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 tribes are Algonquin-speakers – a word that 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.”
According to their oral traditions, both tribes were living in Canada 12,000 years ago at the time of the last glacial retreat. Many centuries later they were displaced from their Canadian home by the Iroquois, migrating through New England and New York to the area near Niagara Falls.
By the 1600s, the Meskwaki people, called Renards (Fox) by the French, had migrated to the region of present-day Michigan and later relocated to Wisconsin. Here, the tribe controlled a number of rivers used by French fur traders and used their leverage to extort goods from traders in exchange for safe passage.
The French eventually tired of this, and in 1712, decided to solve their problem by exterminating the Meskwaki people – beginning a period of time called The Fox Wars. The Meskwaki fled, naturally, and after years on the move, they came to a crude fort near Starved Rock in north-central Illinois. Their presence was soon detected, and they were surrounded by French and allied troops. On September 8, 1730, they tried to escape but were spotted, and the resulting attack killed over a thousand men, women and children—nearly the entire nation. Those who escaped sought shelter near Saukenuk – the large Sauk community located on the Rock River near today’s Rock Island, Illinois (see map below).
Over nearly a one-hundred year period (1735-1830), as the Meskwaki (Fox) people allied closely with the Sauk tribe, the Meskwaki settled, primarily, on the western sides of the Mississippi while their friends, the Sauk people, lived on the east. Both tribes traded freely with each other and with the French, and fought alongside the British, providing a lifestyle that was partially Native American, and partially European.
Read more about the Sauk Chief Black Hawk, Saukenuk, and the Rock River Valley.
For those Meskwaki who moved northward, discovering lead mines around Dubuque, eventually more European settlers – like Julien Dubuque, began venturing into the area (1788), exploring business ventures with the Fox tribes.
And, for those who didn’t wander north, there was one central location where, particularly the Sauk people, and many from the Meskwaki (Fox) tribe, called home. Today, we call this area – located near the Mississippi River – the Rock River Valley. It’s here, according to Ferrell Anderson, a local archaeologist, where one Meskwaki village – with a population of about 1,600, and made up of two rows of huts, about 30 total – was located in, what is today, downtown Rock Island. It’s this village where Chief Poweshiek was born in the late 1780’s. You can read more here.
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, Dr. Glen R. 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.
Read more about Washington Township in Johnson County here.
(P-0264 a/b) The proud Meskwaki people are represented beautifully on these vintage 1960’s postcard from Tama, Iowa.
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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.
(S-0009) By 1900, Euro-American settlers had claimed nearly all of Iowa’s 36 million acres as farmland. The original Iowa people, the Ioways, had signed treaties to accommodate the expansion and had been relocated to a small reservation in southeast Nebraska where they became increasingly impoverished. White Cloud, chief of the tribe, decided to raise funds by touring with other Ioway in London in 1844-45, meeting with British dignitaries. While there, the entourage dressed in formal regalia and were engaged by George Catlin to perform in his studio and elsewhere for donations, part of which was donated to European hospitals. White Cloud was awarded a gold medal by the king.
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.
Click here to read our Indigenous Land Acknowledgement…
Click here to access our list of stories of those who have made a difference in this call for Unity Through Diversity…
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Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
George Catlin – The Complete Works website
George Catlin 1835 map, Iowa History 101 – Iowa Dept of Cultural Affairs
A video guide to the indigenous people of eastern Iowa, Lucas Farms Neighborhood Association
Rivers Attracted Pioneers to Region, Bob Hibbs, IAGenWebProject-Johnson County
The Johnson County Historical Society website
Tracing the Treaties: How they affected American Indians and Iowa, Bill Sherman, Iowa History Journal
Looking Backward on Hawkeyeland, William J. Peterson, The Morrell Magazine, Dec. 1946
The World’s Largest Meskwaki Powwow Festival Happens Right Here In Iowa, OnlyInYourState.com
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