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Native Peoples of Iowa as seen in Native American Indian Land Cessions

The land that is the United States today was turned over to the US Government in a series of federal legal actions beginning in the 18th century and continuing into the 20th for Alaska and Hawaii. Some 368 treaties, laws, and executive orders totaling around 1.5 billion acres of land conveyed right of ownership from indigenous peoples to the federal government, and eventually to private hands. Euro-Americans—Americans of European and especially white descent, primarily benefited from these transactions. This has had a tendency to erase indigenous peoples from the conventional wisdom of Iowa history as seen by white culture.

Tracing the indigenous people who have inhabited Iowa over the past is a complicated matter. Any effort to list each tribe is fraught with difficulties. Oral traditions are often discounted by the government. Traditions can also differ in interpretation from other forms of evidence. The fluid nature of land use by Native Peoples due to the lack of permanent settlement and the arbitrary nature of state boundaries and the Euro-American concept of property ownership hasn’t helped keep the record straight. The use of Iowa post-contact as an area to place peoples who were removed from further east, much like many Great Plains states (especially Oklahoma) later created other issues especially as tribes assigned to live here or to be removed were not always willing to comply on an individual or tribal basis.

Place names can provide some clues as to who lived in Iowa before settlement. Many Euro-American place names honor indigenous people. For example Muscatine, Des Moines, Sac, Winnebago, Wapello, Keokuk, Mahaska, and Tama are indications of early contact period or historical tribes or important figures in Iowa, though some of the meanings have become more obscure. Muscatine is thought to be related to the Mascouten and an island named for them adjacent to the town while Des Moines almost certainly relates to the Moingoina, a name of Algonkian origin and used by early explorers Marquette and Joliet and others to identify a river on the right bank of the Mississippi. Popular etymology has spuriously attempted to erase this origin by ascribing it to purported, and presumably Catholic, monks living at the mouth of the Des Moines River, for which there is no evidence. Similarly, many times Euro-Americans are less attached to people indigenous to Iowa in their naming practices with results such as Camanche and Osage, tribes not known to have inhabited Iowa, as well as the Seminole chief Osceola, or even the fictitious Pocahontas. Place names are not entirely useful.

Linguists offer some guidance about who lived in the area based on ethnographic information. A linguistic map of Iowa and surrounding areas is based on historic information about languages and locations. One example appears like this.

Screenshot_2019-10-14 Untitled document.png

Section of Principal Indian Tribes of North America, Harold E Driver. originally compiled by Driver, Cooper, Kirchhoff, Libby, Massey, and Spier. Indiana University Publications in Anthropology and Linguistics, Memoir 9, in 1953. Stand-alone map issued by the Anthropology Department around 1964.

But the map is ambiguous in terms of actual territories occupied and misses the movements post-historic contact of the Sauk and Meskwaki, for example, and otherwise is lacking in detail.

Similar primary sources led to government maps of resources and transportation routes, such as the series of maps of North America by Guilliame Delisle. These maps were based largely on narrative accounts by European explorers and traders. One example appears as this.

1718_Guillaume_Delisle cropped web large

Section of Carte de la Louisiane et du Cours du Mississipi, 1718, Guillaume Delisle

The map is cropped to show the region detailing Iowa. Often times a tribal name was recorded phonetically in French from an Algonkian, Siouian, or other native language name that was then anglicized. The name further often was not what a people called themselves, but was what other people said the people in question were called. The French were haphazard in this regard, resulting in much confusion in terminology, but hardly worse than the British. The US Government adopted the names they had on maps and from written accounts and made little effort to change names based on interviewing the people who were the subject of their treaties. Thus the Meskwaki, sometimes called Les Renards, or Foxes, by the French are still officially recorded as the Fox tribe by the US Government. Two egregious examples of this phenomenon are the first nations tribes Dog Rib and Slavey who live in Canada.

