The Meskwaki people, called Renards (Fox) by the French, originally lived along the Saint Lawrence River in Canada. By the 1600s, the tribe had migrated to the region of present-day Michigan and later relocated to Wisconsin where, in 1712, they engaged in an extended period of conflict with the French known as the Fox Wars. In 1735, the Meskwaki people allied with the Sauk tribe to fend off Europeans and other hostile Native American tribes, moving southward from Wisconsin into the Mississippi River Valley – what is now Iowa, Illinois and Missouri. Read more here.
By the mid-1700’s, most of the Meskwaki tribes had settled on the west side of the Mississippi, with their allies, the Sauk (Sac) tribe, living on the east. Their villages and hunting grounds extended up and down the Great River from the Wisconsin in the north to well below the Des Moines in the south. In the late 1700’s, French fur-traders, such as Julien Dubuque, began venturing into the west to explore business ventures with the Sauk and Fox tribes.
It was during this season – 1787-1780 – when, in one of the Meskwaki villages along the Rock River (near what is today, Rock Island, Illinois), a future warrior/chief was born: Poweshiek, the grandson of Muck-e-te-nan (Black Thunder), one of the greatest Meskwaki chiefs, leader of the Brown Bear clan of the proud Meskwaki/Fox tribe.
Historian Thomas Burnell Colbert tells the early part of Poweshiek’s story this way…
After a few chiefs influenced by alcohol signed away Sauk and Meskwaki (Fox) lands in Illinois in 1804, Poweshiek’s group of Meskwakis were some of the first to move across the Mississippi onto the Iowa side of the river, joining other Meskwakis who had earlier settled in Iowa, coming down from the Wisconsin region and operating their lead mines with Julian Dubuque, the so-called Mines of Spain.
While the prospect of hostilities with whites grew in Illinois with Sauk war Chief Black Hawk opposing removal from Saukenuk, their main village, and his rival war Chief Keokuk wanting to cooperate with the whites, the Meskwakis, as well as Sauks, were also in the midst of conflict with the Sioux for hunting grounds in northern Iowa.
In the spring of 1830, when a delegation of the principal Meskwaki chief (Peamuska) and some of his warriors were massacred by a Sioux and Menominee war party while traveling to Prairie du Chien, Wis., for a peace conference, Poweshiek rose in power. The Dubuque village of Meskwakis was devastated by the deaths of most of their leaders, except for war chief Morgan who led those left to the Meskwaki village at present-day Davenport. When Morgan died, the Meskwaki council met to declare a new peace or civil chief. The rightful hereditary chief, a minor son of the slain leader, was considered too young to lead and the question of leadership was debated. Poweshiek’s sister related that she had a vision in which Poweshiek would be chosen as chief. Consequently, it was decided (1830) that Poweshiek, a member of the Brown Bear clan, should lead until the young man of the legitimate Black Bear clan could become chief.
Following the Black Hawk War of 1832, the United States government stepped in, for treaty-making purposes, combining the many Sauk and Fox tribes of the Mississippi River Valley into a single group known as the Sauk (Sac) & Fox Confederacy. This “treaty” became known as the Black Hawk Purchase, and with its signing, came yet another forced migration (1832-1833) of the Sauk and Fox people, moving them onto unclaimed western land, which today is rich farmland located alongside the Des Moines, Skunk, English, Iowa and Cedar Rivers in east-central Iowa.
Making lemonade out of lemons, Chief Poweshiek, Chief Wapashashiek, and Chief Totokonock, led their people to relocate their Meskwaki communities onto familiar summer hunting grounds located near the Iowa River (in today’s Johnson County). The largest community, headed by Poweshiek, was about five miles south of today’s Iowa City. Just north of Poweshiek’s camp was another village led by Wapashashiek, while a third village, led by Totokonock, was twelve miles south of Iowa City on Sand Road at the mouth of the English River, just west of today’s Lone Tree.
As the white culture ventured further westward, a trading post was built adjacent to these Meskwaki villages. This rare 1835 map from Albert Lea (below) shows that first American Fur Company trading post on the Iowa River and identifies Chief Powesheik’s villages in that same area. Click here to read more about Lieutenant Albert Lea and his 1835 expedition.
Historians believe there was a total of about 1,500 to 2,000 Meskwaki people living in these Johnson County villages when European fur-traders first set foot here around 1832.
The most reliable historical records indicate that Sumner “Hawkeye” Phelps was the first American fur-trader to canoe up the Iowa River, meeting with Chief Powesheik in the early 1830’s to work out a trading agreement with the Meskwaki tribes. By 1835, another fur-trader, John Gilbert, settled on the banks of the Iowa River (see map below), replacing Phelps as the primary trading agent for the American Fur Company. It was Gilbert who then invited other white settlers to join him here (1836), establishing Johnson County’s first white settlement: Napoleon, named for the famed French emperor.
For several years (1832-1837) the working relationship between the white settlers and the Meskwaki people was cordial, but in all honesty, everyone on both sides knew that this American hunger for more land would never end until all the indigenous tribes had been properly expelled. Chief Poweshiek, as the chosen spokesman for the Meskwaki/Fox tribes across Iowa, did his best to keep the peace with the white man while also fighting his own battles within. Once again, allow me to share from historian Thomas Burnell Colbert’s writings on Chief Poweshiek…
A history of Poweshiek County published in 1880 states that Poweshiek had “a disposition full of exactness and arrogance” and was “blunt and outspoken.” A 1910 Scott County history called him a “striking specimen of his race,” remarking that, “those who knew him called him a man of great energy, a wise counselor and the soul of honor” who “remembered kindness, and his word could be relied upon.”
