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Wapello and other Chiefs

The following is a chapter from "The History of Jefferson County, Iowa", Pages 326-331, and 348, published by the Western Historical Company of Chicago in 1879.



Wapello, the chief after whom Wapello County and the county seat of Louisa County were named, was a powerful ruler among his people, but was a fast friend of the whites, especially of the first Indian Agent, Gen. Street. Incidents illustrative of his character are dispersed through the following pages. He died in 1841, and was buried by the side of his friend, the General, on the Agency Farm. His grave was recently cared for by the managers of the C., B. & Q. Railroad, which passes near by, and is now in a condition to withstand the shocks of time for years to come.

Poweshiek, a chief co-equal with Wapello, but of the Foxes, while the latter was of the Sac tribe, was located on the reserve on the Iowa River, and does not figure in this history. He died before the Indians left the State, and thus escaped the humiliation of the scene.

Keokuk, the grand sachem, was a man of tall, commanding presence, straight as an arrow, and when aroused, could make an eloquent speech to his tribe. He was selected by the United States Government to distribute the annuities to the Sacs and Foxes -- not only for his energies when opposed to the nation in battle, but for his influence among the red men everywhere. But he was avarious and intemperate, putting any amount of whisky under his royal toga, and stealing from his red brothers the hard silver so kindly given them by the Great Father at Washington. He had a chronic quarrel with Hardfish's band, that lived in Kishkekosh, near Eddyville, and receiving a severe wound from one of this tribe, he died soon after reaching Kansas, in 1845.

From a sketch of Keokuk, published in the "Annals of Iowa," 1865, by Uriah Briggs, one of the pioneers of Ottumwa, the following interesting extracts are made:

"Keokuk is deserving of a prominent page in the history of the country, and a truthful history of his life would be read and cherished as a memento of one of nature's noblemen. As an orator, he was entitled to a rank with the most gifted of his race. In person, he was tall and of portly bearing, and in his public speeches he displayed a commanding attitude and graceful gestures. He spoke rapidly, but his enunciation was clear and distinct and very forcible, culling his figures from the stores of nature, and basing his arguments in skillful logic. He maintained in good faith the stipulations of treaties with the United States and with the neighboring tribes. He loved peace and the social amenities of life, and was fond of displaying these agreeable traits of character in ceremonious visits to neighboring chiefs, in which he observed the most punctilious etiquette and dignified decorum. He possessed a ready insight into the motives of others, and was not easily misled by sophistry or beguiled by flattery; and in the field of wit he was no mean champion. It is not my purpose to write a history of his life, but I will give one anecdote in illustration of these traits of his character.

"While residing near Ottumwah-noc, he received a message from the Mormon Prophet, Joe Jmith (sic - Smith), inviting Keokuk, as king of the Sacs and Foxes, to a royal conference at his palace at Nauvoo, on matters of the highest importance to their respective people. The invitation was readily accepted, and a train of ponies was soon winding its way to the Mormon city, bearing Keokuk and his suite in stately procession and savage pomp.

"Notice had circulated through the country of this diplomatic interview, and a number of spectators attended to witness the denouement. The audience was given publicly in the Mormon temple, and the respective chiefs were attended by their suites, the Prophet by the dignitaries of the Mormon Church, and the Indian potentate by the high civil and military functionaries of his tribe, and the gentiles were comfortably seated as auditors.

"The Prophet opened the conference in a set speech of considerable length, giving Keokuk a brief history of the children of Israel, as detailed in the Bible, and dwelt forcibly upon the story of the lost tribes, and of the direct revelation he had received from a divine source, that the North American Indians were these identical lost tribes, and that he, the prophet of God, held a divine commission to gather them together and to lead them to a land 'flowing with milk and honey.' After the prophet closed this harangue, Keokuk 'waited for the words of his pale-faced brother to sink deep into his mind,' and, in making his reply, assumed the gravest attitude and most dignified demeanor. He would not controvert anything his brother had said about the lost and scattered condition of his race and people, and if his brother was commissioned by the Great Spirit to collect them together and lead them to a new country, it was his duty to do so. But he wished to inquire about some particulars his brother had not named, that were of the highest importance to him and his people. The red men were not much used to milk, and he thought that they would prefer streams of water, and in the country where they now were there was a good supply of honey. The points that they wished to inquire into were whether the new government would pay large annuities, and whether there was plenty of whisky. Joe Smith saw at once that he had met his match, and that Keokuk was not the proper material with which to increase his army of dupes, and closed the conference in as amiable a manner as possible.

