Canada has had several literary celebrities that have made a name for themselves internationally. There has been Robert Munsch, Farley Mowat, Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013. Arguably the first literary celebrity to achieve fame outside the country was an Anishinaabe Methodist missionary, advocate and lecturer named George Copway.
Born Kah-Ge-Ga-Gah-Bowh, which means He Who Stands Forever in 1818 in Trenton, Ontario, his father John Copway was an Anishinaabe chief and medicine man. Copway would describe his father as an excellent hunter and a man who brought in more furs than anyone else. His mother was a member of the Eagle Tribe, whom he described as an active, sensible woman and a good hunter.
He would write of his mother, quote:
“She was as good a hunter as any of the Indians. She could shoot the deer and the ducks flying as well as they. Nature had done a great deal for her, for she was active.”
He would also state that his great-grandfather was an important warrior who helped to defeat the Hurons at Rice Lake and established the community that Copway would be born to.
Speaking of his childhood, Copway would state, quote:
“I loved the woods and the chase. I had the nature for it and gloried in nothing else.”
The family dealt with poverty and hardship during his youth, while trying to maintain a traditional lifestyle on land that was slowly being sold and cleared for the growing number of white settlers. According to Copway, as a young boy, he would be visited by the Great Spirit, who would say, quote:
“You will travel much; the water and the winds will carry your canoe safely through the waves.”
His father’s hunting ground was at the head of the Crow River, which was a branch of the River Trent in Canada West.
His parents would convert to Methodism in 1827 after missionaries visited the family. He would write, quote:
“On the third day, many of our company were converted. Among this number was my dear father.”
As Copway reached his teens, he would attend the local mission school. One of his first teachers was Reverend James Evans, a linguist who created the syllabic writing system for the Anishinaabe and the Cree and was later used by the Inuit. In 1830, Copway’s mother would pass away. He would write, quote:
“The spirit of my dear mother took its flight on the 27th day of February 1830. Just before her death she prayed with her children and advised us to be good Christians, to love Jesus and to meet her in heaven.”
After she sang a hymn, which Copway recorded in his biography, he would write quote:
In the summer following his mother’s death, Copway converted to Methodism as well. He would write, quote:
“I knew not how long I had lain after my fall but when I recovered, my head was in a puddle of water in a small ditch. I arose, and O how happy I was. I felt as light as a feather. I clapped my hands and exclaimed in English, Glory to Jesus. I looked around for my father and saw him. I told him that I had found Jesus. He embraced me and kissed me. I threw myself into his arms.”
In July of 1834, Copway was invited to work with his uncle and cousin as a missionary to the Anishinaabe who lived on the western end of Lake Superior. During the next two years, he would help translate the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel of St. Luke into his language. Through his work as a missionary, the Methodists would provide his education and eventually ordain him as a minister.
In 1836, Copway would be traveling down the Mississippi through Sioux Territory when he was taken prisoner with his party. As an Anishinaabe, he was an enemy of the Sioux. He would be released after three days after he communicated that they were in fact, Christian missionaries.
In 1840, he would meet Elizabeth Howell. The daughter of farmers in the Toronto area, they fell in love and soon married. Following their marriage, they would move to Minnesota to work as missionaries. Together, they would have a son and a daughter.
He would write of his wife, quote:
“My wife has been a help, she has shared my woes, my trials, my privatization and has faithfully laboured to instruct and assist the poor Indians, whenever an opportunity occurred. I often feel astonished when I reflect upon what she has endured, considering that she does not possess much physical strength.”
In 1842, the couple returned to Canada and Copway worked as a missionary to the Indigenous once again, traveling through Upper Canada with the Reverend William Ryerson. In his missionary work, Copway would teach new converts to pray, sing, read and write, all skills he felt were essential to the development of political consciousness and the self-empowerment of the Indigenous.
Traveling with his wife, he would praise her later in his writing, stating quote:
In 1846, Copway was vice-president of the Ojibwe General Council and was accused of embezzlement, resulting in being defrocked by the Methodists. During the summer of 1846, he would be imprisoned for several weeks.
