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Okah Tubbee, b. 1810 or 11 and L. L. Allen (Lewis Leonidas)
A Thrilling Sketch of the Life of the Distinguished Chief Okah Tubbee Alias, Wm. Chubbee, Son of the Head Chief, Mosholeh Tubbee, of the Choctaw Nation of Indians
New York: [s.n.], 1848.


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). Lewis L. Allen was a Methodist minister from St. Louis who served as a chaplain with the Louisiana Volunteer Regiment during the Mexican-American War. He volunteered as a traveling lecturer for the temperance movement, and one of his trips coincided with the touring stage performances of Okah Tubbee and Laah Ceil. Allen encouraged Laah Ceil to record Tubbee's narrative, and when she complied, he provided an introductory "Essay Upon the Indian Character." The original (1848) 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. A revised version appeared later that year, clearly attributed to "Laah Ceil Manatoi Elaah Tubbee, His Wife," and a Toronto publisher published an expanded version of her account in 1852.

The original Thrilling Sketch consists primarily of Tubbee's tale, though it is prefaced and occasionally interrupted by other material, including "The Covenant Between the Six Nations and the Choctaws" signed by "Pochongehahala," and an 1846 account of "the present condition of the Choctaw Indians" by Rev. W.G. Montgomery. Tubbee's tale begins with his hazy recollections of being transferred from his "father" to a white man and being "obliged" to call a slave woman "mother" (pp. 15-16). As a child, Tubbee claims to have demonstrated the character of a "Red man" by insisting upon either cleanliness or nakedness, by his natural talent at fishing, and by courageously defending himself against various insults (p. 16).

Tubbee casts himself as a victim of the slave woman whom Natchez residents believe is his mother, describing how she takes the money he earns by catching fish to purchase clothes for her other children. Tubbee offers his penchants for earning money, learning new tricks, and dressing himself in fine clothing as evidence of his "superiority in mind over her children," thereby reinforcing the nineteenth-century racial hierarchy which privileged Native Americans over African Americans (pp. 17-18). As a child, Tubbee runs away from home and goes to work at a brick kiln for several weeks before he is returned to his "unnatural mother" (p. 19). During this time, the brickmaker tells him he resembles "Indian boys he had often seen about [Natchez]," and Tubbee resolves to "visit that people" (p. 19). Not long afterward, he goes to work for Dr. A. P. Merill, a surgeon in the U.S. Army, who treats him well. However, when a jealous white boy calls him a "nigger," Tubbee smashes his face with a brick and is subsequently imprisoned (p. 20).

In prison, an unidentified white man comes to see Tubbee and explains that Franky and her other children had been freed, but that he would remain their slave. Impassioned by this news, Tubbee tells the man that "some strange mysteries hung over my birth" and that he has "every reason to believe she [is] not my mother" (p. 21). The white man acknowledges that Tubbee's father is "probably a white man" but claims he cannot change Tubbee's legal status; Tubbee resolves "I will bear it; it will lay me in my grave, and there I shall be free" (p. 21). Moved by these words, the man promises to use his influence to free Tubbee; he is soon released into the care of "kind friends," who suspect he may be "an Indian child, taken when small, for the purpose of making [him] a slave" (p. 22). Tubbee goes to work for a blacksmith, Mr. Russell, who beats him so savagely that he nearly dies, and Tubbee's outraged guardians force Russell to leave town.

Tubbee stays with various friends but is always looking to escape. One day he boards a steamboat headed to Alexandria, Louisiana, where he encounters a group of "Indians" in the street. "I thought I was their child, that they were seeking for me," Tubbee recalls, and in his excitement he utters a language that he does not understand. One of the men explains that Tubbee had asked for his father in Choctaw. Not long afterward, Tubbee visits the Choctaw camp, and they are incensed by his story and his scars. However, Tubbee returns to Alexandria and continues back to Natchez. Back in his hometown, Tubbee encounters a woman named Sally Kelly, who claims to have been his "first black mamma" and tells the story of how he came to be a slave (p. 31). According to Kelly, her master was friends with "the white man who found" Tubbee (p. 31). Tubbee's "real" father (whom she identifies as the Choctaw chief Moshulatubbee) "supposed [Tubbee] had been destroyed by wild beasts or stolen by some warlike tribe," and so Tubbee remained in Natchez as a slave. The white man "offered [Franky] freedom if she would say she gave birth to this child" (p. 32). When Tubbee confronts Franky with this story, she corroborates it but proceeds to drug him. When he awakens, he is tied to the bed and Franky is whipping him, claiming "you are in my power" (pp. 32-34). Tubbee unties himself, "fell[s] the old woman," and escapes (p. 34). Afterwards, despite working as a blacksmith under a kind boss, Mr. McCafferey, he is repeatedly hounded by "enemies," both slave and free, who insist that Tubbee should be forced to purchase his freedom from Franky.

Tubbee leaves Natchez for New Orleans in 1837, going to work at a foundry and eventually becoming Fife Major for the Washington Battalion. He concludes his narrative by noting his newfound prosperity: "I received a large compensation for my musical services . . . [and] I situated myself very comfortably" (p. 43). In his narrative, if not in his life, Tubbee's trials and tribulations seem to lead at last to a happy ending.

Works Consulted: Brennan, Jonathan, ed., Mixed Race Literature, Stanford: Stanford UP, 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 UP, 2001; Littlefield, Daniel F., Jr., Introduction, The Life of Okah Tubbee, Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1988.

Patrick E. Horn

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