Keokuk, Chief of the Sacs & Foxes

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Keokuk
Keokuk
Chief Of The Sacs & Foxes

The Sauk and Musquakee, more usually called the Sacs and Foxes, having for many years resided together, form now a single community, divided only by certain internal regulations, by means of which each portion keeps up its distinctive name and lineage. The individuals and families adhere carefully to certain customs which distinguish them, and which have thus far prevented them from being merged the one in the other. They have separate chiefs, who, at the sittings of councils, and on other occasions of ceremony, claim to be recognized as the representatives of independent tribes; but they are in effect, one people, and Keokuk, who is the head man of the Sauk, is the ostensible and actual leader of the united nation.

There is reason to believe that these two tribes were originally one. They both acknowledge a common descent from the great Chippeway stock, although the tradition which has preserved this fact retains no trace of the progressive steps by which they acquired a distinct language, and became a separate people. The word Sauk is derived from the compound asawwekee, which signifies yellow earth, while Musquakee comes from mesquawee, or red earth showing a similarity of name, which strongly indicates an identity of origin. Nor is it difficult to imagine that such a separation may have occurred, without leaving any decisive remembrance of the rupture. In the predatory and erratic life led by the Indians, it is not uncommon for a party to become disunited from the main body of the nation, and, in process of time, to form a distinct tribe. The separation becomes the more complete, in consequence of the want of a written language, to fix and preserve the common tongue of the dispersed members of a nation; and as the Indian dialect is, from this cause, continually fluctuating, the colony soon loses one of the strongest ties which would otherwise bind it to the mother nation. Numerous as are the dialects spoken by the various tribes in North America, Mr. Gallatin has very successfully traced them to a few sources.

The former residence of the Sauk was on the banks of the St. Lawrence, whence they were driven by the Six Nations, with whom they carried on a long and bloody war. As they retired towards the west, they became embroiled with the Wyandot and were driven further and further along the shores of the lakes, until they found a temporary resting place at Green Bay. Here they were joined by the Musquakee, who, having been so greatly reduced by war as to be unable to maintain themselves as a separate people, sought refuge among their kindred. La Hontan, under the date of 1689, speaks of ” the villages of the Sakies, the Potawatami, and the Malhomini,” on Fox river, and of a house or college established there by the Jesuits; and Henepin, in 1680, speaks of the Outagamies, or Foxes, who dwelt on the Bay of Puants, or Green Bay. The Sauk soon removed to the portage between the Fox and Wisconsin rivers, and afterwards to the left bank of the Mississippi, below the Wisconsin. It is probable that they gained useful experience in the hard school of adversity. ‘ In the long series of hostile operations in which they had been engaged against superior numbers, they had become very warlike, and they now prepared to act upon the offensive.

The delightful plains of Illinois were inhabited at that time by a numerous people called the Illini, or, as we find it elsewhere written, Linneway, or Minneway. The former reading is that of Jon-tel, a French officer, who visited the country in 1683; and the fact that the territory inhabited by that nation received from the earliest French explorers the name of Illinois, seems to be decisive in favor of that orthography. In the interpretation of the word, however spelled, we find no disagreement, the name being uniformly translated “men,” or “perfect men.” This nation was divided into various bands, the principal of which were the Kaskaskia, Cahoki, and Tamarois, in the southern part of the territory; the Michigamia, near the mouth of the Des Moines, and probably on the right bank of the Mississippi; the Piankeshaw, near Vincennes; the Wea, on the Wabash above Vincennes; the Miamis, towards the lakes; the Peoria, on the Illinois river; and the Masco, or Mascontin, called by the French “Les Gens des Prairies,” on the great central plains between the Wabash and Illinois rivers. All these used the language which is now spoken by the Miamis; and, though scattered over a wide expanse of country, considered themselves as one people.

Against this nation the Sauk and Musquakee, in league with the Chippeway, the Ottowa, and the Potawatami, turned their arms; while the Choctaws and Cherokees at the same time invaded the Illinois country from the south. A bloody war ensued, which lasted many years. It was probably an unequal contest between the inhabitants of these rich plains and the more hardy barbarians of the north, accustomed to the rigors of an inhospitable climate, and to the vicissitudes of continual warfare. The tribes of Illinois were nearly exterminated. Of a population which must have exceeded fifty thousand, not more than five hundred now remain. The Miamis and Wea, who abandoned the country, number about four hundred. A larger number of the Kaskaskia, protected by the French at the village which bears their name, escaped that war, but many of them were afterwards slaughtered by the Kickapoo, and intoxication has since reduced them to about forty souls. Of the Piankeshaw, but forty or fifty, and of the Peoria, not more than ten or fifteen, are left. The Sauk defend the exterminating policy pursued by them and their allies in this war, by alleging that the Illini were more cruel than other Indians, and always burned their prisoners; and that, in retaliation, they adopted the practice of delivering over such of the Illini as fell into their hands, to the women, to be tortured to death.

During this contest, an incident occurred which may be mentioned in illustration of the uncompromising character of savage warfare. On the shore of the Illinois stands a singular rock, rising perpendicularly from the water’s edge, and inaccessible on three sides; while on the fourth, its summit, which is level, may be reached by a very narrow pathway. A party of the Illini, hotly pursued by their enemies, took refuge on this rock with their women and children. They were discovered and besieged; and such was the vigilance of their adversaries, that, although certain death by starvation awaited them within their fortress, they were unable to effect a retreat. They even stationed sentinels in canoes upon the river, by day and by night, to defeat any attempt of the besieged to procure water, by lowering vessels into the stream; and the wretched garrison, having no stores nor means of supply, began soon to be tortured by the pangs of hunger and thirst. They resolved to die rather than surrender; and, for a while, consoled themselves by hurling defiance arid scoffs at their foes. At length they ceased to appear upon the ramparts, and their voices were no longer heard. The besiegers, cautious to the last, and secure of their prey, delayed making any attempt to enter the fortress until so long a time had elapsed as to render it certain that famine had performed its deadly office. When at last they ascended to the summit of the rock, but one soul was found lingering among the carcasses of the dead an aged squaw was still breathing, and lived many years in captivity, the last of her tribe. The ” Starved Rock” is still pointed out by the inhabitants as the scene of this heart rending adventure.

