Meskwaki Anthology

The following excerpt comes from the first chapter of An Iowa Album: A Photographic History of Iowa, 1860-1920, by Mary Bennett, University of Iowa Press. Copyright © 1990 All Rights Reserved. Cannot be used without written permission.

Indians and the Land

            The pristine condition of Iowa's primeval forests, waterways, and prairie landscape was barely altered by centuries of inhabitation by Native Americans.  The bountiful natural environment that had sustained various tribes was tamed and profitably modified by successive generations of settlers.  Both groups maintained a close association with the land not simply for its practical value but because life itself followed nature's seasonal rhythms.  Early visitors were enthralled by the expansive prairie vistas of tall grasses and delicate wildflowers.  Covering three-fourths of the state, prairie savannas were broken by stands of oak, hickory, and walnut trees along meandering rivers and streams.  The woodland sanctuaries lining the valleys and skirting the hillsides sheltered animals and humans from intense heat and cold.  Careful observers have seen the intrinsic beauty and dramatic power of nature revealed in a variety of ways.  Isolating blizzards, floods that can come without warning, and long summers without adequate rainfall have been real tests of survival; but overall, the land has provided the sustenance of Iowa's economic and cultural life.

            People have inhabited Iowa for thousands of years.  The Native Americans who originally settled in this region were members of as many as seventeen tribes, though at the time Euro-Americans reached the area there were six primary tribes:  the Dakota or Sioux in the northwest; the Iowa in the central area along the Des Moines River; the Sauk and Fox (Mesquakie), who migrated to the eastern portion from Illinois and Wisconsin; the Winnebago, who were temporarily placed in the northeast corner of the territory and later moved to Nebraska; and the Potawatami, who were moved to southwestern Iowa.  Of these tribes, only the Mesquakie were able to withstand the enormous pressures of the advancing frontier with the myriad intrusions by the federal government and pioneer settlers.

            The woodland Indians in the eastern part of the state based their livelihood on agriculture and seasonal hunts.  Tribes lived in communities of wickiups made from woven mats of reeds gathered from riverbanks.  Women gardened, harvested fruits and nuts, and tended to domestic needs, while men hunted or fished or waged limited war against enemy tribes.  The more nomadic Indians on the plains of western Iowa lived in tepees, which could be easily transported.  Although they relied primarily on hunting, they were close enough to the woodland environment to adopt some farming practices.

            With the intrusion of Euro-Americans, the traditional skills of tribal members became obsolete.  Successive land cessions meant that the Indians moved too often to settle into homes and raise crops, and their hunting grounds were shrinking.  The Indians came to depend on the federal government for food and other supplies that were available at trading posts and white settlements.  The string of trading posts and Indian agencies along the frontier accompanied the Indian removal acts.  The federal government's policy was aimed at preserving and protecting Indian civilization by removing the native people from, and thus avoiding conflict with, Euro-Americans, with their vastly different cultural values and customs.  Some politicians and liberal thinkers hoped to save the Native American culture from destruction.  In reality, the removal policy only contributed to the disintegration of Indian culture and almost destroyed an entire people.  The Indians were moved far from their rich native lands to Kansas, Oklahoma, and the Dakotas, a region most whites considered the Great American Desert.

            In only one generation (1824-1851), Indian tribes ceded all the land within the boundaries of the state of Iowa in return for equivalent of roughly 11 cents an acre from the federal government, which then offered the same land to land speculators and white settlers at an average price of $1.25 per acre.  The Indians' inability to understand or cope with white culture and technology, along with their different concept of property ownership, left them without a homeland and with scarcely enough money to pay off the large debts they had incurred with local traders.

            The persistence of the members of one tribe, the Mesquakie, and their refusal to abandon their homes in Iowa distinguish them from other North American tribes.  A small band of eighty Mesquakie chose to remain in Iowa rather than move to Kansas with the rest of the tribe.  In 1857, they arranged to purchase eighty acres of land in Tama County for a thousand dollars.  By adhering to the legal and economic systems of whites, they were able to acquire their own land—not a government reservation—a private enclave for bringing up future generations of their tribe.  Although they struggled without government annuities for a decade and often suffered through hard winters and lean years, the Mesquakie managed to retain those parts of their culture most important to them.  They continued to farm in the summer, trap and hunt on neighboring farmland, and trade goods for other necessities.  The Mesquakie maintained a relatively primitive self-sufficiency, and social and religious customs remained much the same until after the turn of the century.