"He was gifted by nature with the elements of an orator in an eminent degree, and as such is entitled to rank with Logan, Red Jacket and Tecumseh; but unfortunately for his fame among the white people and with posterity, he was never able to obtain an interpreter who could claim even a slight acquaintance with philosophy. With one exception only, his interpreters were unacquainted even with the elements of their mother-tongue. Of this serious hindrance to his fame Keokuk was well aware, and retained Frank Labashure, who had received a rudimental education in the French and English languages, until the latter broke down by dissipation and died. But during the meridian of his career among the white people, he was compelled to submit his speeches for translation to uneducated men, whose range of thought fell below the flights of a gifted mind, and the fine imagery, drawn from nature, was beyond their powers of reproduction. He had sufficient knowledge of the English tongue to make him sensible of this bad rendering of his thought, and often a feeling of mortification at the bungling efforts was depicted upon his countenance while he was speaking. The proper place to form a due estimate of his ability as an orator was in the Indian council, where he addressed himself exclusively to those who understood his language, and where the electric effects of his eloquence could be plainly noted upon his audience. It was credibly asserted that by the force of his logic he had changed the vote of a council against the strongly predetermined opinions of its members. A striking instance of the influence of his eloquence is related as occurring while the forces under Black Hawk were invading Illinois, in 1832.

"Keokuk knew from the first that this reckless war would result in great disaster to the tribe, and used all diligence to dissuade warriors from following Black Hawk, and succeeded in retaining a majority with him at his town on the Iowa River. But after Stillman's defeat, in what is now Ogle County, Ill., the war spirit raged with such ardor that a war-dance was held, and Keokuk took part in it, seeming to be moved with the current of the rising storm, and when the dance was over, he called a council to prepare for war. In his address he admitted the justice of his complaints against the white man, and to seek redress was a noble aspiration of their natures. The blood of their brethren had been shed by the white man, and the spirits of their braves slain in battle called loudly for vengeance. 'I am your Chief,' he said, 'and it is my duty to lead you to a battle, if, after fully considering the matter, you are determined to go. But, before you take this important step, it is wise to inquire into the chances for success.' He then represented to them the great power of the United States against whom they would have to contend -- that their chance of success was utterly hopeless. 'But if you now determine to go upon the warpath, I will agree to lead you, upon one condition -- that before we go we kill all our old men and our wives and children to save them from a lingering death by starvation, and that every one of us determines to leave his bones on the other side of the Missisisppi.'

"This was a strong and truthful picture of the project before them, and was presented in such a forcible libht as to cool their ardor and to cause them to abandon their rash undertaking. Many other incidents are related of his eloquence and tact in allaying a rising storm, fraught with war and bloodshed, not only in his own tribe, but also among neighboring tribes, where his people had been the aggressors. Some of these incidents have been preserved by writers on Indian research, but many will be lost to history. He delivered a eulogy upon Gen. Harrison, at the Sac and Fox Agency, which was interpreted by Mr. Anton Le Claire, and considered by many who heard its delivery as one of his best efforts. This speech, however, was not written down and is lost to history, but enough of the incidents of his career as an orator have been saved from the wreck of time to stamp his reputation for naturl abilities of the highest order, and furnish another positive refutation of Buffon's theory on the deterioration of men and animals on the American continent.

"We have thus far protrayed the bright side of Keokuk's character; but like most, if not all, great intellects, there is a dark background which the truth of history demands shall be brought to view. His traits of character, thus far sketched, may not inaptly be compared with the great Grecian orator, but here the similitude ends. The great blot on Keokuk's life was his inordinate love of money, and, toward its close, he became a confirmed inebriate. His withering reply to the Mormon prophet was intended by him as a pure stroke of wit; it, nevertheless, expressed his ruling passions.

"A bitter and incurable feud existed in the tribe during their time of residence on the Des Moines River, between what was denominated 'Keokuk's band' and 'Black Hawk's band,' the latter recognizing Hardfish as their leader. This distrust and, indeed, hatred were smothered in their common intercourse when sober; but when their blood was fired with whisky, it sometimes assumed a tragic feature amongst the leaders of the respective bands. An instance of this character occurred on the lower part of the Des Moines, on a return of a party making a visit to the 'half-breeds' at the town of Keokuk, on the Mississippi. In a quarrel, excited by whisky, Keokuk received a dangerous stab in the breat from a son of Black Hawk. The writer of the present sketch saw him conveyed by his friends homeward, lying in a canoe, unableto (sic) rise.

