Iowa History Project


Iowa: Its History and Its

Foremost Citizens



Part II. The Indians



Chapter I



The Vanishing Red Man

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             The early voyageurs and fur traders found the region later known as Iowa sparsely inhabited by warring tribes of Indians designated by early travelers and historians as Iowas (variously spelled “Aiouas,” “Aiouways,” “Ioways,” etc.), Otoes, Missouris, Pawnees, Omahas, Winnebagoes, Osages, Sissetons, Illinois, (Illini) Sacs (Sauks), Foxes, Chippewas, Allouays and Pottawattamies.

             The Indians visited by Marquette and Joliet were the Illini of the Algonquin race, whose ancestors had been driven west by the conquering Iroquois. Later, the Illini west of the Mississippi had been nearly exterminated by the Sacs and Foxes, whom later visitors found firmly allied. Since these affiliated tribes figure so largely in the pioneer history of Iowa, let us turn back to the first half of the eighteenth century to find how it happened that they were in such numbers and so closely allied as to be dealt with as one tribe.

             The union of the Sacs and Foxes dates back to the campaign against the Foxes in 1733. The Foxes, then east of the Mississippi, defeated by the French, took refuge with the Sacs, near Green Bay. In an assault upon the two tribes the French commandant, De Villiers, and his son and a number of his men, were slain.

             The Sacs, though kinsmen of the Foxes, had “held aloof from them and submitted to French control.” United in common defense, many Sacs and Foxes together crossed the upper Mississippi and located within the present boundaries of Iowa. A close confederation followed.

             Stung by the defeat and death of De Villiers, the French governor, Beauharnois, sent eighty-four Frenchmen, under De Noyelles, accompanied by bands of Iroquois and Hurons, across the Mississippi for the purpose of winning the Sacs back to their support or punishing them for the aid they had rendered the Foxes. The bloodthirsty Indian allies, on learning that the Sacs were not to be included in the destruction of the Foxes, lost interest in the expedition.

             Meantime the Sacs and Foxes had established themselves on the River Des Moines, but only to find the river filled with floating ice. On the west shore not far from the present capital of the state, was the village of the Sacs and Foxes. But how to reach it, was the question. An Iroquois chief proposed that all should swim across. De Noyelles responded, “Impossible!”

             The details of the crossing are somewhat confusing, but it is evident that an


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Advance party of Frenchmen and twenty-three Indians found themselves confronted by 250 Sacs and Foxes on their won ground; that their defense was sufficiently fierce to drive back the Sacs and Foxes; that the allies re-formed and in turn compelled the invaders to retreat.

             De Noyelles, crossing the river farther upstream, came to the rescue, and under his leadership the invaders fell back under cover and proceeded to fortify. Next day a council was held with the Sacs, but with no result. Four days passed, and the French were reduced almost to the point of starvation. Finally, the Iroquois threatening to abandon him to his fate, De Noyelles was forced to retreat. This offensive campaign ending in failure, resulted in making the defensive alliance of the Sacs and Foxes a union lasting as long as the tribal relation continued.1 In fact, the Musquakies, now living on lands acquired by purchase near Tama, Iowa, are a blend of the Sacs and Foxes, with a slight admixture of Pottawattamies and other tribes.

             When in 1805 Lieut. Zebulon M. Pike reported on conditions as he found them on the upper Mississippi, he gave it as his best judgment that the prairies between the big rivers, the Mississippi and the Missouri, were incapable of cultivation and should be left to the wandering savages.

             Contemporaneous with the Sacs and Foxes of the first half of the nineteenth century were the Ioways, the Sioux and the Pottawattamies.

             Tradition and indirect allusions give the Iowas of the seventeenth century a local habitation in the vicinity of the great lakes. Later they migrated beyond the big river, locating about the lower valley of the river which bears their name. Tradition has it that the Iowas, wandering westward, finally reached a bluff overlooking the mouth of the river now bearing their name, and that they were so pleased with the prospect that they halted, exclaiming “Ioway,” which the half-breed, Antoine LeClaire, and others of his time translated as “This is the place.”

             The Iowas and the Sacs and Foxes were warring continually until 1824, when the allies led by Pashepaho, assisted by Black Hawk, attacked the Iowas near the old town of Iowaville. The story, in brief, is that the Iowas were assembled to witness a pony race when the allies swooped down upon them. Their village was burned and a massacre ensued. The remnant of the tribe became wanderers on the face of the earth.

             Several allied tribes under the general term “the Sioux” long roamed at will over Northern Iowa and contiguous regions. They were nomadic and warlike and were almost constantly invading the hunting grounds of the Sacs and Foxes. During the seventeenth-century wars between the French and the Indians, the Sioux were driven southward to the Okaboji and Spirit Lake region and the headwaters of the Des Moines River.

