The History of the Butterfly, Part 78: Keokuk

There is a city in the extreme southeast part of Iowa named for Keokuk.  There is also a Keokuk county, located in the south east quarter of the state.  I would guess that most Iowans know there was a Chief Keokuk, but few really know much about his history.

Keokuk was a complicated man.  He was a rival of Black Hawk—in fact they both held the position of War Chief.

Keokuk was an extremely talented man.  He was known for his skill as an orator, both in his native tongue and in English.  He was admired because he almost always sided with the United States, rather than the British as Black Hawk did.  He was a capable leader.  He was also vain and greedy.

Keokuk was involved in almost all of the land secessions involving the Sauks and Meskwaki.  And he personally got rich from them. 

The story we get now is that Black Hawk was the doomed hero who tried unsuccessfully to save his village, and Keokuk was the man who sold out.  But the story is a lot more complicated than that.

Here is McKenny’s account of Keokuk’s early history:

“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 transfixing 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 of 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 of ten 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 resolving 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 men, 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.”

McKenny, 1872.

Another painting of Keokuk by George Catlin.

About the roused bear

Nature photographer from central Iowa.
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