Having possessed themselves of the country, the invaders continued to pursue, with unrelenting hostility, the scattered remnants of the once powerful Illini, who lingered for protection about the settlements of the French and Spaniards. Their last attempt to destroy this unhappy people was in 1779, when they approached St. Louis with fifteen hundred braves, in search of a small band of Peoria, supposed to be lurking in that vicinity. The Spanish governor turned a deaf ear to the representations of the inhabit ants, who believed their village to be in danger; and the latter, unable to prevail upon him to put the place in a posture of defense, sent an express to the American colonel, George Rogers Clarke, who was then at Kaskaskia, to solicit his protection. Clarke instantly marched with five hundred men, and encamped on the left bank of the river, opposite St. Louis. The governor, convinced at last of the hostile intentions of the Indians, who, not finding the Illini were marching upon St. Louis, became panic-struck, and offered to deliver over the colony to Clarke. The latter declined an offer which he had no authority to accept, but remained in his camp, prepared to assist the inhabitants, if required. An attack was made. Clarke immediately crossed the river with a party of his men, but the Indians, on seeing the “Long Knives,” as the Virginia troops were called by them, hastily retreated, having previously killed about seventy of the Spaniards. Colonel Clarke afterwards sent a detachment of one hundred and fifty men, who scoured the country far above the Sauk village, and returned without molestation; the Indians, awed by the boldness of this measure, declaring that, if so few dared to invade their country, they were prepared to fight with desperation.

There was a small tribe of Ioway in the Illinois country at the time of the irruption by the northern Indians, who were probably themselves intruders. Being too weak to oppose the invaders, they received them hospitably, and remained at peace with them.

Having conquered the country, the Musquakee established themselves on Rock river, near its junction with the Mississippi; the Sauk soon followed them, and this spot became the principal seat of the united nation. The whole of this region is fertile and picturesque beyond description. It is a country of prairies of magnificent plains, spreading out in every direction as far as the eye can reach, and whose beautiful, undulating surface is clothed with a carpet of the richest verdure, studded with splendid groves, giving to the extended landscape an air of ornate elegance and rich embellishment such as is seldom beheld in the scenery of the wilderness.

The Mississippi, which, below its junction with the Missouri, is a turbid stream, meandering through low grounds, and margined by muddy banks, is here a clear and rapid river, flowing over beds of rock and gravel, and bordered by the most lovely shores. Nothing of the kind can be more attractive than the scenery at the Upper Rapids, in the vicinity of the Sauk and Fox village. On the western shore, a series of slopes are seen commencing at the gravelly margin of the water, and rising, one above another, with a barely perceptible acclivity, for a considerable distance, until the back-ground is terminated by a chain of beautifully rounded hills, over which trees are thinly scattered, as if planted by the hand of art. This is the singular charm of prairie scenery : although it be a wilderness, just as nature made it, it has no savage nor repulsive feature the verdant carpet, the gracefully waving outline of the surface, the clumps, the groves, and the scattered trees, give it the appearance of a noble park, boundless in extent, and adorned with exquisite taste. It is a wild but blooming desert, that does not awe by its gloom, but is gay and cheerful, winning by its social aspect, as well as by its variety and intrinsic gracefulness. The eastern shore is not less beautiful. A broad flat plain, of rich alluvion, extending from the water’s edge, is terminated by a low range of wooded hills. A small collection of Indian lodges stood on this plain when the writer last saw it; but the principal village of the Sauk and Foxes was about three miles distant, on Rock river. In the front of the landscape, and presenting its most prominent feature, as viewed from an ascending boat, is Rock Island, on the southern point of which, elevated upon a parapet of rock, stands Fort Armstrong. The surrounding region is healthy, and amazingly fruitful. The grape, the plum, the gooseberry, and various other native fruits, abound; the wild honeysuckle gives its perfume to the air, and a thousand indigenous flowers mingle their diversified hues with the verdure of the plain.

These prairies were formerly covered with immense herds of buffalo, and abounded in game of every description. The rivers furnished excellent fish, and the whole region, in every respect so rich in the bounties of nature, must have formed that kind of paradise of which alone the Indian has any conception. If ever there was a spot on earth where scenic beauty, united with fecundity of soil and salubrity of climate, could exert a refining influence upon the human mind, it was here; and those who claim for the savage an Arcadian simplicity of character, or who suppose the human mind may become softened by the genial influence of climate and locality, might reasonably look here for effects corresponding with such opinions. Blessed with abundance, there could have been no necessity for any intrusion upon the hunting-grounds of others, and the causes of war, other than the lust for carnage, must have been few. Surrounded by the choicest beauties of nature, it would seem that a taste for the picturesque, a sense of the enjoyment of home and comfort, and an ardent love of country, would have been implanted and fostered. But we find no such results. The Sauk of Illinois presented the same character half a century ago which they now exhibit. They are savages as little ameliorated by place or circumstances as the Osages and the Comanche of the farther west, or the Seminoles of Florida, and are in no respect more assimilated to civilized men than the wretched Chippewa who wanders over the bleak and sterile shores of Lake Superior.