             The tradition is well established that a battle occurred on the banks of he Raccoon River, emphasizing the policy later adopted by the Government—that of protecting the Indians against themselves and pacifying warring tribes.2 The story is that a party of Sioux surprised a small hunting camp of roving Delawares in the bottom-land of the Raccoon. One Delaware alone escaped,


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             Taking refuge with the Sacs encamped on or near the site of Iowa’s present State Capitol. Pashepaho, “the stabber,” then eighty years old, led 500 of his braves to avenge the invasion of his territory. About a hundred miles up the Raccoon Valley they fell upon the Sioux. One of the bloodiest battles ever fought on Iowa soil ensued. It was reported by the victors that only seven Sacs were slain and that more than three hundred of the Sioux were left dead upon the field.



             In accordance with a provision in the treaty of peace with Great Britain that the states should put an end to hostilities with the Indians, in 1815 the Government summoned all the tribes of the upper Mississippi and the Missouri to a council in the interests of peace. At this council treaties of peace were signed with twelve tribes. The Sacs along the Rock River, led by Black Hawk, remained hostile. A year later, however, Black Hawk and his chiefs signed a treaty in which they are represented as “now imploring mercy, having repented of their conduct.” This treaty also committed them to a treaty made by five Sac and Fox chiefs in 1804 ceding to the he Government 51,000,000 acres.


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             Year afterward Blackhawk solemnly declared that in former treaties the chiefs did not know what they were signing, and even if they did know, they had no authority to sign away tribal possessions.

             In 1822 the Government bought of the Sacs and Foxes a release from the stipulation of the treaty signed in 1804, providing for factories and a trading house, paying the Indians a paltry $1,000 as the price of the release. The American Fur Company soon monopolized the rich field thus thrown open. The unrestricted sale of whisky soon demoralized the Indians, making them the prey of war, pestilence and famine.

             In 1824 a treaty with the Sacs and Foxes resulted in setting apart a “Half-Breed Tract”—“the small tract of land lying between the Mississippi and Des Moines rivers,” bordering on the Missouri boundary line, “for the use of the half-breeds belonging to those nations”—a recognition of the duty of the  Government to care for those of Indian blood who, through the weakness or guilt of white men, had become the innocent victims of the vices of the border.



             To promote peace between the warring Sioux and Sacs and Foxes, the Government arranged a conference at Prairie du Chien in the summer of 1825, in which a boundary line was agreed upon, each tribe self-prohibited from hunting within the limits of the other without the other’s consent.3 The National Ground extended along this line, including a strip twenty miles wide on either side.


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             But treaty obligations set lightly on the consciences of red men as well as white. Soon the old spirit of aggression and retaliation revived and the Government was confronted with the duty of enforcing the treaty of 1825.

             Another compromise was held at Prairie du Chien in 1830, at which the renewed hostilities between the Sacs and Foxes and the Sioux were again under consideration. The result was the settling apart of a "neutral ground" across the prospective territory of Iowa--a strip of land forty miles wide extending from the Mississippi to the Des Moines, the Sioux ceding the north half, the Sacs and Foxes the south half. But that was not all the land west of the divide between the Des Moines and the Missouri and lands farther north, thus extinguishing the Indian title to the "western slope".

    In 1831 Black Hawk, peremptorily ordered to remove to land west of the Mississippi (reserved for the Sacs and Foxes), stubbornly refused to obey. He appealed to his braves to sustain him in his contention that the land in Illinois was never knowingly ceded to the Government. Unless driven off, he would not forsake the graves of his fathers, the home of his youth. Government troops and state militia soon forced the chief to yield.

    Black Hawk grew homesick in his new quarters and organized a return to his beloved Rock River country. Keokuk eloquently opposed the movement, but a large minority followed Black Hawk across the river. In the spring of 1832, reinforced by dissatisfied Pottawattamies and Winnebagoes, Black Hawk raised the British flag. This indignity, coupled with the murder of St. Vrain, a government agent, made war inevitable. Thus, with only about eight hundred warriors, the intrepid but foolhardy chief brought on the Black Hawk war.

    The defeat of Black Hawk, in 1832, was of itself a guaranty of peace, and soon the tide of homeseekers toward the future Iowa became phenomenal.

    In September, 1832, the Winnebagoes ceded all their holdings east of the Mississippi in exchange for the "neutral ground" across the river and an annuity of $10,000.

