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George Copway (Kah-Ge-Ga-Gah-Bowh) Remembers Growing up at Rice Lake

January 2, 2024

George Copway portrait (Library of Congress)

“I was born in nature’s wide domain! The trees were all that sheltered my infant limbs—the blue heavens all that covered me. I am one of Nature’s children; I have always admired her, she shall be my glory…I was born somewhere in the fall of 1818, near the mouth of the River Trent, called in our language Sah-ge-dah-se-ge-wah-noong, while my father and mother were attending the annual distribution of the presents from the Government to the Indians. I was the third in our family; a brother and sister being older, both of whom died.” George’s birth name, Kah-Ge-Ga-Gah-Bowh means: ‘Standing Firm or He who stands forever.’

Since time immemorial, the British Crown had distributed presents to native communities near their colonies and in other regions where they traded. Adopting this native custom was an important part of maintaining friendly relations. Common presents included wool blankets, fabric, thread, needles, gunpowder and ammunition, knives, fishing line, combs, tobacco and vermillion (a brilliant orange-red pigment used as a body or artistic paint).

George’s family were Michi Saagiig who had lived at Rice Lake for three generations.  He recalled that his great grandfather “was the first who ventured to settle at Rice Lake,” coming to a region that had formerly been the home of Wendat (Huron) and Haudenosaunee (Iroquois). Michi Saagiig identity centred around totems (dodems), with each member identifying with a particular animal. His great grandfather was a crane, which was likely the most common totem in the area. Others included beaver, fish, bear and otter. “No one was to marry one of the same totem, for all considered each other as being related.” He explained that “except in a few instances, the chiefs are” cranes.

His parents were Michi Saagiig (aka Anishinaabe, Ojibwa, Mississauga) and lived at Rice Lake, where his father was a medicine man and chief. “Large quantities of wild rice abound in almost every part of the lake; it resembles fields of wheat. As ducks of all kinds resort here in abundance, to feed upon the rice, consequently, there is much good game in the fall of the year. They fly in large flocks and often appear like clouds.” The people of Rice Lake would take their canoes into the rice fields, striking the stems to collect the rice. After parching it in a pot over a slow fire, it was a staple food for the community.

George’s family lived in a wigwam, which his mother would carry as they travelled on their seasonal migrations. To make this home, “poles were cut about fifteen feet long; three with crotches in the end, which were stuck into the ground some distance apart, the upper ends meeting, and fastened with bark; and then other poles were cut in circular form and bound round the first, and then covered with plaited reeds, or sewn birch bark, leaving an opening on top for the smoke to escape. The skins of animals formed a covering for a gap, which answered for a door. The family all seated tailor-fashion [cross-legged] on mats. In the fall and winter they were generally made more secure, for the purpose of keeping out the rain and cold.” In summer, his family stayed under a bark-covered frame shelter.

At Rice Lake there was “much game of different kinds, before the whites cleared away the woods, where the deer and bear then resorted.” The waters contained “quantities of the finest fish,” including bass, eels and muskellunge “some of which weigh about thirty pounds.” His community travelled north for the winter to harvest furs, and gathered plants, particularly in spring and summer.

As a boy, George’s father taught him how to hunt, fish and trap. “I loved the woods, and the chase. I had the nature for it, and gloried in nothing else. … Early as I can recollect, I was taught that it was the gift of the many spirits to be a good hunter and warrior; and much of my time I devoted in search of their favours. On the mountain top, or along the valley, or the water brook, I searched for some kind intimation from the spirits who made their residence in the noise of the waterfalls.”

“I dreaded to hear the voice of the angry spirit in the gathering clouds. I looked with anxiety to catch a glimpse of the wings of the Great Spirit, who shrouded himself in rolling white and dark clouds—who, with his wings, fanned the earth, and laid low the tall pines and hemlock in his course—who rode in whirlwinds and tornadoes, and plucked the trees from their woven roots—who chased other gods from his course—who drove the Bad Spirit from the surface of the earth, down to the dark caverns of the deep. Yet he was a kind spirit. My father taught me to call that spirit Ke-sha-mon-e-doo—Benevolent sprit—for his ancestors taught him no other name to give to that spirit who made the earth, with all its variety and smiling beauty. His benevolence I saw in the running of the streams, for the animals to quench their thirst and the fishes to live; the fruit of the earth teemed wherever I looked. Everything I saw smilingly said Ke-sha-mon-e-doo nin-ge-oo-she-ig—the Benevolent sprit made me.”

