The early settlers in the Iowa City area had frequent interactions with the Indians. Sometimes those interactions were positive—shared meals, care for women in childbirth. Sometimes the interactions took on a darker character.
Asa Gregg was an early settler who lived near West Liberty in Muscatine County, Iowa. He wrote a book entitled “Personal Recollections of the Early Settlement of Wapsinonoc Township and the Murder of Atwood by the Indians.” The following is quoted from that book:
“In the winter of 1837-8, a party of Indians were encamped near Moscow, some three or four of whom were in the village one evening, at a low drinking house, or grocery, kept by a man whose name was Ross, who, in company with some half dozen other white men, got the Indians to perform the war dance; and, in order to make the dancing and general hilarity go off lively, and that they might have an interesting time of it, they all, both red and white men, imbibed freely of a certain barrel that stood in one corner of the filthy shanty marked OLD WHISKY.
Thus they kept up the dancing and drinking until they all became decidedly drunk; and the Indians, as is usual with them under like circumstances, became insolent, and demanded more of the contents of the barrel, which they denominate, in their own language, Scutah Oppo, which signifies FIRE WATER; and, finally, the war of words culminated in a general row.
It so happened that Powsheik, who was chief that particular band of Indians, had a brother, who was one of the party in this quarrel; and Ross and his friends wanting to get the Indians out of the shanty, undertook to force them to leave, and in the scuffle which ensued, Ross struck the chief’s brother with a heavy stick of wood, and felled him senseless to the ground, when the rest of the Indians became frightened and ran away. Ross now dragged the fallen brave out doors, and deliberately beat him with a heavy rail until his skull was broken, and he was dead.
The Indians were very much exasperated at this outrage, and were determined on revenge, and we often saw them with their faces painted in token of their displeasure; but were kept quiet by the assurance that Ross would be punished by the laws of the white man, and he was indicted for the murder, but owing to some trifling defect in the indictment, was again set at liberty.
The Indians, however, could not understand why a man whom everyone acknowledged was guilty of a brutal murder, should be permitted to escape the just punishment of his crime, in consequence of the omission of a word or two, in the manuscript paper which they could neither read or understand. They therefore determined to seek redress in their own way; and with the utmost contempt for the inefficient laws of the white man, the avenger of blood was put upon the trail of Ross, who knew full well if he did not flee the country his doom was sealed. He therefore left as quietly as possible.
The Indians being thus foiled in their attempts upon the life of the real aggressor, quietly waited an opportunity to avenge their wrongs upon one of the same hated race; and it so happened that their victim was a Protestant Methodist minister, whose name was Oliver Atwood.
Attwood, his wife and child, came to this country in the summer of 1837, from the northern part of Ohio. He was very destitute, but apparently willing to do any kind of work, to support his family; and did work faithfully through the week, and on the Sabbath would preach for us. He was not very brilliant as an orator, or prepossessing in his appearance as a minister, but very quiet and harmless in his deportment; and in justice I must say, that his sermons, viewed from a Methodist stand-point, had the merit of being extremely orthodox, for they were generally the identical sermons preached by the great Wesley himself, many years before.
I will here state that he and his family, and myself and family, occupied the same cabin nearly all of one winter; and it used to be a source of considerable amusement to me to observe from what fountain he drew his inspiration, and the grave dignity with which he would proceed to edify us, with a learned discourse committed to memory from a very neatly bound volume of Wesley’s Sermons, which with a Bible and Hymn Book, constituted his library. I had noticed that he would be very intent upon the study of this volume, and sometimes would leave it on the table when he retired for the night, and being myself in the habit of rising first in the morning, I would occasionally take up this volume to read a few moments. I soon discovered that it would invariably open at the page where our preacher had been reading the evening before; and, of course, I was not slow to take a hint, and soon became so much of a prophet that I could repeat a part of the sermon three or four days before it was delivered, and unerringly predict the text beforehand.