The office of chief, among the Sauk, is partly elective, and partly hereditary. The son is usually chosen as the successor of the father, if worthy, but if he be passed over, the most meritorious of the family is selected. There are several of these dignitaries, and in describing their relative rank, they narrate a tradition, which we suppose to be merely figurative. They say that, a great while ago, their fathers had a long lodge, in the center of which were ranged four fires. By the first fire stood two chiefs, one on the right hand, who was called the Great Bear, and one on the left, called the Little Bear. These were the village or peace chiefs. They were the rulers of the band, and held the authority that we should describe as that of chief magistrate but not in equal degree, for the Great Bear was the chief, and the other, next in authority. At the second fire stood two chiefs, one on the right, called the Great Fox, and one on the left, called the Little Fox. These were the war chiefs or generals. At the third fire stood two braves, who were called respectively the Wolf and the Owl; and at the fourth fire were two others, who were the Eagle and the Tortoise. The last four were not chiefs, but braves of high reputation, who occupied honorable places in the council, and were persons of influence in peace and war. The lodge of four fires may have existed in fact, or the tradition may be merely metaphorical. It is quite consonant with the Indian character to describe events by figures, and the latter, in the confusion of bad translations, are often mistaken for facts. The chiefs actually rank in the order pointed out in this legend; and the nation is divided into families, or clans, each of which is distinguished by the name of an animal. Instead, how ever, of there being but eight, there are now twelve.

The place of peace chief, or head man, confers honor rather than power, and is by no means a desirable situation, unless the incumbent be a person of popular talents. He is nominally the first man in the tribe. He presides at the councils; all acts of importance are done in his name; and he is saluted by the patriarchal title of Father. But his power and influence depend entirely upon his personal weight of character; and when he happens to be a weak man, the authority is virtually exercised by the war chiefs. He is usually poor. Whatever may be his skill or success as a hunter, he is compelled to give away his property in hospitality or benevolence. He is expected to be affable and generous, must entertain his people occasionally with feasts, and be liberal in giving presents. He must practice the arts of gaining popularity, which are much the same in every state of society, and among which a prodigal hospitality is not the least successful. If any one requires to borrow or beg a horse on any emergency,’ he applies to the chief, who cannot refuse without subjecting himself to the charge of meanness. Not infrequently the young men take his horses, or other property, without leave, when he is, perhaps, the only individual in the tribe with whom such a liberty could be taken with impunity. He is the father who must regard, with an indulgent eye, the misdeeds of his children, when he is himself the injured party, but who must administer inflexible justice when others are aggrieved. A person of energetic character may maintain a high degree of influence in this station, and some who have held it have been little less than despotic; but when a man of little capacity succeeds to the hereditary chieftaincy, he becomes a mere tool in the hands of the war chiefs, who, having command of the braves and young men, control the elements of power, and readily obtain the sway in a community essentially martial, where there is little law, and less wealth. The principal war chief is often, therefore, the person whose name is most widely known, and he is frequently confounded with the head man. The station of war chief is not hereditary, nor can it properly be said to be elective; for, although in some cases of emergency, a leader is formally chosen, they usually acquire reputation by success, and rise gradually into confidence and command. The most distinguished warrior, especially if he be a man of popular address, becomes by tacit consent the war chief.

Whether the eight fires, or families, mentioned above, comprised at any period the whole tribe, we cannot determine. The Sauk are now divided into twelve families, and the Musquakee into eight; and, although great care is taken to preserve this distinction, we may readily suppose that a name sometimes becomes extinct, and that a distinguished man may found a new family.

There is another division peculiar to this tribe, which is very singular. Every male child, shortly after its birth, is marked with white or black paint, the mother being careful to use the two colors alternately, so that if her eldest son be marked with black, the second will be distinguished by white. Thus, if there be an even number of males in a family, the number marked with each color respectively will be equal, and the whole nation will be nearly equally divided. The colors thus given, are appropriated to the individuals unchangeably through life, and in painting themselves upon any occasion, those of the one party use white, and those of the other black, in addition to any other colors they may fancy, all others being free alike to the whole nation. The object of this custom is to create a continual emulation between the two parties. At the public ball playing, and all other games, the whites play against the blacks. In the dances of ceremony they endeavor to outdo each other; and in war, the scalps taken by each party are numbered against those of the rival division.

The chiefs have the sole management of the public affairs, but the braves are consulted as advisers, and have great influence. In the councils a question is not usually considered as decided, unless there is a unanimous voice. The discussions are deliberate and grave, seldom disturbed by inflammatory appeals, or distracted by flippant or unadvised counsels. The speakers, in general, prepare themselves carefully beforehand. Their style is sententious arid figurative, but their speeches are weakened by the frequent repetition of the same idea. One circumstance in regard to their public speaking, which we have never seen noticed, has struck the writer forcibly on several occasions. The same etiquette which, in the parliamentary bodies of civilized nations, forbids the speakers to allude to each other by name, prevails among them. We do not pretend to say that the practice is invariable; but whenever we have attended their councils, we noticed that, in commenting on each other’s speeches, they used expressions such as “the chief who has just spoken,” “the chief who spoke first,” “one of my brothers has said,” with other circumlocutions, which were obviously the result of a guarded intention to avoid a more direct allusion. They are, however, fond of speaking in the third person, and in doing this the orator often uses his own name.

The laws of this nation are few and simple. Debts are contracted but seldom, and no method of enforcing payment is known. The obligation is merely honorable. If the party is unable to fulfill his engagement at the stipulated time, that is a sufficient excuse, and the failure, under any circumstances, is considered as a trivial affair. This arises not so much from want of integrity as from the absence of definite notions of property, and of the obligations con sequent upon its possession.