"Hardfish and his coadjutors lost no occasion to find fault with Keokuk's administration. The payments were made in silver coin, put up in boxes, containing $500 each, and passed into Keokuk's hands for distribution. The several traders received each his quota according to their several demands against the tribes admitted by Keokuk, which invariably consumed the far greater portion of the amount received. The remainder was turned over to the chiefs and distributed among their respective bands. Great complaints were made of these allowances to the traders on the ground of exorbitant prices charged on the goods actually furnished, and it was alleged that some of these accounts were spurious. In confirmation of this last charge, over and above the character of the items exhibited in these accounts, an affidavit was filed with Gov. Lucas by an individual, to which the Governor gave credence, setting forth that Keokuk had proposed to the maker of the affidavit to prefer a purely fictitious account against the tribe for the sum of $10,000, and he would admit its correctness, and when paid, the money should be divided among themselves, share and share alike. To swell the traders' bills, items were introduced of a character that showed fraud upon their face, such as a large number of 'blanket-coats,' articles which the Indians never wore, and 'telescopes,' of the use of which they had no knowledge. This shows the reckless manner in which these bills were swollen to the exorbitant amounts complained of, in which Keokuk was openly charged with being in league with the traders to defraud Hardfish's band. At this time, the nation numbered about 2,300 souls, and only about one-third of the whole number belonged to Keokuk's party. Gov. Lucas warmly espoused the popular side in the controversy that arose in relation to the mode and manner of making the annual payment, and the matter was referred to the Indian Bureau, and the mode was changed, so that payments were made to the heads of families, approximating a per-capita distribution. This method of making the payments met the unqualified disapprobation of the traders, and after one year's trial, fell back into the old channel. Keokuk led his tribe west to the Kansas country, in 1845, and, according to reports, died some years after of delirium tremens."

Appanoose, Pashapaho, Hardfish and Kishkekosh all play conspicuous parts in the drama. An anecdote or two of the last named will serve as an illustration of the nature of the men. Kishkekosh did not rank equal to Appanoose, Pashapaho or Hardfish, but he seems to have held a prominent place in councils because of his native talents.

George Washington Kishkekosh (whose last name means cut-teeth, or savage biter) was a subchief, and had accompanied Black Hawk, as one of his suite of braves, during the tour of that renowned chief through the East as a prisoner of war. With his leaders, he had been hospitably entertained at hotels and other places, and had a high appreciation of the sumptuous and cleanly-looking fare that was set before them. How he was enabled, after such an experience, to return with a good stomach to the frugal diet and indifferent cooking of his own people, we are left to conjecture. At all events, he retained his partiality for clean victuals, and was even overfastidious in this respect, as the following instance will show:

One night, he, with his company of three or four braves, slept at the house of a white man with whom he was on very friendly terms, and were to remain at breakfast. Kish had an eye on the preparations for this meal, and observed one neglect that his tender stomach rebelled against. The lady of the house (it is possible she did it intentionally, for she was not a willing entertainer of her savage guests), neglected to wash her hands before making up the bread. Kish, thought he would rather do without his breakfast than eat after such cooking, and privately signified as much to his followers, whereupon they mounted their ponies and left, much to the relief of their hostess. Arrived at a house some distance from the one they had left, they got their breakfast and related the circumstance.

These people, though generally accustomed and limited to the poorest fare, were not averse to the best that could be provided, and made themselves gluttons whenever they could get enough of it. Like the wolf, they were capable of a long fast, and then would gorge themselves at a plenteous feast, even to stupidity.

On another occasion, Kishkekosh and his suite, consisting of several prominent personages of the tribe, being then encamped on the Skunk River, in Jasper County, went to the house of a Mr. Mikesell, on a friendly visit, and he treated them to a feast. Besides Kish and his wife, who was a very ladylike person, this party consisted of his mother; Wykoma, the son of Wapello, and his two wives (for polygamy was not an uncommon practice with these people); Masha Wapetine, his wife and all their children. This old woman, on being asked how old she was, replied: "Mack-ware-renaak-we-kauk" (may be a hundred), and indeed her bowed form and hideously-shriveled features would justify the belief that she was fully that old. The whole party were dressed in more than usually becoming style, probably out of respect to their hostess, who, knowing something of their voracious appetites, had made ample preparations for them. When the table was surrounded, Kish, who had learned some good manners, as well as acquired cleanly tastes, essayed to perform the etiquette of the occasion before eating anything himself. With an amusingly awkward imitation of what he had seen done among the whites, he passed the various dishes to the others, showing the ladies special attention, and helped them to part of everything on the table with much apparent disinterestedness. But when he came to help himself his politeness assumed the Indian phase altogether. He ate like a person with a bottomless pit inside of him for a stomach, taking everything within his reach, without regard to what should come first or last in the course, so only that he liked the taste of it. At length, after having drunk five or six cups of coffee, and eaten a proportionate amount of solid foods, his gastronomic energy began to abate. Seeing this, his host approached him, and, with apparent concern for his want of appetite, said, "Why, Kish, do you not eat your dinner? Have another cup of coffe and eat something." In reply to this hospitable urgency, Kish leaned back in his seat, lazily shook his head and drew his finger across his throat under his chin, to indicate how full he was. And then in further explanation of his satisfied condition, he opened his huge mouth and thrust his finger down his throat as far as he dared, as much as to say he could almost touch the victuals. Of course the others had eaten in like proportion, making the most of an event that did not happen every day.

