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"Buffalo Hunting with Keokuk," by William J. Petersen

Petersen, William J. "Buffalo Hunting with Keokuk." The Palimpsest 46 (1965), 257-272. Available at:

In William Petersen's 1965 article for The Palimpsest, the author related a story of a buffalo hunt by the Sauk leader Keokuk that took place in 1833. The author explained in detail the social and religious customs, as he understood them, related to the bison hunting of the Sauk. The article also discussed a tense interaction between the Sauk and Dakota that took place as the tribes met near the headwaters of the Iowa River in either modern-day Franklin or Wright county.

The author set the context by establishing the harsh realities faced by the Sauk and Meskwaki following the Black Hawk War. Both in terms of tensions with the Dakota, who had allied with the United States to decimate Black Hawk's band as they desperately sought to cross the Mississippi River, as well as in terms of environmental realities related to sustenance as wild game populations decreased due to increasing population pressures in the area that became Iowa.

"A gloomy spirit pervaded the Sauk and Fox villages. It was early spring of 1833 and the confederated tribes were on the verge of starvation. Crushed and humiliated in the Black Hawk War, their fields untilled, the remnant of Black Hawk’s band had flung themselves on Keokuk for protection. The task of feeding so many hungry mouths throughout a long winter had taxed the resources of Keokuk and his followers." (257)

"While the white squatters were preparing to enter the Black Hawk Purchase, the Sauk and Fox Indians were planting their crops in the Keokuk Reserve." (257)

"Since it had been customary for the Sauks and Foxes to supplement their crops with a buffalo hunt, Keokuk issued a call for the chiefs and headmen of both tribes to convene at his village." (257)

"The hunt usually took place during the months of June, July, and August, when the buffalo were fat and their hair thin. At this time the flesh was in the best condition for food and the pelts easiest to dress on both sides for the making of clothing, shields, bags, ropes, snowshoes, tents, and boat covers." (258)

"Early in the summer of 1833 Keokuk set out for the headwaters of the Iowa River. An Indian trail followed the west bank of the Iowa River to Wapello's village which was located five miles upstream near the present site of Wapello, Iowa. Wapello was first among the Foxes, and second only to the wily Keokuk in the councils of the Sauks and Foxes. A large party of Foxes, including Wapello himself, joined Keokuk. Although Wapello preferred to hunt on the headwaters of the Skunk, he realized the Sauk hunters must have strong support because of the implacable hostility between the Sioux and the confederated tribes. Thus, the Sioux had paid scant attention to the Neutral Line agreed upon by their chiefs and the Sauks and Foxes at Prairie du Chien in 1825." (259)

"The popularity of the headwaters of the Iowa as a grazing place for the buffalo is attested by a map of 1835 on which Lieutenant Albert Miller Lea referred to this beautiful stream as the “Bison” River. Lea and his dragoon companions encountered small herds of buffalo along the upper reaches of the Skunk, the Iowa, and the Cedar rivers in 1835, and succeeded in killing a number of them. It was the first time Lea had seen the “lordly beast in his home”, a clear indication that the buffalo was more common at that time in the northern part of Iowa than in the southern district." (260)

"Although the exact region is not known, if the Indians traveled twenty miles a day they must have arrived in the Neutral Ground somewhere in present-day Wright or Franklin counties. Keokuk promptly ordered his men to encamp and the squaws were soon busy setting up shelters and preparing the evening meal. The next day Keokuk sent out small parties to make observations. That evening the hunters returned and reported a small herd of not over 300 buffalo. The satisfaction with which this news was received was dispelled when scouts declared they had “discovered signs of the Sioux; saw large smokes, and had no doubt they proceeded from their encampment.” A council of war was immediately called." (261)

"After listening gravely to the speeches of his headmen, Keokuk rose to lend his counsel to the assembled tribesmen. Eloquently he related the many depredations that the Sioux had committed against the Sauks and Foxes, denouncing vehemently the brutal manner in which the Sioux had butchered many of the women and children who had crossed the Mississippi River above Prairie du Chien following the defeat of Black Hawk at Bad Axe. “Scarcely a warrior in my presence but what has lost some friend or relation by the Sioux ’, he thundered. “Now is the time to chastise our enemies. Let us surround their camp this night, and, by the rising of tomorrow’s sun, we will not leave a Sioux to relate the fall of his comrade!”" (261-262)

"After a short pause, Keokuk commenced pacing back and forth across the council lodge. Suddenly he stopped, remembering his promise to Major General Winfield Scott at Fort Armstrong the previous fall. Throwing down his spear he cried: “Warriors, I have been commanded by my Great Father not to go to war with the Sioux. I have promised, and will keep my word.” A murmur of dissent ran through the lodge. Sensing the opposition of his men to such a conciliatory plan, Keokuk cried out in a stern voice: I will go to the Sioux camp tomorrow — I will make peace! OR FALL IN THE ATTEMPT!”" (262)

"A man of few words, Wapello was firm in his opinion that Keokuk would never return, and that the Sioux, if they once got a peace party in their power, would certainly kill them. “But”, he concluded, “if Keokuk falls, we will avenge his death.”" (263)