Historian Perry Armstrong offered that Poweshiek “was not only witty but sharp as a whip in financial transactions.” Thomas McKenney, who had served as U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs, described Poweshiek as “not distinguished by brilliant talent” but a man “of prudence and capacity.” He further noted that Poweshiek was a daring warrior who was respected in council but overshadowed by the Sauk Chief Keokuk.
Others said that he had a “passion for justice” and “his word was regarded as sacred.” Another commentator noted that (Poweshiek) was of “good character, truthful and just, and ruled his Indians with an iron hand.” And Col. S.C. Trowbridge, who “became an intimate friend” of Poweshiek’s, in 1837 described him as a man with “a strong sense of justice, and was brave, true to his word and faithful to a friend. His word was sacred … He was rather slow to be aroused, but when fairly aroused to action, showed a great deal of energy and force of character, combined with a fair degree of executive talent and judicial facility.”
In 1837, Poweshiek was chosen as one of thirty Sauk and Fox chiefs, including Chief Keokuk, to visit Washington, D.C. and other eastern cities. It was on that trip, accompanied by part-native Colonel John Davenport, for whom the city is named, when artist George Cook painted the only portrait we have of the proud Meskwaki chief.
In 1836, under the pressure of the U.S. government, the Keokuk Reserve was traded away, and in 1837, a large portion of Meskwaki land where most of the native tribes had settled in 1832, was lost as well. By the summer of 1838, as more and more white settlers were pouring into Iowa Territory, Chief Poweshiek had come to the full realization that his people would once again need to move westward in order to be free.
At a big July 4, 1838 Independence Day party, held in John Gilbert’s trading post in Johnson County, Chief Poweshiek, the kind-hearted Meskwaki leader, spoke his powerful farewell speech. Historian, Laura Rigel, gives us the details…
To celebrate the creation of Napoleon, (John) Gilbert decided to hold another Fourth of July celebration at the trading post. Jennie (the Native American) prepared the dinner, after which Gilbert went with a group of men to visit Poweshiek. An interpreter named Stephens reportedly explained the significance of the day to the Meskwaki, after which, according to a single document in the Iowa State Historical Society, Poweshiek made a brief speech, translated presumably by Stephens:
I want to live where men are free! Soon I will go to a new home. You will plant corn where my dead sleep, our town, the paths we have made, the flowers we have loved will soon be yours. I have moved many times, I have seen the white man put his foot in the track of the Indian and make the earth into fields and gardens. I know I must go far away and you will be so glad when I am gone. You will soon forget the lodge fires, and the meat of the Indian has ever been free to the stranger.
Over the next five years (1838-1843), the Meskwaki tribes were continually pushed further and further west as more and more of Iowa territory was purchased through one-sided treaties. In 1842, while reluctant to do so, Poweshiek, as the primary Meskwaki chief, signed one final treaty in which the Sauk Chief Keokuk agreed to sell both tribe’s remaining Iowa land. Soon after, both the Sauk and Meskwaki/Fox people would leave the Heartland for Kansas, the broken-hearted Poweshiek still in search for the place where he and his tribe could live free. Again quoting Thomas Burnell Colbert…
As a result of (their) removal from Iowa, many (in the Meskwaki tribe) blamed Poweshiek for that unhappy occurrence, even though he endeavored to obtain the changes they desired after removal. Like some of his fellow Meskwaki and Sauk, he indulged heavily in alcohol. Although many whites called Poweshiek the “peaceful Indian” because he did not fight against them and signed several treaties, he had no desire to acculturate to white ways, nor was he a pacifist.
In 1845, Poweshiek, while in Kansas, took a strong lead in trying to end Meskwaki tribal ties with the Sauk, as the Meskwaki wanted to be an independent tribe, receive their own annuities, and be allowed to legally return to Iowa.
Poweshiek died in 1854 before his people received final permission to return to the Hawkeye State and ultimately be paid for their share of tribal annuities. Sadly, his body lies in an unmarked grave in Kansas.
Poweshiek County – In 1843, the territorial county located just south of Tama County (where the Meskwaki tribe re-settled in 1857) was formed, naming it after Chief Poweshiek. Today, Grinnell, Iowa, home of Grinnell College, is Poweshiek County’s largest city.
Here’s a tip of the old hat to Chief Poweshiek – the Roused Bear who shook off defeat from beginning to end!
Today, near Tama, Iowa, the historic Meskwaki Tribe of Iowa owns 8,100 acres of beautiful farmland – land that once belonged to them but was peacefully negotiated away through a series of one-sided treaties (1832-1842) that left the Meskwaki people destitute, refugees in their land. Fortunately in July of 1857, a small number of these determined Native Iowans from the Sauk & Fox tribes returned to Iowa from their reservations in Kansas, buying back about 6,000 acres, establishing the beginnings of what is today known as, the Meskwaki Nation in Tama County in East Central Iowa.
We, here at Our Iowa Heritage, say…”Welcome back home, dear brother and sister Iowans!”
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
History of Johnson County, Iowa Containing a History of the County, and Its Townships, Cities, and Villages from 1836-1882, author & publisher unknown w/ quotes from early settlers Cyrus Sanders, Henry Felkner, Iowa City, 1883, p 290