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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–Meskwaki chief—was the son of Black Thunder and a member of the Bear clan of the Meskwaki (Fox) tribe. His name has been translated variously as "to dash the water off," "he who shakes [something] off [himself]," and "roused bear."

    A large man who perhaps weighed more than 250 pounds, Poweshiek was known both for his warlike nature and for his kindness while reportedly leading his followers with an "iron hand."Along with chief Wapello, Poweshiek lived near the present-day city of Davenport on the Mississippi River, where he and his followers had intermingled with their allies the Sauk, who had left Illinois for Iowa in the late 1820s. In 1832, when Sauk chief Black Hawk led his followers back into Illinois and precipitated the so-called Black Hawk War, Poweshiek did much to keep the Meskwaki out of the conflict, just as Keokuk did among the remaining Sauk. Poweshiek was one of the signers of the treaty of 1832 that ended the Black Hawk War and transferred land in Iowa–territory that the Meskwaki thought belonged to them, not the Sauk—to the United States.

    With the end of the Black Hawk War, the U.S. government designated Keokuk as principal chief of a confederated Sauk and Meskwaki tribe designated as the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi. Thereafter, Poweshiek began to lose influence to Keokuk. Nonetheless, he held stature as a leader of the Meskwaki. He was among the signers of the treaty of 1836 that sold the Keokuk Reserve to the United States. In 1837 he was a member of the entourage led by Keokuk that traveled to Washington, D.C., to treat with their Sioux enemies over disputed territory. There he signed a treaty selling even more land to the United States. After the party of treaty makers toured eastern cities, Poweshiek returned to Iowa and moved his village away from along the Iowa River (near Iowa City) westward to near a site near Des Moines.

    Poweshiek broke with Keokuk in 1840 over the distribution of annuity funds. Along with Sauk chiefs Keokuk and Appanoose and Meskwaki chief Wapello, Poweshiek was one of the so-called money chiefs who paid the debts their tribesmen owed white traders. However, Poweshiek and others believed that agent John Beach favored Keokuk when giving out the monies.

    Poweshiek was the main Meskwaki chief to sign the treaty of 1842 (Wapello had died), in which Keokuk, responding to debt, poverty, and government pressure as well as bribes to tribal leaders, agreed to sell the remaining Sauk and Meskwaki land in Iowa to the United States. However, Poweshiek did so reluctantly, for he and many of his people did not want to remove to Kansas. In fact, while encamped with 40 lodges and over 400 people for two years in southern Iowa, Poweshiek and his band of Meskwaki twice returned to their old village site only to be re-removed.

    In 1845 Keokuk led the Sauk and Meskwaki out of Iowa to Kansas—that is, except those Meskwaki who returned to their former tribal grounds. Most in Poweshiek's band had not left Iowa. In Kansas, Poweshiek took the lead in trying to end Meskwaki tribal ties with the Sauk. The Meskwaki wanted to be an independent tribe, receive their own annuities, and be allowed to legally return to Iowa. Poweshiek died before the Meskwaki received permission to return to Iowa and ultimately to be paid their share of tribal annuities.

    Poweshiek was not considered a gifted orator or diplomat, as was Keokuk. Rather, observers described him as brave, blunt, and respected. He was known for keeping his word and desiring that justice prevail in controversies. He became a prominent chief among the Meskwaki, and according to missionary Cutting Marsh, before removal Poweshiek was "very much beloved" by his band. However, as a result of removal from Iowa, many blamed Poweshiek for that unhappy occurrence, even though he endeavored to obtain the changes they desired after removal. And like some of his fellow Meskwaki and Sauk, he indulged heavily in alcohol. Although many whites called Poweshiek the "peaceful Indian" because he did not fight against them and signed several treaties, he had no desire to acculturate to white ways, nor was he a pacifist. In response to a request to establish a school for his people, Poweshiek famously replied, "We do not want to learn; we want to kill Sioux."In all, his leadership among the Meskwaki made him a noted figure in early Iowa history.
Sources include F. R. Aumann, "Poweshiek," Palimpsest 8 (1927), 297–305; Michael D. Green, "'We Dance in Opposite Directions': Mesquakie (Fox) Separation from the Sac and Fox Tribe," Ethnohistory 30 (1983), 129–40; William J. Petersen, The Story of Iowa, vol. 1 (1952); Henry Sabin and Edwin L. Sabin, The Making of Iowa (1900); and Thomas L. McKinney and James Hall, Bio graphical Sketches and Anecdotes of Ninety-five of 120 Principal Chiefs from Indian Tribes of North America, vol. 1 (1838). The most complete tribal history is William T. Hagan, The Sac and Fox Indians (1958).
Contributor: Thomas Burnell Colbert