The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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(1780 or 1781–June 1848)

–Sauk Indian chief—was the son of a Sauk warrior of the Fox clan and his mixed-lineage wife. His name had more than one translation. It was reported as "one-who-movesabout-alertly" and "the watchful fox," but later in life he called himself "the man who has been everywhere."

    A powerful, athletic man, Keokuk became a full warrior when, as a young man, he killed a Sioux brave. Gifted in oratory, a talent prized by American Indians, he became the guest-keeper for his village and then attained prominence during the War of 1812. After war chief Black Hawk led many Sauk warriors to fight for the British, it was feared that American forces would attack Saukenuk, the main Sauk village. Keokuk persuaded the tribal council not to flee from the town. He declared that he would lead the defense and was named war chief–a role he could hold as a member of the Fox clan. No enemy force appeared, but Keokuk retained the title of war chief, much to the chagrin of Black Hawk when he returned.

    Keokuk soon developed influence as a diplomat dealing with white authorities. In that capacity, he traveled to Washington, D.C., with a tribal delegation in 1824. Besides negotiating some changes to treaties for the Sauk and their Meskwaki (Fox) allies, Keokuk, impressed with the population and resources of the United States, became determined to avoid conflict with such a powerful people. He was not a coward. He would fight enemies, especially the Sioux, with whom the Sauk and Meskwaki contested for hunting grounds. However, he reluctantly worked to keep more hostilities from erupting after the federal government demanded peace among the tribes.

    Problems arose when Black Hawk, who had earlier left Illinois and his beloved Saukenuk for Iowa, decided to take his followers back to the town. Black Hawk had never accepted the treaty of 1804 by which the Sauk surrendered ownership of their Illinois land, and only Keokuk's efforts had convinced him to leave Saukenuk. Now his attempt to reoccupy the town initiated the Black Hawk War. Keokuk succeeded in keeping his followers and others from following Black Hawk. With the defeat of Black Hawk, the federal government not only forced the Sauk and Meskwaki to give up land in eastern Iowa but also named Keokuk the principal peace or civil chief of a confederated Sauk and Meskwaki tribe.

    Keokuk's new status led to discord. In Sauk culture, a member of the Fox clan could not be a civil chief. Moreover, the Meskwaki did not want a Sauk to be their leader. Keokuk's friendship with white fur traders and his accommodation to the wishes of the federal government, which favored him with gifts, mixed with his profligate ways, brought dissent. Keokuk succeeded in weathering some of the criticism of his leadership. In 1837 he led another delegation to Washington, D.C., where he contested a Sioux delegation over land claims. Even his tribal foes looked to him for his diplomatic skills. At the same time, white Americans began to consider him one of the most important American Indians of the day.

    Controversy over Keokuk's leadership intensified over his use of tribal resources. Federal agents allowed Keokuk and three other chiefs (known as the "money chiefs") to distribute tribal annuities. In 1842, as the depletion of game and increased debt to traders impoverished the Sauk and Meskwaki, Keokuk negotiated the sale of remaining tribal land in Iowa. Even many of his detractors accepted the sale and agreed to remove to Kansas; others, however, especially many Meskwaki, considered the land in Iowa theirs and decried the treaty. Nonetheless, in 1845 Keokuk led his followers to Kansas, where he died in 1848. Later his bones were reburied in Keokuk, Iowa (although it was later discovered that the skeleton's skull was not Keokuk's).

    For more than three decades Keokuk functioned as one of the most noted Indians in the United States. Pursuing diplomacy over warfare, he endeavored to balance Sauk and Meskwaki interests with his desire to placate white interests–while also indulging his own acquisitiveness. In the end, he remained at peace with the United States but could not preserve a tribal presence in Iowa.
Sources There is no biography of Keokuk. Information about his life derives from various sources, including government documents and secondary sources, especially writings focused on Black Hawk. The most complete tribal history is William T. Hagen, The Sac and Fox Indians (1958). See also Richard Metcalf, "Who Shall Rule at Home? Native American Politics and White-Indian Relations," Journal of American History 61 (1974), 651–65; and Alvin M. Josephy, The Patriot Chiefs: A Chronicle of American Indian Resistance (1958).
Contributor: Thomas Burnell Colbert