Iowa History Project






Keokuk was Black Hawk's rival, and was placed over him by the government.  He was not so great a warrior as Black Hawk, but he was a finer orator, and was shrewder.  His name means "watchful fox."  In a treaty in which he signed it is spelled Keeokuk, and after it is written, "he who has been everywhere."  He was born about 1780, in the Rock River village.

He was not a chief by birth.  He gained a high position  on the account of his qualities, and because of government influence.  But he showed he could fight, when in battle he gallantly killed a Sioux brave.  Both were on horseback, and as the Sioux were considered to be better horsemen than other Indians, Keokuk was thought to have done a great feat.  In other conflicts with the Sioux, Keokuk proved to be such a strategist that he won much admiration.  He overcame the foe by trickery as much as by arrows and spears.

We have seen that he and his people move peaceably across the river when ordered by government.  Keokuk probably felt that opposition would be of no use.  He looked ahead.  His reason, which was of such advantage in fighting, enabled him to see that the wisest plan was to yield to the superior force of the whites.

Before this time he had attracted favorable notice from a considerable part of the Sacs and Foxes.  When Black Hawk and his band were away during the war of 1812, the Indians remaining in the village discussed the question of defense thinking the village was to be attacked.  Keokuk volunteered to be leader, and this readiness to be front in danger earned him great praise.

After Black Hawk returned from war Keokuk was recognized as head of one faction.  When the surrender of  their lands came up, Keokuk argued that it was better to obey the government, and have peace.  In  this he opposed Black Hawk, and was called coward by the more warlike Indians.

So Keokuk and his followers went across the river, and settled in Iowa.  Black Hawk and his discontented people stayed in Illinois.  We know what happened because of the course they took.

They tried in vain to induce Keokuk to join then in their contest.  For the time Keokuk's people were eager for war, and their minds were inflamed  by Black Hawk and his messengers.  Keokuk addressed them and put the matter in such a light that they decided it was wiser to keep peace. 

In the speech which he made he said he would lead them against the whites, but on the condition "that we first put our wives and children and old men gently to sleep in that slumber that knows no waking this side of spirit land, for we go upon the long trail which has no turn."

The advise to kill those who could not fight showed the case was so desperate that the Indians decided not to assist Black Hawk.

When Keokuk left the Sac village on the Rock River, he established a new village on the west shore of a lake about six miles west of Muscatine city of to-day, along the slough.  It occupied nearly all the bottom land there, about forty acres.  In 1834 the Indians raised their last crop of corn on this land, and thereafter confined themselves to their territory immediately about the Iowa River, until they gave up their reservation and went to the Des Moines River.

Keokuk had been recognized, instead of Black Hawk, by the United States as an authority over the Indians.  His village was on the right bank of the Iowa River, in the midst of the tract of four hundred square miles reserved for the Indians when they transferred the Black Hawk purchase to the government, at the close of the Black Hawk War.

When this reservation was sold, in 1836, the Sacs and Foxes moved to the Des Moines River, and the Keokuk had his lodge near Iowaville, on the south bank of the stream.

In 1837 a son of Keokuk died.  Just before he passed away he asked that his fine horse be sent with him to spirit land.  So the horse, all saddled and bridled, was led to the grave, and shot through the head.  For several years after the remains of the animal, and of the trappings, were to be seen on the ground beside the grave.  Traces of Keokuk’s lodge, also, could be discerned for a long time after all the Indians had left the region.

About the last village of the Sacs and Foxes under Keokuk was near the mouth of Sugar Creek, not far from where Ottumwa now is.  After Black Hawk 's death bad feelings between  his band and the Keokuk people increased.  Hard Fish succeeded Black Hawk as a leader of the faction.  He and his men accused Keokuk of stealing money which was being paid each year by the government in accordance with treaties.  Keokuk distributed the money, and it was claimed he dealt wrongly with portions of it.  Once he was stabbed by Nes-se-as-kuk, one of Black Hawk's sons, and was conveyed up the Des Moines River in a canoe to his home.

Keokuk was not so great an Indian as Black Hawk.  He was addicted to the use of liquor, and drank to excess.  It is claimed that he died because of these indulgencies.  At any rate, after he had gone to Kansas, with his tribe, he became very dissipated.  In other habits of life, also, he was less high minded that his rival.

Keokuk was a well proportioned man, rather tall, and of splendid appearance.  He had an open, intelligent countenance.  He prided himself on his horseman ship and his dancing.  His passion was for horses, next to whiskey, and he owned a number of fast animals.

He was fond of display.  When he moved about clan to clan he was attended by three or four wives, and a company of favorites, all elaborately attired.

His position as a friend and especial pet of the government gained him many privileges, and created jealousy, so that we cannot tell how true were the charges made against him of swindling and theft.

 We must remember Keokuk as a great orator, one of the greatest among all the Indians, and as a diplomat.  He had rare ability to take the wisest and safest course, and to do what would have the best effect.  But morally he was not great.

Keokuk County and city bear the name of the chief.


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