Kishkekosh seems to have had in him the elements of civilization, which needed but opportunity to spring up and bear pretty fair fruit. Not only did he become fastidious to cleanliness, but he observed and imitated other usages among the whites, even more radically different from those of his savage people. It is well known that among the Indians, as well as among all unenlightened races, the women are, in a manner, the slaves of the other sex. They are made to do all the drudgery of the camp, cultivate the corn, bring in the game after the hunter has had the sport of slaughtering it, no matter how far away he may be, he being either too lazy or feeling it beneath his dignity to bear the burden. They procure all the fuel to cook with, catch the ponies for their masters to ride, pack up their tents and household goods when preparing a move, and set them up when they again come to a halt in their wanderings. Kishkekosh had noticed the different fashion of the white settlers in regard to their women, and had, moreover, been reasoned with by them like an intelligent being, and he was very ready to admit the force of their arguments. He made an effort to institute reform among his people byhaving the men do a fair share of the work that, according to ordinary usage, fell to the squaws. He set them an example by taking hold heartily himself, and, though it is not probable that any very extended reformation took place, owing to the long-continued laziness of the men, and the deeply-rooted belief that their province was alone that of the hunter or warrior, yet the movement itself indicates a capacity in this savage chief for progress and enlightenment.

The Indians in this region, as far back as 1841-42, had a novel way of dealing with drunken people. After the Black Hawk war, they chose rather to live upon the annuities granted them by the Government, than upon the products of the chase, as they had hitherto been forced to do; and as this gave them a good deal of leisure, they spent most of their time in drunken orgies, which proved a great mortality to the tribes, since many accidents happened to life and limb from that cause. It was therefore a custom for a few of the red men and the squaws to keep sober, so that when the inebriates got too wild there would be some one to keep a restraining influence upn them? When a poor wight became unsafely drunk, he was tied neck and heels so that he could be rolled about like a ball, which operation was kept up, depsite his pleadings, until the fumes of liquor had vanished, when he was released. The sufferer would beg for mercy, but to no avail; and after he was sobered he showed no resentment, but seemed to recognize the wisdom of the proceeding.


An editorial in the Ottumwa Courier of September 13, 1876, is here reproduced, because of its permanent value as an authentic sketch:

"The old chief died at the forks of the Skunk River, March 15, 1842, and his remains were brought to the Indian Agency, near where Agency City is now located, in an ox-wagon, and buried toward evening of the same day, with the customary Indian ceremonies. At his own request, he was buried by the right side of Gen. Street, in the garden of the Agency. Gen. Street had been an Indian Agent at Prairie du Chien and at Rock Island. He came to the Agency of the Sacs and Foxes here in April, 1838, by assignment of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Judge Crawford, and died May 5, 1840. He was for many years in the Indian service, and, although always a strong Whig, he was yet a man of such experience and sterling integrity that he remained in office to the day of his death, in spite of his politics and the changes in administration. He was very popular with the Indians, and hence the desire of Wapello to be laid by the side of his honest pale-faced friend, which wish was gratified. Gen. Street left numerous children and grandchildren, none of whom reside here now.

"Keokuk, Appanoose and nearly all the leading men among the Indians, were present at Wapello's funeral. The dead chief was the successor of Black Hawk in rank. If Wapello's name is translated into English, we are unacquainted with the fact. He was chief of the Foxes as well as of the confederated tribes of Sacs and Foxes, composed of the bands of Keokuk, Appanoose, Hardfish, Poweshiek and his own. Poweshiek succeeded him as the senior chief of the confederated tribes, while Poweshiek's tribe-leadership fell to Pasheshamore (Pa-she-sha-more), who, from all accounts, was a good sort of an Indian. He went to the Indian Territory with the Sacs and Foxes, where the remnants of this dejected race still subsist upon the bounty of the Government.

"Ere many more years are added to the pages of time, the last of these people will have gone to join the spirits of their ancestors in the "happy hunting-ground," and will only be remembered in name. Within the last half century they have rapidly diminished in numbers, and from a once aggressively brave and warlike tribe, they have fallen into sheerest dejection. There is left but little semblance of the spirit of Black Hawk's time and generation. Passionless and dejected, like most of the remnants of the other tribes that have been congregated in the Indian Territory, they have become hopelessly indifferent, and seem to be calmly awaiting the coming of that fate which will remove every vestige of the once proud tribe of which they are they only remaining representatives.

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