This leaves a few other sources to consider, one of which is archaeology. Archaeological evidence for prehistoric sites is based on material remains but is silent on many aspects of culture. The ancient people of North America for the most part did not write. Their origins are unknown from historic resources. Archaeology indicates the area known today as Iowa was inhabited perhaps since 13,000 years ago, but the earliest evidence is quite sparse. By 11,500 years ago enough sites are evident to be certain Iowa was regularly used for at least hunting, if not long term living, and prehistoric sites of all ages and many types continue from that time period to the present. The names of these people are not known to us, so the names of cultures are based on artifact assemblages, such as projectile points, and later pottery types, pottery appearing after about 3,000 years ago.

With changes in subsistence patterns, people began to occupy sites for longer periods of time. More recent sites contain generally more artifacts in a broader range of types and materials. These two factors lead to greater discernment between artifact assemblages known as Great Oasis, Mill Creek, Glenwood, and Oneota. Today’s Native Americans draw ancestry to these later archaeological cultures. While some of the tribes who claim ancestry in Iowa can be traced archaeologically, not all can be. Some late prehistoric and historic period archaeological sites have known affiliations with the Ioway, Otoe, Missouria, and Omaha tribes as well as the Meskwaki through historical accounts, which can also be useful when available and trustworthy. Some early accounts lack sufficient detail to be useful.

A final source of evidence is oral tradition, which although legally uncertain in terms of acceptance by the American judicial system, did result in a unique map made by the Ioway for support of their land claims in 1837.

No Heart's Ioway map, 1837.

The 1837 Ioway Map (No Heart’s Map) presented October 7, 1837 (at 10 o’clock) at Washington, D.C. Dark lines are rivers, dashed lines are trails, circles with dots are villages, open circles are lakes.

Archaeological and Geographic Information Systems study of this map have identified many of the rivers and village locations.

Today there is one official tribe located in Iowa and they are the Meskwaki, known to the US Government as the Sauk and Fox of the Mississippi in Iowa. The Meskwaki actually purchased their settlement near Tama, Iowa from the government rather than receiving it as a concession for a treaty agreement. The Euro-American court system took some time to sort out if they would consider that transaction legal or not.

Traditional public educational efforts have taught there were five tribes historically associated with Iowa: the Ioway, the Sac and Mesquakie [French spelling], the Winnebago, and the Pottawattamie. These tribes are alternatively known as Báxoǰe, Suak (oθaakiiwaki), Meskwaki (Meshkwahkihaki), Ho-Chunk or Winnebago, and Potowatomi (Neshnabé). But 48 Native American groups —tribe, band, or nation—listed by the federal government consider Iowa to have ancestral associations to them through federal treaties.

It is largely through these federal transactions that the US Government has come to allow who may claim associations with the state of Iowa. However, if we want to know who actually lived in Iowa we need to also keep in mind that disease, war, and encroachment from Euro-Americans disrupted and reshaped the cultural landscape of North America. Native Americans moved west or were pushed there by other Native Americans and also the US Government. Looking at tribes based on how they negotiated with the US Government should therefore be regarded as subject to circumstance resulting in potentially incomplete data as well.

Iowa Native American History in US Treaties and Laws 

Charles C. Royce and Cyrus Thomas attempted to provide order to the flurry of US land acquisitions and other treaties through the time period 1774 to 1894 in the nearly 530-page second volume to the Eighteenth Annual Report from the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. The book provides a treaty schedule and concordance maps printed on color plates. Unhelpfully, the authors standardized tribal names to their own liking from what was written in the actual treaty. The Smithsonian library provides an excellent facsimile of the volume here and high quality scans of the maps are also available online at the Library of Congress. The Library of Congress American Memory Project has a now very dated web site that still provides a helpful list of treaties by state, tribe, and year.

Twenty treaties directly affected tribes who claimed land in Iowa of which 16 affected land in Iowa. Some of these treaties occurred after Iowa was state, but most were previous to that date (December 28, 1846). Land cessions in the upper Mississippi River basin began as early 1795 with the Treaty of Greenville in which a sweeping treaty cleared much of Ohio for settlement but also reserved several military posts in Illinois to the US Government. Nine years later, the Treaty of St. Louis agreed the combined tribes Sauk and Meskwaki, or Sac and Fox in the official wording of the government, would cede much of the northeast quarter of Missouri, the southwestern corner of Wisconsin and the northwest third of Illinois. The Sauk and Meskwaki officially were supposed to move into Iowa, which has been reported to have been an area for annual hunts previous to this. There are indications this was done to an extent. But other tribes would have been in Iowa at that time, especially Ioway, Otoe, and Missouri.  The 1804 treaty was reasserted in 1815 and 1816, indicating the Sauk and Meskwaki were not taking much notice of the original agreement made by their five representatives who were sent to St. Louis to negotiate a prisoner release, not to sell land. It has been asserted this disagreement lead in part to the Black Hawk War.

