IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
STORIES OF IOWA
A FRENCH AND INDIAN BATTLE IN IOWA
After the journey of Marquette and Joliet other Frenchmen came to the Mississippi Valley. One of these was Nicolas Perrot. He built trading posts where he exchanged guns, powder, breads, kettles, trinkets, and cloth, for furs which the Indians brought him. One of these posts was located at Prairie du Chien just across the Mississippi from the present location of McGregor, Iowa. Another was built across the Mississippi not far from the present site of Dubuque. Although Perrot did not live in the Iowa country he carried on much trade with the Indians in this region. In those days many fur-bearing animals were found in the woods and along the streams in Iowa. Deer, bears, raccoons, muskrats, otters, and beavers were plentiful. Buffaloes, too, lived on the prairies.
Look at a map of Iowa and you will see how easy it was for the Indians to come in their dugout canoes down the Upper Iowa, the Turkey, the Maquoketa, or the Wapsipinicon Rivers to the Mississippi with loads of furs Perrot's trading posts. Perrot also carried on trade in lead, but in 1698 he left the western country never to return.
Then for half a century Fox Indians who lived in Wisconsin tried to keep the French out of their land and from going by the Fox-Wisconsin waterway to the Iowa country. No Frenchman passed that way except at the risk of his life.
Time after time French soldiers and friendly Indians defeated the Foxes but the latter would rally and continue the war. Finally in 1730 the Fox Indians were almost exterminated. Then an event happened which brought French soldiers all the way from Montreal to Iowa.
In 1733 a French officer was killed by some Sauk Indians while he was a visitor at their village. Fearing revenge on the part of the French, these Indians fled westward with the Foxes, and crossed the Mississippi into the Iowa country.
French officials at Quebec decided that the Indians must be punished for the murder of the officer, and that the union of the Sauks and Foxes must be broken up. Accordingly the governor of New France selected Nicolas Joseph Fleurimont des Noyelles, one of the best-known French officers, to lead the expedition against the Indians in Iowa.
Captain Des Noyelles was told to pardon the sauks if they would forsake the Foxes; but if they refused, he was to destroy both nations. Eighty-four Frenchmen volunteered to go on this long journey. They thought, doubtless, it would be a great adventure. About two hundred Iroquois, Huron, and Potawatami Indians also agreed to join the party. On August 14, 1734, this army set out from Montreal for Iowa.
At Detroit more Indians joined the expedition eager to taste the blood of the hated sauks and Foxes. On January 2, 1735, Des Noyelles marched away from Detroit at the head of this queer army, and the overland journey of hundreds of miles in the dead of winter began. You can imagine what a hard time they had, for even to-day it would be no easy task to march all the way from Detroit to Iowa.
The route lay around the southern end of Lake Michigan across what is now northern Indiana and Illinois. Soon part of the Indians began to cause trouble. They wanted to attack some lodges of the Sauks along the way but Des Noyelles insisted that they go on. Nevertheless, eighty Hurons and Potawatamis left to destroy the Sauk cabins.
Suffering from cold, Des Noyelles and his men made their way across northern Illinois on snowshoes. When they reached the Mississippi, they were joined by about forty Kickapoo Indians who were friends of the Foxes. They tried to lead the party astray, but Des Noyelles pushed on. He learned that the Foxes were no longer living on the Wapsipinicon River but had withdrawn to the Des Moines River. On March twelve the Frenchmen reached the old Fox village on the Wapsipinicon and found nobody there. By this time they were without food and had to live on what game they could kill.
Nevertheless they pushed on. Worn out and very hungry, the men moved forward steadily. Rivers had to be forded and oftentimes the men were wet to the skin. Some days later they saw smoke in the distance. The Indians, thinking there would be only three or four cabins of their enemy in the camp, ran on ahead. The Frenchmen followed as best they could. The race ended on the bank of a wide and rapid river full of floating ice. On the opposite side was the Fox village they had come so far to find. But instead of four lodges there were fifty-five. The place was probably not far from the present site of Des Moines.
An Iroquois chief wanted the whole party to swim across and attack the enemy at once. Des Noyelles objected. He said it was impossible to swim the river when the cold was so great, and some of the men could not swim at all. They would get their guns and ammunition wet, and the enemy could kill them as fast as they reached the other shore. As only sixty of the party had arrived, Des Noyelles proposed that they should withdraw, move up stream, build rafts, and cross the river that way. An Indian chief taunted the captain for not being a man. Des Noyelles retorted, "Dog, if thou art so brave, swim over and let us see what thou wilt do." The Indian took some forty of his band and with several Frenchmen departed into th forest.
Captain Des Noyelles moved up the river about three miles in the hope of joining other groups who had scattered to look for the enemy. Suddenly he heard cries and came upon a wounded Indian who said that the fighting had begun. Seven Frenchmen and twenty-three Indians had crossed the river on a jam of driftwood, and found themselves face to face with about two hundred and fifty Sauks and Foxes. They fought so fiercely that the enemy retreated into the woods. Des Noyelles then crossed the river and sent his men into the conflict.
For several hours the battle raged. One French officer was mortally wounded. Toward night the Foxes attempted to scalp some of the wounded Iroquois. Des Noyelles ordered a retreat. Part of his force fought off the Sauks and Foxes while the rest threw up some fortifications. The Kickapoos, meanwhile, had watched the struggle from a near-by hill waiting to join the winning side.
The next morning the French captain held a council in which he tried to persuade the Sauks to leave the Foxes and return to Green Bay. They said they were afraid that if they surrendered, the Iroquois would "put them in a kettle" as soon as the French left. They said, also that it was too cold for their women and children to travel.
The Foxes said to the Sauks, "Dogs that ye are, if you abandon us, we will eat your women and children as soon as you have gone out. We will then fight against you and afterward against the French."
For four days the French in their temporary fortifications faced the Sauk and Fox village. During this time neither party made any move against the other. The Frenchmen and their Indian allies suffered terribly from hunger, for during this time they had nothing to eat but twelve dogs and a horse. Some of the soldiers even ate their moccasins. They begged Des Noyelles to lead them into battle rather than let them die of starvation.
Convinced that his men could hold out no longer the captain sent a message to the Sauks. He told them that the governor of Quebec would forgive them if they would leave the Foxes. They agreed to do this. Then the French soldiers marched away down the river to a fort in the Illinois country, and never again returned to Iowa.
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