When George was about five years old, he was given a small bow and arrow to shoot birds. “I used to feel proud when I used to carry home my own game. The first thing that any of the hunters shot, was cooked by the grand-father and grand-mother, and there was great rejoicing, to inspire the youthful hunter with fresh ardor. Day after day I searched for the grey squirrel, the wood-pecker, the snipe, and the snow bird, for this was all my employment.”

As a boy, George’s father taught him how to “carefully and skillfully” handle a gun and hunt. “A thirst to excel in hunting began to increase, no pains were spared, no fatigue was too great, and at all seasons I found something to stimulate me to exertion that I might become a good hunter. For years, I followed my father, observed how he approached the deer, the manner of getting it upon his shoulders to carry it home. The appearance of the sky, the sound of the distant water-falls in the morning, the appearance of the clouds and the winds, were to be noticed. The step, and the gesture, in travelling in search of the deer, were to be observed.”

“Many a lecture I received when the deer lay bleeding at the feet of my father; he would give me an account of the nobleness of the hunter’s deeds, and said that I should never be in want wherever there was any game, and that many a poor aged man could be assisted by me. ‘If you reverence the aged, many will be glad to hear your name,’ were the words of my father. ‘The poor man will say to his children, ‘my children let us go to him, for he is a great hunter and is kind to the poor, he will not turn us away empty.’ The Great Spirit, who has given the aged a long life, will bless you. You must never laugh at any suffering object, for you know not how soon you may be in the same condition: never kill any game needlessly.’ Such was his language when we were alone in the woods. Ah! They were lessons directed from heaven.”

George would never forget the first time he shot a bear, “the most dangerous” animal that they hunted. “I had heard so many stories about its cunning that I dreaded to meet one.” While out hunting with a group that included his father, he was told to wait behind the rest of the group. Being alone, George “trembled in fear” at the thought that he would actually encounter a bear. Then suddenly, as he stood on an old mossy log, he heard a crack in woods. “As I turned and looked, there was a large bear running towards me! I hid myself behind a tree; but on he came; I watched him; he came like a hogshead rolling down a hill; there were no signs of stopping; when a few feet from me, I jumped aside, and cried Yah! (an exclamation of fear.) I fired my gun without taking sight; in turning suddenly to avoid me, he threw up the earth and leaves; for an instance I was led to believe that the bear was upon me. I dropped my gun and fell backwards, while the bear lay sprawling just by me. Having recovered, I took up my gun and went a few feet from where I fell, and loaded my gun in a hurry. I then sought for a long pole, and with it, I poked it on its side to see if it was really dead. It did not move, it was dead; but even then I had not courage to go and touch it with my hands. When all was over, and I had told my father I had killed a bear, I felt as though my little leggings could hardly contain me. In examining it, I found the ball had gone through its heart.”

“Bear meat is like pork. It can keep a long time when cured. For some weeks together this was the only kind of food we used to eat.” His community used the oil from the bear to prevent hair loss, but he also noted that apothecaries would buy it for $5 per gallon. “The skins of the bears are what our forefathers wore, before the white people came amongst us,” but by the time he was a boy, wool blankets were worn instead, and the skins were sold to traders “for a mere trifle.”

As a boy, George loved running through the woods in search of deer. He said that he “ranked high among the hunters” in his community. As he would forever remember his first successful bear hunt, he recalled shooting his first deer about one-mile north of the present village of Keene. His village had a custom “of making a great feast of the first deer that a young hunter caught: the young hunter, however, was not to partake of any of it, but wait upon the others. All the satisfaction he could realize, was to thump his heels on the ground, while he and the others were singing the following hunter’s song:

Ah yah ba wa, ne gah me koo nah vah

Ah yah wa seeh, ne gah me koo nah nah

The fattest of the bucks I’ll take

The choicest of all animals I’ll take

Each winter, as Rice Lake was freezing over, and the rice harvest was becoming a distant memory, his family would head north to their hunting grounds to trap furs. By custom, each family had their own hunting grounds, and his family travelled up the Trent and Crowe Rivers to Belmont Lake. “No one was allowed to hunt on another’s land, without invitation or permission. If any person was found trespassing on the ground of another, all his things were taken from him, except a hand full of shot, powder sufficient to serve him in going straight home, a gun, a tomahawk, and a knife; all the fur and other things were taken from him. If he were found a second time trespassing, all his things were taken away from him, except food sufficient to subsist on while going home. And should he still come a third time to trespass on the same, or another man’s hunting grounds, his nation, or tribe are then informed of it, who will take up his case. If still he disobey, he is banished from his tribe.”