Civil injuries are settled by the old men who are friendly to the parties. A murder, when committed by one of the nation upon another, is seldom punished with death. Although the relatives of the deceased may, as in all the Indian tribes, take revenge, this mode of reparation is discouraged, and it is more usual to accept a compensation in property. If the parties cannot agree, the old men interfere, and never fail to effect a compromise. We are not aware of any offense which is considered as against the peace and dignity of the public, or is punishable as a national affair, except aiding or assisting their enemies, unless it be some dereliction connected with military duty, which always receives a prompt and contemptuous rebuke. A sentinel, for instance, who neglects his duty, is publicly flogged with rods by the women. The traders consider the Sauk and Foxes perfectly honest, and feel safe among them seldom locking their doors by day or night, and allowing them free access. They are humane in the treatment of their prisoners Young persons taken in war are generally adopted into the family of one of the slain. Other prisoners are bought and sold as such; but if, after having gained the confidence of their masters, they choose to go to war, and kill an enemy of the nation, they become free, and are entitled to all the rights of a native. The women taken in war are received into the families of those who capture them, either as wives or servants, and their offspring become members of the tribe. One who knew the Sauk and Foxes intimately for many years, informs us that he never knew of their burning a prisoner, except in the war with the Menominie, and in this in stance they alleged that their enemies commenced the practice. An instance occurred in which, on the death of a Sauk brave, a favorite male slave was slain by his relatives, and buried with him, in order that his spirit might wait on that of his master in the other world.

The individual whose history we are about to relate was the head of the Sauk nation, and one of the most distinguished of his race. His public career commenced in early life, and has been eminently distinguished through a long series of years. In his first battle, when quite young, he killed a Sioux warrior by trans fixing him with a spear, under circumstances which rendered the exploit conspicuous, the more especially as he was on horseback; and the Sioux being considered greatly superior in horsemanship, the trophy gained on this occasion was esteemed a matter of national triumph. A feast was made by the tribe in honor of the incident. They requested of the chiefs that Keokuk should be put in his father’s place, or, in other words, that he should be admitted to the rank of a brave, and all the rights of manhood, not withstanding his youth. It was also allowed that on public occasions he might appear on horseback. He continued to enjoy this singular mark of respect until his death; and even when all the rest of the tribe appear on foot, in processions and other ceremonious occasions, he had the privilege of being mounted, and might have been often seen riding alone and proudly among his people.

Shortly after this event, and while Keokuk was yet too young to be admitted to the council, a rumor reached the village that a large body of American troops was approaching to attack it. So formidable was this enemy considered, that, although still distant, and the object of the expedition not certainly ascertained, a great panic was excited by the intelligence, and the council, after revolving the whole matter, decided upon abandoning the village. Keokuk, who stood near the entrance of the council lodge, awaiting the result, no sooner heard this determination than he stepped forward and begged to be admitted. The request was granted. He asked permission to address the council, which was accorded; and he stood up for the first time to speak before a public assemblage. Having stated that he had heard with sorrow the decision of his elder brethren, he proceeded with modesty, but with the earnestness of a gallant spirit, to deprecate an ignominious flight before an enemy still far distant, whose numbers might be exaggerated, and whose destination was unknown. He pointed out the advantages of meeting the foe, harassing their march, cutting them up in detail, driving them back, if possible, and finally of dying honorably in defense of their homes, their women, and their children, rather than yielding all that was dear and valuable without striking a blow. ” Make me your leader !” he exclaimed; ” let your young men follow me, and the pale faces shall be driven back to their towns ! Let the old men and the women, and all who are afraid to meet the white man, stay here; but let your braves go to battle ! I will lead them.” This spirited address revived the drooping courage of the tribe. The warriors declared their readiness to follow Keokuk. The recent decision was reversed, and Keokuk was appointed to lead the braves against the invaders. The alarm turned out to be false; and after several days’ march, it was ascertained that the Americans had taken a different course. But the gallantry and eloquence of Keokuk in changing the pusillanimous policy at first adopted, his energy in organizing the expedition, and the talent for command discovered in the march, placed him in the first rank among the braves of the nation.

The entire absence of records, by which the chronology of events might be ascertained, renders it impossible to trace, in the order of their date, the steps by which this remarkable man rose to the chief place in his nation, and acquired a commanding and permanent influence over his people. We shall, therefore, without reference to the order of the events, present such facts as we have collected with great care, partly from personal observation, and partly from the testimony of gentlemen whose statements may be relied on as authentic.

Possessing a fine person, and gifted with courage, prudence, and eloquence, Keokuk soon became the chief warrior of his nation, and gradually acquired the direction of civil affairs, although the latter continued for many years to be conducted in the name of the hereditary peace chief. The most daring and graceful rider of his nation, he was always well mounted, and no doubt owed much of his popularity to his imposing appearance when equipped for war or ceremony, and to his feats of horsemanship. From a natural pride, or from policy, he always made the most of this advantage by indulging, at great expense, his love of fine horses, and costly caparisons, and exhibiting himself in the best manner on public occasions.

Keokuk was, in all respects, a magnificent savage. Bold, enterprising, arid impulsive, he was also politic, and possessed an intimate knowledge of human nature, and a tact which enabled him to bring the resources of his mind into prompt operation. Successful in his undertakings, yet there were a freshness and enthusiasm about him that threw a tinge of romance over many of his deeds, and would have indicated a mind acting for effect rather than from the dictates of policy, had there not been abundant proofs of the calm judgment which formed the basis of his character.