It has been said that Copway did not embezzle the money but was overzealous in his work and spent more than the council allocated him to do his work. It is known that while managing the business dealings of the Rice Lake Band, he did withdraw a small amount of money without the authorization of the leader. Nonetheless, charges were dropped. Copway also had a habit of spending more money on what many felt were good causes than what was allocated to him by the church.
Soon after being released, he and his family moved to New York City where he wrote The Life, History and Travels of Kah-Ge-Ga-Gah-Bowh. This became the first book to be published by a Canadian Indigenous person. In the first year, it went through six printings and became a bestseller. The book described his youth with the Anishinaabe and then as a Methodist missionary, although he did not mention his expulsion from a church, but he does state that he is innocent of the charges put against him.
His autobiography would describe much of his life, and his travel through the Great Lakes region, but the main focus was the narrative of his mission work, with occasional moments of reflection and adventure.
He speaks of the landscape a great deal in his autobiography as well. He notes that the sand points of Grand Island had sunk near Sault Sainte Marie, and he would write, quote:
“The Great Spirit had removed from under that point, to some other place, because the Methodist Missionaries had encamped there the previous fall and had by their prayers driven the Spirit from under that point.”
Around this time, Copway began to advocate for Indigenous territory, suggesting that there be a 150-square-mile territory be established in the American Midwest. The tribes out there were beginning to feel the encroachment of European and American settlers. As can be expected, this proposal was not approved by Congress. He published his plan in a pamphlet called Organization of a New Indian Territory, where the official language would be Ojibwa. He planned to call the land Kahgega, which translates as Ever-To-Be.
The Washington Union would publish a letter of support, sent to the Secretary of Home Department by W.J. Havemeyer on May 20, 1849, which stated, quote:
“George Copway, the Chippewa Chief, who has been lecturing at this place during the past season on the subject of confederating the Indian tribes, with a view to their improvement and civilization, desires as I understand, visiting the various Indian tribes on our frontier, for the purpose of examining that portion of our western territory on which he proposes to locate them.”
He would also publish The Traditional History and Characteristic Sketches of The Ojibway Nation.
Copway was quickly finding his profile increasing and a historian at the time, Francis Parkman, would write of him, quote:
“I liked him much and wanted to see more of him.”
Henry Longfellow, the noted poet, would befriend Copway and would provide him with a letter of introduction to meet a celebrated German poet on his travels in Europe.
Everywhere that Copway spoke, there would be a notice in the newspaper. One such notice appeared in the Boston Evening Transcript on July 8, 1950, stating quote:
“Burr’s Mirror of the Lakes will be a place of attraction this evening. Mr. George Copway delivers a lecture there in connection and the proceeds will be applied for the mission of Mr. C to Germany.”
In August of 1850, he was invited to attend the Fourth General Peace Congress in Frankfurt, the only Indigenous person to attend.
He would lecture in the United States and Europe, and would write another book, Running Sketches of Men and Places, in England, France, Germany, Belgium and Scotland, which was published in 1851. The book included several biographical interviews with various individuals at the conference, and texts of three lectures that Copway gave in England and Scotland, as well as his plan for a self-governing territory for the Indigenous. He would write of the Congress, quote:
“This Congress, acknowledging the principles of non-intervention, recognizes it be the sole right of every state to regulate its own affairs.”
Copway would say that he was received with enthusiasm at the conference, but he felt he gave one of his worst speeches, especially after following what he considered to be great orators. He would write, quote:
Copway also found that people were more interested in his appearance than anything that was said. A newspaper clipping from the conference stated, quote:
“The Frankforters are sorry that he wears a modern hat, instead of a cap with feathers.”
As he did talks around the continent after the conference, Copway would dress in traditional Anishinaabe clothing.
In England, Copway would travel the countryside, and was struck by what he described as the complex harmony of the landscape. He would write, quote:
“Groups of trees and cultivated fields spreading as far as the eye can reach on both sides. Beautiful green hedges and fields of grain, some being reaped, and some still standing, waving gracefully as if inviting reapers to the harvest.”