            In 1900 the Mesquakie Settlement along the Iowa River had grown to almost 3,000 acres, with about 360 people in sixty-five households.  After an outbreak of smallpox in 1901, the government forced the tribe to live apart rather than in a village setting, which created some divisiveness within the tribe.  But they still held annual celebrations—called Corn Dances at harvesttime, a forerunner of the pow wow still held each year.  When Duren H. Ward visited the Mesquakie Settlement in 1905, under the auspices of the State Historical Society of Iowa, he found that life there was virtually unchanged.  Most Mesquakie still lived in wickiups, though a few frame houses had been built.  The government school and resident missionaries had little if any influence on life at the settlement.  It was not until after the two world wars that significant changes in the living patterns of the tribe took place.  The Mesquakie were successful in preserving their tribal heritage and cultural identity by staying close to their home in Iowa.  The tribe was fortunate in avoiding the displacement and warfare that became the fate of other tribes, such as the Winnebago and the Sioux.

            Agriculturalists and entrepreneurs were eager to settle "The Garden" as quickly as the Indians could be removed from the land.  They were attracted by the cheap land, the fertile soil, and the ideal climate, with its abundant rainfall and long growing season.  Natural waterways provided the necessary transportation routes to markets.  Even before the surveyors finished their work, settlers were claiming the land, building crude shelters, and putting in their first crops.  Most of these early pioneers acquired their land by purchase directly from the government or from land speculators.  As guidebooks and pamphlets for immigrants extolling the virtues of the country were published and widely disseminated, the onrush of frontier settlers began.

            The entire state was surveyed by 1858, laying out the land according to the federal grid of sections and townships.  By 1860, parts of Iowa were well established and mature, while others were still on the edge of the frontier.  New lands in the north central and western regions of the state were just opening up to settlement as transportation routes were established and the prairie sod broken.  As the westward expansion of the nation proceeded, Iowa served as a crossroads and eventually a home, mainly for farmers but also for entrepreneurs, skilled and unskilled laborers, and their families.

            Iowa's earliest pioneers came from New England, the mid-Atlantic states, the South, and the states of the old Northwest Territory.  Along with this population of Americans there was an influx of foreign-born immigrants, primarily from western and northern Europe.  The successive waves of immigration in the nineteenth century brought large numbers of people from the British Isles and Germany.  Some communities and counties were heavily populated by clusters of Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Dutch, and Czech settlers.  Other nationalities like Canadians, Austrians, and French also immigrated to Iowa but not in such substantial numbers.  In 1890, nearly one in five Iowans was foreign born.  After the turn of the century, other ethnic groups arrived from Italy, Greece, Poland, and Russia.

            Small numbers of African-Americans came to Iowa from the surrounding states of Illinois and Missouri as well as from Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, Alabama, and Mississippi.  By 1860, there were slightly over 1,000 blacks concentrated in relatively few counties, most notably Lee County.  Although their numbers had increased to 19,000 by 1920 with the migration to cities like Waterloo and Des Moines, blacks remained at less than one percent of the total population.  Coal-mining operations in Mahaska, Monroe, Wapello and other counties accounted for the sizeable numbers of blacks in these areas before 1910, but urban areas attracted greater numbers of blacks as the mines played out and new jobs in industry or rail yards became available.

            Each group brought its own customs and traditions, which gave each a distinctive cultural identity.  Even with a degree of cultural assimilation, immigrants retained important elements of their native heritage, especially religious practices, ethnic celebrations, and family holidays.  Despite ethnic differences and cultural barriers between groups, settlers who came to Iowa shared common assumptions.  Attracted as they were to some of the most fertile land in the world, few had any qualms about displacing Native Americans, and most were willing to exploit the land for economic gain, even at the expense of the environment.  Pioneers, who sometimes encountered rich prairie topsoil almost two feet deep, commonly thought the black soil was so thick it would last forever.  Once the land was plowed and farmed year after year, the topsoil rapidly began to wash away with the rain and blow away with the wind, leaving less than eight inches of the precious topsoil in many places today.