|When George Copway was a boy the Great Spirit came to him in a dream, telling him, "You will travel much; the water ... and the winds,
will carry your canoe safely through the waves." Those words, from Copway's 1847 autobiography, The Life, History, and Travels of
Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh, would prove truer than he knew when he wrote them. He had already traveled extensively in the regions of the
Great Lakes and upper Mississippi and on the eastern seaboard, and in 1850 he would travel to Europe.
Copway's description of his tour of England and the Continent, Running Sketches of Men and Places (1851), was the first travel book
written by a Native American. While Native Americans' accounts of travels had been published earlier--such as Hendrick Aupaumut's
record of political negotiations with various tribes, A Short Narrative of My Last Journey to the Western Country (1827), or Black Hawk's
account of his tour of the East while prisoner of war, in Life of Black Hawk (1833)--Copway's is the first such book in which the
experience of travel itself is the primary focus. In addition to his autobiography and travel book, Copway published an ethnohistory of
the Ojibwas and a plan for the organization of a self-governing Indian territory, both in 1850, and edited a short-lived newspaper in
Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh ("Standing Firm") was born in 1818 near the mouth of the Trent River, Canada West (now Ontario). His parents
were of the Missasauga band of Ojibwa (Anishinaabeg), who had been living in the Rice Lake area, north of Cobourg, since the early
1700s. The band's totem was the Crane, a lineage that Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh traces back as far as his great-grandfather, the first
Ojibwa settler at Rice Lake. Cranes traditionally are noted for their skills as orators, interpreters, and chiefs, and perhaps this heritage
contributed to Kahge-ga-gah-bowh's later success as a missionary, writer, and political activist.
Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh was raised as a traditional Ojibwa, learning to hunt for the fur trade that provided the band's economic base. His
parents converted to Christianity shortly after the first Methodist minister visited their settlement in 1827. In the summer after his
mother's death in 1830, George Copway (as he was called after his parents' conversion) attended a Methodist camp meeting with his
father and was converted. His dedication must have impressed the missionaries, for in 1834 at age sixteen he was one of four
Missasauga Ojibwas chosen to be sent to the Lake Superior mission of the American Methodist Church.
From 1834 through 1836 his missionary work took him among Ojibwas in the vicinities of Sault Sainte Marie, La Pointe, Lac Court
Oreille, and Fort Snelling. As a reward for his devoted service his way was paid to Ebenezer Manual Labor School in Jacksonville,
Illinois. Two years there comprised his only formal education. After graduation in 1839 he traveled home to Rice Lake by way of
Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, New York, Newark, and Boston, all of which are mentioned in the
In 1840 Copway married Elizabeth Howell, twenty-four-year-old daughter of Capt. Henry Howell, an English gentleman who owned a
farm near Toronto. The couple immediately departed for missions among the Ojibwas in the Lake Superior and upper Mississippi
region, where they would spend the next two years. They were eager to return to Rice Lake, however, and in 1842 were invited back to
undertake various missionary and fund-raising tours.
Overzealous in his work, Copway soon spent more than the council appropriated and was accused of embezzlement; at the same time,
managing some business dealings for the Rice Lake band, he drew a small amount of money without the leaders' authorization.
As a result he was imprisoned for several weeks. Charges were dropped and he was released, since the Indian Department saw little
hope of recovering any money from the impoverished Copway; he was, however, expelled from the Methodist Church of Canada.
Copway defended himself against the charges in his autobiography but never mentioned his time in prison or his expulsion from the
church. Upon his release he and his wife went to Boston, hoping that Presbyterians or Congregationalists there would sponsor their
return as missionaries to the Lake Superior region. They did not get such a post, but in the meantime Copway was lecturing in eastern
cities on temperance and Indian topics and was writing his autobiography.
Copway published The Life, History, and Travels of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh in Albany. His popularity as a lecturer probably helped the
book's sales; in any case it was highly successful, going through seven printings by the end of 1848. He revised the book for
publication in 1850. A British edition titled Recollections of a Forest Life was published in 1850 and reprinted in 1851.