In 1824, the Sauk and Meskwaki ceded their remaining interest in Missouri. Two decedents of “mixed-race” parentage, Maurice Bondeau and a man named Morgan, requested that a so-called Half-Breed tract was set up for “mixed-race” decedents of native women and Scottish, and likely also French and Spanish, traders and miners, Spanish merchants. Euro-American and Native couples had existed in the French and Spanish Louisiana district at places such as Dubuque, Davenport, Ste. Genevieve, and Kaskaskia. Bondeau and Morgan’s request was granted and a triangular area between the Des Moines River and the Mississippi extending around 1.5 miles downstream from Farmington, Iowa to Keokuk then up the Mississippi to Ft. Madison and back to the starting point became officially the Sac and Fox Reservation—the so-called Half-breed Tract, but no individual right to land titles existed. Subsequently, Congress enacted the right to reversion of title in the original treaty and separately appropriated $1,000 to survey the tract. Supposedly this law was sponsored due to a request of those living in the tract who desired to be able to own parcels of land, but it seems equally likely from the outcome that land speculation companies could have been at work. In any event, the area was open for settlement just two years after the first Black Hawk Purchase.

Iowa Map 1 BAE 18 web large

Iowa 1, Plate  CXXXI, No. 24, Royce and Tomas, 1895

In 1825, a demarcation line was optimistically made to separate primarily the bands of the Santee Dakota from the now encroaching Sauk and Meskwaki, though several other tribes were included in that treaty. Five years later a Neutral Ground was created to reinforce the demarcation line. The Ho-Chunk/Winnebago were then moved into this area in 1837. Four years previously, the Ojibwe, Ottawa, and Potawatomi were officially moved to western Iowa.

Iowa Map 2 BAE 18 web large

Iowa 2, Plate  CXXXII, No. 25, Royce and Tomas, 1895

Ten more treaties cleared the way for settlement in Iowa from 1832 to 1851. The dates and salient details are provided in the table below.

