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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 Ruoff
University of Illinois at Chicago

In the Heath Anthology
from The Life of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh (1850)

Other Works
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 (1847)
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 (1850)
The Traditional History and Characteristic Sketches of the Ojibway Nation (1850)
Copway's American Indian (1851)
Running Sketches of Men and Places, in England, France, Germany, Belgium, and Scotland (1851)

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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.

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

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