Details about the book's composition did not survive; however, a preface acknowledges the assistance of a friend, who has kindly
corrected all serious grammatical errors, leaving the unimportant ones wholly untouched, that my own style may be exhibited as truly as
possible. . . . The language (except in a few short sentences), the plan, and the arrangement are all my own; and I am wholly
responsible for all the statements, and the remaining defects.
Donald Smith, who has written the most extensive biography of Copway to date, speculates that the friend was his wife, Elizabeth, and
concludes from internal evidence that most of the content was provided by Copway. This collaborative pattern probably holds for
Running Sketches as well.
In the autobiography, accounts of travel are often subordinated to the narrative of mission work, yet there are occasional moments of
adventure or reflection. Travel description plays a much larger part here than it does, for example, in William Apess's A Son of the
Forest (1831), with which Copway's Life is sometimes compared. An unusual twist on the captivity narrative occurs during an 1836
canoe trip down the Mississippi to Prairie Du Chien and through Sioux territory. Where whites would have passed unmolested,
Copway's party, being Ojibwas and thus enemies of the Sioux, are fired on and taken prisoner. They are released three days later only
after they manage to communicate that they are Christian missionaries (and thus effectively "white"). Copway frequently reflects on the
For example, en route to Sault Sainte Marie in 1835 he notices that one of the sand points of Grand Island has sunk and reports,
according to the local Ojibwas:
"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."
In his later travels in eastern cities Copway reflects upon his own sense of displacement. His picturesque description of the view from
the top of the Boston State House, which implicitly celebrates industrial progress, partakes of what Leo Marx in The Machine in the
Garden (1964) terms the rhetoric of the technological sublime. Copway sees the harbor filled with ships, "wharves ... filled with
merchandise," steamboats "breathing out fire and smoke," and to landward, steeples, factories, and railroad cars "whiz[zing] along the
flats like a troop of runaway horses." At these signs of the "prosperity of the white man,... tears fill [his] eyes." His two responses to this
scene remain unreconciled. First he gives a Christian moral of assimilation: "Happy art thou, O Israel, who is like unto thee." He then
laments the terms of that assimilation in a poem:
Upon the beach, where oceans roar;
Where whiten'd bones bestrew the sand,
Of some brave warrior of yore.
The groves, where once my fathers roam'd--
The river, where the beaver dwelt--
The lakes, where angry waters foam'd--
Their charms, with my fathers, have fled.
O! Tell me, ye "pale faces," tell,
Where have my proud ancestors gone?
Whose smoke curled up from every dale,
To what land have their free spirits flown?
Whose wigwams stood where cities rise;
On whose war-path the steam horse flies;
And ships, like mon-e-doos in disguise,
Approach the shore in endless files."
After the publication of his autobiography Copway continued on the lecture circuit. He became acquainted with literary figures
interested in Indian matters such as Francis Parkman Jr. and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Copway evidently being the only Ojibwa the
latter met before he published The Song of Hiawatha in 1855). He formulated a plan for a large Indian Territory, which would eventually
qualify for statehood, to be located in what are now the eastern Dakotas; the official language of this territory was to be Ojibwa. This
plan was published in a pamphlet, Organization of a New Indian Territory (1850), and was presented to Congress but never got to the
Returning to his writing after this brief foray into national politics, Copway published The Traditional History and Characteristic Sketches
of the Ojibway Nation (1850). This book contains the clearest expression of his Ojibwa nationalism.
In August 1850 Copway was invited by Elihu Burritt, a leading peace activist, to attend the Fourth General Peace Congress at Frankfurt
am Main as one of forty American delegates and the only Native American. This trip provided him with the material for his travel book,
Running Sketches of Men and Places. LaVonne Ruoff criticizes the book for being "padded with newspaper accounts of Copway's
triumphal lecture tour through Great Britain and descriptions of places taken from current travel books."