In Liverpool, he was struck by the immense docks that fueled the economy of the city, writing such,”
“They are a piece of master workmanship, a noble monument of untiring industry. The tide brings in a hundred ships inside and when it goes out, it takes as many more.”
While in Liverpool, he would speak on his desire for the Indigenous to have their own land. An advertisement for a talk at the Mechanics Institute would state, quote:
“Revered George Copway, an Indian Chief of the Ojibway nation, will make an appeal to the inhabitants of Liverpool on behalf of his plan for concentrating, civilizing and Christianizing the Indians of the North West, upon territory to be set apart to their use, in perpetuity, by the Government of the United States.”
Running Sketches would prove to be his last book, as sales were poor, and it was never reprinted.
That same year, The Ojibway Conquest was released, an epic poem, under Copway’s name. Copway had not actually written it but in 1898, the author, Julius Taylor Clark, claimed to have written it 50 years previous and had allowed Copway to publish it under his own name to raise funds to help him in his work with the Indigenous.
On July 10, 1851, Copway released Copway’s American Indian magazine, which only ran for three months but had letters of support from ethnologist Lewis Henry Morgan, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and novelists James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving.
As the 1850s wore on and progressed into the 1860s, Copway began to see his literary career decline. There is little evidence of what he was up to from 1851 onwards. His friend, Longfellow, would write, quote:
“Kagegahgabow is still extant, but I fear he is developing the Pau-Puk-Keewis element rather strongly.”
Pau-Puk-Keewis was another name for Hiawatha, the mischief maker in Longfellow’s epic poem, which showed the declining faith he had in his old friend.
He would still lecture but the crowds began to dwindle. By 1858, he found himself in prisoned for debt in Boston.
The decline of his career resulted in a deep depression, heavy drinking and deep debt. Eventually, his wife took their daughter and left him.
He would still make occasional speaking engagements. One such engagement was advertised in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, where Copway made a presentation on May 1, 1860, speaking of the traditions, poetry and eloquence of the Anishinaabe. The notice would state quote:
“A voice deep and strong, or soft and thrilling at his pleasure, graceful and elegant…Had we time and space and could we do the speaker justice we would give our readers a summary of his remarks, but we can only say if you ever have an opportunity, go and hear him.”
For the remainder of his life, Copway worked as a street healer and a recruiter for the Union Army, attempting to get the Indigenous in Canada to join the Civil War.
On May 13, 1861, the National Republican out of Washington, D.C. reported, quote:
“The Rochester Union says that Dr. George Copway is at that city on his way to enlist a company of picked men from the Indians of Michigan who are anxious to serve. They are not to be employed for using the tomahawk or scalping knife upon the people of the South, but as scouts and runners for the army.”
A notice in the Leavonworth Times on May 30, 1861, would carry this piece about Copway, quote:
On July 16, 1861, it was reported that the government had declined the aid of the regiment of Indigenous that had been organized by Copway.
By 1867, he was working with his brother in Detroit.
In 1868, he was living near Montreal with the Haudenosaunee and Algonquin, remaining for half a year.
On June 27, 1869, Copway passed away at the age of only 51, shortly after he converted to Roman Catholicism, but prior to receiving his first communion. With his conversion, he had changed his name to Joseph Antoine.
Most of the notices of his death were nothing more than one quick line among other news from the nation. The Baltimore Sun wrote, quote:
“George Copway, the Indian doctor and lecturer, died suddenly on Monday last.”
The London Observer would go a step farther, stating quote:
“An Ojibway author is dead, one who called his brother Indians not a tribe but a nation. His name was Kah-ge-ya-gah-bowh, the English of which seems to be George Copway.”
In 2018, Copway was designated a National Historic Person by the Canadian government.
I will close out this episode with a quote from Copway, from his autobiography. He says quote:
“I am an Indian and am well aware of the difficulties I have to encounter to win the favorable notice of the white man.”
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Biographi, Wikipedia, Early Native American Literature, the People and the Text, The Life of George Copway, The Washington Union, Boston Evening Transcript, Liverpool Mercury, National Republican, London Daily News,