Indian Troubles in Iowa

Perhaps you know something about the great tract of land which the United States bought from France, in 1803, at the cost of a little less than two and one-half cents per acre. It was called the Louisiana Purchase, and was larger in area than the whole of the United States had been before. If you will draw a heavy line down the Rocky Mountains, on any United States map, till you come to the northern boundary of Texas, follow it across to the Mississippi, thence up the river to the Canadian border and back across to the mountains, you will have the area which this purchase covered. (How many states and territories have since been carved out of it for the Union?)

Settlers flocked into the new country thick and fast, but for some reason they missed Iowa, midway up the eastern boundary. Illinois on the east and Missouri on the south were settled and admitted to the Union, while Iowa’s beautiful prairies and woodlands still belonged to the Red men and the fur traders. The few white settlers and half-breeds whose cabins surrounded the trading posts were there by permission of the Indians.
For a long time Iowa was not of enough importance to be included under any real government. Finally the United States began to send out agents to the trading posts to represent the government and to watch over and advise the Red men. Petty grievances could not be carried directly from the agents to Washington, so Iowa was jumbled in with the great territory of Indiana, which was then under the watchful eye of William Henry Harrison. Later it was shifted about for convenience to the government of Missouri Territory, thence to Michigan, then to Wisconsin, and finally, in 1838, it became known as Iowa Territory. Wise and able Robert Lucas, of Ohio, was the first territorial governor. The first legislature met in the old Methodist church at Burlington.

Five years before her organization into a territory, Iowa had been opened for settlement in the “Black Hawk Purchase. ” This was a strip of land about fifty miles in width, extending along the Mississippi River almost the full length of the state. How the government got this land is a long story which leads backward over a trail of blood.

Shortly after the Louisiana Purchase, some of the Sac and Fox chiefs went down to St. Louis, as delegates to confer with the government, and while there signed a treaty giving up a large tract of land east of the Mississippi. They returned to their home at Saukenuk, a large Indian village at the angle of the Mississippi and Rock rivers, near where Rock Island city stands, and for some days kept very quiet. They were ashamed of what they had done. They looked about at the beautiful maize fields rippling in the breeze, at the wood-clothed hills, at the green fruitful islands which dotted the rivers, and thought with sorrow of the vast hunting ground, the game and the fish which would soon be theirs no longer. Then the secret leaked out. Black Hawk and other big chiefs were very angry. They said that the delegates had no right to sign a treaty, and hinted that they had been made drunk and tricked into signing the papers. They said that the good spirit,” which dwelt in a cave under the rocks near Rock Island, would be angry with them for leaving the hunting-grounds and graves of their fathers, and that no good would come of it. They tried very hard to break the treaty, but Congress would not listen. She would never have thought of allowing her delegates to make a treaty without her having a chance to see it, but such a course was all right for Indians. She said, however, that the Red men need not give up their land until it was actually sold to settlers. They might roam where they pleased, so long as they were peaceable. This was some satisfaction to the Indians, and they made up their minds to make the best of the bad bargain.

But the government did not keep faith with them. In 1808 they sent a small body of soldiers to build a fort on the site where Fort Madison now stands. This was Indian land, entirely outside of the treaty. The Red men rose in bitter anger. The pale-faces had no rights of any kind west of the river, and they determined to drive them back. But the soldiers represented that they had not come to build a fort. They were only going to put up a fine trading post, where the red warriors might obtain all the blankets and whisky they wanted. It was queen work for soldiers! And the Indians knew it. But they did not feel justified in attacking them in the face of such open friendliness. So they contented themselves with keeping the soldiers seared out of their wits most of the time.

