KAHGEGAGAHBOWH (Kahkakakahbowh, Kakikekapo) (known as George Copway), Methodist missionary, author, lecturer, and herbal doctor; b. 1818 in Upper Canada near the mouth of the Trent River, the son of John Copway, a Mississauga chief and medicine man; d. 27 June 1869 in Ypsilanti, Mich.
George Copway as a boy shared the traditional migratory existence of his parents, who lived by fishing, hunting, and trapping in the Rice Lake area. In 1827 his parents were converted to Christianity, and early in the 1830s he began to attend occasionally the Methodist mission school at Rice Lake. One of his first white teachers was the Reverend James Evans*, later to be known as the inventor of Cree syllabics.
In July 1834 Copway was invited by Evans’ successor, the Reverend Daniel McMullen, to help with the mission work of the American Methodist Episcopal Church among the Ojibwa on Lake Superior. With his uncle John Taunchey, his cousin Enmegahbowh (John Johnson), and John Cahbeach he departed for the west. Working as an interpreter and school teacher, Copway spent the winter of 1834 at Kewawenon Mission on the south shore of the lake, and the winters of 1835 and 1836 at La Pointe (Wisconsin), farther west. During the course of the last winter at La Pointe he helped the Reverend Sherman Hall translate the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel of St Luke into Ojibwa.
Copway’s missionary superiors recognized his intellectual talents and in 1838 sent him to a church school in Illinois, where he studied until the fall of 1839 and then returned to Canada. At the Credit River mission in the summer of 1840 he married a white woman, Elizabeth Howell, a friend of the wife of Kahkewaquonaby* (Peter Jones). Called back to Wisconsin and Minnesota for a missionary tour, the Copways left for the west immediately after their marriage. They were back in Canada in the fall of 1842. After he was accepted as a preacher by the Wesleyan Methodist Canadian conference, Copway left on a three-month missionary tour of Upper Canada with the Reverend William Ryerson*. Posted the following year to the Saugeen Mission (near Southampton), he transferred in 1844 to Rice Lake, returning to the Saugeen in 1845. That summer the Ojibwa General Council elected him vice-president of their assembly. His election was clearly the high point of his missionary career, for later that year first the Saugeen band, then that of Rice Lake, accused him of embezzlement. During the summer of 1846 he was imprisoned for several weeks by the Indian Department, and expelled from the Canadian conference of the Wesleyan Methodist Church.
In disgrace, Copway left for the United States, where he had an extraordinary career. Early in 1847 appeared his autobiography entitled The life, history, and travels of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh, and at once he enjoyed great popularity. His book, the first written by a Canadian Indian, became a bestseller, running through six editions by the end of the year. In it he vividly described his youth among his people and his subsequent career as a Methodist missionary. He made no reference to his expulsion from the church and incorrectly claimed in the title that he was an “Indian Chief,” but some of the information can be verified as accurate. In 1851 an epic poem, The Ojibway conquest, was published under Copway’s name. It was not his own work. In 1898 Julius Taylor Clark, then living in Topeka, Kans., claimed that he had written it over 50 years earlier and allowed Copway to publish it under his own name in order to “raise funds to aid him in his work among his people.”
Evidently Copway’s training as a Methodist preacher had admirably equipped him for the extensive lecturing he undertook in the late 1840s. In addresses “from South Carolina to Massachusetts” he advocated the establishment of a 150-square-mile Indian territory on the northeastern side of the Missouri River. There the 100,000 Indians of the “North West” could be exposed to “the cause of Education and Christianity.” Under a white governor the “well educated” Indians would administer the territory, replacing “the elder Indians” whose “prejudicial views,” Copway claimed, “have ever unfitted them to become a fit medium of instruction to their people.”
Before his next book, The traditional history and characteristic sketches of the Ojibway nation, appeared in 1850, Copway secured a great following, even among the intellectual community. The young historian Francis Parkman*, for example, met him in March 1849 and noted in a letter to a friend, “I liked him much and wanted to see more of him. . . .” A month before in Boston the poet Henry Longfellow had befriended Copway, whom he described as the “Ojibway preacher and poet.” When Copway left in 1850 on a European tour, described in his Running sketches of men and places, in England, France, Germany, Belgium, and Scotland, Longfellow gave him a letter of introduction to the German poet Ferdinand Freiligrath. With the appearance of the first issue of the short-lived weekly Copway’s American Indian, on 10 July 1851, Copway obtained letters of support from the eminent ethnologists Lewis Henry Morgan and Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, from Parkman, and from the novelists James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving.
As early as November 1849, however, Parkman had remarked that Copway’s “scheme of settling the Indians is a flash in the pan, or rather he has no settled scheme at all, and never had any.” Apparently Copway had repeatedly asked him for money; in a letter of November 1850 Parkman commented on his annoying “applications” “for pecuniary aid.” Slowly others must have come to share Parkman’s negative opinion of the man; support for his weekly evaporated and it ceased in the fall of 1851.