"After traveling about eighteen miles, the four ascended a slight elevation whence the Sioux camp suddenly burst into view. It was situated on a gentle rise immediately in front of them with a valley intervening. Keokuk concealed the two young men who were to remain behind on the top of the hill. He then advanced boldly across the intervening lowland with his companion toward the Sioux encampment which they discovered to be fortified. On his map of 1835 Lieutenant Lea notes a fort about sixteen miles south of Clear Lake in what is now northwestern Franklin County. Its position in the northern or Sioux cession of the Neutral Ground would correspond with the probable position of the Sioux encampment." (264)

"Keokuk instantly seized the insignia from the nearest flag bearer and placed a fur hat upon the emissary’s head. His companion did the same. Then Keokuk, waving the flag, rode toward the armed Sioux who had just crossed the creek and were advancing to shake hands with him." (265)

"Suddenly one of the Sioux seized Keokuk’s whip and attempted to drag him from his horse. Fortunately for Keokuk the whip was fastened to his wrist by a string which snapped and allowed the Sauk chieftain to regain his saddle. Meanwhile another Sioux had secured his horse by the bridle. Finding himself in this critical situation, Keokuk rose in his stirrups and, smiting his breast, told them his name was Keokuk. But the Sioux were apparently unmoved by this for his companion was also surrounded. Amazed at this gross violation of the rules of peace, Keokuk glanced hurriedly around to see if a way out could be found. Suddenly he discovered a gun presented at him! He exerted all his strength to break the Sioux’s grip on his horse but all in vain. Reinforcements had joined the Sioux, and Keokuk perceived another gun raised at him in the rear. He now began to think that he would fall a sacrifice, since resistance seemed useless." (265)

"Keokuk and his companion wheeled off in the best manner possible, keeping their faces towards the enemy. The Watchful Fox then called to the Sioux: “We wish to make peace!“ Meet us at this place tomorrow for council“, the Sioux replied. “We will“, shouted Keokuk. Then the four Sauks set out at a brisk canter for their camp. According to Keokuk, “They soon reached the high ground, wheeled their horses, and took a view of the Sioux as they retired. They discovered that the whole party of Sioux warriors had advanced against them, and were then slowly returning to their camp.“" (266)

"The next morning Keokuk was mounted on his horse at the first streak of dawn. Mustering his men quickly the Sauk and Fox warriors took up the line of march toward the Sioux camp." (267)

"“On his near approach”, Keokuk afterwards related, “he discovered that the advance line of Sioux warriors were painted black — and when about fifty yards off, the Sioux fired their guns in the air, grounded their arms, and threw down their powder horns.” The Sioux chief advanced alone to meet him and shook hands. “They were old acquaintances,” according to Keokuk, “having been to Washington city together. The whole party of Sioux now rushed up to shake hands with Ke-o-kuck, and his chiefs and warriors, who had all come up." (268)

"Keokuk and his party returned to the creek where their women and children had made an encampment. Soon the Sioux warriors made their appearance, dancing around the Sauks and Foxes in a menacing manner. Unmoved by such a pantomime, the confederated tribesmen folded their arms, looking with utter contempt on the Sioux who presently returned to their camp. That evening the Sioux chieftain, with two of his followers, paid a visit to Keokuk and his chiefs." (269)

"Early the next morning Keokuk and his warriors, mounted and armed, rushed upon the Sioux camp, and surrounded it. With blood-curdling cries they dashed hither and yon, displaying feats of daring horsemanship as if in battle. They then dismounted and began to dance. This dramatic episode closed the ceremony between the hostile tribes. The Sioux promised to keep the peace four years while the confederated tribes consented to make peace but did not stipulate the length of time. The Sioux promptly broke camp and started westward to their own hunting grounds." (269)

"The Sauks and Foxes were free to continue their buffalo hunting unmolested. Although equipped with guns, most Indians considered it a greater honor to kill the buffalo with the time honored weapons of their ancestors." (269)

"Day after day the hunters returned to their camp with trophies of their success. With but slight variations it may be said tribal regulation governed the cutting up and distribution of the various parts of the buffalo. The skin and certain parts of the carcass usually belonged to the hunter who made the kill. The remainder was divided among the helpers, thereby giving the poor and disabled an opportunity to procure food. The butchering was usually done by the men on the field, each hunter's portion being taken to his tent and given to the women as their property. The squaws then cut the meat into thin slices and strips and hung these on a framework of poles to dry in the sun. When fully ‘jerked” the meat was put into rawhide packs to keep for winter use. In addition to the meat, a quantity of marrow was preserved in bladder skins and the tallow was poured into skin bags." (270-271)

"The Sauks and Foxes remained at their camp until they had killed eighty buffalo. They then began their long trek down the Iowa River to their villages near the Mississippi. The thanksgiving ceremony must have been truly impressive for enough meat had been gathered during Chief Keokuk’s successful Buffalo hunt in northern Iowa to insure that no one would go hungry during the long winter months that lay ahead." (271-272)


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