Each winter, his family would trap or shoot fur bearing animals including beaver, muskrat, otter, martin and mink. The animal’s flesh was eaten, often boiled, while the furs were saved until spring. Winter could be a difficult time, “some winters we suffered most severely, on account of the depth of snow, and the cold; our wigwams were often buried in snow… we were often in want of food.”

Come spring, his community would return to Rice Lake, and exchange their winter’s furs with the local trader. “The beaver skin was once worth from eight to ten dollars apiece, or four dollars per pound.” By comparison, 100 pounds of flour cost about four dollars. Furs were valuable commodities, used to make luxurious hats and clothing in Britain and the United States.

In 1827, when George was eight years old, he went with his father to Port Hope, “to see our principal trader, John D. Smith, in order to obtain goods and whiskey, about twelve miles from Rice Lake. After my father had obtained the goods, he asked for whiskey. Mr. Smith said, ‘John, do you know that whiskey will kill you if you do not stop drinking? Why, all the Indians at Credit River, and at Grape Island, have abandoned drinking, and are now Methodists. I cannot give you any whiskey.’”

“‘Tah yah!  (an exclamation of surprise), it cannot be I must have whiskey to carry home; my people expect it,’ said my father. He wished to buy a barrel, but only obtained, after much pleading, about five gallons. My father promised to drink no more when the missionaries shall have come to Rice Lake. We reached home the same day about one o’clock, and the Indians were awaiting our arrival, that they might have some fire-water. They assembled themselves together and began to drink and to smoke. Many of them were sitting on the grass when the whiskey began to steal away their brains. One of our number suddenly ran in the crowd, and said, ‘the black coats (missionaries) are coming, and are on the other side of the point.’ Each looked at the other with perfect astonishment. My father said to our informer, ‘invite them to come over to us;’ and the one who was dealing out whiskey, ‘cover the keg with your blanket, and don’t let the black coats see it.’”

“The whiskey was concealed, and then came the messengers of glad tidings of great joy. They were converted Indians, saved by grace, and had been sent to preach to us, and to invite us to attend a camp meeting near Cobourg. After shaking hands all around, one of them delivered a speech to the half drunken Indians. He referred to the day, when they were without the good news of salvation. He spoke with great earnestness, and the tears fell from his eyes. He said, ‘Jesus Christ, Ke-sha-mon-e-doo O-gwe-son) (i.e. the Benevolent Spirit’s son), came down to the world, and died to save the people; all the Indians at the Credit River, and Grape Island, are now on their road to the place where the Saviour has gone. Jesus has left a book containing his commands and sayings to all the world; you will see it, and hear it read, when you go to Cobourg, for the black coats have it. They wish you to come and hear it. Tomorrow is the Sabbath, and on that day we do not hunt, or work, for it is the day which the Great Spirit made for himself.’ He described the way the Son of God was crucified. I observed some of them crying; mother heaved deep sighs; the half drunken Indians were struck dumb, and hung their heads. Not a word was uttered. The missionaries said, ‘We will sing, and then we will kneel down, and pray to the Great Spirit.’ The evangelists included Michi Saagiig from other villages in the region.

After hearing a prayer, “My father arose, and took the keg of whiskey, stepped into one of the small canoes, and paddled some thirty feet from the shore; here he poured out the whiskey into the lake, and threw the keg away. He then returned and addressed us in the following manner:– ‘You have all heard what our Brother said to us; I am going with them this evening; if any of you will go, do so this evening; the children can attend the great meeting some other time.’ Every one ran at once, to the paddles and canoes; and in a few minutes we were on the water.”

When they arrived at the gate of the camp meeting and saw “a great number of whites, they began to feel rather timid and suspicious, for the trader had told my father at Rice Lake, that it was for the purpose of killing all the Indians that the black coats invited them to the meeting. My father told me to keep away from the grounds, and to hunt birds and squirrels with my bow and arrow; his object was to save my life in the event of the Indians being killed. After remaining on the camp ground awhile, I departed; but while there, I saw a large number of converted Indians who belonged to Credit River and Grape Island. Some of them were singing, some praying, and others lying about the ground as if dead. There were a great many preachers present.”

On the third day of the meeting, George’s father converted, and prayed with George for his first prayer. The Methodists preachers who ministered to the community at Rice Lake practiced a very emotional religion. They were enthusiastic, evangelical saddlebag preachers, who were frowned upon by the colonial Anglican elite, but took an interest trying to improve the lives of the region’s native inhabitants. George witnessed the worshippers lying “about me like dead men. All this was the effect of the power of the gospel grace that had spread among them. The shouts, praises and prayers, of fathers, mothers, sons and daughters, were heard from every quarter. Those who had just appeared as dead, arose, and shouted the praises of God! … This was one of the happiest seasons that I have ever witnessed, except the season of my own conversion.”

George’s mother converted a couple of years later, then in the summer of 1830, at age 11, he found his salvation at a camp meeting near Colborne. While travelling to the meeting, his father encouraged him to come to Jesus. After hearing both colonists and natives preach, George felt like he was going to die, agonizing over his sins as he knelt under a tree during the torrential downpour of a thunderstorm. “I was so agitated and alarmed that I knew not which way to turn in order to get relief. I was like a wounded bird, fluttering for its life. Presently and suddenly, I saw in my mind, something approaching; it was like a small but brilliant torch; it appeared to pass through the leaves of the trees. My poor body became so enfeebled that I fell; my heart trembled. The small brilliant light came near to me, and fell upon my head, and then ran all over and through me, just as if water had been copiously poured out upon me. 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.’”

Religion became very important to George. He would go to class meetings with his father as often as he could. When he was a teenager, many missionaries preached in his community, and enthusiastically tried to make better lives for the residents of Rice Lake—the evangelists’ new path led to Christianity and agriculture. It was a dramatic change from the childhood that George had known. “I loved to hunt the bear, the beaver and the deer, but now the occupation has no charms for me.” Instead, he focused on learning to read, write and teach others.

In 1834, fifteen-year-old George was chosen to himself become a missionary to Ojibwa (Anishinaabe) communities on the western end of Lake Superior. The Methodist Church continued to provide him with education, and he subsequently was ordained as a minister. He returned to preach in Ontario, and got to know Samuel Peters Jarvis, chief superintendent of Indian Affairs for Upper Canada. Despite his elite upbringing, accounting was not Jarvis’ strength. He was not able to account for how thousands of pounds of band money had been spent, and was accused of embezzlement. For Jarvis, a prominent member of the Tory establishment, an early retirement was deemed punishment enough. At about the same time, George also could not account for how he spent band funds and went to jail.

While incarcerated, he decided to write his autobiography, The Life, History, and Travels, of Kah-Ge-Ga-Gah-Bowh, which provides a unique perspective of what his childhood was like growing up at Rice Lake—nothing of its kind had been published previously. Almost overnight he became a celebrity, with speaking engagements all over the eastern United States. He talked about Anishinaabe culture, his own life and temperance. Soon after, he took his shows to Europe. At his peak, he was an internationally known celebrity, taken by many persons of European descent to speak for indigenous people of North America. Like many celebrities, he had his detractors, including historian Francis Parkman who wrote: “Copway is endowed with a discursive imagination and facts grow under his hands into a preposterous shape and dimensions.” Critics could say that he was not really a chief, nor a minister (he had been, but was defrocked as a result of his scandal in Upper Canada), but there was no doubting that he had a presence and could engage a crowd.

Being a travelling celebrity was a difficult life, and as quickly as he had risen to fame, his travelling career declined. Unable to return home as a result of his embarrassing departure, he started new career as an herbalist or native doctor, selling remedies to colonists. He served as a recruiter for the Union Army during the Civil War (his enlistments included four soldiers from Rice Lake), before returning to his career as a doctor. He died at Ypsilanti, Michigan in 1869.

This story is a memory and nobody’s memory is perfect. Originally published in 1847, it reflects the language and ideas of its time. Sometimes details get a little mixed up, things get forgotten or overlooked, and the perspective is inevitably subjective. If you notice something that not right, have something you would like to tell us, or a memory to share the museum would be happy to hear from you:

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