Angela Pulley Hudson’s fascinating and very readable new book details a remarkable story of an ex-slave from Mississippi and a Mormon convert who met during the tumultuous early years of Mormonism became “professional Indians” who took their musical show on the road, became famous for it, and managed to keep up the racial passing for years despite outlandish behavior, the many people who questioned their race, their interracial marriage, medical quackery, and fraud. Hudson takes this tale and spins a compelling narrative about the Second Great Awakening, shifting meanings of race, and what “Indianness” meant for 19th century white Americans who romanticized these people at the very moment they were dispossessing them of their land. Into the book comes large dollops of the history of music, popular culture, religion, sexual mores, and other key issues of early 19th century America.
Warner McCary was a slave from Natchez, Mississippi. When his owner died, he was left to a free black man who also owned slaves. This was still possible in the early 19th century. His life in slavery was pretty horrible and he chafed from the very beginning. He learned the flute, was able to travel to New Orleans, and eventually became a performer. He also received his freedom as a young man. Growing up in Natchez exposed him both to the Choctaw who were in the process of being dispossessed of their land and a robust theater scene that taught him much about performance. Lucy Stanton was a convert to Mormonism, a religious movement that was about performing Indianness from its beginning. Mormons frequently compared themselves to Native Americans, especially as they flee west to escape persecution. Mormons, like many of the new religions developing during the Second Great Awakening, also valued bodily religious practices including shaking and speaking in tongues. For Mormons that could mean speaking in “Indian tongues.” Stanton was recently divorced from a man who left the church and had three kids she shuttled off to her parents to avoid her husband taking them.
McCary arrived at a Mormon community in Ohio where Stanton lived. He was already passing as an Indian at that point. The Mormons were also one of many contemporary religious movements engaging in sexual experimentation, most notoriously plural marriages. But that could include interracial sex so when McCary and Stanton met and quickly got married, it raised eyebrows but was allowed. It did however expose the strong tensions between Mormon talk about Native Americans and actual interactions with Native Americans, whether real ones or not. Whether interracial marriage or interactions with the Omaha when they move to Missouri, Indians were far preferred in the abstract. Brigham Young eventually cracked down on the many people like McCary entering the church and claiming special powers, often creating sects that left the mainline church.
Stanton soon decided to become Indian as well and the two went on tours that combined music (especially McCary’s great flute skills) with other supposedly Indian theatrics. They tried to start their own religious community in Cincinnati where McCary claimed he was Adam and did get some followers, but it went under pretty quickly. They engaged in group sex, with his followers being “sealed” while in bed with the two of them. They went under a variety of names over the years. He primarily became known as Okah Tubbee, a Choctaw chief, and she as Laah Ceil, his Indian princess. They became briefly famous in the burgeoning popular culture of the antebellum years. They performed across the northeast, often to large audiences. This receives a tremendous amount of newspaper publicity. They had a child, who just disappears from the record entirely after a few years. Maybe he died, but it’s impossible to know. They write Okah Tubbee’s autobiography (he was evidently illiterate although very skilled at languages, regardless of whether he actually spoke Choctaw) and it goes through several editions, each a bit different. Analyzing this biography provides much of the grist for the book.
Eventually, word about McCary gets back to Natchez and people there out him as black. In doing so, they frequently laugh at and insult the gullible northerners and their tolerance for this sort of behavior, not to mention racial mixing. He denies this, but the questions remain. What’s remarkable is that while McCary’s race was questioned, Stanton’s never was. She was just assumed to be an Indian. One of their possible strategies to avoid being racially outed was that he married another woman. This got him rightfully accused of bigamy but by claiming this was something that the Choctaw did, it gave him some cover. His story of the event was that he saw her in a vision seven years earlier; a writer built upon this by saying that his new wife had a untamed desire for Indianness. This event was reported in at least seventeen newspapers from Natchez to London. They eventually move to Canada to escape the attention where they start performing in Toronto. That lasts awhile but their fame is on the decline and they turn to healing to make ends meet. Charges of fraud follow them, largely for taking money from people and then not healing them, not that they had the actual ability to do so, but then one of Hudson’s points is that another important market niche the couple helped fill in pre-Civil War America was for popular, non-scientific medical treatment.
In other words, the Second Great Awakening was one bizarre period in American history. It’s somewhat easy to forget about it in popular narratives of American history. If we talk about the antebellum period at all in these narratives, it’s about slavery as a lead up to the Civil War, or maybe about the Trail of Tears. But there is so much else going on. As capitalism transforms the United States, people responded in a variety of often outlandish ways. Perhaps like the 1960s, the whole panoply of ways of living were briefly open for Americans to consider and like that later era, some experimenters tried about everything, often to the mocking contempt of the rest of the nation.
McCary eventually disappears from the record after they break up in the 1850s. But not Stanton. She, still playing Indian, settles in Buffalo where she practices in medicine. Here, she is routinely referred to in the papers as “the notorious Indian doctress.” (158) A lot of this practice was abortion, which was starting to be cracked down upon after the Civil War. She had some clients die, including relatively well-off patients trying to hide their unwed pregnancies, was arrested, and finally sentenced to seven years of hard labor. By this time, it’s much harder to be a professional Indian in the U.S. The romanticizing of Native Americans as they are being pushed across the Mississippi transforms into the scientific racism of the late nineteenth century. The Indian princess of 1845 is the fat sordid squaw of 1870 in the media. After she leaves prison, she goes to Utah where the three children from her first marriage live. She marries again and lives the rest of her life as a white woman.
Somewhat provocatively but I think correctly, Hudson compares McCary to the Mardi Gras Indians which both challenge stereotypes against African-Americans but build upon white supremacy against another racial minority in order to do that. Ultimately, both McCary and Stanton are able to transform their own identities by playing off of popular conceptions of what it meant to be an Indian. Like other professional Indians of the period, some of whom who actually were Native Americans who took these personas in part to raise awareness of the terrible things happening to their people and to raise funds to help, they made a successful career out of filling that market.
This is an excellent book that any LGM reader interested in the early 19th century and/or racial issues will find very much worth their time.