Keokuk was fond of traveling, and of paying visits of state to the neighboring tribes. On these occasions he always went in an imposing style, which did not fail to make a favorable impression. The mild season of autumn, so peculiarly delightful in the prairie region of western America, was the time chosen for these excursions, that being the period of the year when game and forage are abundant. A band of forty or fifty of the most active and finest looking young men were selected to accompany the chief, all of whom w r ere well mounted and completely equipped. The chief, especially, spared no expense in his own outfit. The most superb horse that could be procured, the most showy Spanish saddle and housings, arms of faultless workmanship, a robe elaborately wrought with all the combined taste and skill of his six wives, and a pipe of state, were duly prepared. A runner was sent forward to announce his intention; and in this style he visited some one of the tribes with whom he was at peace either the Osages, the Otoe, the Omaha, the Winnebago, or the Ioway. The honor was properly appreciated, and ample provision made for the entertainment of so illustrious a guest. Food and tobacco were laid up in store against his coming, and especially, if at all attainable, was there a supply procured of the Christian’s fire water. The guests were received hospitably, and with every mark of ostentatious ceremony that could be afforded by the circumstances of the parties. The time was spent in a round of hunting, feasting, athletic sports, and a variety of games. Horse-racing, ball play, foot races, arid gambling with dice, formed the amusements; while dancing, which may be considered rather as a solemnity than a recreation, filled a due portion of the time. Keokuk was a great dancer, and had been an over match for most of his co-temporaries at all athletic sports.

The warlike exploits of this chief have been numerous; but few of them are such as would interest our readers On one occasion, while engaged, with a body of his warriors, in hunting on the great plains which lie between his nation and their mortal enemies, the Sioux, a war party of the latter came suddenly upon them. Both parties were mounted; but the Sioux, being the superior horsemen, and fully armed for battle, had the advantage, for the plain afforded no coverts to which the Sauk, who excel them in fighting on foot, could retreat. A less prompt leader than Keokuk would have sacrificed his band, either by an attempt at flight, or a desperate effort to resist an unequal foe. His resolution was instantaneously adopted. Forming his horses in a compact circle, the dismounted band were placed within, protected from the missiles of the enemy, and placed in a condition to avail themselves of their superiority as marksmen. The Sioux charged with loud yells, and were received with a well-directed fire, which compelled them to fall back. The attempt was repeated, but with the same result which usually attends a charge of horse upon well-posted infantry. The horses could not be forced upon the muzzles of guns which poured forth fire and smoke, and, after several ineffectual efforts, the assailants retreated with loss. On this occasion the promptitude of Keokuk was not more praiseworthy than the military sagacity by which he estimated the peculiarities of his own force and that of the enemy, and the accuracy of judgment with which he opposed the one to the other.

At another time, during a temporary peace between these tribes, the Sauk had gone to the prairies to hunt the buffalo, leaving their village but slightly guarded, and Keokuk with a small party approached a large encampment of the Sioux. By accident he learned that they were painted for war, and were preparing a numerous party, destined against his village. His own braves, widely scattered, could not be hastily collected together. He adopted the bold expedient of a daring and generous mind, and threw him self between his people and danger. Advancing to the encampment of his treacherous foes, he left his party hard by, and rode alone into the camp. The war pole stood in the midst of the lodges, the war dance was going on, and all the fierce excitements by which the Indians lash themselves into fury, and stir up the storm of vengeance in each other’s bosoms, were in full practice. Revenge upon the Sauk was the burden of their song. At such a moment Keokuk, mounted as usual on a fine horse, rode boldly in among them, and demanded to see their chief. ” I have come,” said he, ” to let you know that there are traitors in your camp. They have told me that you are preparing to attack my village. I knew they told me lies, for you could not, after smoking the pipe of peace, be so base as to murder my women and children in my absence. None but cowards would be guilty of such conduct !” The Sioux, who, for a moment, were abashed by the audacity of their enemy, now began to crowd about him, in a manner that showed a determination to seize his person; and they had already laid hold of his legs, on either side, when he added, in a loud voice, “I supposed they told me lies; but if what I have heard is true, then know that the Sauk are ready for you! “So saying, he shook off those who were attempting to seize him, plunged the spurs into his horse’s flanks, and dashed away through the crowd. Several guns were fired at him ineffectually, and a number of warriors, instantly mounting, followed him in rapid pursuit. But they had lost their prey. Keokuk was now in his element. Yelling the dreadful war-whoop, brandishing the tomahawk, and taunting his foes as he fled before them, he continued on his way gallantly, until he came in sight of his own little band. The Sioux, fearing some stratagem, then halted, and Keokuk deliberately joined his people, while the Sioux retired. He took measures to call in his braves, and returned hastily home; but the Sioux, finding their design discovered, did not attempt to put it in execution.

