| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
George Copway (Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh; Ojibwa)
Born in 1818 near the mouth of the Trent River in Upper Canada,
Copway was raised as a traditional Ojibwa until 1827, when his parents
converted to Christianity. In 1830, Copway became a Christian convert and later
occasionally attended the Methodist Mission School at Rice Lake, Ontario.
During 1834–37, he helped Methodist missionaries spread the gospel among the
Lake Superior Ojibwa. In 1838 he entered Ebenezer Manual Labor School at
Jacksonville, Illinois, where for the next nineteen months he received his only
formal education. After he left school, Copway traveled in the East before
returning to Rice Lake, where he met and married Elizabeth Howell, a white
woman. An educated and genteel woman, who wrote numerous articles in her own
right and whose letters reveal a polished writing style, Elizabeth Copway may
have assisted her husband in his writing.
Until 1842 the Copways
served as missionaries to the Indian tribes of Wisconsin and Minnesota. The
high point of Copway’s career in Canadian Indian affairs was his election in
1845 as vice president of the Grand Council of Methodist Ojibwas of Upper
Canada. Later that year he was accused of embezzlement. After being imprisoned
briefly in the summer of 1846, Copway was expelled from the Canadian Conference
of the Wesleyan Methodist Church and left Canada for the United States.
Befriended by American Methodists, Copway launched a new career as a lecturer
and writer on Indian affairs. His first book was his autobiography, The
Life, History and Travels (1847), later republished as The Life, Letters
and Speeches (New York: 1850) and as Recollections of a Forest Life
(London: 1850). Enthusiasm for this autobiography was so great that it was
reprinted in seven editions in one year.
In 1847, when the Life,
History and Travels was published, William Medill, Commissioner of Indian
Affairs, began efforts to secure Ojibwa removal from ceded territory to central
Minnesota. Despite the plea of a delegation of headmen to regain villages in
Wisconsin and upper Michigan, President Zachary Taylor in 1850 authorized
immediate and total removal of the Ojibwas from the land set aside for them in
1842. These removal efforts aroused Copway to lecture in the East, South, and
Midwest on his plan for a separate Indian state advocated in his pamphlet Organization
of a New Indian Territory, East of the Missouri River (1850). His lectures
in the East enabled him to meet the well-known scholars Henry Rowe Schoolcraft
and Francis Parkman as well as such famous writers as Longfellow, Irving, and
Cooper, who provided moral and financial encouragement for his later publishing
projects. Copway’s second book was The Traditional History and
Characteristic Sketches of the Ojibway Nation (London, 1850; Boston, 1851),
later republished as Indian Life and Indian History (1858). In this
first published, book-length history of the Ojibwa, Copway is far more critical
of whites than he was in his autobiography. Copway reached the zenith of his
career in the years 1850–51, when he was selected to represent the Christian
Indians at the Peace Congress held in Germany. He lectured in Great Britain and
on the Continent before the Congress, where he created a great stir by
delivering a lengthy anti-war speech while garbed in his Ojibwa finery.
Returning from Europe
in December 1850, Copway hurriedly stitched together Running Sketches of Men
and Places, in England, France, Germany, Belgium, and Scotland (1851), one
of the first travel books by an Indian. Between July and fall 1851, Copway
established the short-lived journal Copway’s American Indian. Gradually
abandoned by his eastern intellectual friends because of his constant pleas for
money and beset by financial difficulties, he also endured the deaths of three
of his four children from August 1849 to January 1850.
Copway’s attempt to
support his family by lecturing was unsuccessful because his novelty had worn
off. Dropped by the eastern intellectuals, Copway was taken up by a nativist
group who called themselves “native Americans.” Members of this anti-immigrant,
anti-Roman Catholic group later established the political party known as the
“Know-Nothings.” Little is known of Copway’s later life. In 1864, he recruited
Canadian Indians to serve in the American Civil War, for which he received a
bounty. He surfaced again in 1867, when he advertised himself in the Detroit
Free Press as a healer. The following year, having abandoned his wife and
daughter, Copway arrived alone at the Lac-des-deux Montagnes, a large
Algonquian-Iroquois mission near Montreal. Describing himself as a pagan,
Copway became a Catholic convert and was baptized “Joseph-Antoine” on 17
January 1869. Several days later he died.
Copway’s autobiography incorporates traditions from earlier
personal narratives and American Indian oral narratives. It is divided into
four parts: an ethnographic account of Ojibwa culture; the conversions of his
band, family, and himself; his role as mediator between Indians and whites; and
a history of Ojibwa white relations in the recent past. Copway’s blending of
myth, history, and personal experience created a structure that later American
Indian autobiographies would follow.
In its nostalgia for
the lost tribal past, Copway’s autobiography bears a stronger relationship to
the narratives published by African slaves in the late eighteenth century than
to those by African American slaves in the nineteenth. In the ethnographic
sections on Ojibwa life, Copway adopts an overwhelmingly romantic and nostalgic
tone. Appealing to American affection for the Indian as a child of nature, he
also portrays himself as an example of the Indian’s adaptability to white
civilization. The ethnographic sections are designed to persuade his audience
of the value of tribal culture and the essential humanity of Indian people.
A. LaVonne Brown
Illinois at Chicago
In the Heath Anthology
from The Life of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh
The Life, History and Travels of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh (George Copway), a Young Indian Chief of the Ojebwa Nation, . . . A Sketch of the Present State of the Ojebwa Nation, in Regard to Christianity and Their Future Prospects
Organization of a New Indian Territory, East of the Missouri River. Arguments and Reasons Submitted to the honorable the Members of the Senate and House of Representatives to the 31st Congress of the United States
The Traditional History and Characteristic Sketches of the Ojibway Nation
Copway's American Indian
Running Sketches of Men and Places, in England, France, Germany, Belgium, and Scotland
There are no Cultural Objects for this author.
Would you like to add a Cultural Object?
There are no pedagogical assignments or approaches for this author.
Native American Authors Project
Biographical sketch and a bibliography of primary works.
Perspectives in American Literature
Paul Reuben's site providing a bibliography of secondary sources.
Handbook of Native American Literature, 1996
Dale T. Kobell, "Know-Nothings and Indians: Strange Bedfellows?" The Western Historical Quarterly 15 (1984): 175-98
A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff, "George Copway: Nineteenth-Century American Indian Autobiographer," Multi-cultural American Autobiography Issue, ed. Robert J. Payne, Spec. Issue of Auto-Biography 3.2(1987): 6-17
A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff, "Three Nineteenth-Century American Indian Autobiographers," Redefining American Literary History, eds.
A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff and Jerry W. Ward, Jr., 1990: 250-69
Donald B. Smith, "The Life of George Copway or Kahgegagahbowh (1818-1869) - and a Review of His Writings," Journal of Canadian Studies 23 (1988): 5-37