The Indians: The Ten Lost Tribes

Image: Mr. William Apes, a native missionary of the Pequot tribe of Indians, frontispiece. (Illman & Pilbrow, 1831) New York Public Library.
Why did some whites believe Indians were the Lost Tribes of Israel? What was Apess’ purpose in saying the belief was true? Was this belief on the part of whites positive or negative for Indians? Why?
William Apess was a Christian, yet many other Indians objected to the new religion the whites tried to impose on them. What reasons did Red Jacket give for his opposition?

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When Columbus returned to Spain at the conclusion of his first voyage in March 1493, he brought with him a number of captive Indians. This caused a problem for the Church. Biblical interpretation of the time clearly said that there were only three continents—Europe, Africa, and Asia—each populated by the descendants of a different son of Noah after the Flood. How, then, to account for the beings Columbus carried who appeared to be human?

A common theory was that Indians were descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. Early explorers and scholars scoured the Indians’ languages looking for words that resembled Hebrew and scrutinized their rituals to find similarities with those of the ancient Israelites.

William Apess (1798–1839), a Pequot, was a Methodist minister and one of the most prominent Indian public intellectuals of his time. He was also a tireless activist for Indian rights. On a number of occasions, as in the short talk printed here, he propounded the belief that the Indigenous peoples of the Americas were the Ten Lost Tribes. With sharp irony, he said that he had studied the issue and concluded that the theory was true. Apess turned the rhetoric of Christianity against whites to ask how, if Indians were the Lost Tribes, there was any possible reason for discrimination against them. On another occasion he went even further, saying that as he understood it, Jesus was a Middle Eastern Jew. That being the case, whose skin color was closer to his, that of whites or Apess’ own?

—Jace Weaver

William Apess, “The Indians, the Ten Lost Tribes,” in The Increase of the Kingdom of Christ: A Sermon (New York: by the author, 1831), 21–24, All italics in the original.

In my travels from place to place, I have frequently met with persons who have impiously called in question the being, majesty, power, and justice of the God of the universe. That men have but finite conceptions of the infinite glory with which the great first cause is surrounded is too well established to admit a single doubt—as reason and good sense, the world over, teach us that we cannot fathom a measureless depth with a measured line.

Some have ever arraigned the justice of God. I have been asked, time and again, whether I did not sincerely believe that God had more respect to the white man than to the untutored son of the forest. I answer, and always answer such, in the language of Scripture. “No: God is no respecter of persons.” I might meet a question of this kind by proposing another, viz., Is not the white man as sinful by nature as the red man? Uneducated, and unrenewed by divine grace, is he not a heathen, is he not an enemy to God and righteousness, prone to the commission of every crime, however flagrant in its nature and its tendencies? Does not the white man, however gifted, and eloquent, and learned, and popular, grow up and sicken and die?

With thinking men, those whose sentiments are worthy of regard, there is but one opinion, and that is that the soul of the Indian is immortal. And, indeed, the conviction rests with great force on the minds of many intelligent men, men of profound reasoning and deep and studious research, that the Indian tribes, now melting away like dewdrops in the morning’s sun, are no less than the remnant of that people, the records of whose history has been blotted out from among the nations of the earth—whose history, if history they have, is a series of cruelties and persecutions without a parallel. That nation, peculiarly and emphatically blessed of God—his own highly favored and chosen people, preserved by the wondrous interposition of divine power, brought up out of Egypt and their cruel bondage by miraculous means, inducted into the promised land flowing with milk and honey, but strong in the purposes of rebellion—their murmurs rose to heaven, calling loudly for vengeance. And when the Savior of sinners made his humble appearance on the earth, to redeem its inhabitants from the thralldom of sin and death and restore them to the favor of heaven, they received him not; they disdained him, simply because he did not come in princely splendor, swaying the conqueror’s scepter of blood and carnage, and dominion over the nations. They cried out, “He is not the Christ, crucify him, crucify him,” and nailed the Lord of the universe to the cross. They, like Pharaoh, hardened their hearts. Suddenly, the storm of divine wrath overtook them—their city, over which he who suffered on the cross had shed the tears of sorrow, was razed to the ground, and the once warlike and powerful nation of Jews melted away before the overwhelming and countless legions of foes that rose up to chastise and crush them.

That the Indians are indeed no other than the descendants of the ten lost tribes, the subscriber has no doubt. He is one of the few remaining descendants of a once powerful tribe of Indians, and he looks forward with a degree of confidence to the day as being not far distant when ample justice shall be done the red man by his white brother—when he shall be allowed that station in the scale of being and intelligence which unerring wisdom designed him to occupy.

It is a matter of deep and lasting regret that the character of the Indians, who occupied this widespread and goodly heritage, when men of pale faces came over the pierceless solitudes of the mighty ocean, with their large canoes, and were received with all the kindly feelings of native innocence—I say that it is deeply to be regretted that their character should be so grossly misrepresented and misunderstood. They have been accused of cruelty and perfidy of the basest nature—of crimes and vices of the most degrading cast. Again and again are the people of this happy land referred back to the period of its early settlement, and their attention directed to the smoking ruins of villages and the cries of suffering and distress. Scenes like these, I grant, are sufficient to harrow up the mind; but in contemplating the sufferings of their early brethren, the whites seem almost to forget the corroding sorrows of the poor Indians—the wrongs and calamities which were heaped upon them. Follow them into the deep recesses of their wilderness solitudes, hear their long and loud complaints, when driven by the pale faces whom they had kindly received, and cheerfully, in the fullness of their friendship, sustained through days and months of sorrow, and want, and affliction, from their happy homes, the resting place of their fathers. Can you wonder, friends, that they should have resisted, manfully, against the encroachment of their white neighbors?

But I think that history declares that, when this continent was first discovered, that its inhabitants were a harmless, inoffensive, obliging people. They were alike free from the blandishments and vices of civilized life. They received the strangers from the “world beyond the waters” with every token of esteem; high-minded, noble, generous, and confident to a fault, they placed implicit confidence in the professions of their visitors; they saw not the aim and design of the white man, and the chains of a cruel bondage were firmly entwined around them before the illusion was dispelled; and when their eyes were opened, they beheld naught as the portion of their cup but servitude and sorrow. Hundreds of thousands perished before the face of the white man. Suffice it to say, what is already known, that the white man came upon our shores—he grew taller and taller until his shadow was cast over all the land—in its shade the mighty tribes of olden time wilted away. A few, the remnant of multitudes long since gathered to their fathers, are all that remain; and they are on their march to eternity.

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