It seems that Lieutenant Kingsley and his men arrived too late to get “the trading post” built before winter came on. They set up camp and built a high picket fence, or palisade, around it for protection. Then they went busily to work cutting timber and getting ready to build. The Indians used to come and climb up on old stumps or boxes, at all hours of the day and night, and peer frowningly over the palisades at the soldiers. No doubt many a trooper felt his heart grow numb within him as he caught sight of one of these grim watchers, and heartily wished himself safely back East! On one occasion, while the soldiers were cutting timber, with their muskets laid near by, Black Hawk and several other warriors, who lay hidden in the brush near, sneaked up and seized the guns. Then they gave a blood curdling yell. (The soldiers tumbled over each other to reach their arms, but could not find them. Black Hawk and his men thought this a fine joke. They watched in silent glee for a time, then stalked out from their hiding places and grimly handed back the weapons.

So the winter passed. Spring came, and the fort and three block houses went up with a rush, and were enclosed behind a strong stockade. Then the soldiers felt safer. But they did not get much comfort out of the situation even yet.

Soon word came that the Indians were planning to attack them. A pretty Sac maiden, who was in love with one of the officers, overheard the plot and hastened to tell it to her sweetheart. She said that certain of the chiefs and braves were to call at the block-house, one by one, that evening as they were in the habit of doing. After they were safely inside, a crowd of warriors was to draw near and give a dance for the entertainment of the soldiers. They were to work their way close up to the stockade, when at a given signal, those inside were to throw open the doors, and the work of butchery was to begin.

Forewarned is forearmed. When the callers arrived they were welcomed heartily and put at ease. Soon the dancers appeared and whirled merrily toward they fort. The chief gave the signal agreed upon and the door of the nearest block-house flew open with promptness. But lo! instead of the bloody carnage which they expected to see, the warriors faced a cannon. It changed their plans in a hurry, and they melted swiftly out of sight. The surprised chiefs within were relieved of their weapons and allowed to depart. They did not know how the white chiefs learned the plot, and thought that there must be a magician among them who could read men’s thoughts! After this they were more wary, but they did not give up the idea of finally driving the Americans from the field. Daily they thought up new methods with which to frighten them.

So matters progressed for three years. Lieutenant Kingsley was relieved of the command and left, rejoicing to get away with a whole scalp. Captain Clark, who followed him, had even a more serious time. Several whites were killed near the fort and the property of trappers and traders was destroyed. Then Lieutenant Hamilton succeeded to the command. The United States was now engaged in the war of 1812. They bad little time to think of Fort Madison. The Indians knew this and grew bolder and bolder. Finally a band of two hundred Sacs, Foxes, and Winnebagoes surrounded the fort and amused themselves by shooting fire arrows at the roof, burning the out-buildings, killing the stock, and rooting up the corn fields. Lieutenant Hamilton’s situation was desperate. He sent for help to St. Louis, but he soon found that he could not wait for it to arrive. He must leave the fort if he wished to save their scalps. So a trench was secretly dug from the southeast block-house to the river. The soldiers crept through this on their hands and knees and thus got away to their boats on the river. The last man out fired the buildings, but the Indians did not discover the blaze until the garrison was far down the river. This was the end of old Fort Madison.

But it did not end the Indian troubles. Spurred on by this victory and the fiery speeches of Black Hawk and other chiefs who burned with the wrongs done them, the Indians took up the tomahawk in earnest. The struggle which followed was called the Black Hawk War. It ended by a total defeat of the tribes engaged in a battle at the mouth of the Bad Axe River, in Wisconsin. Black Hawk was captured through the treachery of some Winnebagoes, and taken to Prairie du Chien. From here he was conveyed to Jefferson Barracks, at St. Louis. Young Lieut. Jefferson Davis, afterward President of the Southern Confederacy, had him in charge. He was in prison a long time. Then the authorities had him taken on a long tour through the East to show hire how powerful the United States was. After this, worn out and broken in spirit by his failure and the fact that his rival, Keokuk, had been set above him by the government, he returned to Lee County and built a cabin for himself and family on Devil’s Creek. But he was not contented here, and soon followed his friends to their new quarters along the Des Moines River. He built a home about 100 feet from the north bank of the river, near Iowaville, close to the spring which is now identified as Black Hawk’s spring. Here he passed the remainder of his life in peace and quiet happiness with his family, He was a great lover of Nature, and Black Hawk’s Watch Tower is the name borne by the lofty summit overlooking the Rock River where he used to sit smoking and gazing out over the country for hours at a time.

