American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
Teaser Image

Copway, George

Title: George Copway
Button: Click to display an enlarged version of the image.
Born a Mississuaga-Ojibwa in 1818 near the Trent River in upper Canada (Ontario), George Copway (Kahgegagahbowh) died in Lac-des-DeuxMontagnes (Oka), Quebec, in 1869. Copway worked as an interpreter, teacher, and preacher for the Methodists, as well as an author, lecturer, herbal doctor, Union Army recruiter, and Catholic convert. He is best remembered for his autobiographical and historical work on the Ojibwas as well as numerous writings that appeared in newspapers throughout Canada and the United States.

By his own account, Copway lived a traditional life with his parents until they encountered Methodist missionaries. He enrolled at the Rice Lake School and in 1830 his dying mother convinced Copway to convert to Methodism. After his 1831 conversion, his teacher James Evans convinced Copway by 1834 to work among the Lake Superior Ojibwas under the auspices of the American Episcopal Methodist Church. He served at these missions until 1838, at which time he was permitted to enroll in the Ebenezer Manual Labor School in Illinois. After graduating in 1839, Copway returned to Canada and married Elizabeth Howell, a white woman, in 1840. The couple spent from 1840 to 1842 working at Methodist missions in Wisconsin and Minnesota. From 1842 to 1846, Copway worked for the Wesleyan Methodist Canadian Conference in Canada West (Ontario). In 1846 Copway was briefly imprisoned and expelled from the church after being accused of embezzlement by the Rice Lake and Saugeen Indian bands.

In 1847 he moved to the United States, where his autobiography was published and he entered the lecture circuit. During his lectures, Copway spoke of his conversion and the Indian's plight as well as advocating the creation of an Indian state on the northeast side of the Missouri River. This territory, called Kahgega after himself, was submitted to Congress but was never discussed. In 1850 and 1851, he published three more books, a newspaper titled Copway's American Indian, and an epic poem, The Ojibway Conquest. (The poem actually was written by Julius Clark.) Copway's literary and speaking career brought him into contact with historian Francis Parkman, ethnologists Lewis Henry Morgan and Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, as well as authors Henry W. Longfellow, James Fenimore Cooper, and Washington Irving. His fame brought Copway to the 1850 World Peace Conference in Frankfurt Germany, although by this point it was becoming obvious that his lecture career was winding down. It was during this time 1849–1850 that Copway lost three of four children to disease.

By the late 1850s, the New York papers advertised his lectures, but a brief arrest for not paying his rental of a hall indicated that he was having difficulty making a living. He volunteered in 1858 to convince the remaining Florida Seminoles to relocate to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. By 1864, Copway worked as a Union Army recruiter in Canada, where he managed to enlist a few Indians. In 1867, Copway surfaced in Detroit working as an Indian healer. The following year, Copway's wife Elizabeth and their last surviving child abandoned him. Venturing to Oka, Quebec, he enjoyed some success and influence among the Iroquois and Algonquins as a healer. After informing a Sulpician priest that he was a pagan healer and wished to convert to Catholicism, his influence among the Iroquois declined. He was baptized on January 17, 1869 as Joseph-Antoine and died several days later.

Since the 1970s renewed interest in Copway's work has been spurred by scholars and Natives alike seeking an authentic Native voice. Copway's works are by no means unproblematic. They are in English, his second language, probably heavily edited by his wife, written with a Western audience in mind by an individual attempting to fit solely into the white world.

Karl S. Hele

Further Reading
Copway, George. 1847. The Life, History and Travels of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh (George Copway). Albany: Weed & Parsons; Copway, George. 1850. The Ojibwa Conquest; A Tale of the Northwest.... New York. Putman.; Copway, George. 1850. The Traditional History and Characteristic Sketches of the Ojibway Nation. New York: Charles Gilpin.; Copway, George. 1851. Running Sketches of Men and Places in England, France, Germany, Belgium and Scotland. New York: Riker.; Copway, George. [1851] 1970. Recollections of a Forest Life or the Life and Travels of Kahge-ga-gah-bowh or George Copway, Chief of the Ojibwa Nation. Toronto, ON: Canadiana House.; Smith, Donald B. 1976. "Kahgegagagahbowh." In Dictionary of Canadian Biography: Volume IX, 1861–1870. Edited by Francess G. Halpenny and Jean Hamelin, 419–421. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.; Smith, Donald B. 1988. "The Life of George Copway or Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh (1818–1869)—and a Review of His Writings." Journal of Canadian Studies 23, no. 3: 5–38.; Smith, Donald, and A. Lavonne Brown Rouf, eds. 1997. Life, Letters and Speeches: George Copway (Kahgegahbowh). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.; Walker, Cheryl. 1997. "The Terms of George Copway's Surrender." In Indian Nation: Native American Literature and Nineteeth-Century Nationalisms, 84–110. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  Chronological Essays
  People and Groups
  Southwest Nations
  California Nations
  Northwest Coast Nations
  Great Basin Nations
  Plateau Nations
  Great Plains Nations
  Northeast Woodlands Nations
  Subarctic Nations
  Arctic Nations
ABC-cLIO Footer