Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick
KEOKUK: CHIEF OF THE SAC AND FOX NATION
Make no mistake about Keokuk. Although he did not advocate fighting the Americans in the Black Hawk War, he was a bloodthirsty, aspiring chieftain in his youth that sometimes became savage and merciless.
At Saukenuk village on Rock Island, a pretty Indian maiden had an affair with a French commander named Pierre Paul Marin. When her son was born in 1780, she named him Keokuk, which is said to mean "Great Chief." It seems as though this young lad was destined at birth to accomplish great things for the Indian people. He gained fame as a fierce warrior and quickly fell in line to lead the Sac and Fox.
However, Keokuk soon recognized the size and might of the Americans who were closing in on Indian hunting grounds, causing them to continually migrate westward. Fighting them was a no-win situation; therefore he began to advocate peace rather than war.
A contemporary rival warrior named Black Hawk aligned himself with the British during the War of 1812 to fight the Americans, after which he continued to do everything in his power to prevent American encroachment. Keokuk’s desire for peace made him look weak compared to Black Hawk, therefore leadership of the Indian nation fell into Black Hawk’s hands in spite of the fact that Black Hawk did not aspire to be the chief leader of the pack.
Black Hawk resisted the treaties made between the Americans and the Indians on the grounds that his people were threatened into signing away their lands. He gathered together a large group of people and returned across the river to Saukenuk in violation of the agreement, which set up conditions for the Black Hawk War. Meanwhile, Keokuk and a small band resisted fighting and stayed in their villages along the Iowa River.
After the war ended, the United States government rewarded Keokuk by requesting that the Indian nation make him their chief and by giving him a reservation of land within the Black Hawk Strip that now fell into American hands. Black Hawk was banished from being a chief leader or living in one of the Indian nation’s principal villages.
Nevertheless, a split widened between the factions within the Indian nation. Only about one-third of the nation’s 2,300 people belonged to Keokuk’s party. The rest followed leaders such as Mahaska and Kishkekosh (which means "Savage Biter.") A bitter feud broke out between Keokuk and Black Hawk.
One night near the white village of Keokuk, a quarrel started between the two rivals, and one of Black Hawk’s sons stabbed Keokuk in the chest. Injured so that he couldn’t walk, Keokuk’s aides took him home by canoe. The braves who had remained faithful to Black Hawk now refused to recognize Keokuk as their chief and proclaimed Hardfish as their leader. Hardfish lost no time in seizing the opportunity for control.
Around 1836 Keokuk sold his reserve along the Iowa River. Advancement of white settlement in that area had ruined the hunting grounds and most of the Indians had already vacated. He didn’t need the land so it seemed advantageous to sell.
Beginning in 1833, Keokuk’s band gradually left his villages in favor of the hills near Ft. Madison or along the lower Des Moines River. Within two years, an estimated two thousand people lived in clumps of wigwams dotting the landscape between Chequest Creek and the Mississippi River, including those who had dwelt near Ft. Madison.
Chief Keokuk apparently followed Hardfish from place to place in an attempt to regain control. Finally, around 1836 he took his faithful followers to Iowaville. This became the official village of the Sac and Fox until the early part of 1838 when the nation moved upstream to Wapello County. Kishkekosh was not equal to Hardfish as a leader, but had a following and played an important role in councils.
By 1837 Hardfish and Kishkekosh moved their dwindling groups to Iowaville and under pressure from Indian Agent General Street, made a peaceful alliance with Keokuk. The old chief continued as the main leader of the Sac and Fox and led about 1,500 into Kansas when they left Iowa in 1846. Keokuk died in Kansas in 1848. Later his remains were brought back to the city of Keokuk where a monument was built to mark his burial spot.
Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick