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Okah Tubbee, b. 1810 or 11 and Laah Ceil Manatoi Elaah Tubbee
A Sketch of the Life of Okah Tubbee, (Called) William Chubbee, Son of the Head Chief, Mosholeh Tubbee, of the Choctaw Nation of Indians
Toronto: Printed for O. Tubbee by H. Stephens, 1852.


Historical records indicate that Okah Tubbee, originally known as Warner McCary, was born in Natchez, Mississippi, around 1810 to an enslaved African American woman known as Franky. Tubbee later denied that she was his real mother. When Franky's master, James McCary, died in 1813, his will freed Franky and her two older children (possibly McCary's offspring), but directed that Tubbee and his offspring "be held as slaves during all and each of their lives" (Littlefield p. ix). Tubbee's true lineage remains unknown, but scholars have questioned his self-asserted Native American ancestry. It is also unclear when Warner McCary began to use the name Okah Tubbee, but as a young man, he went by various names, including James Warner, William McCary, and simply Cary. In 1836, he left Natchez by riverboat, and from 1837 to 1840 he worked at Leeds Foundry in New Orleans, with intermittent stints as a musician and cigar vendor along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. During this period, he met and married Laah Ceil, the daughter of a Delaware Indian mother and a Mohawk (or Mahican) father. In 1843, aided by local whites who believed him to be a Native American, Warner McCary received a permit to reside in Mississippi as a free person of color. In 1844 he left Mississippi, and over the next several years he performed as a musician and lecturer in Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. By 1847, Tubbee was widely known as an Indian doctor and the son of a Choctaw chief (p. xx). Tubbee's legend grew along with his fame, and by 1849 he was reportedly able to speak 14 different languages and play over 50 musical instruments (p. xxviii). Over the next several years, Tubbee and his family were hounded by debts, malpractice lawsuits, and threats and were repeatedly forced to relocate. In 1852, they settled in Toronto, Canada, where Tubbee established a quiet medical practice and continued to speak on behalf of Native American interests. In 1854, Tubbee was targeted by a medical reform movement, and the Toronto Globe derided him as an "Indian quack doctor" (p. xxxv). Tubbee's biographies end with his brief period of prosperity, and the details of his subsequent life and death—as well as the fates of his family members—remain unknown.

Laah Ceil was born in New York in 1817; her family moved to Missouri following an 1818 treaty in which the Delaware Indians agreed to relocate to the James Fork of the White River. A subsequent treaty required them to move again to a territory near the Kansas-Missouri border, and she met Warner McCary a/k/a Okah Tubbee soon afterwards (Littlefield p. xxv). Encouraged by Reverend Lewis Allen, a published author and traveling lecturer for the temperance movement, Laah Ceil recorded a narrative of her husband's life in 1848, and Allen added an introductory essay. The original publication of A Thrilling Sketch of the Life of the Distinguished Chief Okah Tubbee mistakenly listed Allen as the sole author, giving no credit to Laah Ceil, but a revised version appeared later that year, clearly attributed to "Laah Ceil Manatoi Elaah Tubbee, His Wife," and a Toronto publisher published this expanded version in 1852.

After two testimonials from friends who vouch for Okah Tubbee's flute-playing abilities and a program from a performance introduced by Laah Ceil (and featuring an appearance by their two-year-old son Bruce), the 1852 Sketch includes a lightly edited version of Lewis Allen's "Essay Upon the Indian Character" from the original publication. It also reprints the so-called Indian Covenant "between the Six Nations and the Choctaws," signed by "Pochongehala" (p. 14). The narrative begins with brief recollections of his father and Tubbee's childhood with his "unnatural mother." Tubbee then recounts an incident in which a group of bears approaches and inspects but does not harm him (p. 17).

Most of the content in the 1852 Sketch is close or identical to the 1848 Thrilling Sketch, although certain portions are rearranged or expanded. For example, in the later text, Tubbee's visit to the Choctaw Indians in Alexandria is described before his apprenticeship to the cruel blacksmith Mr. Russell (pp. 26-33). The later version also includes a significant new passage about Tubbee's apprenticeship to Dr. A.P. Merrill, demonstrating his interest in medicine, his practical training, and his desire to become an "Indian Doctor" (p. 22). Admitting his inability to read, Tubbee recalls his informal education as a process of trial and error: "eagerly I watched each symptom, the progress of the disease, and if arrested by my simple medicine, I carefully noted each change, thereby instructing myself, often acknowledging that practice makes perfect" (p. 23).

In addition, the 1852 version expands Tubbee's account of his travels, first as a musician with the Louisiana Volunteers and later on his own. During one trip, he rides a series of steamboats up the Ohio River to Lake Erie, visiting Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Detroit (p. 48). He also relates his journey to Florida to visit the Creek and Seminole Indians, where, not surprisingly, his message that whites "would never give up the chase until the Indian was no longer an inhabitant of that soil" was unwelcome (p. 50). During this journey, which the earlier biography does not mention, an old acquaintance of the Choctaw chief Mosholeh Tubbee identifies Okah Tubbee as the chief's son, and another of Mosholeh Tubbee's sons recognizes Okah Tubbee "like brothers" (pp. 54, 69).

Towards the end of his narrative, Tubbee expresses a desire to let his wife, Laah Ceil, "speak for herself, for she does not like to hear me say that we made an engagement the first day, made an acquaintance the next, and was married so soon" (pp. 74-75). In this final, additional section, Laah Ceil describes her birth, her education, her Christian convictions, and the manner in which she met and married Tubbee. She also recounts their travels together and their advocacy "in behalf of the Indians" and against forced relocation (p. 79). The 1852 Sketch concludes with an original poem by Laah Ceil and a collection of letters, documents, and vouchers attesting to Okah Tubbee's identity and his medical skill.

Works Consulted: Brennan, Jonathan, ed., Mixed Race Literature, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002; Brennan, Jonathan, "African-Native American Literature," Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, 2nd ed., Kwame Anthony Appiah & Henry Louis Gates, Jr., eds., available through Oxford African American Studies Center online ; Gilmore, Paul, The Genuine Article: Race, Mass Culture, and American Literary Manhood, Durham: Duke University Press, 2001; Littlefield, Daniel F., Jr., Introduction, The Life of Okah Tubbee, Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1988.

Patrick E. Horn

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