It is true that approximately one-sixth of the text consists of passages from guidebooks, particularly Black's Picturesque Tourist and
Road and Railway Guide Book Through England and Wales, which had been available since the early 1840s. Copway had also quoted
large extracts from other books, a practice not uncommon at the time, in writing his Traditional History and Characteristic Sketches of
the Ojibway Nation, which contains a great deal of material credited to Gen. Lewis Cass and Ojibwa historian William Warren.
In Running Sketches of Men and Places Copway includes unattributed excerpts from biographical sketches of people with whom he
conversed: Richard Cobden, British proponent of laissez-faire economics and fellow delegate to the Peace Congress; Rev. Edwin H.
Chapin, celebrated preacher of "the doctrine of unlimited salvation"; and Ferdinand Freiligrath, a Prussian poet imprisoned for
expressing republican sentiments. Also included are texts of three of the lectures Copway delivered in England and Scotland--on his
plan for the organization of a self-governing Indian territory, Ojibwa legends (adventures of Nanabozho, the earth-diver story, and so
forth), and the evangelization of the Indians--as well as newspaper clippings noting his reception in England and Germany.
Three of the twenty-three chapters concern the Peace Congress, Copway's reason for traveling. Copway introduced a resolution there
that had particular relevance for the Ojibwas, whom the United States had recently forced into ceding large tracts of land: "This
Congress, acknowledging the principle of non-intervention, recognizes it to be the sole right of every state to regulate its own affairs." A
contemporary report on the Congress in The Advocate of Peace mentions Copway's attendance "as representative of his red brethren"
and notes that Richard Cobden, pointing to Copway, argued that modern nations, in maintaining standing armies, are "greater savages
than even the North American Indian tribes."
Copway does not comment directly on such tokenism. He reports that he was "received with much enthusiasm" even though he gave
his "poorest speech" ever, for he spoke at the end of the conference, following many great orators, when "the people had become tired
of listening, and seemed to have no desire for anything new." He includes a newspaper clipping suggesting that the audience may have
been more interested in his appearance than in anything he said: "The Frankforters are sorry that he wears a modern hat, instead of a
cap with feathers." While two chapters describe the business of the Peace Congress, a third gives a sometimes satiric picture of
Americans in Europe and characterizes oratorical styles by nationality.
Four chapters are devoted to London. Visiting the House of Commons, Copway was critical of the architecture but impressed by
speakers such as Benjamin Disraeli and Cobden; he reports on the debate over whether Baron von Rothschild, a Jew, would be
allowed to take the seat to which he was elected. (Rothschild's portrait provides the frontispiece to Running Sketches; Copway's own
portrait does not appear until chapter 6.) He devotes an entire chapter to Jenny Lind, noting that he used his celebrity status to get a
ticket to a sold-out performance. He remarks that her mouth "was like that of the Hon. Henry Clay," yet his enraptured description of her
voice--"my soul, wrapt in ecstasy, seemed borne on to the garden of Eden"--hints at the infatuation that, as Donald Smith reports,
would become evident when Lind toured the United States in 1851.
When not occupied with events in London, the Peace Congress, or his lectures, Copway found himself drawn to landscape views. In
these passages his style is characteristically reflective or associational as it had been in the autobiography. A view of the Irish coast
reminds him of the Irish immigrants to Canada with whom he and his father had often conversed; a view of the ocean recalls stories told
by a sailor who spent four years living among the Rice Lake Ojibwa. Like most of his American contemporaries Copway prefers a
picturesque or pastoral arrangement of landscape. He objects, for example, to the "sameness" of the Belgian landscape: "Nothing
seems to be anywhere, which could give it the contrast" necessary for aesthetic affect; "All alike, the land is cultivated." In the Rhine
Valley, however, he finds abundant picturesque scenes.
The English countryside, too, exhibits the complex harmony of the picturesque and prompts a reflection on the comparative "cultivation"
of England and the United States:
"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. . . . How
vastly superior in point of cultivation is this country to America! Were they as much superior in cultivation of mind, we might
be ashamed of ourselves! Unfortunately, they who till the soil have generally little time, and still less opportunity, for mental
improvement. Without this, all this landscape beauty is but an outside shell, and when our country shall have become as
old as England is now, we may excell the English in cultivation and refinement."
