1850s the Baptist missionary Silas Tertius Rand (1810-1889) translated it into Mi'kmaq.

     The present broadside, which represents the first separate printing of the hymn, is testimony to its popularity in the early nineteenth century, and was likely intended for use in a Methodist liturgical or missionary context (this copy was found among the effects of a minister on the Maine Coast just south of Belfast). The broadside is one of the very few publications of the ephemeral firm of Shepley & Wright. The company was established around 1835, when Albert Judd Wright's uncle sold half of his printing business to Luke Shepley and left the other half in charge of his nephew. Shepley & Wright specialized in music publishing, and issued a handful of choral works before Shepley sold his interest around 1836. 

     The broadside is rare, with copies currently recorded only at the Massachusetts Historical Society and at Harvard.


  • Bishop, J. Leander. A history of American manufactures from 1608 to 1860... : comprising annals of the industry of the United States in machinery, manufactures and useful arts, with a notice of the important inventions, tariffs, and the results of each decennial census. With an appendix, containing statistics of the principal manufacturing centres, and descriptions of remarkable manufactories at the present time (Philadelphia : E. Young, 1866), I: 670-671.
  • Butterworth, Hezekiah. The Story of the Hymns (American Tract Society, 1875), pp. 181-82
  • Cowdell, Thomas Daniel. The Nova Scotia minstrel: written on a tour from North America to Great Britain and Ireland, with suitable reflections and moral songs adapted to popular airs (Dublin: Printed for the author, 1817), pp. 18-19.
  • ----- (as T. D. C.), "An Indian Hymn," The Youth's Magazine or Evangelical Miscellany (November, 1814), pp. 394-95.
  • Lopenzina, Drew. "In de dark wood, no Indian nigh": William Apess and the "Indian Hymn." Early American Literature 55 (2020): pp. 473-98.
  • Metcalfe, Frank J. American writers and Compilers of sacred music (Abingdon Press, 1925), pp. 333-36.
  • Pilling, James Constantine. Bibliography of the Algonquin Languages (GPO, 1891), p. 419.
  • Vincent, Thomas B. "Thomas Daniel Cowdell," DCB/DBC, vol VI.

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    Commonly (mis)attributed to William Apess: The Indian's Prayer (ca. 1835)