    At Davenport, in September, 1832, General Scott and Governor Reynolds (of Illinois) held a conference with the chiefs of the Sacs and Foxes. Holding them responsible for not restraining Black Hawk from recrossing the Mississippi, the white men ungenerously demanded, as indemnity for the cost of the ensuing war, that they cede to the United States "a portion of their superfluous territory." Having no recourse, the chiefs yielded, ceding to the United States a strip of territory lying along the Mississippi extending from the Missouri border to the neutral ground, about one hundred and ninety-five miles in length and between forty and fifty miles in width. In the cession was a reservation of 400 square miles styled "Keokuk's Reserve," 4 lying on both sides of the Iowa River for the sole use of the Sacs and Foxes. The commissioners agreed to pay the Indians the sum of $20,000 annually for thirty years. Black Hawk, with his tow sons and eight of his warriors, were to be held as hostages. Keokuk was designated as head chief, the other chiefs assenting.

    This important cession has gone into history as the Black Hawk Purchase. The treaty was followed by a banquet, fireworks, an Indian dance and a carousal, in which both officers and Indian chiefs mingled with much freedom and general


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hilarity. In honor of the general's gallant and meritorious services (?) the county in which the City of Davenport is located was afterward named Scott County.

    By a treaty made in Chicago in September, 1833, the Pottawatamies were ceded 5,000,000 acres in Western Iowa, and were given nearly a million dollars in annuities in exchange for their ancient holdings.

    A second "Black Hawk Purchase" occurred in October, 1837, by which the Sacs and Foxes ceded 1,250,000 acres west of the first purchase, the payment made amounting to about twenty cents an acre.




    In October, 1842, through the agency of General Street, Governor Chambers, acting as Government representative, met the Sac and Fox chiefs at the agency, near the present site of Ottumwa, and convincing them that their Iowa hunting grounds could not long afford them subsistence, effected a treaty by which the Indians conveyed to the United States all their remaining lands in Iowa, they to occupy for the next three years a reservation along the Des Moines west


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the "Red Rocks." At the end of that term, the Government was to locate them upon a permanent reservation west of the Missouri River. Three years later the main body of the Indians on the temporary reservation were escorted by Government troops across country to their new reservation beyond the Missouri. About tow hundred, however, remained, or later returned. These gradually disappeared, unable to sustain life against the onrush of immigration.



    Let us look in upon the scene of the historic treaty of October 11, 1842. 5

    There were from a thousand to fifteen hundred whites and 2,000 Indians congregated a short distance east of the agency. Their tents, all new, several hundred


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in number, were scattered over a beautiful prairie; and the chiefs and braves, in gaudy trappings, with their robust and athletic figures, presented an attractive sight. Keokuk, in full splendor, was the observed of all observers. Black Hawk's younger son, very tall and handsome, and dignified in bearing, was a notable figure in the picture.

    The Beau Brummel of the camp was Kishkekosh, exquisitely attired and sporting an ebony cane.

    At night the Indians indulged in a variety of dances, consisting mainly of a violent stamping on the ground to the measured beat of a drum. The squaws looked on admiringly. The youthful members of the tribes, at a respectful distance, aped their elders in the dance and engaged in wrestling, foot-racing and horse-racing. Far from being the stoics they are represented to be, and far from giving themselves up to mourning over the prospect of removal from their "happy hunting grounds," the entire camp appeared to be in high spirits over the prospect.

    The treaty was conducted with great dignity. Captain Allen and Lieutenant Ruff, of the First Dragoons, were unobtrusive and gentlemanly. Governor Chambers was evidently of the opinion that nothing would be lacking to make the occasion impressive. He managed every difficult situation with consummated tact. Certain bands of Indians were loth to part with their lands, and several anxious days and nights were passed by both parties to the treaty; but, convinced that there would be little game in the old reservation and plenty in the new, the hesitants finally signed the treaty with the rest.

    The chief negotiator for the Sacs was Keokuk, while Poweshiek represented the Foxes.   

    By the terms of the treaty the Sacs and Foxes were guaranteed protection in the temporary occupation of the new reservation, also a permanent reservation beyond the Missouri. They were given 5 per cent interest on $800,000, and their debts, aggregating $258,566.34, were to be paid. Many minor provisions were added, including a separate annuity for each principal chief, and a retention of $30,000 at each annual payment, to be expended by the chiefs, with the approval of the agent, for charitable purposes among the Indians, the support of the poor, the employment of physicians, the burial of the dead, etc.

    On the last day of April, 1843, the border of the old reservation was lined with settlers and speculators waiting for the midnight gun which was the signal that the land was thrown open to actual settlers. They crossed the border with blazing torches and made haste to set their stakes and blaze trees to mark their respective claims. Most of the Indians on the reservation had already moved on; and those who remained, probably less than two hundred, soon found their occupation gone and sorrowfully followed the rest.