Date Signed Tribes Description Royce Map Reference
Aug 4, 1824 Sauk and Fox and descendants of mixed ethnicity Sac and Fox Reservation (the so-called Half-Breed Tract). The tract was created in the following provision of a land cession in Missouri, “It is understood, however, that the small tract of land lying between the rivers Desmoin [sic] and Mississippi, and the section of the above line between the Mississippi and the Desmoin, is intended for the use of the half-breeds belonging to the Sock and Fox nations, they holding it, however, by the same title and in the same manner that other Indian titles are held.” Treaty made at Washington, D.C. 120
Aug 19,1825 Sauk and Meskwaki, and several bands of Santee Dakota including Mdewakanton,
Wahpekute, Wahpeton, and Sisseton along with Ioway, Otoe, and Missoria and Mamaceqtaw (Menominee).
First Treaty of Prairie du Chien. Demarcation line running in the middle of the what was to become the Neutral Ground. The treaty was was largely, if not entirely, ignored by the Sauk and Meskwaki and the Santee Dakota. Article I provided the following rights, “But it is understood that the lands ceded and relinquished by this treaty are to be assigned and allotted under the direction of the President of the U. S. to the tribes now living thereon or to such other tribes as the President may locate thereon for hunting and other purposes.”
Jul 15,1830 Sauk and Meskwaki, and several bands of Santee Dakota including Mdewakanton,
Wahpekute, Wahpeton, and Sisseton along with Ioway, Otoe, and Missoria tribes.
Formation of the Neutral Ground, cession land in western Iowa, southwest Minnesota, and Northwest Missouri. Treaty made at Prairie du Chien. Royce Map Reference 69 was an 1824 cession for some of the same area in Missouri, for which the treaty was signed on August 19, 1825 152, 153, and 151
Sep 15, 1832 Ho-Chunk / Winnebago The Neutral Ground was made available for voluntary relocation and partial title to Wisconsin ceded. treaty made as part of the terms for the Black Hawk War at Fort Armstrong, Rock Island 151, 152
Sep 21, 1832 Sauk and Meskwaki Black Hawk Purchase at Ft. Armstrong, Rock Island as part of the peace treaty to end the Black Hawk War. This agreement also created Keokuk’s Reserve 175, 226
Sep 26,1833 Ojibwe, Ottawa, Potawatomi Treaty of Chicago. Affected tribes were relocated to western Iowa. This tract was ceded June 5, 1846 265
Jun 30, 1834 Sauk and Meskwaki and their descendants Sac and Fox Reservation (the so-called Half-Breed Tract) opened for settlement. Acts of the Twenty-Third Congress, Chapter 167, “An Act to relinquish the reversionary interest of the United States in a certain Indian reservation lying between the rivers Mississippi and Desmoins.” Passed both houses of Congress January 30, 1834. 120
Sep 28,1836 Sauk and Meskwaki, Ioway Keokuk’s Reserve. Treaty titled, Sauk and Fox at the treaty ground on the right bank of the Mississippi River, in the County of Dubuque and Territory of Wisconsin, opposite Rock Island. The Ioway held claim to a portion of the reserve and this treaty set up the meeting that took place in 1837 where the Ioway presented their map to the US Government to establish their past land use in the upper Mississippi valley. The Iowa District of the Wisconsin Territory had two counties, Dubuque to the north and Desmoine [sic] to the south. 226
Oct 21,1837 Sauk and Meskwaki Second Black Hawk Purchase and revocation of rights granted in Article I of the 1830 Prairie du Chien treaty. This took place during the 1837 treaty meetings in Washington, D.C. 244, 151
Nov 1,1837 Ho-Chunk / Winnebago Cession of all land east of the Mississippi and relocation fom Wisconsin to the Neutral Ground. This took place during the 1837 treaty meetings in Washington, D.C. The right to occupy the east half of the Neutral Ground was also ceded. 267, 151, 152
Oct 19,1838 Ioway All right or interest in the country between the Missouri and Mississippi rivers (Northwest Missouri was ceded in 1824, Royce Map Reference 69). This cession made as a result of the 1837 treaty meetings in Washington, D.C. Earlier partial cessions in Iowa had been made but were essentially disputed in 1837.
Oct 11,1842 Sauk and Meskwaki Cession of all land west of the Mississippi to which they claimed title with the following provision, “The Indians reserve a right to occupy for three years from the signing of this treaty all that part of the land above ceded which lies W. of a line running due N. and S. from the painted or red rocks on the White Breast fork of the Des Moines river, which rocks will be found about 8 miles in a straight line from the junction of the White Breast with the Des Moines.” Treaty made at the Sac and Fox agency [Agency, Iowa]. 262
Jun 5,1846 Ojibwe, Ottawa, Potawatomi Cession of land provided in Treaty of Chicago 265
Oct 13,1846 Ho-Chunk / Winnebago Neutral Ground cession 151, 152
Jul 23,1851 Wahpeton, and Sisseton bands of Santee Dakota Treaty of Traverse des Sioux. Cession included all lands in the State of Iowa and eastern Minnesota. 289
Aug 5,1851 Mdewakanton, Wahpekute bands of Santee Dakota Treaty of Mendota. Same terms as the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux. 289


___________. The Acquisition of Iowa Lands From the Indians. The Annals of Iowa, vol. 7, no 4., pp. 283-290, 1906. https://doi.org/10.17077/0003-4827.3259

___________. American Indian Research: Selected Research Sources, University of Iowa Libraries. https://guides.lib.uiowa.edu/American_Indians?p=864402

___________. History, Meskwaki: Sac & Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa, 2017. https://meskwaki.org/about-us/history/

___________. Learn About Iowa’s Past, Office of the State Archaeologist, University of Iowa. https://archaeology.uiowa.edu/learn-about-iowas-past

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