At the time of the American Revolution, the Mississippi River Valley was lush prairie-land occupied by several Native American tribes: The Meskwaki (Fox), the Sauk, the Sioux, and the Ioway. All of these tribes, at one time, used the Great River and its many tributaries for transportation and other life-giving resources. Since Our Iowa Heritage website focuses primarily on eastern Iowa, allow me here to talk a bit about the two tribes that eventually migrated to the Iowa River Valley (Johnson County-Iowa City area) as white settlements began to emerge (circa 1832).
Earlier, we discussed the Sauk people. The word Sauk (Sac, Asakiwaki) means “people of the yellow earth,” while the Fox people (Meshkwahkihaki, Mesquakie, or Meskwaki) were known as “people of the red earth.” Both were Algonquin-speakers originally from the northeastern United States forced west by European settlement. “Algonquin” comes from “alligewinenk” which means “come together from distant places.” The Algonquin (Sauk/Fox) language is unique, described by one historian as “soft and musical in comparison with the harsh guttural Narcoutah (language) of the Sioux.”
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. By 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).
By the mid-1700’s, the Meskwaki 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.
Fast forward to the 1830’s (after the Black Hawk War of 1832) and we find the United States government stepping in, for treaty-making purposes, and combining the two tribes into a single group known as the Sauk (Sac) & Fox Confederacy or The Meskwaki Tribe. It was during this time (1832-1833) when the Meskwaki people were forced from their villages on the Mississippi River, migrating westward into, what is today, east-central Iowa.
As European fur-traders began exploring the many rivers of this new territory, they built trading posts alongside the Sauk and Fox villages that had relocated on the Des Moines, Skunk, English, Iowa and Cedar Rivers.
Three Meskwaki villages were located near the Iowa River in what would eventually become Johnson County (1837). The largest, headed by Chief Poweshiek, was about five miles south of today’s Iowa City. Just north of Poweshiek’s camp was another village led by Chief Wapashashiek. The third village, led by Chief Totokonock, was three miles west of today’s Lone Tree. Historians believe there was a total of about 1,700 to 2,000 Native Iowans living in these Johnson County villages when European fur-traders first set foot on Native American land (see green & blue sections below) in 1832.
Sadly, through a series of land concessions (1832-1842), under the name of “Sac & Fox,” the Meskwaki tribes were forced to move westward again and again, finally losing all of their lands in Iowa by 1845. It was at this point, the Meskwaki people were relocated to reservations in east-central Kansas.
But fortunately, that’s not the end of the story! In 1857, a small number of determined Native Iowans from the Sauk & Fox tribes returned to buy back 80 acres, establishing, what is today known as, the Meskwaki Nation in Tama County in East Central Iowa. To our Native Iowan brothers and sisters, thank you for the kiowa (this is the place) heritage we share with you today! We are all richer because you have come back home!
Watch this informative video: The Last Tribe of Iowa: Leadership of the Meskwaki People in a Struggle for Survival
On the personal side, one of my fondest memories was attending the many Miller Family Reunions, always held on the farmland originally belonging to Benedict Miller, who walked from Ohio to Iowa in the early 1850’s to secure his land in Washington Township of Johnson County. In his 1979 book – The Deer Creek Story by Glen R. Miller, Dr. Miller, of Goshen, Indiana, references my mom and dad (George & Dixie Boller) and shares this picture (above) from the 1966 family reunion when the Miller family invited the Meskwaki tribe from nearby Tama to join us – since the Millers shared their Iowa land with the tribe when first arriving in Iowa in 1852. The tribal celebration at that reunion is a memory I have long cherished.
(P-0264 a/b) The proud Meskwaki people are represented beautifully on these vintage 1960’s postcard from Tama, Iowa.
Allow me to close this section of Our Iowa Heritage with a variety of U.S. postage stamps & currency that have honored our Native American friends over the years…
The first stamp in Our Iowa Heritage collection that pays tribute to Native Americans dates back to 1898 and is from a nine-set commemorative collection issued in conjunction with the 1898 Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition in Omaha.
The 1898 Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition was held to further the progress and development of natural resources west of the Mississippi River. Held in Omaha, Nebraska, the exposition opened on June 1, 1898, and ran for five months. More than 4,000 exhibits showcased social, economic, and industrial resources of the American West. Over 2.6 million people attended the expo, which featured the Indian Congress, the largest Native American gathering of its kind. Over 500 members representing 28 tribes camped on the fairgrounds and introduced Americans from the East to their way of life.
Although the inscription beneath the portrait reads “American Indian,” this stamp actually pictures Hollow Horn Bear, a Brule Sioux chief. A well-recognized speaker for his people, representing them at treaty negotiations, he was a steadfast negotiator for peace in the face of overwhelming force. “You talk to us very sweet, but you do not mean it. You have not fulfilled any of the old treaties,” he said. He was also chosen to represent his people in negotiations with General George Crook at Rosebud Agency, South Dakota in 1889. He traveled to Washington, D.C. in 1905 to take part in President Theodore Roosevelt’s inauguration as representative of his people, and walked in the Woodrow Wilson inaugural parade in 1913.
Speaking of money, the Indian-head penny was the most common coin used by Americans during the second half of the 19th century. The artist James B. Longacre designed the coin in 1858, but a careful look at it reveals that the “Indian” on the coin really looks more like Lady Liberty than a Native-American. Which brings us to a very sad truth…
Fortunately, in recent years, the postal service has done a much better job in recognizing the long-standing prejudice we whites have exhibited and has responded by issuing more stamps that better reflect the great honor of these true Native Americans. In 1996, for example, a series of stamps that honored American Art was released, and in it was a much-truer representation of a Native-American in a full headdress, as painted by George Caitlin.
George Catlin was the first painter to travel west with the sole purpose of learning more about Native Americans. Originally trained as a lawyer, Catlin became a self-taught portrait painter. Unsatisfied with either career, he decided to go out alone and attempt to capture the looks and customs of the Native American. Catlin’s first stop on his way west was St. Louis, Missouri, where he sought the advice of General William Clark, who with Meriwether Lewis had led the first east-west expedition across America. Clark and Catlin went together to Wisconsin in 1830. By 1832, the artist was on his own. During his travels, he painted members of the Plains, Sioux, Chippewa, and Mandan tribes. Eventually, Catlin took his artwork to London to display and sell it there.
On an editorial note, George Catlin did an honorable thing in giving these First-Nation people a place of recognition and honor, but sadly, the way he went about it represented the prejudice of the times. As proud Iowans, living in the 21st century, might I suggest we do better, working toward creative ways to better honor these brave Native-Americans who live among us? There’s no denying it. First-Nation people have long been overlooked and under-appreciated, so as I see it, let’s truly celebrate their rich Iowa heritage, cry with them over the many years of injustice, and work together to tear down the walls of racial prejudice and hatred in the years to come.
(M-0132) In 2000, the United States Mint issued a golden dollar coin celebrating Sacajawea, the brave Native American woman who served as the invaluable guide to Lewis & Clark during their 1804-1806 exploration of the Louisiana Purchase. Read more here.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.