    The birth year of the state witnessed two more treaties, one in June executed by Col. Peter A. Sarpy and the Pottawattamies at Trader's Point on the Missouri, in Mills County, by which the Government repurchased 5,000,000 acres set apart for the Pottawattamies in 1833, the Indians agreeing to emigrate to the Kansas River region within two years; the other, in October, by which the Winnebagoes ceded their lands in the neutral ground along the upper Iowa, the Turkey, the Wapsipinicon and the Cedar, in exchange for territory on the St. Peter's River in Minnesota, the Government giving them two years within which to emigrate.

    In July, 1851, the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands of the Sioux surrendered their claim to the region about Spirit Lake; but, in 1852, they were still on the ground ready to defend their former possessions from incursions of other bands of Indians. The oncoming settlers soon made the region undesirable, and the Sissetons and Wahpetons also moved on, finally leaving the new State of Iowa from one end to the other unobstructedly open to the settlers--the only remaining reservation within the limits of the state being that of the remnant of the Sacs and Foxes, or Musquakies, which was not legally authorized until years afterward.

    It will thus be noted that not until several years after Iowa became federated with the Union was the last Indian title extinguished. And even then there yet remained a remnant of the Sacs and Foxes, now known as the Musquakies, in Tama County, less than four hundred of whom still occupy several hundred acres, still hunt and fish and live in rude wigwams and cabins, are still averse to the arts of peace, to agriculture and the mechanic arts, to schools and churches, and in the main are content to live in comparative idleness, upon the annuities doled out to them by the Government, supplemented by the meager products of the woods and streams and by the sale of beadwork and wickerware.

    Estimates vary widely as to the number of Indians in the Iowa region prior to the coming of the white man. In 1805, Lieutenant Pike, after having made several stops along the two great rivers bounding that region on the east and west, reported not more than four thousand six hundred Sacs and Foxes, about twelve hundred and fifty of whom were warriors; also about fourteen hundred Iowas, of whom about three hundred were warriors. He made no estimate of the other tribes. Other estimates covering the total Indian population at the time when the policy of elimination by treaty first went into effect, range from ten to fifteen thousand. On the ten thousand basis, a probably division as to tribal relations would be about Six thousand Sacs and Foxes, one thousand Iowas, one thousand Sioux and two thousand Omahas, Otoes, Pawnees etc.

    A pathetic tale is told by "Waucoshaushe," principal war chief of the Foxes, in a letter written to General Street from the Rock Island agency, dated August 8, 1837.6  When the chief returned from St. Louis he found his people starving. He divided up his supplies and ammunition among them and organized the upper band of Foxes into tow hunting parties, one to move up the divide between the Iowa and the Cedar, the other to proceed up the right bank of the Cedar. He proceeded with his starving party to the mouth of the Otter, where he encountered the Sioux. Unable to retreat he fought the ancient enemy and was beaten by a superior force. He left eleven killed on the field and brought back thirteen wounded to be cared for by the squaws. He thus affectionately concludes his letter:

    "My Father: I am one of the wounded, and expect never to see you again. I have followed your advice, and have done the best I could for my nation, and I do not fear to die." Thus eloquently does Waucoshaushe tell a tale which, with many variations, is the story of the vanishing Indian tribes of Iowa.




1--Wis. Hist. COll., XVII, 221-30, and Quaif, "Chicago and the Old Northwest," pp. 70-78.

2--Gue's History of Iowa states that this battle occurred in 1841. Vol. I, p. 104. In all probability it occurred in the thirties--if at all.

3--By this treaty it was agreed that the Government should run a line between the Sioux on the north and the Sacs and Foxes on the south, the line "commencing at the mouth of the Upper Ioway River, on the west bank of the Mississippi, and ascending the said Ioway River to its left fork; thence up that fork to its source; thence crossing the fork of the Red Cedar River in a direct line to the second or upper fork of the Des Moines River and thence on a direct line to the lower fork of the Calumet. (Bit Sioux) River; down that river to its junction with the Missouri River." Abernethy "Iowa Under Territorial Governments." Annals of Iowa, July, 1906, pp. 435-36.

4--In 1836 occurred the recession of "Keokuk's Reserve" to the United States.

5--The picture here given in outline follows a more extended journalistic account given by "an eye-witness" and published in the Iowa Territorial Gazette and Advertiser, Burlington, October 15, 1842.

6--Published in the Western Adventurer, Montrose, September 9, 1837.




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