But, to proceed with our narrative. He had moved on a claim of his own in the spring, but having no improvement, he was unable to support his family by his labor at home, and consequently he had to seek employment elsewhere.
The Indian traders were about that time engaged in building a new trading post further up the Iowa River, and he hired with them to assist in the work, and spent most of the summer away from home; but, in September, after notifying his wife of the time that he should return, started from the new trading post, and arrived in safety at the old one, four miles south of where Iowa City now is.
There he purchased some articles of clothing for his family, and a ham of meat, and started for home—a home he was destined to never reach alive.
He doubtless walked briskly forward on the narrow trail, worn deep by the hard hoofs of the Indian ponies—joyfully anticipating a happy meeting soon, (as he was thought) to take place with loved ones in a lonely cabin not far away on the verge of the prairie—thinking, no doubt, of the little comforts that his toil had provided for those so dear to him—enjoying in anticipation the glad welcome so soon to greet his ears—the fond caress of his little daughter—the evening meal—the quiet social hour with his wife and child—not a living thing to interrupt or disturb his pleasing meditation save now and then the sudden flutter of the prairie chicken as it breaks cover near his feet.
As he approaches the high lands on his route, he views with brightening eye, the outlines of the grove of timber that adjoins his cabin. A thin column of smoke is to be seen rising just beyond the grove; full well he knows who sits by the fire from whence it rises. He pauses in his walk, and for a moment contemplates the scene. The tall grass is slightly browned by the early frost, and waves gently in the autumnal breeze, like a vast field of wheat ready for the sickle. He turns his gaze backward on the path he so lately traveled, and notices in the distance, a company on horse-back on his trail, and without a thought of danger, again resumes his walk, but soon discovers that his pursuers are savages, painted for war, who advanced rapidly with shouts and gestures. In order to avoid them, he leaves the beaten trail but soon becomes aware that they are not so easily thrown off—on they come—he runs—but all in vain, like an avalanche they come down upon their prey—a quick sharp stroke of the tomahawk—a dexterous flourish of the scalping knife—and all is over for Oliver Atwood.
That day wears slowly to a close, and the expected husband comes not, and so wears away the next, and no tidings from him. The wife finally can bear the suspense no longer, and she applies to the neighbors, and a messenger is sent to the old trading house to inquire after him, and soon returned with the information that he had left that place for home a week before.
The next day the settlement was aroused to search for the lost man; and soon his remains were found where he had fallen.
The question may be asked, how is it known that he was killed by Indians. To a frontiersman, this could not long remain in doubt. There are many ways of judging of such things, and it would be utterly unintelligible to a less practiced eye. But in this case, not only the signs at the place where he lay, were perfectly intelligible to a hunter, but many other circumstances led to a certainty, not only that he was killed by the Indians, but pointed out the identical actors in the tragedy.
It was well known that on the day that Atwood left the trading post, five Indians passed through the settlement, and went to Moscow; and while there, one of them said to a friend of Ross, ‘Ross may come back now.’—And being urged to explain his reasons, he refused to do so…
There was never, so far as the writer is aware, any systematic attempt made by the whites to bring the perpetrators to justice. It is true that at the first land sale in the Territory, held in Dubuque, in the November following the murder, the citizens of this region met and appointed a committee to report the case to the Governor of the Territory, which committee made out a report of the case, with appropriate resolutions to accompany it and forwarded the same, but so far as is now remembered it was never heard of in a more public way; the great difficulty was no doubt in getting the facts, with sufficient certainty to make a good case before the courts. We were very sure we knew who done the deed, from the facts before mentioned. We were very sure we knew just how many there were engaged in the act, yet no one saw it, but we were very certain that the perpetrators were seen that day in our settlement; we knew they were at Moscow that day, and the writer of this fell in with them the next day, on their way back to their village—he knew nothing of the murder at that time—but remarked on their singular actions and was unable to account for it until afterwards, when to him as well as others, their behavior seemed the outcropping of a guilty conscience.”