The talents of Keokuk, as a military chief and civil ruler, were evident from the discipline which existed among his people. We have seen no other tribe so well managed. In 1837, when deputations from a number of tribes visited Washington, a striking contrast was observed; for,, while all the other Indians strutted about in blue coats, and other absurd finery, which they had received as presents, the Sauk and Foxes appeared in their native dress, evincing a dignity and good taste which attracted general notice. Another anecdote is illustrative of the same habitual good order. A few years ago a steamboat, ascending the Mississippi, touched for a few minutes at Rock Island. A number of the Indians sauntered to the shore to gaze at it, and a passenger, expect ing to see a scramble, held up a whisky bottle, and beckoned to the savages, who took no notice of his motions. He stepped on shore, again showed the enticing bottle, and made signs, but without effect. Supposing the Indians to be bashful, or afraid, he placed the bottle on the ground, pointed to it, and returned to the boat, which now shoved off, while his fellow-passengers laughed loudly at his want of success. No sooner did the boat leave the shore than the Indians ran from the top of the bank, where they had been standing, down to the water’s edge, and the passenger, beholding, as he supposed, the expected scramble, exulted in the success of his experiment; but, to his astonishment, the Indians picked up the bottle and threw it, with symptoms of great glee, after the boat, into the water, at the same time clapping their hands, laugh ing, and evidently exulting in the disappointment of the passenger. In the year 1829, the writer made an excursion up the Mississippi, and having passed beyond the settlements, stopped one day at a cabin on the shore, inhabited by a respectable farmer from Pennsylvania, who had been enticed by a fine tract of land to sit down in the wilderness, more than fifty miles from any neighbor. While enjoying the hospitable fare that was kindly spread before us, we inquired if these dwellers in the blooming desert were not afraid of the Sauk and Foxes, whose hunting-grounds extended around them. They said they had felt much alarm until after a circumstance which occurred shortly before our visit. They one day saw canoes ascending the river, and small parties of Indians passing along the shore, and in the evening the main body arrived and encamped in the neighborhood. At night a warrior of very prepossessing appearance came to the house, and by signs asked permission to sleep by the fire. , This , they dared not refuse, and resolving to make the best of what they considered an awkward predicament, they spread a good meal for their self-invited guest; having dispatched which, he took up his lodging upon the floor. The good people were much alarmed; the more so as some Indians were seen lurking about during the night. In the morning early their guest departed, but shortly after sent a person, who spoke English, to explain that the tribe had been to St. Louis to receive their annuities, and having been indulged in the use of ardent spirits, were not under the control of their usual discipline. Fearing that, under these circumstances, some depredation might be committed upon the property of the backwoodsman, a war chief had taken post in his house, and sentinels had been placed around it; and the farmer was assured, that if, hereafter, any injury should be discovered to have been committed during that night by the Indians, the chief would pay for it when he next came that way. Whether Keokuk was the person who slept in the settler’s cabin, we had not the means of learning, but as he was undoubtedly at the head of the band, the anecdote shows him desirous to avoid giving offence to the whites, and exhibits a careful attention to the discipline of his tribe.

Keokuk was an able negotiator. He several times made peace with the Sioux, under the most unpromising circumstances, and they have as often broken the treaties. One of his achievements in this way displayed his skill and eloquence in a remarkable manner. Some of his warriors, falling in with an encampment of un armed Menominie, in sight of Fort Crawford, at Prairie du Chien, wantonly murdered the whole party. The Menominie, justly incensed at an unprovoked and cowardly murder, declared war; and their friends, the Winnebago, who were previously hostile to the Sauk, were also highly indignant at this outrage. To prevent a sanguinary war, General Street, the agent of the United States at Prairie du Chien, invited the several parties to a council. They assembled at Fort Crawford, but the Menominie positively refused to hold any negotiation with the offending party. When Keokuk was informed of this resolution, he told the agent confidently that it made no difference; that he would make a treaty with the Menominie before they separated all he asked was to be brought face to face with them in the council house. The several tribes were accordingly assembled, each sitting apart; but when the ceremony of smoking, which precedes all public discussions, was commenced, the Menominie refused to join in it, sitting in moody silence, while the other tribes exchanged this ordinary courtesy. The breach between the Winnebago and the Sauk and Foxes was talked over, explanations were mutually made, and a peace cemented. Keokuk then turned towards the Menominie and addressed them. They at first averted their faces, or listened with looks of defiance. The commencement of a speech, without a previous smoking and shaking of hands, was a breach of etiquette, and he was besides the head of a tribe who had done them an injury that nothing but blood could atone for. Under all these disadvantages the Sauk chief proceeded with his harangue, and such was the power of his eloquence, even upon minds thus predisposed, that his hearers gradually relaxed, listened, assented and when he concluded by saying proudly, but in a conciliatory tone, “I came here to say that I am sorry for the imprudence of my young men I came to make peace. I now offer you the hand of Keokuk who will refuse it?” they rose one by one, and accepted the proffered grasp.

