America had been discovered almost two hundred years before a white man set foot in Iowa. In June, 1673, Father Marquette, a French Missionary, and a Canadian trader by the name of Joliet, with five companions whose names are not now known, sailed down the “Great Father of Waters, ” as the Indians called the Mississippi. On the right bank of the stream, not far from the mouth of the Des Moines River, they saw many human footprints leading out to a well-beaten path, which led away across the prairie. Charmed with the beautiful region thereabout, Marquette and Joliet went ashore, leaving the others with the canoes. They bravely followed the path some five or six miles, until they came within sight of an Indian village Then they paused and shouted. Instantly the whole town was in an uproar. Braves and squaws hurried from their tents, and papooses fairly tumbled over one another in their excitement.
Four chiefs at once came forward to meet them. They proved to be of the Illini, or Illinois tribe, as the French wrote it, and spoke in Algonquin, the tongue of their fathers. They offered great calumets or peace pipes, gayly decorated with feathers. After all had smoked in dignified silence, the guests were taken with great ceremony to the village chief. He stood in his tent door, pretending to shade his eyes from the sun, and welcomed them gracefully, saying: “Frenchmen, how bright the sun shines when you come to visit us! All our village awaits, and you shall enter our wigwams in peace.”
So the explorers entered the village and were feasted and made much of. Longfellow fancifully pictures this scene in the “Song of Hiawatha:
Came the Black-Robe chief, the Prophet,
He the Priest of Prayer, the Pale-face,
With his guides and his companions.
And the noble Hiawatha,
With his hands aloft extended,
Held aloft in sign of welcome,
Cried aloud and spake in this wise “Beautiful is the sun,
O strangers, When you come so far to see us!
All our town in peace awaits you,
All our doors stand open for you;
You shall enter all our wigwams,
For the heart’s right hand we give you.
Never bloomed the earth so gayly,
Never shone the sun so brightly,
As today they shine and blossom
When you come so far to see us ! ”
And the Black-Robe chief made answer,
Stammered in his speech a little,
Speaking words yet unfamiliar
“Peace be with you, Hiawatha,
Peace be with you and your people,
Peace of prayer, and peace of pardon,
Peace of Christ, and joy of Mary!”
Then the generous Hiawatha
Led the strangers to his wigwam,
Seated them on skins of bison.
Seated them on skins of ermine,
And the careful old Nokomis
Brought them food in bowls of basswood,
Water brought in birchen dippers,
And the calumet, the peace-pipe,
Filled and lighted for their smoking.
All the old men of the village,
All the warriors of the nation,
Came to bid the strangers welcome ;
“It is well,” they said, “O brothers,
That you come so far to see us!”
In the meantime, Indian fought Indian, and stamped their impress here and there in legends and tradition so deeply that the storms of Time can never wash them away. Counties, cities, towns, and rivers owe their names to the Red men who were closely associated with them in early days. Some of them have their origin struck deep in romance. The old town of Quasqueton (Kausketon), on the banks of the fair Wapsipinicon in Buchanan County, where the writer was born, has spread upon its records a pretty tale of Indian truth and faithfulness which concerns the naming of the river.
Kausketon was once an Indian village of importance, and here dwelt one of the great chiefs of the Sacs, Good Heart, and his fair young daughter Wapsie. One day a small party of young warriors was surprised and slain by a wandering band of Dakotas in the woods beyond the town. Owing to a pestilence which had raged some time before, there were not enough able-bodied men left in the village to avenge them. So Chief Good Heart sent away to the North to his friends the Foxes for aid. They came at once, and with them was young Pinicon, a noble young brave, son of the Chief of the Foxes. He tarried in the lodge of Good Heart long after his warriors had accomplished their mission and returned home ; for he had lost his heart to the beautiful dusky Princess Wapsie.
Finally the eve of the marriage day came and Wapsie and Pinicon went out upon the river for a pleasant little sail. Most beautiful is this river and they drifted along slowly, amid the cool shadows and delightful surroundings, listening to the merry evening songs of the birds, and talking in low fitful voices of their happiness. Suddenly, through the peaceful beauty of the falling night, an arrow, from the hand of a jealous young warrior of the Sacs, twanged sharply, striking young Pincun in the heart. He threw up his arms and fell head foremost into the stream. For a moment Wapsie sat in stupor. Then, as the body of her lover came to the surface, she gave one wild, despairing cry and leaped to join him. No one ever saw either again. But from that time the waters rippled more swiftly and they seemed to whisper about the great rock where the tragedy occurred, “Wapsie! Wapsie! Pinicon! Pinicon!” And so the river came finally to be known far and wide as “The Wapsipinicon.”