In such passages Copway often positions himself as an American and not specifically as an Indian.
In the Boston State House passage of the autobiography, Copway had briefly engaged in the rhetoric of the technological sublime.
Such rhetoric is again evident in Copway's description of the docks of Liverpool:
"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. There, within the reach of the streets which run from the town into the
river, are hid secure the ships which have braved the oceans of all quarters of the world. Here, now, as if weary of
wandering by sea, slumber the godlike instruments of navigation."
Elsewhere, however, Copway expresses ambivalence about the progress of industry and commerce. Summarizing his visit to the
famous steel town of Birmingham, he writes that:
"The steel which is made here will accomplish the double work of doing good and doing evil--good in the way of subduing
the wilderness and causing it to minister to the life of man and evil in the way of destroying life and making the earth
desolate. Implements of husbandry, and the arts on the one hand, and swords, knives, rifles and muskets on the other."
The destructive work of technology, of course, includes the European conquest of the American continent. Copway's attitude toward
such scenes is ambivalent; he is torn between his Indian and Christian identifications.
Running Sketches was Copway's last book. Evidently, sales were poor, for it was never reprinted. It has received little critical attention,
partly because it seldom directly addresses the issue of "Indian identity" with which scholars of Native American literature have been
preoccupied. The only substantial discussion is found in Timothy Sweet's "Pastoral Landscape with Indians," which analyzes the
treatment of pastoral motifs in all of Copway's works.
After the publication of Running Sketches, Copway started a newspaper, Copway's American Indian, but this was a financial failure and
ceased publication after three months in 1851. He continued on the lecture circuit but had trouble drawing audiences as slavery
eclipsed Native American issues in the public eye. In 1858 he was imprisoned for debt in Boston.
After this the record is blank until 1864, when he worked to recruit Canadian Indians for the Union army. In 1867 he was in Detroit,
where he and his brother advertised themselves as herbal healers. In 1868 he appeared at an Algonquin-Iroquois mission in Canada,
announcing his intention to convert to Catholicism. He died before receiving his first communion.
The significance of Copway's travel writing consists in its amplification of themes found elsewhere in his works and in the works of his
Native American contemporaries. The themes of greatest interest in his travel writing--his engagements with technology and the
pastoral--reflect his political attempts to secure a place for his people in the face of an expanding American nation. These and other
tensions in his texts emerge from tensions in his own life. A willing convert, Copway sought acceptance from the dominant culture, yet
his writings contain evidence of a strong Ojibwa nationalism as well.
Fulford, T. Romantic Indians : native Americans, British literature, and transatlantic culture, 1756-1830. 2006.
Regier, W. G. Masterpieces of American Indian literature / edited and with an introduction by Willis G. Regier. 2005.
Wilkens, D. E. Documents of Native American political development : 1500s to 1933. 2009.
Works by Copway
Copway, George. The Life, History, and Travels of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh (George Copway), a Young Indian Chief of the Ojebwa Nation,
a Convert to the Christian Faith and a Missionary to His People for Twelve Years; with a Sketch of the Present State of the Ojebwa
Nation, in Regard to Christianity and Their Future Prospects. Also an Appeal; with All the Names of the Chiefs Now Living, Who Have
Been Christianized, and the Missionaries Now Laboring among Them. 1847.
Copway, George. The Life, Letters and Speeches of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh, or George Copway, Chief of the Ojibway Nation. 1850.
Copway, George. 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 of the 31st Congress of the United States: by the Indian Chief
Kah-ge-ga-gah-bouh, or Geo. Copway. 1850.
Copway, George. The Traditional History and Characteristic Sketches of the Ojibway Nation. By G. Copway, or Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh,
Chief of the Ojibway Nation. 1850.
Copway, George. Indian Life and Indian History, by an Indian Author. Embracing the Traditions of the North American Indians
Regarding Themselves, Particularly of that Most Important of All the Tribes, the Ojibways. 1858.
Copway, George. Running Sketches of Men and Places, in England, France, Germany, Belgium, and Scotland. By George Copway
|George Copway Biography|