In the year 1831, a faction of the Sauk tribe, formerly called the British band, but latterly known as Black Hawk’s band, became engaged in a war with the whites, some account of which is given in our sketch of Black Hawk. Keokuk, with the majority of the Sank and Fox nation, remained at peace with the United States; but it required all the influence, firmness, and tact of this chief, to keep his people in a position so little consonant with their habits and feelings. Their natural fondness for war, their love of plunder, their restless dispositions, their dislike towards the whites, and the injustice with which they had been treated, all conspired to enlist their sympathies with their countrymen and relatives who were engaged in hostilities. To preserve them from temptation, as well as to give assurance of his pacific intentions, Keokuk, who had removed from the eastern side of the Mississippi, which was the theater of war, to the western side of that river, requested the agent of the American government to send to his camp a white man who could speak the Sauk language, and who might witness the sincerity with which he was endeavoring to restrain his band. A person was sent. The excitement in the tribe continued and increased a moody, vindictive, and sensitive state of feeling pervaded the whole mass. Keokuk stood on a mine ready for explosion. He knew not at what moment he might be sacrificed. The slightest spark dropped upon materials so inflammable would have fired the train; and the chief who had restrained the passions of his people would have been denounced as the friend of the whites, and doomed to instant death. He remained calm and unawed, ruling his turbulent little state with a mild, parental, yet firm sway, and keeping peace at the daily and hourly risk of his life. One day an emissary arrived from the hostile party; whisky was introduced into the camp, and Keokuk saw that the crisis was at hand. He warned the white man, who was his guest, of the impending danger, and directed him to seek safety by concealing himself. A scene of wild and tumultuous excitement ensued. The emissary spoke of blood that had been shed; of a little gallant band of their relatives who were at that moment chased over their own hunting-grounds by an overwhelming force of well armed troops; of recent insults, and of long-cherished injuries inflicted by the white man. He hinted at the ready vengeance that might be taken, at an ex posed frontier, defenseless cabins, and rich booty. These exciting topics were passed and exaggerated from mouth to mouth ardent spirits were circulated, and the long-smothered rebellion began to fester in the inflamed bosoms of the savage horde. The braves assembled about the war pole to dance the war dance, and to smear their faces with the hideous symbols of revenge. Keokuk watched the rising of the storm, and appeared to mingle in its raging. He drank, listened to all that was said, and apparently assented to the inflammatory appeals made to the passions of his deluded people. At length the warriors cried aloud to be led to battle, and the chief was called upon for his opinion he was asked to lead them. He stood forward, and addressed them with that eloquence which never failed him in the hour of need. He sympathized in their sense of wrong, their hatred of the white race, and their lust for vengeance. He won their confidence by describing and giving utterance to the passions which they felt, and echoing back .their own thoughts with the skill of a master spirit. Having thus secured their attention, he considered briefly the proposition to go to war alluded rapidly to the numbers and power of the American people, and the utter hopelessness of a contest so unequal. But he told them he was their chief, whose duty it was to be at their head in peace or war to rule them as a father if they chose to remain at home, to lead them if they determined to go to battle. He concluded by telling them, that in the proposed war there could be no middle course; the power of the United States was such, that, unless they conquered that great nation, they must perish; that, therefore, he would lead them instantly against the whites on one condition which was, that they would first put all their women and children to death, and then resolve, that, having crossed the Mississippi, they would never return, but perish among the graves of their fathers, rather than yield them to the white men. This proposal, however desperate it may seem, presented the true issue. It poured the oil of reflection upon the waves of passion. It held up the truth that a declaration of war against the United States must be either a mere bravado, or a measure of self-destruction. The tumult of passion and intoxication subsided, subordination was restored, and the authority of Keokuk became firmly re-established.

The Black Hawk faction, always opposed to Keokuk, had regarded him with increased aversion since the disastrous termination of the war into which they madly rushed against his judgment, and in contravention of his authority; and so active have been their intrigues, that at one time they had nearly effected his down fall. Having for many years exercised the sole power of chief, a fate like that of Aristides had like to have befallen him. Some of his people became tired of the monotony of an uninterrupted rule, and longed for a change. His enemies complained of his strictness. They objected that the power of the other chiefs was swallowed up in his single voice, and they insinuated that he was exercising a usurped sway in defiance of the usages of the nation. The matter was at last brought to a formal discussion; the voice of the nation was taken, and a young chief was raised to the place of head man. In this trying crisis, Keokuk discovered his usual good sense and address. He made no public opposition to the measures taken against him, but awaited the result with dignified calmness. When the choice of his successor was decided, he was the first to salute the young chief by the title of Father; and it was an affecting sight to behold this distinguished man, then nearly sixty years of age, extending his hand, with every appearance of cheerfulness and respect, to a youth who was to supersede him in authority. He did more. He led the newly elected chief to the agent of the United States, who was then at Rock Island, introduced him, with every demonstration of profound respect, as “his chief and his father,” begged that he might be recognized as such, and solicited, as a personal favor, that the same regard and attention which had been paid to himself should be transferred to his successor. The sequel may be readily supposed. The people saw their error. Keokuk, as a private individual, was still the first man in the nation. His ready acquiescence in the decree which reduced him from the highest station to the level of the people, won their sympathy; and he rose silently but rapidly to the place from which he had been removed, while the person who had been chosen to supersede him, sunk quietly to his former insignificance.

The writer had the gratification of seeing this distinguished man at Washington, in the autumn of 1837, when the delegates from several tribes assembled in that city, at the invitation of the Secretary of War. Some of the councils held on that occasion were exceedingly interesting. One of them especially attracted our notice. The Secretary of War, Mr. Poinsett, proposing to effect a reconciliation between the Sioux and the Sauk and Foxes, caused them to be brought together in council. The meeting took place in a church, at one end of which a large stage was erected, while the spectators were permitted to occupy the pews in the remainder of the house. The Secretary, representing the President of the United States, was seated on the center of the stage, facing the audience, the Sioux on his right hand, and the Sauk and Foxes on his left, the whole forming a semicircle. These hostile tribes presented in their appearance a remarkable contrast the Sioux appearing tricked out in blue coats, epaulettes, fur hats, and various other articles of finery which had been presented to them, and which were now incongruously worn in conjunction with portions of their own proper costume while the Sauk and Foxes, with a commendable pride and good taste, wore their national dress without any admixture, and were studiously painted according to their own notions of propriety. But the most striking object was Keokuk, who sat at the head of his delegation, on their extreme left, facing his mortal enemies, the Sioux, who occupied the opposite side of the stage, having the spectators upon his left side, his own people on his right, and beyond them the Secretary of War. He sat as he is represented in the picture which accompanies this sketch, grasping in his right hand a war banner, the symbol of his station as ruling chief. His person was erect, and his eye fixed calmly but steadily upon the enemies of his people. On the floor, arid leaning upon the knee of the chief, sat his son, a child of nine or ten years old, whose fragile figure and innocent countenance afforded a beautiful contrast to the athletic and warlike form, and the intellectual though weather beaten features of Keokuk. The effect was in the highest degree picturesque and imposing.

