The History of the Butterfly, Part 133: Conflict Over Sugar

The Sauk and Meskwaki seasonal cycle prior to about 1820 was to gather in large villages during the summer, where they grew crops and engaged in game-playing and other activities.  Some of the Meskwaki mined lead, which they traded or sold for cash.  In the winter they dispersed into smaller groups and hunted for pelts that they would trade for goods.  In the spring for a few weeks they would collect maple sap and convert it into sugar.  They would either use the sugar or trade it.

By 1839 the lead mining was gone, forced away from them by the “Black Hawk Purchase.”  Game was becoming scarce, and crops probably diminished as well.  Asa Gregg describes a scene, after the treaty of 1837, when the Meskwaki attempted to harvest sap for sugar.

“When the whites came to this region they found a summer camp or town of Indians located between the main branches of the Wapsie in section 24-78-4.  There also was an enclosed field of several acres which they cultivated in their primitive manner, annually raising quantities of corn and squashes.  On the west creek above there, there were five groves of maple trees from which they made sugar.  They continued to reside there after the country came into the possession of the whites and harassed the settlers by breaking down their fences, stealing their corn, and sometimes running off their stock, till the settlers became exasperated and determined to put an end to their depredations.  So when the Indians came in 1839 and began their preparation for making sugar, the settlers armed themselves and in a body repaired to the camp, and ordered the Indians to leave.  They were loath to do so, and a stormy scene ensued without definite results.  At length the settlers decided that emphatic measures were necessary to enforce their order, and told the Indians to move their belongings from the camp, for they were about to burn it, and began to tear down some wickiups and pile them on the fire.  The Indians then decided the whites were in earnest, and hastily carried their clothing and provisions to another part of the grove, when the settlers tore down the rest of the wickiups and burned them.  The Indians had a number of shallow troughs made from logs which they used to collect the sap from the maple trees, and to prevent the whites from employing these for their own use, split them to pieces.  They soon after broke camp and left and troubled the settlers no more only as they returned to that old camping place a few days each season.  With them it was a sacred duty, the same as the impulse that moves a community now to meet annually and scatter flowers on the graves of their departed friends.”


About the roused bear

Nature photographer from central Iowa.
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