Our Iowa Heritage: Meskwaki People – True Native Iowans.

As we mentioned in our last post, archaeologists divide Iowa history into two periods:

Iowa’s Pre-Historic Period – Pre-1673. Iowa’s pre-historic period goes all the way back to 11,500 B.C. or further!

Iowa’s Historic Period – Post-1673. In 1673, the first white explorers set foot on Iowa soil. It’s from this time frame (1673 to the present) where 99% of Our Iowa Heritage stories originate.

Native Iowan Tribes and the Mississippi River Valley – 1673 to 1832.

This “cartoon-ish” map of Iowa published in 1946, while not very honoring of our Native American friends, does accurately reflect the different tribes that lived across the territory in the early-to-mid-1800’s.

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).

The Sauk and Fox Tribes.

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.

In the late 1700’s, French fur-traders, such as Julien Dubuque, began venturing into the west (Louisiana Territory) to explore business ventures with the Sauk and Fox tribes.

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.

Click here to read more about Meskwaki Chief Powesheik and Johnson County, Iowa.

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.

On this map, the yellow represents the 1832 Black Hawk Purchase, the green stripe is the Keokuk Reserve acquired in 1836, the blue is the second Black Hawk purchase of 1837, and the red (central Iowa) was purchased in 1842. With each of these land acquisitions, the Meskwaki (Sauk & Fox) people were pushed further west, until finally in 1842, they were removed to Kansas.

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 1842. It was at this point, the Meskwaki people were relocated to reservations in east-central Kansas.

The Meskwaki – 1857 (Sauk and Fox Confederation)

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 about 6,000 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, a Boller relative from Ohio who walked to Iowa in 1850 to secure his land in Washington Township of Johnson County. In his 1978 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 nearly Tama to join us – since the Millers shared their Iowa land with the tribe when first arriving in Iowa in 1850. The tribal celebration at that reunion is a memory I have long remembered.

(P-0264) The proud Meskwaki people are represented beautifully on his 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 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 Exposition Series.

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.

(S-0007) The design of the 4¢ Trans-Mississippi stamp was taken from an engraving by Captain Seth Eastman, a soldier who used his considerable artistic skills to capture scenes from the Old West.
(S-0077) In 1998, the entire Trans-Mississippi stamp series was reprinted as a centennial tribute. The original intent for the 1898 issues was to print the stamps in two colors. However, due to the Spanish-American War and the increased demand for revenue stamps, resources were re-allocated and the stamps were printed in one color. The 1998 issues have been printed in two colors, using the only existing original bi-color dies.

1920’s 14¢ American Indian. Although the inscription beneath the portrait reads “American Indian,” this stamp actually pictures Hollow Horn Bear, a Brule Sioux Indian 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. His great appeal as a representative of the Native American nations resulted in his likeness also appearing on a five-dollar bill (below) in 1899.

1978 – America’s Smallest Postage Stamp celebrates the Indian-Head Penny.

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.

(C-0007) U.S. history, as seen through the lense of a white European, looks completely different than when viewed through the lense of the Native American. Sadly, for much of the 19th and 20th century, white America adopted sacred Native-American culture and traditions, re-creating them into cartoonish stereotypes. The Indian-head penny is a prime example of such. As the story goes, when Longacre was asked to design this coin he choose a white woman for his model. Some believe it to be Lady Liberty or other historians believe Longacre asked his daughter to model a sacred Indian headdress, which in Native-American culture breaks with the ancient tradition that only a male tribe leader was allowed to don such a sacred item. Now, to many of my readers, that might seem like a small detail, but to our Native American brothers and sisters, its just another insult added onto the decades of injustice exhibited toward them.

Artist George Catlin and his work with Native Americans.

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.

White Cloud – Chief of the Ioway Tribe.

(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.

(S-0076) In 1996, the cultural heritage of Native Americans was celebrated on these stamps featuring five American Indian dances – the Fancy Dance, Butterfly Dance, Traditional Dance, Raven Dance, and Hoop Dance. The Traditional, Fancy, and Hoop dances are attributed to many tribes across the United States and are primarily performed at pow-wows. A ceremonial dance, the Raven Dance is only performed in the Pacific Northwest, while the Butterfly is performed by Southwest Pueblo tribes.

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

George Catlin – The Complete Works website

The Meskwaki Nation website

Meskwaki, Wikipedia

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

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