History of the Butterfly, Part 100: A story about Poweshiek

Poweshiek was not born a chief–he became one by default, sometime after a number of the leaders of his tribe were massacred in 1830.

In The Sauks and the Black Hawk War, by Perry A. Armstrong, and published in 1887, a story is related about Poweshiek.  While the story is certainly embellished, it may speak a little about Poweshiek’s character.

“Pow-e-sheik was not only witty, but sharp as a whip in financial transactions, and had the field of commerce been  open to him he would have proven himself a rival of Jim Fisk and Jay Gould…

…Under Section 3, of the so-called second treaty of Fort Armstrong of September 21, 1832, before referred to, the United States agreed to pay the Sauks and Foxes annually for thirty years the sum of $20,000 in specie.  When the first payment came due, an assistant paymaster started from Washington City with this large amount of money for Rock Island, where it fell due and payable September 21, 1833.  But on reaching Pittsburgh, Pa., he could not resist the temptation to speculate on these Indians–a practice which had been long before inaugurated and from which other United States officials had grown wealthy.  He therefore invested this $20,000–excepting enough to pay transportation–in gew-gaws and toys, cheap prints, looking glasses, beads and tinsel and shipped them down the Ohio and up the Mississippi to Rock Island, where they were landed, and the paymaster erected his tepee or paymaster’s tent, unboxed a portion of his goods, displaying them to the best advantage the circumstances would permit–and sent word to these Indians to come and draw their annuities, which were distributable per capita after their chiefs had each taken the number of shares they were entitled to under their tribal law.  The Indians came swarming for their respective shares, but when the paymaster was about to begin the distribution he discovered that Poweshiek the head Chief of the Foxes was absent, and knowing that as such chief he was entitled to five shares, and when paid in goods to the first choice, he had to wait for him.  Searching parties were sent out to bring the tardy Powesheik to the Island, but soon returned with the unwelcome tidings that Powesheik was esquabby, or in plain English, drunk–very drunk, indeed too drunk to walk, talk, or stand.  Here was a dilemma which could only be overcome by time, and the paymaster was forced to close up his goods and wait for another day, which he did reluctantly, accompanied by a homily upon the pernicious influence firewater had upon the Indians as well as white men, but never a word about cheating “poor Lo” by dishonest paymasters.

As a matter of fact, Powesheik had purposely become drunk that day.  Knowing that the annuity was then due, and seeing the dry goods boxes being unloaded from the steamboat on the bank of Rock Island, he very readily perceived that the old, old story of peculating by the Government officials upon the Indians was being attempted in this payment, and he then and there determined to prevent it for one time at least, and while revolving in his own mind how he could thwart the paymaster he adopted, partly on purpose and partly by accident, his good-sized plain drunk.  Great was the disappointment of the squaws and papooses at seeing so many pretty things almost within their reach, yet beyond their possession.  The paymaster dismissed them with an order for them to return early the following day, and scarcely had the sun appeared above the horizon in the east ere a host of Indians were crowding around the little tepee, but Powesheik was again absent, when a messenger was sent over to his lodge, who soon returned with word that the little chief was again drunk, so very drunk as to be stupid and entirely helpless.

This news seemed to entirely rattle the paymaster, who then said:  “The Great Father at Washington cannot and will not stand such conduct.  This payment must be made at once, but I will allow another day for Powesheik to get sober and come for his annuity, and if he does not do so early to-morrow morning (being the third day), I will box up the goods and ship them back,” which would cause their annuity then due to lapse or go over to the next year, and thereupon he closed up his goods and withdrew.  This threat being interpreted to the Indians, the squaws, who were now half crazy for some of his gew-gaws, became badly frightened and appealed to the two wives of Powesheik to endeavor to have him there the next morning, which they promised to do, and did in this way:  They immediately entered their canoe, paddled over the north branch of the Mississippi and went directly to his lodge, where they found him in a deep stupor.  Picking him up they carried him to the edge of the river and doused him under the water, and held him there for several seconds and then drew him up to breathe, when down he went again; keeping up this ducking process until they had churned the whiskey pretty well out of his stomach;  they then took him home and gave him a good substantial meal, but kept him, to all intents, a close prisoner until the morrow.  One wife lay on each side of him during the night to grab and hold him from escaping to get more whiskey.  In the morning, after giving him a good breakfast, they oiled and combed his hair and presented him a neat clean suit all through, so that he looked like an Indian dandy (and really he was a very pretty Indian);  they led him by main strength down to the bank of the river, entered their canoe and paddled over to the island.  Owing to his being somewhat obstreperous, they were late in reaching the paymaster’s tent, who was in a bad humor, fretting, chafing and scolding at the delay, and the noble Keokuk had just closed a conciliatory speech in which he tried to excuse what he termed an occasional weakness of his friend, the Fox chief, as the latter arrived.

