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JOSEPH M. STREET - INDIAN AGENT
While the Indians lived by themselves, they knew how to do things very well. But when the white men came, there were many things the Indians did not understand. They did not know about the white man's goods or his money. They did not know about the white man's laws. Often they did not understand what the white man said. They could not read or write.
To help the Indians, the United States government sent out white men to live among the Indians and explain the things they did not understand. These men were called Indian agents. Some of them were not honest and stole from the Indians; but those who were sent to the Indians in Iowa were usually good men.
There were many things for the agents to do. They tried to keep the Indians from going to war either against the white people or against other tribes. If the government paid the Indians money for their lands, the agent saw that this was paid to the chief men of each village. But the hardest work was to see that the white traders did not cheat the Indians.
A trader might do this by charging very high prices for very cheap goods. Sometimes traders took whisky with them and made the Indians drunk. They they could get the Indians' money for very little in goods. The government knew that whisky was bad for the Indians and Congress made a law that no person should take whisky into the Indian country. But there were only two or three agents in Iowa at a time, so you see they had a hard time to see that whisky was not brought to the Indians.
One of the best of the Indian agents in Iowa was Joseph M. Street. He was sent to Prairie du Chien in 1827 to look after the Indians there. At first he was paid $1200 a year, and later this was raised to $1500.
The work of the agent at Prairie du Chien was very hard. The Winnebago Indians were angry because the white men were taking their lands for the lead mines and for farms. Once some Menominee Indians fell upon a party of Fox Indians who were coming up to see Agent Street. During the Black Hawk War, the agent to the Sauk and Fox Indians, a man named Felix St. Vrain, was killed by the Indians. So you see being an Indian agent was not only hard work; it was sometimes dangerous.
About 1834, just after he had started the school on Yellow River, Agent Street was sent to Fort Armstrong on Rock Island. Two years earlier the Sauk and Fox Indians had sold their land along the Iowa side of the Mississippi River. Mr. Street was to see that they moved away from this land.
In the year 1839, just after Iowa had been made a territory, Mr. Street and his family moved to a new home on the Des Moines River, where the town of Agency now stands.
This Indian agency, as it was called, was a little village. There was a large council house where Mr. Street met the Indians. There were also shops for the blacksmiths and carpenters, a frame house for the agent and his family, and some log houses for the white men who worked for the agent. There was also a farm, and some distance away there were two mills where wheat was ground into flour and corn into meal.
The Sauk and Fox Indians were scattered around this agency in little villages sometimes many miles apart. If they intended to stay in the village for several months, they built wickiups. At this time Keokuk, Appanoose, Wapello, and Poweshiek were four of their chiefs. You will see that there is an Iowa county named after each one of these Indians.
The government decided not to start a school here for the children, but it fenced several farms and sent men to take care of them. But the Indian men would not try to farm. They even tore down the fences and turned their ponies in to feed on the wheat stacks. As usual, though, they liked to eat things after the white men and the squaws had done the work. The Indian braves liked watermelons better than anything else raised on the farm.
Mr. Street soon found that some of the white men were selling whisky to the red men. This was very bad for the Indians, for then they lost their money, and their wives and children did not have blankets or food in the winter.
Perhaps you know that the United States government paid the Indians some money every year. This money was supposed to pay for the lands the Indians had given up and it was called an annuity. When this money came in 1839, a hundred white traders gathered around and soon had $15,000 of the Indians' money.
One of the interpreters of Agent Street here was a man named Josiah Smart. He had lived among the Indians for a long time and had married an Indian woman. Josiah Smart had been at Keokuk's village in 1832, when Black Hawk made a speech asking Keokuk to help make war on the whites, and Keokuk refused.
In 1840 Mr. Street died at the agency. The Indians like him and were sorry he died. They came to his funeral. Two years later, just before the Indian Chief Wapello died, he asked to be buried near his "white father," as the Indians called Agent Street. These two graves of the white man and the red man were close to the agency house, and later the Indians paid $1000 for this land and gave it to Mrs. Street.
After Mr. Street's death his son-in-law, Lieutenant John Beach, became the agent of the Sauk and Fox Indians. Lieutenant Beach went with the Indians when the government moved the Sauks and Foxes to Fort Des Moines at the mouth of the Racoon River, and later he went with them to Kansas.
There were a number of other Indian agents in Iowa. You remember that David Lowry, a Presbyterian missionary, who was for a time in charge of the school on Yellow River, also served as agent for the Winnebago Indians. James R. McGregor, for whom McGregor, Iowa, was named, and Jonathan E. Fletcher were two other agents of the Winnebagoes.
Then there were agents for the Potawatami Indians, who lived for a time in western Iowa. The first of these was Dr. Edwin James who, in 1837, came out to where Council Bluffs now stands. When he left, Stephen Cooper became the agent.
All of these agents had the same trouble with the Indians and the traders that Joseph M. Street had. The traders often cheated the Indians out of the money the government gave them for their lands. They also sold whisky to the Indians, although this was forbidden by law. The agents tried to prevent this, but they were not successful. Even Joseph M. Street was unable to protect the Indians from the white men.
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