By the late 1840s Copway was a confused individual. His dilemma – one which might have tormented a number of the Mississaugas educated in Methodist schools – stemmed from his divided loyalty. On the one hand, he sought favourable recognition from the white man, and on the other he retained a deep love of his own people. In early 1849, for example, he wrote an article for Boston’s Flag of Our Union, in which he termed the United States “the eagle of freedom” and included a passionate statement of his admiration for white Americans: “What else could I do but love and esteem the American people? I love their Bible and their institutions.” Elsewhere he wrote in a different vein. As he stated in the second and all the subsequent editions of his Life: “The white men have been like the greedy lion, pouncing upon and devouring its prey. They have driven us from our nation, our homes, and possessions. . . .”
Little documentary evidence of Copway’s activities from 1851 to 1867 survives. Apparently he remained in the United States. Longfellow wrote Freiligrath in December 1858: “Kagegahgabow is still extant. But I fear he is developing the Pau-Puk-Keewis element rather strongly.” Longfellow’s comparison of Copway with the mischief maker in his epic poem, “Hiawatha,” showed his own loss of faith in his Indian friend.
The Copways had a son, George Albert, born about three years after their wedding, and a daughter, Frances Minne-Ha-Ha, born about 20 years later. It is not known where Elizabeth and Minnie lived during the 1860s, but they were not with George. He seems to have made a bigamous marriage in the mid 1860s with a widow, Sarah Van Gleson (Vengegan), née Gardner, in Geneva, N.Y., but he soon left her. It was once thought, on the basis of information supplied by Enmegahbowh, Copway’s cousin, that he died at Pontiac, Mich., about 1863. But in 1867 he appeared in Detroit advertising his services as a practitioner of the “healing art,” and inviting “all who are sick” to “come and be cured.” In the spring of 1868 he was in Jackson, Mich., where he practised the “healing art.” He died in Ypsilanti the following year.
Kahgegagahbowh was the author of The life, history, and travels of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh, (George Copway) a young Indian chief of the Ojebwa nation . . . (Philadelphia, 1847), republished as Recollections of a forest life; or, the life and travels of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh . . . (London, ); The life, letters and speeches of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh or G. Copway . . . (New York, 1850); The traditional history and characteristic sketches of the Ojibway nation (London, 1850; repr. Toronto, 1972); and Running sketches of men and places, in England, France, Germany, Belgium, and Scotland (New York, 1851).
ASSM, 8, A; 36, André Cuoq, “Notes inédites pour servir à l’histoire de la mission du Lac-des-Deux-Montagnes” (typescript). PAC, RG 10, vols. 409–10, 511, 532, 2221. UCA, Mission register for the Credit River Mission. Victoria University Library (Toronto), Peter Jones coll., Peter Jones papers, box 3, letterbook. [J. T. Clark], The Ojibway conquest; a tale of the northwest . . . (New York, 1850). [J. F. Cooper], The letters and journals of James Fenimore Cooper, ed. J. F. Beard (6v., Cambridge, Mass., 1960–68), I. “La Pointe letters,” ed. F. T. Sproat, Wisconsin Magazine of History (Madison), XVI (1932–33), 203–9. [H. W. Longfellow], The letters of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Andrew Hilen (4v., Cambridge, Mass., 1966–72), III–IV. [Francis Parkman], Letters of Francis Parkman, ed. W. R. Jacobs (2v., Norman, Okla., 1960), I. Christian Guardian, 20 Sept. 1837. Copway’s American Indian (New York), 10 July 1851. Detroit Free Press, 6, 11 Sept., 1 Oct. 1867. J. C. Pilling, Bibliography of the Algonquian languages (Washington, 1891). Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with extracts from his journals and correspondence, ed. Samuel Longfellow (2nd ed., 2v., Boston, 1886).
Revisions based on:
The author’s book Mississauga portraits: Ojibwe voices from nineteenth-century Canada (Toronto, 2013) contains information about George Copway that was not available at the time that the DCB/DBC biography was published. The research materials for this work are in Special Coll., 80 (Donald B. Smith fonds), acc. 2013.08, ser. 4, boxes 17–22 at the E. J. Pratt Library, Victoria Univ. in the Univ. of Toronto, available at library.vicu.utoronto.ca/collections/special_collections/f80_donald_b_smith/series_4. The digitization of a number of mid 19th-century North American newspapers has made accessible valuable information for the last decade of Copway’s life. The author wishes to thank Marshall Lloyd of Tappahannock, Va, who located the death date for George Albert Copway, and historian Chris Czopek of Lansing, Mich., who discovered G. A. Copway’s obituary in the Pontiac Weekly Bill Poster (Pontiac, Mich.), 15 Jan. 1873.