On seeing Powesheik approaching his tent the paymaster, in an angry tone, complained of the expense and annoyance he had been submitted to by the drunkenness of one Indian.  Though he did not understand what the paymaster was saying, Powesheik readily understood that he was angry, when, straightening up, while fire fairly flashed from his eyes, and in an extremely angry tone of voice he said:  “No more of that.  I am neither a squaw nor papoose .  I am a man and a Chief, and allow no one to abuse me or question my motives.”  The paymaster saw he had made a mistake and hastened to apologize, but was cut short by an abrupt interference from the chief, who said, “I would like to ask the father a question.  Suppose I should sell you a horse, for which you pay me, but you are to come for him at some future time agreed upon, during which I am to kept he horse and the money.  When the time is up and you come for the horse, I say I have traded your horse for a cow; I cannot give you the horse, for he is gone, but you may have the cow in his stead.  Would you be compelled to take the cow in place of the horse under the white man’s law?”  “Certainly not,” replied the paymaster.  “Your answer is entirely satisfactory and conclusive of this case.  The treaty provides for the payment of $20,000 in specie, which you have traded for calico, beads, gew-gaws, tinsel and trifles to please the fancy of our squaws and papooses, and to cheat and defraud us.  We can neither eat nor wear them, nor trade them for food or clothing, hence we do not want and will not take them   You have repeatedly said that if we did not take your goods to-day, you would box them up and ship them back, and that we should get no payments this year.  I advise you to do so at once; for be assured we will not touch them;”  saying which he turned upon his heel and proceeded directly to his canoe, which he entered, and rapidly paddled to the north side and went to his lodge; taking his pipe, filling and lighting it, he lay down upon a white bear-skin and commenced to smoke.

The paymaster now became thoroughly alarmed and saw disgrace and ruin staring him full in the face, from which the only escape was by conciliating the little Fox chief whom he had estimated as but a drunken little scamp, hardly worth noticing, and had started out on that line to be suddenly brought to a realizing sense of the fact that he was in contact with the ablest business man he had ever et or heard of among the Indians, and unless he could prevail on him to accept the goods he clearly saw that he was ruined financially, while his bondsmen were jeopardized, and his summary dismissal from the service must follow.

In his great distress, he appealed to Keokuk and Wapello for assistance, and begged them to follow the little chief home and by any means in their power induce him to consent to the acceptance of the goods, adding that, if necessary, they might offer him a large present as a consideration, and that any agreement they might make with Powesheik which should result in his accepting he share of his annuity going to his tribe he would confirm.  These generous chiefs, fully appreciating the situation, started at once for Powesheik’s lodge, where they found him resting and smoking, and at once broached the object of their visit, and urged him to forego his prejudice against accepting goods in place of money this time, etc.  Powesheik listened courteously to what they had to say, and then told them in a dignified one and manner that, while sympathizing with the paymaster in his peculiarly bad situation, since the goods had been bought and paid for out of the $20,000 which was not his but belonged to the Indians, he could not and would not consent to accept goods in place of the specie, as provided by the terms of the contract, and assured them that all arguments they might offer would not change his resolution on that subject.  That he had witnessed so many similar transactions whereby the cunning, tricky palefaces had cheated, wronged and defrauded the unsuspecting and confiding Indians that, while yet a boy, he had made a vow to the Great Spirit that if permitted to reach the head chieftaincy of his nation he would put a stop to such transactions, which vow he held as sacred and inviolable.

They then attempted to bribe him by saying that a little bird had sung in their ears as thy left the Island saying “tell Powesheik that the father now on the Island will make him rich with presents, if he will permit his squaws and papooses to take the pretty goods which the father has brought them.”  Hardly had they ended this sentence ere Powesheik dropped his pipe, sprang to his feet with a yell and made a rush for his scalping knife saying “dare you attempt to bribe me, I will have your hearts’ blood,” as he made a dash for the door of the lodge by which Keokuk and Wapello had just escaped, and now running for life for their canoe at the edge of the river, closely pursued by the thoroughly irate Powesheik.  The race was a close one between these three Indian chiefs.  Keokuk and Wapello obtained about one rod the start and ran side by side for the bank of the Mississippi where they had drawn the prow of their canoe up so as to detain it from drifting off, closely pursued by the maddened Powesheik with scalping knife in hand, eager for their blood.  He was he fastest runner of the three and was decreasing the distance at every jump, notwithstanding fear lent wings to the heels of Keokuk and Wapello.  It really seemed to be an impossibility for their escape form danger, if not death, but as they came within a jump of their canoe, they sprang almost simultaneously into the river end of it which sent it far out into the river like a shot from the momentum of their rapid approach, while Powesheik, sure of his victims, was brought to a realizing sense of their escape by plunging head foremost into the Mississippi.  So intent was he on overtaking them that he did not observe the river until he fell into it.  On reaching the shore, dripping wet, he shook his knife at them with a threat of future punishment, and returned to his lodge by no means mollified by his ducking.

But the mental condition of the paymaster, upon hearing the report of Keokuk and Wapello, accompanied with the assurance that all hope of effecting any kind of compromise, was bordering upon desperation.  To do what he had threatened in case Powesheik was not there on the third day, he dare not, since the whole fact of his attempted speculation would then become public, and he also felt morally sure that he could not induce those he purchased the goods from to take them back except at a ruinous discount, hence he must either send them to St. Louis or Chicago, and selected the latter.  Then came the difficulty of transportation.  He succeeded in hiring a sufficient number of ox teams and old schooner shaped wagons to take them over-land nearly 200 miles, where he found a poor market for them, and only succeeded in realizing about 50 percent, on his goods, which left him fully $10,000 short, or in plain English he was a defaulter to that amount, and was dismissed the service while his bondsmen made good the amount to the Government, and the payment due these Indians that year was not made, but went over to the next.  Fortunately this did not materially affect the Indians, because Davenport & Farnham, representing the American Fur Company, furnished them guns, ammunition, blankets and food as they previously had done, to be paid from the peltries and furs or from their next annunity, when it would be $40,000 instead of $20,000.”

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About the roused bear

Nature photographer from central Iowa.
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