The council was opened by smoking the pipe, which was passed from mouth to mouth. Mr. Poinsett then briefly addressed both parties in a conciliatory strain, urging them, in the name of their Great Father, the President, to abandon those sanguinary wars, by means of which their race was becoming exterminated, and to cultivate the arts, the thrift, and the industry of white men. The Sioux spoke next. The orator, on rising, first stepped forward and shook hands with the Secretary, and then delivered his harangue, in his own tongue, stopping at the end of each sentence until it was rendered into English by the interpreter, who stood by his side, and into the Sauk language by the interpreter of that tribe. Another and another followed, all speaking vehemently, and with much acrimony. The burden of their harangues was that it was useless to address pacific language to the Sauk and Foxes, who were faithless, and in whom no confidence could be placed. “My Father,” said one of them, “you cannot make those people hear any good words, unless you bore their ears with sticks.” “We have often made peace with them,” said another speaker, an old man, who endeavored to be witty, “but they would never observe any treaty. I would as soon think of making a treaty with that child,” pointing to Keokuk’s little boy, “as with a Sauk or a Musquakee.” The Sioux were evidently gratified and excited by the sarcasms of their orators, while their opponents sat motionless, their dark eyes flashing, but their features as composed and stolid as if they did not understand the disparaging language that was used.

We remarked a decided want of gracefulness in all these speakers. Each of them, having shaken hands with the Secretary of War, who sat facing the audience, stood immediately before and near him, with the interpreter at his elbow, both having their backs to the spectators, and in this awkward position, speaking low and rapidly; but little of what they said could be understood, except by the persons near them. Not so Keokuk. When it came to his turn to speak, he rose deliberately, advanced to the Secretary, and having saluted him, returned to his place, which being at the front of the stage, and on one side of it, his face was not concealed from any of the several parties present. His interpreter stood beside him. The whole arrangement was judicious, and, though apparently unstudied, showed the tact of an orator. He stood erect, in an easy but martial posture, with his robe thrown over his left shoulder and arm, leaving the right arm bare, to be used in action. His voice was fine, his enunciation remarkably clear, distinct, and rapid. Those who have had the gratification of hearing a distinguished senator from South Carolina, now in Congress, whose rapidity of utterance, concentration of thought, and conciseness of language are alike peculiar to himself, may form some idea of the style of Keokuk, the latter adding, however, an attention to the graces of attitude and action, to which the former makes no pre tension. He spoke with dignity, but with great animation, and some of his retorts were excellent. “They tell you,” said he, “that our ears must be bored with sticks; but, my father, you could not penetrate their thick skulls in that way it would require hot iron.” “They say they would as soon think of making peace with this child as with us but they know better; for when they made war with us they found us men.” “They tell you that peace has often been made, but that we have broken it. How happens it then that so many of their braves have been slain in our country? I will tell you. They invaded us we never invaded them none of my braves have been killed in their country. We have their scalps, and can tell where we took them.”We shall speak further of this council in some of the other sketches of the Sauk and Foxes. It produced no effect, unless that of widening the breach between these tribes.

The following letter, which was published in the Illinois news papers about the time of its date, is said to have been sent by Keokuk to the Governor of that state. It was, of course, written by some white man, at his dictation. The village criers mentioned were the editors of newspapers, and the reports alluded to were circulated shortly after the close of the Black Hawk war.

“Raccoon Fork of Des Moines River, November 30, 1832.”To the Great Chief of Illinois:”My Father I have been told by a trader that several of your village criers have been circulating bad news, informing the whites that the Indians were preparing for war, and that we are dissatisfied. My father, you were present when the tomahawk was buried, and assisted me to place it so deep that it will never again be raised against the white children of Illinois.

“My Father Very few of that misguided band that entered Rock River last summer, remain. You have humbled them by war, and have made them friendly by your generous conduct to them, after they were defeated. Myself, and the greater part of the Sauks and Foxes, have firmly held you by the hand. We followed your advice, and did as you told us. My father, I take pity on those of my nation that you forgave, and never mention the disasters of last summer. I wish them to be forgotten.

“I do not permit the criers of our village to proclaim any bad news against the whites, not even the truth. Last fall an old man, a Fox Indian, was hunting on an island, a short distance below Rock Island, for turkeys to carry to Fort Armstrong. He was killed by a white man. We passed it over we have only spoken of it in whispers. Our agent has not heard of it. We wish to live in peace with the whites. If a white man comes to our camp or village, we give him a share of what we have to eat, a lodging if he wants it, and put him on the trail if he has lost it.

“My Father Advise the criers of your villages to tell the truth respecting us, and assist in strengthening the chain of friendship, that your children may treat us friendly when they meet us; and be assured that we are their friends, and that we have feelings as well as they have.

“My Father This is all I have to say at present.

“KEOKUK,
“Chief of the Sauk Nation.”

Keokuk was a large and finely formed man. His manners were dignified and graceful, and his elocution, as well in conversation as in public speaking, highly energetic and animated. His flow of language and rapidity of utterance were remarkable; yet his enunciation was so clear and distinct, that it is said not a syllable was lost. His voice was powerful and agreeable, and his countenance prepossessing. It is not often that so fine a looking man as this forest chieftain has been seen, or one whose deportment has been so uniformly correct.

As much of the history of Keokuk is interwoven with that of Black Hawk, we have endeavored to avoid repetition, by omitting many particulars which are related in our sketch of the latter.



MLA Source Citation:

McKenny, Thomas & Hall, James & Todd, Hatherly & Todd, Joseph. History of the Indian tribes of North America: with biographical sketches and anecdotes of the principal chiefs. Embellished with one hundred portraits from the Indian Gallery in the War Department at Washington. Philadelphia: D. Rice & Co. 1872. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 21 December 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/keokuk-chief-of-the-sacs-foxes.htm - Last updated on Dec 19th, 2012


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