Black Hawk’s tribe was scattered to the four winds. Most of the braves passed beyond to the “happy bunting grounds. ” The United States took the land which had been theirs. This was the “Black Hawk Purchase.” In payment they provided the widows and children of the braves with cattle, salt, pork, flour, and corn; took up the debt of forty thousand dollars which these people owed to the Indian traders, Davenport and Farnham ; and agreed to distribute twenty thousand dollars among the tribe each year for the next thirty years.

After the opening of the Black Hawk Purchase, it was only a few years until the Indians lost their foothold in the state which they loved so well. The last treaty was signed at Agency City, six miles east of the present site of Ottumwa. Sabin has the following to say about it “John Chambers, governor of Iowa Territory, conducted the matter for the government. The governor was attired in the showy uniform of a brigadier general of the United States army, so that the Indians, who loved display, might be impressed. He and his aides were on a platform, elevated slightly, at one end of the tent. In front of the platform was a row of seats for the chiefs. Between the governor’s party and the chiefs stood the interpreter. The Indians wore their best. Each had a new blanket, purchased at the agency store, and paint, feathers and beads added to the array of colors. Leggins were of white deerskin. Bracelets on wrists and rings in ears jingled when the savages moved. As a mark of dignity the chiefs bore elaborately decorated war clubs. The Indians talked, and the governor talked. The words of each speaker were translated that all might understand. The Indian orators spoke of the beautiful meadows, the running streams, the sycamore and walnut trees, and all other dear things they were called on to deliver over to the white man. They told of moon and stars, wind and rain and suit, better than any other country afforded. They asserted no land was so attractive as Iowa.”

Shortly afterward the Indians made ready to leave for hunting grounds farther west. They were sore at heart. The winter just passed had been a hard one. The medicine men said that it was because Manitou was angry with them for selling the land of their fathers. They held a number of solemn ceremonies to appease the Spirit and to bid farewell to the graves of their dead. Then they mounted their half-starved ponies and turned with tear-filled eyes for a last look at their once happy home. Imagine the sad band filing away across the prairie with. heavy hearts, and bowed heads hidden in their blankets. One can not help a throb of pity for them, even when we know that they were happier in their new homes than they would have been had they remained. For the country was settling rapidly and the ways of the white men were not their ways. The two nations could not live in the same land; the weaker was forced to yield to the stronger, according to the custom since Time began.

The following speech of the great Winnebago chief, to an officer who sought to buy land of him, is a sample of Indian oratory, and shows the position taken by those high-minded chiefs “Brother, you say our Great Father sent you to us to buy our country. We do not know what to think of our Great Father’s sending to us so often to buy our country. He seems to think so much of land that he must be always looking down to the earth.
“Brother, you say you have seen many Indians, but you have never seen one yet who owns the land. The land all belongs to the Great Spirit. He made it. He owns it all. It is not the red man’s to sell.

“Brother, the Great Spirit hears us now. He always hears us. He heard us when our Great Father told us if we would sell him our country on the Wisconsin, he would never ask us to sell him another country. We brought our council fires to the Mississippi. We came across the great river, and built our lodges on the Turkey and the Cedar. We have been here but a few days; and you ask us to move again. We supposed our Father pitied his children; but he cannot, or he would not wish so often to take our land from us.
“You ask me, Brother, where the Indians are gone who crossed the Mississippi a few years ago. You know and we know where they are gone. They are gone to the country where the white man can no more interfere with them. Wait, Brother, but a few years longer, and this little remnant will be gone too gone to the Indians’ home behind the clouds, and then you can have our country without buying it.

“Brother, we do not know bow you estimate the value of land. When you bought our land before, we do not think we got its value.

“Brother, I have spoken to you for my nation. We do not wish to sell our country. We have but one opinion. We never change it. ”

– From Salter’s “Iowa: the First Free State in the Louisiana Purchase.


White, Judy Wallis. The Story of Iowa.

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